Distance Makes a Heart Grow Fonder

by Kimmo Kuortti
Senior Lecturer, Head of Global Education Export
School of Professional Teacher Education

Over three months ago I shared an article in LinkedIn and I wrote:

 “How much do we care for our students? Irrespective of the political system, of the financial system feeding our educational institutions, we as educators have a duty to ensure that the institutions and the societies, we work in facilitate learning through all means possible. Learning is not only about exams and lecture halls and the latest lab tech.”

 The article I shared was from The Chronicle of Higher Education and it was titled “Hungry to Learn”. It was about the essential services and support which students need when they are studying.
I revisited this subject on Good Friday last month in a virtual conference “Embracing the Chaos” organised by the King’s College of Nepal. In two months, the world had changed dramatically and the message of the article I shared had become an even more obvious part of the reality at all school levels everywhere in the world.
 It is a fact that the Corona virus pandemic hits hardest the poorest and the neediest. This happens in all societies, in all countries. The effects of the pandemic are thus extremely asymmetric and at the same time require every individual to take responsibility, because in this situation what you do does not affect just yourself but very concretely affects others too: If you get sick, you need to protect others from getting sick. You do not necessarily even know that you are sick and still you need to protect others.
 We cannot all work from home. Many of us academics are among the fortunate ones who can. Because we are privileged, we have a special obligation. Many institutions are pooling their resources to help schools to make online teaching and learning pedagogically meaningful and to support learners to cope with the emotionally and cognitively difficult situation. The virtual conference by King’s College was a true tour de force of sharing is caring. The speakers offered not only brilliant and concrete class-room related ideas for making online learning meaningful and pedagogically sensible but also thoughts on the wider context of online learning and how the crisis in which we now live can change the way we plan and execute the facilitation of learning in the future. 
 In Finland we are into the eight week of the emergency legislation and we isolated the Southern part of the country for two weeks to control the spread of the corona virus. In my institution, the School of Professional Teacher Education we are teaching online – the usual mode for us anyway – but for many of our students their spring teaching practice changed dramatically. Both they and I have learned a lot. This learning is in a profound way about pedagogy, about the shape, the characteristics and functioning of our mental and social space.
 I would lie, if I said this is business as usual. Our student teachers have benefited of the roughly 50 hours of the online teaching they did last autumn and it has been especially rewarding to see them punch way above their class (sic) in responsibility, ability and performance. Yes, practice does make perfect – or at least it helps. One of our student teachers said something fundamental at the feedback after one of her online sessions having taught a group of 30. “Now I really know why I wanted to be a teacher.” What is the essence of a vocation, a profession, a job? How resilient is our vocation? Still, let’s hope we can restore at least the humanly most important parts of what we call “normality”.
 There are three lessons which I have thought about in the past weeks and which were also dealt with at the virtual conference “Embracing the Chaos”. The first one is the difference between “emergency measures” and “the security of pedagogical supply”. There was a great summary key note in the conference given by Dr. Shyam Sharma from SUNY Stony Brook which touched up on this theme. Dr Sharma referred to a blog post by the title “Please Do a Bad Job Putting Your Courses Online”. One of the messages was that at the moment we should not be losing too much time trying to be perfect online pedagogy wizards since the situation is exceptional and our students are faced with many other problems than the pedagogical quality of our courses. This relates directly also to the LinkedIn article mentioned above. However, at the same time there is great potential here now that so many of us are teaching online. I will return to this theme in my lesson number three below.
 The second lesson is the importance of schools and teachers as a societal actors and schools as an institution. The Covid-19 has made it very clear that teachers are among the front-line fighters of the societies. Their work is instrumental in maintaining societies as we know them today. Schools equalise social differences, enable parents to have day jobs and offer a safe place for learning. If someone has doubted that before they certainly are not in doubt any more. The huge challenge related to this is how to keep up the different forms of support which are traditionally based on physical proximity. How to support the special needs learners? How to maintain a good line of communication with the parents? How to support students who have lost their part time jobs with which they finance their studies? How to relieve the stress at homes?
The third lesson is for the future and ties together the two mentioned above. We are now in a situation where practically all teachers in countries where the infrastructure for online teaching exists have had to learn the basics of online teaching whether they wanted or not. The vast majority of us have noticed that technically the apps and the platforms are not that difficult – actually online teaching is a piece of cake from the technology point of view! This offers a great potential, since now we can start thinking about how to add this component to our own teaching having jumped the first hurdle. The win is double: more meaningful online learning and more resilience in view of potential future crisis. The security of our pedagogical supply can be strengthened remarkably if we keep our online teaching skills up to date and integrate it into our offering in a meaningful way.
I gave my presentation in the virtual conference “Embracing the Chaos” from a snow-embraced cottage by the lake where my childhood home is, a village of about 20 people in Finnish Lapland. With such a background, quarantine or self-isolation must be so much easier for me! It’s not, because “the social” is not only what or who is actually and physically available. It is also the options you have or can imagine to have without much effort. Because of the Covid-19, now those options are fewer. I feel lucky to live in one of the least populated areas of Europe, a smallish city in Northern Finland. Not because it has made me more accustomed to “fewer options” (Inside Finland we might compare how life is in the more densely populated southern Finland and the less populated north and east, but looking at it from a global perspective there is no difference. ), but because the virus spreads slower and there are many things you can do outdoors without restrictions. Luck is a curious thing and it is also brutally relative. Because of this I feel even more compelled to share from my luck as academic and a Finn and I am very thankful to King’s College and the Empowerment Academy for the opportunity to learn to share. Let’s keep on doing the good!
Kimmo Kuortti
Senior Lecturer, Head of Global Education Export
School of Professional Teacher Education



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