The harm that COVID-19 has caused in education is enormous. The number of children who dropped out of school without knowing whether they are ever coming back is estimated to be millions. Inequity between children is higher than it has been in decades. The list goes on and on.
However, there is usually a bright side to every unfortunate situation. There has been a lot of talk about the digital leap that schools took last year. Many teachers needed to go to the uncomfortable zone, learning new tools and thinking about new innovative ways to teach online. The new skills and technologies developed recently are undoubtedly beneficial for both the students and the teachers in the long run.
We have found out that there is another benefit that has not been discussed widely. We are talking about the infinite possibilities for international peer learning for both students and teachers. Before COVID-19, there were already different platforms for collaboration between schools, like eTwinning in Europe. However, for many, those were not considered as an exciting option. It has been a lot more motivating looking for financing for physical visits. That is entirely understandable: nothing beats traveling and talking face to face with student/teacher colleagues in another country. The learning impact that follows this onsite observation and emotions can never be archived in virtual collaboration. While this is true, the downside of this is the significantly reduced number of international exposure. Most of the schools/parents cannot afford these study tours or sister school visits, and those who can, all the arrangements require so much time and effort that it is hard to realize these more than once a year. At least in Finland, where practically all the schools are public, the students’ gran majority never participate in any school tour in another country.
Another form of inequity in Finland – yes, the same country that is otherwise considered an educational equity paradise – is that international visitors usually stay in the capital area or the most important cities. Sister school collaboration is also typically linked to sister city collaboration, for which the small towns don’t have the resources. Consequently, students in rural areas never got any international exposure unless the teacher was especially interested in this and bothered to learn to use a specific online platform.
COVID-19 changed it all. At least in areas with an internet connection, practically all the teachers worldwide learned to use tools such as Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet. While those tools have been used to connect with the students, the same tools enable live contact with people in another country. Besides, many have learned to use platforms that facilitate peer learning even further, such as Google Classroom. In Finland, where the intention is to have frontal teaching as little as possible, technology has increased group work possibilities and learning through projects. Only just one year ago, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine primary school students in small groups in breakout rooms working together on the shared Google Slides presentation. Talking about a mixture of ICT, interaction, and expression skills; all competencies for today’s working life. This does not mean that the children are better off studying home online. Physical classroom teaching is fundamental, but online tools can enrich it. And peer learning is not only for the children. Technology makes it easy to get teachers together worldwide to participate in webinars or personal development (PD) courses to share their experiences and good practices with the other participants from different cultures and educational systems. The best learning happens when someone challenges your presumptions by introducing new ways of reacting to the same problem.
While the podcast title above is obviously an overstatement, different innovations that COVID-19 created or made everyone use have a critical role in making international exposure a lot more common and more of an equal opportunity in the future. Another key factor is the new mindset: learning together through the screen has become the new normal, and physical classrooms are not limiting anymore with whom to learn. Internationalization is an essential theme in education in Finland, and students’ exposure to different cultures has never been easier. Of course, a 12-hour time difference can be challenging, but live sessions don’t have to be all school day long; many students can make a short connection during the evening (instead of doing something else with their screens). Teachers can record their lessons and share them with the students in the other country; after watching it, the class can discuss how the teaching was different than in their country. Students can make video presentations to each other, and they can even work on a project together using shared documents.
While it can require some effort to find the school or class to connect with, the reward is worth the trouble. And why not involve the students in both countries already in the planning period? Let them decide what they want to see during the virtual visits and what lessons the foreign teacher would teach them, for instance. And the best thing is that you can put this international collaboration into practice in smaller pieces as well. You are not limited to do everything during one week, like in physical visits or connecting with only one school or class at the time. The students’ week in the future could easily include several international peer learning sessions, for instance, on Monday afternoons combined music classes with Brasilians, on Wednesday mornings chemistry classes with Chinese, and Fridays an environmental project with students from India and South Africa. No, it doesn’t sound effortless, especially right now in the middle of the pandemic, but after the international co-teaching has become a routine, you might see that the pre-covid era was somewhat limiting for the students.
Read more about VisitEDUfinn’s Virtual Sister School Visits
Mr. Korosuo (M.Sc.) is specialized in International Business and Education. After his pedagogical studies at the University of Helsinki and working as a lecturer at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences and Helsinki Business College, he has dedicated himself to promoting Finnish education internationally. Among other projects, he has spent several months in Colombia in 2016 and 2017, consulting the local Ministry of Education. Since 2016 he has worked as the CEO of VisitEDUfinn and Customer Relationship Manager of Haaga-Helia.
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