How education disruption prompted this Finnish school to reinvent vocational learning

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2020 will forever be known as the year of the Covid-19 pandemic. But this has also been the year of educators embracing remote learning and innovative teaching for many schools including Global Education Services Taitaja.

It’s now more than a year since the first Covid-19 case was detected in Wuhan, China. There have been many lessons learned since then, and many takeaways for the years ahead. There’s no denying that education is one of the environments that has been most disrupted and changed due to the extraordinary circumstances that Covid-19 presented the world. For Global Education Services Taitaja, which provides vocational training in Finland, this challenge was the catalyst for change. Development Director Tuija Arola and culinary trainer Anni Niemalä explain.

What were the biggest challenges to your very hands-on way of teaching?

Tuija Arola: Like everybody else, we did not have much time to prepare for the lockdown. In Spring 2020, we had to close our educational institution and shift all learning and teaching online. We used itslearning and Zoom for distance learning. It was challenging but also ‘amazing’. We had been trying to get teachers to make the ‘digital leap’ and they were always hesitant, because to them vocational training was very hands-on, they did not see it as subjects that you could teach remotely, online. But the compelling situation in March left us very little choice but to go online to keep teaching going and deliver the courses. And that was enough for teachers to make the ‘digital leap’. That was what drove them – they did not want to let their students down. Everybody understood that distance learning was the only possibility, and nobody could refuse to shift to virtual learning. Luckily for us, it was not as hard as some other schools that had to start from scratch. We were fortunate to have quite strongly encouraged the use of itslearning and arranged technical and pedagogical workshops for our teachers.

image Tuija Arola

Tuija Arola is the Development Director at Global Education Services Taitaja in Finland.

Furthermore, we had two of our ICT-experts on standby to help both teachers and students with any kind of problems they might face using digital tools. Since our ICT-experts are also experienced pedagogues, they had a lot of great ideas on innovative approaches and activities that could be used in remote learning.

We learned that by thinking out of the box, we could teach pretty much any course remotely, even those that required students to be in a workshop or kitchen. For instance, one of our culinary instructors turned her kitchen at home into a virtual demonstration kitchen. She showed students things like how to decorate a cake and make vegetable art. The students would watch her, do their own practical exercises in their home kitchens and then send pictures of their creations to the teacher and the group for evaluation.

Anni Niemalä: On any normal day, I will be with my students in the restaurant at the school. We will make food that we sell to customers – teachers and people from around the school. In my course, we have three levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced. Students learn what it is like to work in a regular restaurant. They learn about the ingredients, cooking techniques, presentation and about good customer service. They also learn to improvise and not be afraid to try new ways of cooking. To be confident of making food.

When the shutdown happened in March, they and I had to improvise. I had to figure out a way where they could still have me ‘present’ when they were cooking and could also see how I made a dish and presented it.

image Anni Niemala

Anni Niemalä is a culinary trainer at Global Education Services Taitaja.

For instance, with the beginners, I made videos of how to prepare a dish – step by step, from start to finish. The students watched the video on itslearning and I was connected online with them via Zoom so they could ask me questions during our ‘online class’. I then booked one-on-one sessions with social distancing for them at the school. In that window, they would present what they had made, such as cookies, so I could look at the texture, taste it and assess their work. The food was then donated to the needy. I would then give them ingredients, sourced from the school’s freezer and nearby restaurants that had to shut down, for their next assignment.

The more advanced students also got ingredients from me, but they had to create restaurant-level food. They also had to detail how they made it and take pictures of their creations and send it to me on itslearning. I found that they adapted really well to remote learning, became more adventurous and self-reliant and began trying different techniques in their home kitchens. I would then assess their assignment based on the pictures, and I could tell if they had used the correct techniques or if their improvised technique achieved the same desired effect. They also had to spend some time working at a restaurant (the ones that were open) to gain real restaurant experience, so we managed to work with and around the limitations.

