Educational technology in Finnish comprehensive schools
Finnish comprehensive schools are linked to Finnish municipalities. This introduces important dynamics when schools implement new educational technologies. Finnish municipalities are responsible for the purchase of new educational products, but also involve teachers in the decision process by inquiring about their needs and experiences as users. ViLLE is one example digital platform popular in Finnish comprehensive schools. The ViLLE case shows how crucial it is to involve teachers and students in the process of testing the tool to ensure a successful implementation of any educational technology.
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Finnish municipalities are providers of basic education
Finnish comprehensive schools have approximately 554,000 students aged 7 to 16, organised in 9 grades. The Finnish comprehensive school includes elementary school (grades 1 to 6) and upper comprehensive school (grades 7 to 9). There are approximately 2300 schools, 27,000 teachers and school heads. About 95 percent of teachers have a Master of Arts (MA) degree.
The Finnish municipalities are responsible for arranging and providing the basic education. In 2021, there are 309 municipalities in Finland. By law, municipalities are autonomous yet regulated by the regional authority that represents state regulation. Municipalities offer many of the so-called welfare state services such as free education and low-cost public healthcare, public libraries, and many more. The state funds many of the municipality key-services through the common taxation yet municipalities have their own taxation revenues as well. In 2023, all healthcare services will be placed under a new regional policy-making level thus leaving education as the primary service provided by the Finnish municipalities.
In Finland when discussing about school development, resources, funds, policies and so on, we must take a more thorough look at how municipalities work, and how public education works. Although the state funds the education and participates heavily to the development of education and the curriculum, the municipalities are autonomous in how they arrange education and with what resources (of course, following the law and ultimately the Finnish constitution e.g. basic education remains mandatory and free).
The highest decision body, the municipal councils and their representatives from different parties, decide the municipalities budget. This has direct consequences on how and with what resources schools are arranged, including educational technology and staff.
At the municipality level, depending on the size of the municipality, there usually exists an educational department or office responsible for governing education. The size of municipalities varies heavily from the Finnish capital of Helsinki (657,674 citizens, approx. 50,000 basic education students) to the small town of Luhanka (699 citizens, approx. 100 basic education students). The education departments also have personnel responsible for ICT use in education. These departments are strongly collaborating with other departments such as the IT department that runs the municipality’s IT ecosystem and infrastructure. Together, these two departments are, in many municipalities, responsible for what IT services are used in schools. They are also responsible for in-service training and piloting new practices.
Finnish municipalities offer good IT services. Nowadays one rarely has to physically go to a helpdesk or book time for a dentist or renew their library book loan. This culture of seamlessness in IT infrastructures has been ongoing since the 90’s, and it is perhaps linked to the fact that Finland is quite rural and digitalisation was seen as a solution to deliver equal access to services and to knowledge for all.
The case is similar for schools; IT services are offered to all education stakeholders. For instance, a student management system called Wilma, is both a web- and app-based software to present a simple front-end for parents to interact with the school, to gain information about students’ learning progress, and to read important daily messages. It also presents a different interface for teachers who use it to input grades, draft certificates, and input administrative data such as student absenteeism.
Since schools represent the city and the public authority, they usually cannot make purchase decisions without an open bid for vendors and suppliers. This ensures fair competition among suppliers, and that the offer meets certain criteria. The process is transparent thus avoiding risks for misuse or corruption. In most municipalities, before purchasing an educational technology, a school must first consult their educational department.
Note that many of the municipalities have their own unique processes for technology implementation that may differ from what is presented here. However, all municipalities must ensure purchases are done in accordance with the law, and that the process is fair and transparent. (i.e. education).
Earlier, municipalities purchased educational technology in a more top-down process. With the absence of the teacher’s perspective, this might have led purchases based rather on technical capabilities and omitting pedagogical aspects.
Yet it soon became evident that when teachers do not contribute to the decision of what technology to purchase, it was less likely that they will actually use those new tools. How to involve teachers and students in the decision-making, those that know best how to use technology in the classroom?
One way can be to gather data from teachers (e.g. via surveys). The school head can help with collecting this data which can then be used to make a quick thematic analysis for the education department of the municipality. The municipality can also make decisions based on data gathered from tutor teachers. In Finland, the schools have a tutor teacher in every school who is responsible for the pedagogical development of the school and is well informed about educational technologies. Of course, the education department also consults the municipality’s IT department because new software and devices must suit the municipality’s IT infrastructure.
There are many ways to involve teachers and students when making decisions about educational technology purchases. However, it would be wise to standardize this process and to get all stakeholders, teachers, students and vendors to truly participate in this process.
The city of Helsinki has introduced an interesting way that both involves teachers and students in the selection and purchase of new educational technology yet still acting in accordance with the law. Since Helsinki introduced this new process, many other large cities have also adopted a similar process. The key idea is to create a list of challenges defined by teacher panels.
For instance, some teachers in a school may report that they need a digital solution to facilitate formative assessment. These teachers would be expected to define certain criteria. For example, that the products should include an informative learning analytics back-end for the teacher, an interesting user interface, it should support any device, etc. Then the educational department drafts an official announcement or “Call for Ideas” aimed for vendors, start-ups and for more institutionalized companies to provide solutions to meet these criteria.
