At the beginning of the year we started hearing news on a new virus. When the news became more frequent, and it became clear that the virus is something spreading throughout the world, and will affect us, as well. At Satakunta University of Applied Sciences (SAMK), we still had Japanese students for our annual Winter School at the end of February. After they left, we should have received a group of students from France for a one-week intensive project. But then it was decision time: The university would not to take any foreign guests due to the spreading virus.
Mid March, SAMK, along with other higher education institutions in Finland, closed the doors to campuses, and moved all teaching and other services online. We followed the recommendations of the Finnish Government and cancelled all face-to-face classes. Instructions were clear: keep on teaching and doing everything you are supposed to, at the time you are scheduled to.Just do it online.
As online teaching is used quite much in higher education in Finland, it made the transition easier. We, at SAMK are using our own online conference system, called HILL, but other tools are used and needed, as well. Especially during the first few weeks the systems were overloaded. When we were supposed to teach a class, suddenly we could not enter or were thrown out from the platform. We got used to trying different systems, and mostly managed in the end. The problems have been solved, and it has been quite a smooth process after the hiccups in the beginning.
At SAMK we are lucky in the sense that we have quite a few programmes that are conducted mainly as distance learning. In Rauma, where I work, we have a master’s and a bachelor’s programme in business, two engineering programmes and also a master’s programme in maritime management online. Thus, most of the faculty is used to using online tools and having online classes. Of course, for students in those programmes, it has been business as usual.
For the students who were used to having contact classes on campus, this was a big change. There were some challenges with getting online, making the sound work and so on. But on top of that it proved to be a positive change, as some generally quiet students became more active and contributed more than face-to-face. Besides, students started coming in early, and asking them about this, they answered that they were bored and missed being in class.
One of the saddest things is that all exchanges are now cancelled. Our students are not allowed to go on exchange, nor are we taking any exchange students in the autumn. This is the decision of many HEIs in Finland, and it is the recommendation of Arene, the Rectors’ Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences. Even if it is an understandable decision, it still is a big loss for the students, as exchange is an adventure they have been looking for. The disappointment is understandable. Hopefully, in spring 2021 exchanges are possible again.
Entrance exams will be and have been conducted online or have been postponed to June. HEIs have had their own ways dealing with them, and exams have been administered in many different ways from online tests to camera interviews. On top of this, at SAMK in a couple of programmes we have the applicants take an online course. The ones reaching the best grades are selected, and the credits are counted towards their degree. Even the ones who are not selected, but complete the course, get a certificate showing that they have gained five ECTS at SAMK.
A further complication might be that international students who have been selected to study for a degree in Finland, might not be able to arrive in September because of travel restrictions or delayed visa processes. Many HEIs, SAMK included, are now prepared to offer the first semester classes online, as well. Thus, all the new students can get started with their studies, as planned.
The instructions for staff and students now are that teaching will be online until the end of semester. This is not a problem as most classes finished by mid May, and summer semester is online anyway. The staff is allowed to go to campus, but the recommendation still is that we should mainly work online to the end of July. So, we continue working from home in our tracksuits with a couple of steps to commute.
The student unions of all universities of applied sciences have carried out a survey among students to find out how they have felt about distance studies during the covid-19 spring. More than 70% of the students responded that the transition was generally smooth, but approximately half of them claimed that the quality in teaching has decreased, at least with some faculty members. On the other hand, half of the students confessed that their own motivation dropped when studying at a distance.
Another nationwide survey was carried out among staff to see how we have coped with this situation, and how the employer has managed to take care of our wellbeing and safety. The survey only closed a couple of days ago, so we will have to wait for the results. It will be interesting to learn how different people have experienced social distancing. We are Finns and generally need our me-time, maybe this has been a welcome change.
When writing this, the corona-virus restrictions are gradually being lifted, and we all are curious about what the new normal will be. My bet is that education will be more online, and, thus, it will provide us more opportunities to work together internationally.