A hella good higher education pedagogy

Charlotta HilliIn the project Higher Education Learning Lab (HELLA), five higher education organisations join forces to develop a 60 ECTS programme in higher education pedagogy; personnel at VAMK, Novia, Arcada, University of Vaasa and Åbo Akademi University teach and administer around 22 000 students each year. It should be obvious that pedagogy unites us; administrators and teachers alike meet and teach students, sometimes they are looking for advice on their study plans, sometimes they are struggling to find time or energy for studying, sometimes they need feedback on texts. We are all responsible for them, and we have high expectations for them, together with the students we are the university, we make it work every day. Pedagogy means understanding the importance of relationships between teachers and students for teaching and learning.

The first courses in the programme, Introduction to teaching in higher education and Didactical design of courses in higher education are piloted this year. Other courses in the programme include mentoring, educational leadership and teaching and learning with digital technology. In this post, I will explain the reasoning behind the programme against the backdrop of the history of the university. As we have many international participants I decided to write the post in English this time.

Understanding the organisations we work in is part of the courses as is basic theoretical and practical knowledge in teaching. Pedagogy is never neutral or decontextualized. Schooling has always had political implications. Universities have provided education for eager students since around the year 800. Fatima Muhammad al-Fihri Al-Qurayash founded the first university that is still educating and teaching students in University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fés, Marocco. al-Fihri also established a mosque next to the school for religious and political discussions. In Europe, churches educated pupils to instill christian values and accepted knowledge. At Kungliga Akademien in Turku founded 1640, everyone started out at the faculty of philosophy and then moved on to specialize in either theology, law or medicine. Ideas of humanism and protestantism heavily influenced the teaching and research done at the time. Today many higher education organisations struggle with the logic of effectivity and productivity in line with ideas of New Public Management maintained by the Finnish government.

Bengt Kristensson Uggla among others claim we are living in a knowledge society and every organisation needs teachers to stay relevant in a society that values knowledge above else. It implies we will all be learning, all the time, everywhere, at work, at home. Leading the work of any organisation means being a teacher to employees and making learning possible for groups of people, it might entail offering systems that support the practical needs of the workforce, or, enhancing creative dialogues that develop what needs to be developed. If employees are overworked, underpaid and lack relevant knowledge the whole organisation will suffer. Educational leaders need to reflect pedagogically on everyday actions, on aims of the organisation, on how to include different perspectives when making decisions to make the organisation relevant for all who work and study there. 

Generally, an unpredictable future is related to the discourses on a knowledge society, often digitization is considered a main driving force. No doubt digital technology plays a part as it forces citizens, teachers, and students to adapt to digital solutions, sometimes they make life easier, sometimes not so much. Teaching with digital technology requires pedagogical and didactical reflections on digital tools chosen, but it also means reflecting on user integrity, data protection, copyright issues and so on. Digital technology is not only a tool, it is also a system of information and a process to handle things. We need teachers that can make informed decisions when it is relevant in the teaching practice and when it isn’t. And, we have a responsibility to teach our students this kind of digital competence, too.

In the European Medieval universities students faced long days, from early morning to late night. It was not cheap to study and the method of choice was lecture. We include study circle or collaborative work, action learning and research, flipped learning and seminars. A good and reflective lecture goes a long way to support students, but you cannot lecture for 135 hours, other activities need to be part of a course. In short, teaching in higher education today means a different setting altogether and knowledge of aims and learning goals, methods, media and assessment to make studies manageable for students. We have developed hybrid learning environments to make participation possible at a distance, offering flexible solutions for personnel to read material, collaborate and share reflections online.

Back in 1640 all lectures were in Latin, our courses are offered in three languages; Finnish, Swedish and English. We respect the language preferences of our participants, but we also encourage learning more languages, as more is always more when knowledge is concerned. In a multicultural society, knowing different languages and understanding cultural similarities and differences is important for teaching and learning in any context.

The number of students has grown steadily since 1640 when around 250 students were enrolled at Kungliga Akademien, today 6000 students are enrolled at Åbo Akademi University. Thus, the background of students in higher education vary, some feel at home from day one eagerly taking part in activities. Others are struggling or describe impostor syndrome because of their socioeconomic or cultural background, or because of their gender, or because they belong to ethnic, religious, sexual minorities. Some choose to drop out for different reasons.

In higher education pedagogy, we address different topics related to teaching and learning in higher education to make our site of education a good place to learn, somewhere personnel and students can grow as human beings and take part in and analyse local and global societies.

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