“Let’s do this big”: Sustainability transition by co-created learning objectives

One of the most powerful features of Una Europa, to me, is the combination of value-based shared goals and boldness to reach for new solutions. Commitment to sustainability is one of the fundamental values that the University of Helsinki and Una Europa share.

For the University of Helsinki, embedding aspects of the UN sustainable development goals in all our educational offerings​ is one of our strategic goals for this decade. A tangible measure toward this goal is our brand new sustainability course launched this spring and piloted as we speak.

Una Europa, with sustainability as one of its five focus areas, is determined to address the sustainable development goals via dialogue between natural sciences, social sciences, health sciences, engineering, arts and humanities from all eight partner universities. The goal is to co-create innovative formats for education that enable a new holistic approach to sustainability teaching. All academics within the University of Helsinki are welcome to influence their shape and direction.

In concrete, the Una Europa community is working on both a joint bachelor’s degree and a master’s level micro-qualification in sustainability science. The bachelor’s programme in sustainability is a unique initiative as a step toward truly joint degrees: co-created by sustainability researchers from all universities, earning the students a degree recognised by all degree awarding universities. The micro-qualification in sustainability represents a new European opening designed to answer the needs of master’s students, individuals switching fields and life-long learners alike with a 20 ECTS module of four MOOCs.

What can these new approaches to sustainability teaching mean for us at University of Helsinki in practice? To find out, the second UH-Una Open Forum on 31 March set out to discuss our university community’s expectations for Una Europa collaboration. An active group of researchers, teachers, students and specialists sparked discussion circulating around expectations, benefits and needs for Una sustainability cooperation.

The following are my takeaways from the discussion – ideas I intend to keep at heart as we continue paving the way towards our shared goals.

High expectations 

Quality and collaboration were two keywords characterising the participants’ expectations for Una Europa collaboration. The level of ambition and excitement was epitomised in the output of one of the group discussions: “Let’s do this BIG – gather students & researchers & professionals all over Europe to join forces for the sustainability transition!”

Quality expectations were connected to the content and pedagogy of sustainability education but also to the process of creating the joint bachelor’s degree and the micro-qualification. Personally, I am inclined to see precisely the collaborative working method as a solution for increased quality in content. Genuinely co-created contents and methods for education will build on expertise and best practices from all eight universities. However, such a goal can pose needs for a kind of creation process we may not be used to.

Co-created goals to guide collaboration 

In the Open Forum discussion on the needs for successful collaboration, one need named was getting to know each other to create mutual understanding and ultimately shared goals. This is indeed a crucial starting point. It is also something that requires dialogue and proper time and patience given to the process.

Because we also want to advance at pace, the process needs guidance. Intercultural collaborative processes like this can get fuzzy as we come together from our different viewpoints to build something completely new. We easily get lost in mapping out our existing course offerings and figuring out how to best combine them into a new whole, or which practical obstacles to consider as permanent and justified limitations and which ones to work around.

A solution simplifying such decisions is putting our learning objectives to use as the guiding light for our co-creation process. For the micro-qualification, the learning objectives have been defined this spring and the process is well on its way for the Joint Bachelor as well.

Reminding ourselves of these objectives from time to time can solve many problems for us. When in doubt, ask which solution brings us closer to the objective of, say, students critically reflecting the sustainable development goals in different cultural contexts. This can tilt the balance for executing a given course as a joint online course to enable dialogue and participation from all universities.

Keeping learning objectives in mind as our core goals is both a way of keeping focused and building the joint degree and micro-qualification into something more than a reassembling of the courses we already offer – into more than just the sum of the parts, as called for in our Open Forum.

Keeping all on board 

Another insight form the Open Forum was the need for coordination. Fostering participation opportunities and bottom-up development of our sustainability education should be balanced with providing a clear framework supporting the stakeholders involved – students, teachers, administrative specialists, employers and others.

Regular follow up events and updates to keep everyone involved were concrete wishes we should live up to. Here are some of the ways already in use to distribute information and engage interested UH community members.

Updates and viewpoints on Una Europa collaboration are published regularly in this blog. The third UH-Una Open Forum on 19 May will discuss Una Europa seed funding with the aim of supporting the initiation of long-term collaborative activities between the partner universities.

The design of the micro-qualification was created in the leadership of prof. Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, advancing novel MOOC co-teaching within Una Europa. From May 2021 on the implementation of the MOOCs will be led by Laura Riuttanen.

Hands-on work shaping the Joint Bachelor in sustainability is about to get a boost from a new preparatory group with the task of coordinating teaching for the Una Europa joint bachelor’s degrees in sustainability and European studies. A call for members to the group will be open during the first two weeks of May – stay tuned for more information!

Jenna Sorjonen, planning officer for Una Europa’s 1Europe project

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