DiGiPESU – Towards comprehensive digital education

In recent years, online communication and language teaching as well as digital solutions in higher education have advanced in leaps and bounds. Although the Language Centre has developed and offered web-based teaching for several years, if not decades, the past few years have marked a significant shift. One obvious reason, although not the only one, is the coronavirus pandemic. When the switch to remote studying took place, digital teaching became the norm. It was a turning point in online teaching. Whereas previously only a fraction of teachers had experience in online teaching, now almost everyone has. As a result, a new approach to supporting and developing online teaching is required. The University of Helsinki Language Centre responded to this need in 2021 by formulating a curriculum for digital education (DiGiPESU). The aim was to draw up guidelines for the comprehensive development of digital education.

Faced with new challenges 

The Language Centre’s digital education and online teaching in communication and language skills had been systematically developed on several fronts even before the pandemic. Examples included teaching experiments, nationwide projects and regular staff training. The experiences gained during the first spring after the outbreak of the virus showed that staff had a great deal of the skills required to switch to fully remote teaching even at short notice.

The Language Centre has also promoted the digitalisation of communication and language teaching through an investigative approach, and experiences of online teaching during the pandemic have been surveyed among both students and teachers. Case studies at the Language Centre during and prior to the pandemic (see, e.g., Niinivaara & Vaattovaara, 2018; Niinivaara, 2018) demonstrate that students’ and teachers’ views on online teaching differ from each other at both individual and group levels. Contentious issues include what types of interaction would be meaningful and possible in an online environment. On the other hand, such views relate significantly to the time spent together, the presence of the teacher and time management.

After the first spring of the pandemic, new challenges were again tackled in the development of online teaching. First, the focus on online teaching – and digitalisation in general – had inevitably expanded from learning to almost all aspects of life. Second, for the first time ever, most teachers had experience in online teaching. Third, ideas of digital education had become more diverse and heterogenous: people had different views on the solutions best suited to online and blended communication and language teaching. In addition, all the above gave momentum to reflection on the type of support required for digital teaching in the new situation.


Recording a shared understanding of digital education 

The Language Centre launched its DiGiPESU project to highlight the opportunities afforded by online and blended learning. When DiGiPESU was presented at staff seminars and meetings, it was emphasised that the aim was to ‘open up, not restrict’, in other words, to increase understanding of the various education and interaction opportunities associated with digital learning.

DiGiPESU produced guidelines, examples and a summary of the principles and practices of digital education. The guidelines are not strict rules to follow, but rather provide opportunities and solutions for diversifying teaching in many ways. The hope is that the materials produced as part of the work will not only support education, but also generate ideas for digital teaching after the pandemic. Many teachers had previously mentioned that their digital skills develop not only through training and workshops, but also by sharing ideas with colleagues and receiving peer support. Consequently, the purpose of DiGiPESU was to record the current shared understanding of digital education at the Language Centre. The materials produced are ‘from teachers to teachers’.

The work was based on previous research literature, notions of language and university education, and collaboration across language units. Almost all languages and disciplines taught at the Language Centre were represented, in addition to which a senior lecturer in university pedagogy contributed and a specialist in the development of teaching led the work.


Prioritising pedagogy, not the classroom 

The unofficial motto of the project mentioned in a few contexts was ‘Prioritising pedagogy, not the classroom’. The idea was to stress that rather than juxtaposing online teaching and more traditional teaching, the focus was on fundamental pedagogical phenomena. The guidelines formulated apply to interaction, pedagogical planning, the special features of digital education (e.g., learning analytics and ‘tool literacy’) and the clarification of concepts for different forms of teaching.

The project results will be published in full on Moodle in spring 2022. The materials will be used by and with teachers, for example, in planning courses and providing orientation. At the organisation level, the materials will be used in curriculum design.

However, the guidelines and descriptions produced are not set in stone: they will be expanded, edited and updated as required by research, teaching practices, increased experience and understanding, and future challenges.

Text: Janne Niinivaara

The writer is a specialist in the development of teaching at the Language Centre and leads the DiGiPESU work.


Read also:

DiGiPESU blog

Language Centre blog: Kohti kokonaisvaltaista digipedagogiikkaa (‘Towards comprehensive digital education’)



Niinivaara, J. (2018). Oppimisympäristöt opiskelijoiden ja opettajien silmin – digitalisaation kehittävää arviointia. In J. Jokinen, S. Karjalainen & H. Mäkäläinen (eds), Kielenoppimisen kehittyvät arviointi- ja palautekäytänteet – Developing feedback and assessment practices in language learning, 121–145. Helsingin yliopiston kielikeskus. Language Centre Publications 7

Niinivaara, J., & Vaattovaara, J. (2018). Learners’ and teachers’ voices in developing digital language learning environments: insights from a survey. Language Learning in Higher Education, 8(1), 133–156. https://doi.org/10.1515/cercles-2018-0007