Tips for teaching an international online classroom

It has now been almost a year since international travel became fraught with new hazards as the new coronavirus made its way around the globe. With the spread of the pandemic, most physical mobility of students and staff came to a halt.

We had just come back from Brussels, attending the kick-off conference for Una Europa’s 1Europe pilot project, when the pandemic hit. It soon became evident that 1Europe’s aim to extend the benefits of physical mobility to 50 % of our students, ambitious to begin with, had become all but impossible.

Yet, we also realised that for virtual mobility the pandemic gave unexpected new momentum.

Even a year ago I, for one, had only a vague idea of what virtual mobility might entail. For Una Europa, however, it was always envisioned as  a vital element for buiding a joint European campus and enabling intercultural experiences for all students regardless of their social background and financial situation.

At the onset of the global pandemic, mobility experts from the different Una Europa universities came together. They devised a way to cut through the red tape and came up with “Virtual Mobility in Emergency” – a scheme to allow courses from different universities to be opened to students accross Una Europa. The first edition of the scheme ran in the fall, and the second is about to start.

From teachers the transfer of courses online has required new skills, both technological and pedagogical. For students, attending courses from distance can be exhausting.  Add to both an international element – students from different cultural and academic backgrounds attending the class from various geographical locations and  timezones – and the challenges may well multiply.

Despite the challenges, the situation does also open new opportunities.  To gain from each others’ experiences, the first UH-Una Open Forum discussed ideas, tips and good practices for teaching an international online classroom.

Here are some of the takeaways of the opening presentations and the discussion that followed.

1. Aim for learning by developing things together

In the upheaval of last spring, trying to figure out Zoom settings and video standards, you might not have appreaciated the advice too much, if somebody would have told you to consider your metaphors. Yet, this is what Minna Lakkala, university researcher in the Technology in Education Group, would have us do.

Minna’s advice is based on an insight by Sami Paavola and Kai Hakkarainen that there are three kinds of metaphors that guide our understanding of learning and expertise. The metaphor where learning is seen as knowledge creation is best suited to elicit and understand processes of knowledge advancement that are important in a fast evolving, heavily co-dependent and knowledge-intensive environment.

In addition to individual cognition and social interaction, the metaphor of learning as knowledge creation emphasises co-development of shared objects and practices – in other words, collaboration. For online teaching in particular, Minna and her colleagues have devised Stairs of Collaboration. While online teaching may increase isolation, the stairs of collaboration demonstrate, step by step, how tools that are endemic to the online environment can be used to actively mediate the process of knowledge-creation, including its social aspects.

Stairs of collaboration in online teaching and learning by Lakkala et al 2009

In the current environment, new tools for collaboration are mushrooming and Minna too has been involved in their development. Nice hints for using tools that are readily available at the UH have been collected here. Regardless of the tools, sharing outcomes, results and discussions between course participants can be used to create a sense of community even without synchronous meetings.

2. Take advantage of the students’ different backgrounds and geographical locations

Even in a monocultural setting (if such a thing even exists), writing a joint report or coming up with a solution to a specific problem develop our skills for communication and interaction. In an international classroom, these skills  extend to understanding of different cultural perspectives, open-mindedness and courage to interact with people from other countries.

Friederike Lüpke, professor of African studies and researcher of multilingualism, has been teaching a joint course with colleagues from Brasil. After some initial confusion – think of vastly differing time zones and various practices in terms of daylight savings time! – the course turned out to be a positive learning experience for all involved.

I learned in class that Brazil celebrates Black Consciousness Day today. A great side effect of having a course on African multilingualisms that brings together students from @helsinkiuni with students and professors from Brazilian universities. Advantages of covid-era teaching!

By opening up our courses we can create possibilities and support equal oppotunities for students abroad and work “for the world” according as we promise.

In addition, differences of cultural background and geographical context can be actively used to promote not only intercultural skills but a more nuanced understanding of the suject matter. Instead of grouping Finns and “foreigners” separately for convenience, mixing students from different backgrounds together opens the path to new discoveries.

For a subject such as multilingualism, the benefits of bringing students together from different linguistic backgrounds is perhaps obvious. Yet, encouraging the active use different backgrounds as contextual information is possible whether we are talking about public health or climate change. To do this, ask for concrete examples to combine abstract issues to everyday practice.

In exact sciences, cultural differences might manifest as different pedagogical norms and ways of learning and a discussion on these might benefit the whole group.

3. Create a safe space and manage expectations

Incorporating cultural differences to teaching, whether online or face-to-face, requires a psychologically safe space.

To create such a space, Henna Pursiainen, educational visionary and UH master’s student, stresses the importance of setting out norms and rules. But instead of imposing a ready-made etiquette, it is worth while to try and discuss cultural differences openly and set the ground rules in collaboration with the students. Introductions with pictures from one’s home town, for example, could be a nice way to increase familiarity.

Example of an introductory assignment for an online course

Based on her experience with an international interactive learning festival, Henna encourages teachers to embrace the unfinished nature of on-line sessions and allow for discussion, feedback and thinking out loud. To ensure that everyone feels encouraged to speak, there should also be room for “imperfection”. And as Friederike would like us remember, this applies to “imperfect” language and mix of different languages.

To tackle other pitfalls of learning online in a multilocational context, managing expectations is key. Take into account the different time zones (remember daylight savings!) and pedagogical standards, start with warm-ups and use quick and easy questions to get everyone on board. To make sure that tasks and assignments are understood and submitted on a timely basis, use various methods of verbal and visual coding (mindmaps, drawings, memes, drawings).

Maija Urponen, Una Europa operational lead at UH


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