After the official call, vendors pitch their ideas and wireframe products and beta versions to the teacher panel. The panel then decides what vendor(s) to go for to create their product further together with schools. In this piloting phase, teachers and students can participate to varying product development cycles thus making sure whatever the vendor is designing and coding, actually meets the end-user demands – the needs of students and teachers.
In short, when vendors include end-users (e.g., teachers, students) in product development at an early stage, the products will be taken up by more teachers and students.
Research – Schools as learning organisations
Kools, et al. (2020, in English) examine the key characteristics of schools as learning organisations (SLOs). The results of a survey in Wales (UK) of 1,703 school staff found that such a school is associated with eight dimensions:
- A shared vision centered on the learning of all students
- Partners contributing to school vision
- Continuous learning opportunities
- Team learning and collaboration
- A culture of enquiry, innovation and exploration
- Systems for collecting and exchanging knowledge and learning
- Learning with and from the external environment
- Modelling learning leadership.
This survey can be used as a scale to guide the school staff, the local community, as well as the regional administration who want to identify strengths and areas of improvement for their schools, and develop any aspect, including digital assessment.
Finnish schools managed to deliver education in challenging circumstances due to COVID-19. Since municipalities had invested in digitalisation, schools had enough digital learning environments set up before COVID-19. One of these digital learning environments was ViLLE that teachers and students widely used for distance learning to provide possibilities for formative assessment with the help of this digital tool.
ViLLE is a digital learning platform used for creating adaptive learning tasks in the form of digital games and set automated feedback. The popularity of the platform took new heights during Spring 2020, when COVID-19 hit the educational sector hard, globally pushing schools to distance learning methods.
Teachers can simply start using ViLLE in the so-called sandbox mode where they can try different functions and test how the learning material in ViLLE works. After initial testing, teachers can create a virtual class, invite students to join the class and create learning tasks for the students. Teachers can also use ready-made learning material created by other ViLLE users for mathematics, programming, Finnish and English.
Trying out new software for learning may give the end-user an overview of how the environment in general works. However, introducing new educational technology and getting teachers to use it on daily basis requires a thorough training. One should also make sure that teachers feel they are involved and their questions and worries regarding the use of technology is being heard. Therefore, training is offered for teachers because not all teachers are familiar with adaptive learning environments or know how to create virtual classes or how to conduct digital formative assessment. For ViLLE, teachers are offered training by the Finnish company Eduten or by local teachers licensed to train others to use the ViLLE system.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, ViLLE has been tested extensively in Finnish comprehensive schools to provide teachers and students with the necessary distance learning materials. During the pandemic the ViLLE team also provided training through video conferencing to safely deliver teachers the necessary information.
The number of ViLLE users and tasks completed on ViLLE’s learning platform quadrupled during the pandemic in Spring 2020. During the distance learning period, some teachers used ViLLE to deliver both learning material, and to conduct formative assessment. Teachers were especially interested in receiving more accurate information about students’ learning and tailoring the level of difficulty of the given exercises in ViLLE to match the student’s skill level.
Studies showed that Finnish schools had already adopted either Microsoft Office 365 and/or Google G Suite that together with the Wilma student administration system, delivered all the necessary digital learning environments, video conferencing and digital portfolio tools. In addition, schools used ViLLE to deliver digital learning material to students, which also provided teachers with formative assessment capabilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers in Finland but also in many other European countries, have reported that they systematically had issues with conducting assessment in distance learning. In Finland, teachers sought digital educational game tools such as ViLLE to tackle this issue.
Research – Parent and teacher support for online learning during emergency remote learning
A 2020 OECD report (in English) on strengthening online learning during the COVID-19 crisis highlighted that students’ attitudes and dispositions are strongly influenced by parents’ emotional support and teacher enthusiasm, including for online learning. However, some families and teachers have struggled to provide support during the COVID-19 crisis, due to lack of time, insufficient digital skills or an absence of appropriate curricular guidelines. Emergency remote learning during the COVID crisis has thus revealed the need to target support for parents and teachers to ensure their digital skills are up to date.
In short, it is paramount that teachers and students are engaged in the introduction of educational technology in schools. This will:
- Keep the process democratic and participatory
- Ensure that whatever technology is being implemented is needed by those who use it
- Ensure that implementation is long-lasting, receives a wide audience and the product is being disseminated across the educational sector.
It can further improve uptake if the training is provided in the school where the implementation will take place, and where the teachers that need the actual training are. In addition, it is important to use schools’ own devices, the very same devices that will be used for the digital platform because this use may reveal any technical issues with the devices. Using schools’ devices may also raise the confidence of teachers in using the technology after the training thanks to the familiarity of the context.
Finally, studies have shown teachers value the training that is provided by other peer-teachers, and that is why implementation and training should involve other teachers as trainers. A popular approach is also to train 1 to 3 teachers at a school who then disseminate the use of the digital platform and can train other teachers.