‘I found that they adapted really well to remote learning, became more adventurous and self-reliant, and began trying different techniques in their home kitchens.’

Anni Niemalä, Culinary Trainer

How did your students manage?

Tuija: One of the most demanding courses that we teach at Taitaja is the Integration Education for Immigrants. They learn the Finnish language, starting from the very basics. Quite a few of the students enrolled in this course have very little to no experience of distance learning. Many of them also have had virtually no schooling or just a few years of elementary schooling in their countries of origin. This was a group of students who needed handholding and guidance from their teachers. They needed a lot of individual support and visualizing to help them learn new words. When they have the teacher with them in the class, the teacher is able to draw for them to help them visualize a new word or to answer their questions. This picture below shows how one of our Finnish language teachers prepared for her class. She wrote out her lesson as she always does but made sure to have many props ready to help her students understand the lesson.

image laptop on desk with props such as teddy bear, pot and hammer used by Finnish language teacher

A Finnish language teacher ready with props such as a teddy bear, pot and hammer to help her students visualize words.

    The biggest challenges were:

  • The technical problems: Students in some instances were not able to get online. Passwords were lost or forgotten. Some of the students did not have sufficient digital tools for distance learning. Our institution provided students with the necessary tools – laptop, iPad, headset and the applications. We also offered continuous technical support for students.
  • Some of the teachers were hesitant to start using itslearning. It is obvious that if the teacher feels insecure or uncomfortable, this will trickle down to the students. Therefore, we offered continuous technical and pedagogical support for the teachers as well.
  • The digital learning environment must not be used only to deliver Word or PDF documents. It must offer multi-faceted activities for the students.
  • Zoom must not be used as a channel for the teacher´s ‘monologue’ but as an interactive platform for discussions. Also, breakout rooms should be used to facilitate group work and project learning.

Anni: I spoke with my students every day online via video. I wanted to see them every day to make sure they were doing okay and we were also sending messages throughout the day on itslearning.

I had 24 students in 3 different groups – beginners, intermediate and advanced students – and they could contact me throughout the day. They are mostly adult students, so they understood the challenges and that we had to adapt. They were very good about all the changes. In a way it was easier for them because they had children at home and they cook every day, so they managed to combine home and school. Because they were older, they somehow managed to cope with the challenges. In one of my live video lessons, I had one of my students listening and taking notes with both her young children on her lap. I had to be flexible, there could not be a strict timetable like we usually have in class. I gave them more time to submit assignments, so for instance, they could cook while their children were taking a nap. In a normal situation they could drop the kids in kindergarten and come to school, but this was no longer possible with everything shut down.

Further and higher education have been amongst the slowest to shift to virtual learning. Why is that?

Tuija: There’re probably many reasons, but I believe it may be due to the old-fashioned pedagogical thinking in higher education. Learning is limited to passive receiving or the level of ‘learning by being’. In my experience, in Finland, higher education has taken some digital leaps and they recognize the needs and abilities of their students. However, in many other European countries, universities are still working in a very old-fashioned style and the teacher or professor is regarded to be at the center of learning.

‘In our institution, adult learners are co-builders of knowledge by sharing their experience and presenting their own results.’

Tuija Arola, Development Director

In both vocational and higher education, the goal of education is to prepare students for their future professions. Therefore, their professional competencies should involve a range of complex skills. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration are the most relevant skills that students should acquire while at an educational institution, in addition to domain-specific knowledge and skills to be able to make professional decisions and implement solutions.


A project for Anni’s students. Make and decorate a gingerbread house.

Changing the mindset of lecturers starts with the institution’s management and how we technically and pedagogically facilitate and support teachers. Additionally, we have made it clear that everyone is expected to use itslearning and Zoom video conferencing and no one can choose not to participate in our current ‘digital leap’. We also regularly collect a lot of feedback from the students and analyze it to be able to improve our services. One guideline for our development work is our Digital Development Strategy 2019–2022 that is included in our pedagogical strategy.

