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


Una Europa at the University of Helsinki

One of the finest moments of my university career is listening to the speech of Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki in March 2015.

The audience was mainly students of the University of Helsinki who also had the opportunity to ask questions to perhaps the most influential woman in the world. One of the students asked Merkel what advice she would give to young people who are about to graduate. The question surprised Merkel and I would say that she was even a bit moved as she pondered the answer. The answer was so big.

In her response, Chancellor Merkel talked about her background in the Cold War in East Germany, where the student’s international free movement was out of the question. She urged students at the University of Helsinki to take note of the opportunities offered by the current internationalisation of universities. “Go see the world and get to know different ways of living and thinking,” was the message she conveyed. Us older members of the audience were very much in agreement. During our studies, there were hardly any exchange opportunities, and as we age and get settled somewhere and with someone, going abroad gets more difficult.

The French president Emmanuel Macron conveyed a similar spirit for internationalization in his speech in September 2017, when he put forward a motion towards European Universities. Speking at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Macron pictured the new European Universities as acts of conquest for future generations and the glue that will hold Europe together amongst its national differences. By joining forces from accross the continent, they would, visioned Macron, be drivers of educational innovation and the quest for excellence.

In such a quest for excellence, and to promote such internationalisation and mobility of its students, the University of Helsinki joined Una Europa in October 2019.

Una Europa is one of the by now 41 European University alliances funded under the European Universities Initiative by the Erasmus+ programme. In the spirit of both Merkel and Macron, the European Universities Initiative is designed to significantly strengthen mobility of students and staff, and foster the quality, inclusiveness and competitiveness of European higher education.

For the University of Helsinki, being part of Una Europa means that we are building an entirely new kind of strategic partnership with our seven partners from all four corners of Europe, from Bologna to Edinburgh and Krakow to Madrid.

Mobility and its enhancement are key to Una Europa partners and our common future. Once the pandemic allows us to travel again, physical encounters between students and staff from different universities are crucial for the Una Europa community. Yet, we are also strongly investing in virtual learning environments and means of communication to build opportunities for accessible and environmentally sustainable virtual mobility between our universities.

Indeed, Sustainability is one of the academic focus areas that Una Europa has initiated its collaboration. The other four focus areas are Data Science & AI, Cultural Heritage,  European Studies, and One Health. Together, the focus areas and their cross-fertilization will boost the solving of the grand challenges of our time.

This blog is here to help us imagine together, what Una Europa means to us at the University of Helsinki. What are the opportunities that it offers? What can we, together, achieve by belonging to this new type of alliance?

Una Europa offers us a chance to be bold, to build a new kind of a university and a new kind of a university ecosystem. What does the university of the future look like and how can we at the University of Helsinki be part of shaping it?

Hanna Snellman, Vice-Rector for International Affairs