Hamina to introduce distance teaching into city schools

The south-east Finnish city of Hamina is weighing the use of digital distance education in its schools.

A student at Kannusjärvi primary school in Hamina enjoys doing schoolwork on a computer and thinks using online sources in school work is a good idea. Image: Ville Pisto / Yle

The Hamina city council has put forward an initiative that looks to make distance education a possibility in all of the schools in the district, including both upper secondary and basic education schools.

The move toward more technology-assisted teaching is part of a broader overhaul of the Hamina school district in which old schools will be swept away in favour of new buildings, while no teachers will be let go.

Distance teaching is no new concept as the method has become commonplace in upper secondary schools and in cases of rare subjects or hospitalisation, for instance. However, a new aspect is the introduction of the teaching into basic education schools which teach years one to nine.

The decision to expand on distance teaching is a risky one, as the venture has not been tested in primary schools to the same extent as in upper secondary schools.

A link between schools

The city's acting head of education, Anssi Kukkanen, explains that distance teaching does not entail leaving children on their own to watch lessons through a video link.

Standard practice of a safe teaching environment ensures that children in basic education cannot be left without supervision. During distance teaching, a teacher or school instructor will be present.

”The idea that a subject or two is taught throughout the year as distance education is not realistic. Rather, the criteria of compulsory education will be carried out face-to-face, while distance teaching could be taken advantage of for extra help,” says Kukkanen.

Distance teaching means a student could follow a Swedish lesson through a laptop or projector that could either be streamed live from another school, or a pre-recorded lesson. Distance teaching could also be an advantage in cooperative projects between schools.

”In biology lessons, pupils from different schools could compare their results through an online link. This would be of use because we have different schools within the district. Urban schools are not very close to nature, unlike those in more rural areas outside the city,” notes Kukkanen.

Distance education would be instilled step by step, beginning from the older classes. The cost of the technology making such a venture possible is unknown as the study into distance education is in very early stages.

Teachers’ new role

Jukka Sormunen, principal of Kuopio's Klassikka upper secondary school and a pioneer in the field of distance education, says digital material would not replace social skills or values in basic education.

”A teacher’s role will clearly be as an educator of social interactions, and critical assessment of information. Teaching learning skills, teamwork and values to students. But an extremely important trait to teach children is a belief in the future,” he says.

Sormunen is spearheading an initiative to explore the benefits of virtual reality in teaching. The sport-oriented Klassikka has used distance education for over a decade. The school's six advanced mathematics teachers all record their lessons. Students can then choose whose lessons they want to watch. The recordings are meant to help students in revision, as well as students who are away on sport trips and camps.

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Kannusjärvi second year students during classroom lessons. Image: Ville Pisto

”We have saved 150,000 euros in tutoring costs thanks to distance teaching. Tutoring in advanced mathematics dropped to one tenth after we began using recorded material,” says Sormunen.

One shining product of distance teaching is Ilkka Herola, who competed in the national Nordic combined men’s team, says Sormunen. Because of his athletic career, Herola could not attend advanced mathematics lessons, but despite this he got the highest grade possible in his matriculation exam.

According to Sormunen, this was possible because of pre-recorded lessons. However, a motivated sportsman is a far cry from the teaching of primary school children.

A shortfall in the digital leap

Distance education has been used in Lapland and the Turku archipelago for language lessons. It has also been used in rare subjects for so-called 'worldview' classes, in which a student can choose to either study their religion or lessons on worldviews. Additionally, distance teaching has been made available to students in hospitals who can remain a part of their classroom community while away.

Following a class through a live stream link or watching a pre-recorded lesson is one way to make use of distance teaching. Educational material produced by publishers is another application.

”Video inserts should not be over 10 minutes long. Videos can give a jump start to learning. In that case it frees up the teacher to follow the learning curve of students and to step in when problems arise,” says Sormunen.

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While first year students at Kannusjärvi practice writing by hand, second year students practice writing on a computer. Image: Ville Pisto / Yle

A hurdle for distance education is the price tag. Klassikka paid 70,000 euros for 23 work spaces in 2007. The current cost for a system that can record and save classroom lessons is around 6,000 euros per work station.

”If teachers have the tools to create their own lessons in digital format, I believe that distance teaching would work as effectively in basic education schools as it does in upper secondary schools. The problem is that personal equipment such as laptops are not available in every school. The reason is a shortfall in the digital leap,” says Sormunen.

Digital will not replace teachers

Sanna Kuosmanen, a teacher at Kannusjärvi primary school in Hamina, does not believe digital technology will replace the work teachers do.

”There are always incidents at break times or discussions about how the kids are doing. Distance education can never replace genuine interactions,” says Kuosmanen.

Children at Kannusjärvi primary school played around with the idea of a distance education school with no teachers present and thought it could be fun, but not without problems.

”There might be a bit of a crazy class every now and then. Everybody would just walk around and would not be at their desks,” says one pupil, Topi Suurnäkki.

”Or they would be wrestling on the floor,” adds Emma Suurnäkki.