Distributed and Virtual Learning in Finland

Article of the month

Helsinki, 1 December, 2004 — Distributed and Virtual Learning in Finland

In the national research and education information strategy 2000-2004 drawn up in 1999, distributed learning was set as one of the most important objects for development in Finland. The purpose was to embark on rendering traditional teaching more flexible and diverse, making education more readily available also in sparsely populated areas and on providing small educational establishments with opportunities to offer a wide range of courses in collaboration with other educational establishments.

These plans formed the basis for setting up the national virtual school project, the primary aim of which is to promote distributed study, but also generally the introduction of information and telecommunications technology in Finland's schools. The project has been carried forward purposefully for more than three years now. The universities and polytechnics are also engaged in equivalent development projects.

Upper Secondary Education for Adults

Virtual education in schools was developed on the basis of the Distance Upper Secondary School Project launched in 1997, which has continued to this day and is now entering a consolidation phase. The Distance Upper Secondary School seeks to meet the need of adults in working life for taking upper secondary school studies which they lack or for continuing uncompleted studies. People can study at the Distance Upper Secondary School by enrolling at one of a hundred educational establishments. Distance tutoring is provided by almost all adult upper secondary schools. A personal curriculum is drawn up for each student. Studies can, for example, be taken entirely by means of distance learning, but students can also have access to face-to-face teaching if necessary.

To support study, a sizeable body of different study material has been compiled for almost all upper secondary school courses. The material comprises not only textbooks but also radio tapes and television programmes produced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company and web-based learning material produced by the National Board of Education. In addition, tutoring is carried out using various learning platforms in accordance with the choice made by the school. Study is free-of-charge for the student taking an entire qualification. The school receives the normal adult student's state subsidy for a pupil studying by means of distributed education. The school levies a charge from students taking individual courses. In total, there are now approx. 3,500 adult students engaged in distance studies and several hundred of them have already matriculated with grades that are just as good on average as those obtained by traditional students.

Vocational Education

Similar decisive development work has also been carried out in vocational education. Twenty networks for various vocational fields have emerged in vocational education for young people. Approximately eighty educational establishments, i.e., about a third of the total, are involved in development work. In addition, there are around ten networks at over twenty educational establishments in vocational education for adults.

No attempt has actually been made in vocational education to create opportunities for taking complete qualifications by means of distributed learning, since face-to face teaching is also always required for learning skills. For example, the possibility of taking a minimum of two credits (study weeks) by means of distributed learning in each field has been set as a goal of vocational education. However, the quantities will vary between different fields, since distributed learning is better suited to some fields than it is to others. The greatest progress has been made in the development of courses in economics in educational establishments situated in Eastern and Northern Finland. There, distances are greater and the educational establishments are smaller than in the South of Finland.

Upper Secondary Education for Young People

The size and location of educational establishments also appears to be of significance whenever methods and materials developed at the Distance Upper Secondary School start being applied in upper secondary school education for young people. Small upper secondary schools with fewer than a hundred students account for approximately a quarter of the 450 educational establishments in Finland. These are also generally located in areas where the population is declining due to migration. That is why many of these upper secondary schools are networking with each other or with adult (distance) upper secondary schools, in order to be able to continue to provide their students with an adequate range of courses, for example, acquired or exchanged at a distance from another educational establishment.

Primary Education

There are also similar needs in basic education. In that sphere, we have numerous pilot projects underway, both in the archipelago municipalities and in the small municipalities of Northern and Eastern Finland. For example, teaching of the optional language (French, German or Russian) that begins in the third and fourth forms has been arranged in the form of distance tutoring in several projects on a trial basis. Almost a hundred schools from different parts of Finland are involved in a literature teaching project. However, similar networks, in which co-operation would already have been established and in which joint national services would be created, as now happens in post-comprehensive education, have not yet emerged on the primary school level.

Development Work

Development work in distributed learning is taking place in Finland on a very broad front. More than a thousand educational establishments, i.e., about a quarter of the total, are involved in state-supported projects. In post-comprehensive education, the ratio is greater and in basic education smaller. The switch to distributed learning and study does not take place automatically. Those who have made the greatest progress have several years of development work behind them. They have started by updating teaching methods and learning to use new tools. This has called for teachers' career training, trials and development lasting several credits (study weeks).

Researchers have also been involved with the educational establishments in developing counselling and tutoring models. For example, a dialogue teaching and learning model was developed for the needs of post-comprehensive vocational education. Gradually, teachers are switching to planning new kinds of learning materials suitable for these methods. At present, various learning objects that are suited to both traditional learning and distributed learning under a teacher are being developed. Training for those producing the materials has also expanded as the projects have progressed.

The next challenges are to determine how costs are to be reimbursed and who is to pay when pupils are given opportunities to take studies from educational establishments other than the one where they are enrolled. After all, the objective would be for students to be also able to choose flexible studies from other educational establishments, if the courses which they want are not available at their own establishment. After all, this is often the situation specifically in small educational establishments. Up until now, the situation has usually been resolved by the educational establishments exchanging courses or tutoring evenly.

Ms. Ella Kiesi, Councellor of Education
Finnish National Board of Education
Ella.Kiesi@oph.fi

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More information
Ella.Kiesi@oph.fi