Among the ongoing projects is DOT – Data to Support the Students, and this project aims to use more effectively the learning analytics of itslearning.

Going forward with Virtual Reality

Tuija: We have also started a development project with 3DBear to help our teachers produce VR-learning materials for their vocational fields. We expect to have this in the first quarter of 2021 and it will be integrated with other learning activities in itslearning. So, we are currently moving towards using more simulation-based learning and immersive learning environments. This development work will make us more ready to face exceptional situations like the pandemic but also facilitate new operations, even abroad.

‘The most forceful catalyst was the pandemic which thrust us into changing towards a more versatile teaching and learning methodology.’

Industry (‘Working life’) is our most important stakeholder and during the pandemic we were able to use some professional learning materials directly from the industry such as Tikkurila Academy for the students in the field of surface finishing, and Autodata, Cabas and Prodiags for car mechanics. Industry representatives also participated in the evaluation process.

Since we specialize in adult learning, we understand that our students have a lot of knowledge and experience. We encourage our students to share information and even challenge the teachers. According to the Finnish legislation of vocational education every student is entitled to an individual study/development plan. This means that students are involved in planning their own learning.

Learners as co-builders of knowledge

Tuija: In our institution, adult learners are co-builders of knowledge by sharing their experience and presenting their own results. There are of course some traditional courses that require a lot of hands-on work, such as car mechanics. In these fields of education, a balanced combination of innovatively constructed distance learning, simulations and practical hands-on exercises in the actual vocational environments (at school or on-the-job training) is probably the best way to teach and learn.

The old saying ‘where there is will, there is a way’ describes my stand quite well. In our case the pedagogical innovations were boosted by the pandemic. It forced us to do things differently. I am not sure if we would have reached such good development without it. Of course, the situation was quite stressful for everyone, but it also gave us a sense of achievement and joy when we were able to reach the next level in distance learning and create new ways to teach.

How much has 2020 and remote learning changed education?

Anni: We went back to school for a short period in 2020 and now with cases escalating again, we are back to remote learning. I now have a huge resource bank of teaching materials in itslearning, and I share this material with two other colleagues. So this time round, remote learning has been a lot smoother. Preparation is key.

I’m really hoping that we can go back to school and reopen fully our school restaurant. Cooking is something you have to do every day and what the students have missed most with remote learning is the interaction they have with customers and one another in our restaurant at the school.

Tuija: The opinions vary depending on the field of education, but generally our students like distance learning because it facilitates individual learning paths and flexibility.

The most forceful catalyst was the pandemic which thrust us into changing towards a more versatile teaching and learning methodology.

We made an analysis of the experiences of teachers during the distance learning period in Spring 2020. Here’re some observations:

  • Student agency: Unexpectedly, some of the ‘most demanding’ students benefited from remote learning, because they could concentrate better during the theory lessons. However, distance learning requires students to have quite a high level of self-direction and motivation.
  • Hybrid learning: When teachers do not meet their students face-to-face, some parts/aspects of the student’s well-being might be ‘hidden’. The communication via Zoom even with camera is limited. Our teachers said that to get to really know the students and help them, it was essential to meet them face-to-face at least for some days or hours during the week.
  • Technical support: The technical and pedagogical support for teachers was indispensable to help them succeed in their job during the pandemic.
  • Emotional support: Peer support and exchange of best practices is essential – for both teachers and students.
  • The right LMS: itslearning worked well for us because it offers versatile tools to create excellent learning experiences.

Obviously, some of the educational fields such as logistics (professional drivers) can only be done hands-on in a vehicle, but I think that we will continue with a hybrid model using distance learning, face-to-face learning and on-the-job learning going forward as we can’t really say when we will fully be back at school.

Read also about how this Norwegian teacher is Engaging Students with Virtual Reality.

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