School and early childhood education centres visits have been the core and the main reason for VisitEDUfinn’s existence. We wanted to offer education professionals the possibility to observe authentic Finnish classrooms right when they are taking place, to get excited and motivated about the unique atmosphere created by our autonomous teachers.
Then COVID-19 ruined everything. Most people did not want to travel anymore as a general safety precaution. Many of those who wished to come did not get permission from their school, there were no flights, they could not get a visa, or not enter Finland without a 14-day quarantine. Finally, in Autumn, as the COVID-19 situation got worse in Finland, practically all the schools prohibited visits.
When the lockdown hit, we teamed up with one Finnish University leading in pedagogical solutions – Haaga-Helia – to further develop our offering. We already have some new exciting solutions, and some of our clients are piloting them at this very moment (October 2020).
Interestingly, we never thought about virtual school visits – it just seemed something impossible. Most importantly, for our clients who travel to Finland, school visits are only part of the experience. We are talking about a unique experience with a capital E: traveling to another country, walking in Helsinki city center, eating some traditional Finnish dishes, perhaps a sauna and a dip in the Baltic sea, and so on. Consequently, people are willing to pay the price for that experience. How much would someone pay for a virtual experience? As museums needed to close, there have been many virtual exhibitions available, but most of them are free, or charge only a fraction of the standard ticket price. Why? You do see precisely the same paintings. Using zoom-in you can even get a closer look than have ever been possible, and you may stay in front of one painting all the time you want to without feeling embarrassed. Well, because the experience is just not the same! It would be less valuable, and consequently, the price needs to be less as well.
For virtual school visits, this creates a huge problem. Our costs are practically the same: we need to pay for our guide who would go around in a school with a camera, and we would need to pay for the school as they would still need to use their time to receive the virtual visitors. But, would the clients pay the same price for a virtual visit? Everyone suggests that no, they would not. Another, and perhaps even a bigger problem, is that you can take photos more or less freely from school and students on a regular school visit as long as you don’t publish them anywhere. But, if you take photographs or videos for someone else, you would need permission from each child’s parent who appear on the photo or video. That practically makes impossible turning the “traditional” school visits into virtuals.
As we could not turn traditional school visits to virtual visits, we needed to create a new virtual school visit concept. We asked our clients what is valuable on school visits to be created for them – in other words – what are the essential parts of the school visits that are needed in the virtual visits. We figured out that a virtual school visit could be something else than the traditional going around in the school building. We could just virtually connect with different classrooms around Finland! The virtual visitors could still observe classes and communicate with children and teachers. We still would need permission from the parents, but it is way easier to ask permission from a limited number of classes than from the whole school.
Visit only those classes that the client is interested in.
There is no general rule for the school visits, but we have no control over what lessons we will observe in most cases. Normally, this is not even a problem, but occasionally we hear comments that someone had expected to see home economics or music classes and could not. Virtual school visits open a door for a truly customized school visit experience. We could, for instance, organize a tour for a group of mathematics teachers. Then, they would visit only mathematics classes with different teachers and different schools in Finland. The client could also see lessons based on the teaching methods the group wants to learn more about.
Make all the classroom visits a superb experience.
Some clients think that Finland’s high learning results are due to modern learning environments and teaching methods. Then they enter a school where most classrooms looked pretty much the same as in their own country 50 years ago. In our study tours, we have always tried to visit both “old-fashioned” and modern schools. This way, visitors would understand that the point is elsewhere than in tablets, bean bags, or flipped classrooms. On the other hand, going virtual would enable us to choose from the best. We could have visits and tours with only teachers who are not afraid to speak English, who are interested in the international visitors, and who are applying the new Finnish curriculum so that the visitors would most likely learn something new.
Many times our study tour groups are quite heterogeneous. There can be early years teachers and university teachers/directors on the same tour. In virtual school visits, we could split the participants into groups that would simultaneously visit different units. Of course, we can apply the same for a more homogeneous group as long as there are different preferences. For instance, a group formed by high school teachers could visit multiple classes at the same time, and each participant would be able to observe only those classes they are teaching in their country.
No limits for group size.
From the economic point of view, the bigger the group, the better for the customer. However, schools don’t like to receive big groups. In many cases, all the participants have followed the same route, and it is impossible to fit everyone in a classroom for proper observation. In some schools, the participants are split into smaller groups, requiring more organizational effort from the school. In a digital setting, the only limit is how many participants the client wants to “fit in” to observe a class. The more people are in the same room, the less time there would be for each participant’s questions. That has not changed but the easiness and cost-effectiveness to split the group, no matter how big it is, is substantial.
This is quite obvious from the logistics point of view. No flights, hotels, buses,. and so on, so each participant saves hundreds, if not thousands of Euros. But making the school visit virtual can reduce our costs as well. Our host or guide does not need to spend time traveling, and if the client wants to, the virtual visit can be organized even without our host. The client can connect directly with the schools with their tools (Zoom, Teams, Meet etc). Another saving possibility would be the fees we pay to the schools. The main reason for the fees is that the director needs to be involved, and in many cases, the school needs to find a substitute if a teacher is going around with a group. Virtual school visits make both unnecessary. Also, many schools in the Helsinki Metropolitan area are saturated with school visits, and asking a fee is an efficient way of reducing the number of visitors. When we are virtual, we can choose schools and teachers in smaller cities that have never received international visitors but would love to. To sum it up, when our costs go down, the client’s price goes down as well.
For the vast majority of our clients, visiting a Finnish school is a “once in a lifetime experience.” There are just not enough resources, and the newness is gone: “Perhaps next trip to Estonia.” Virtual school visits make repeating the experience so much easier. In many cases, the client returns from Finland full of enthusiasm and energy and plans to make changes in his/her school or teaching. The daily routine, however, kills the plans and the motivation eventually. With virtual school visits, it is easy to organize a series of visits, either to the same teachers and classes or different ones. Almost all our clients come to Finland because they are interested in learning something new and changing something old. However, change is a complicated process and is rarely done in one shot. Series of virtual visits can work as continuous support for the improvements an organization or individual has in mind.
Hybrid school visits.
When traveling and onsite school visits are safe, there will be again thousands of education professionals coming to Finland. Of course! Nothing can beat the unique experience with a capital E. Virtual visits, however, could make a rich addition to the visit program. As explained in previous points, virtuality has many advantages. Why not use them and make the most out of the investment! For instance, before the onsite visits, the group could first have video material or online lecture about Finnish education and culture. They could afterward observe virtually those classes they are most interested in, before the normal, generic visit. Finally, after returning to their country, the group could make follow-up online visits, talking with Finnish teachers about something they quite did not understand or about the challenges they might have now, implementing something they have seen in Finland.
I heard some years ago that in the Chinese language, threat and opportunity are the same word. A quick check with a Google translator suggested something different, but it does not really matter whether it is a fact of not; the idea behind it is a brilliant perspective on any problem. And I think it is the most important lesson we have learned from COVID-19.
Read more about VisitEDUfinn’s Virtual School Visits and Study Tours
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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