Maire Syrjäkari has promoted pedagogical expertise since the early days of Aalto
Maire Syrjäkari, D.Ed., has served as an expert on university pedagogics and as the head of the Learning Services team tasked with supporting the school's teachers and programme directors since 2010. Her duties have included designing and implementing teaching-related training for academic personnel at Aalto, participating in the assessment of teaching and supporting the development of courses and programmes.
How has teaching developed during the Aalto era?
I have worked as a pedagogical expert at Aalto for a little over 10 years now. I can see that teaching has become much more valued over these years. A key factor here is the development and implementation of the tenure track career system at Aalto. It has introduced teaching assessments as an important element of career advancement for professors and other teaching personnel and as a part of a pedagogical expert's duties.
Over the years, pedagogical training has established itself at Aalto University, with growing numbers of teachers participating in training courses. These courses attract over 300 participants annually and, for example, many tenure track professors in the School of Engineering complete the 25-credit module in their first years.
Feedback shows that participants consider pedagogical training to support the development of their teaching profiles and teaching development in general. They discover new teaching practices to help involve students more and to increase interactivity. Pedagogical courses also provide a venue for teachers to build their networks within Aalto, and a day spent on pedagogical training forms a 'pocket of time' dedicated to the development of teaching together with peers.
I cannot say exactly how teaching itself has developed, but based on discussions with teachers, pedagogical exercises and feedback, I think the culture of learning has shifted toward placing learning and the student at the centre of teaching.
Can the development of teaching be seen in student feedback?
I may be the wrong person to answer this, as the open-ended parts of student feedback are key and only available to the teacher. A few times, however, we've been asked to help teachers with challenges related to bottleneck courses. Student feedback is important for teachers and in these cases we, together with the teachers, have used it along with teachers' own reflections to improve the course. We have often seen student feedback from such tough courses improve afterwards, with students' comments showing that the course had become more supportive of their learning.
At the School of Engineering, we compile all the course feedback gathered during an academic year into a single document, sorted by programme, teaching period and course. We include only the most important indicators, such as student workload. It is important for us to not get stuck at the course level and instead study the matter on the teaching period level. We may find that a student attended only high-workload courses during the period, resulting in a heavy total workload. We go over these feedback sets together with the programme's director and planning officer, with a study psychologist included in the group to present the findings from the student well-being survey AllWell? We can thus combine two streams of feedback and better help the director develop their programme.
Taking part in teaching development alongside experts from a variety of disciplines has been a privilege.
What issues are most challenging for teachers?
The level of challenge varies, depending on a teachers' experience and the group they're teaching. The heterogeneity of backgrounds within a group of students has an impact, especially in master's-level teaching. In addition, some teachers feel that students are not committed enough to their studies and spend too little time on studying, possibly due to having a job at the same time. Other teachers find interactivity to be a challenge – they have trouble getting students to speak out and to ask questions during a lecture. While this issue can also be seen in contact teaching in courses with large attendances, it has become especially evident in remote teaching.
How have these challenges been tackled and what solutions have been developed?
In pedagogic training, teachers discuss the challenges and problems of teaching, but also share their own successes and best practices. In other words, peer support is very important to teachers as a tool for finding new ways of taking on challenging issues.
There are various teaching methods and tools to help increase interaction, such as breakout rooms in Zoom for group work or using the chat function for questions and comments during a remote lecture. Both contact and remote teaching can also make use of e.g. Presemo and gather quick feedback while the course is in progress. At Aalto, teachers can rely on experts in matters related to both pedagogics and teaching technology.
What has been most memorable during your career at Aalto?
I've had many memorable moments. My whole career at Aalto has been a great vantage point for watching the growth and development of the university, from the first year to a ten-year-old university working on a single campus.
I will also remember the experience of co-teaching I've had working with other pedagogical experts. There's an empowered feeling after every day of training and after each course. The courses have been attended by top experts of various fields from all around the world. Multicultural and multidisciplinary groups like these result in amazing conversations on topics like learning culture and the roles of teacher and student. I have learned a lot from them.
I have also been lucky to become the pedagogical expert of the School of Engineering. As Esa Saarinen has said in a lecture: we are each other's environment. The environment and the positive and open atmosphere in our school enable and support the communal development of teaching.
Taking part in teaching development alongside experts from a variety of disciplines has been a privilege. The development of teaching feels important and motivating, something that keeps me fired up day in, day out. Teaching development is also a shared matter. We don't keep things from others, as best practices are shared right away. This has also been the operating principle of our national network of teachers and teaching developers.
What does remote teaching require of the teacher and the student?
The absolute number one requirement is for the teacher to be present. It also requires the teacher to be prepared and to have a plan B, even a plan C, just in case. In my opinion, a teacher can show their own interest in a theme or subject and use it to motivate students, even in remote teaching. One does not have to be an expert in remote teaching tools, either: a teacher can be open about their skill level to students and ask them to learn together.
In my doctoral dissertation 'Opettaja ohjaajana verkossa – tuutoreiden kokemuksia verkko-ohjaamisesta Akateemiset opiskelutaidot -verkkokurssilla' (2007) (Teacher as online instructor – tutors' experiences instructing an online course on learning skills) I studied how a teacher's duties and role change as they begin to use learning technology in their teaching. The course in question was based on online learning alone. One of my key findings was the importance of a peer group for teachers.
Co-teaching has lately been brought up in Aalto University in several ways. The teachers I interviewed for my dissertation saw co-teaching as important and felt like community and working as a network supported the development of each teacher's competence. Collaboration between several actors opens the door to the classroom and encourages teachers to work together to develop the content, implementation and assessment of teaching as well as everyone's teaching in general.
The student must also be present, active, and committed to their studies. The teacher's task is to design a kind of streamlined teaching that motivates students.
How has Aalto fared with regard to remote teaching?
Aalto had to move to remote teaching and instruction in spring 2020 in quite a hurry, much like other universities and schools. The teachers of those spring courses were truly tested, for which they are owed a huge debt of gratitude. Many of our Aalto teachers are very adept when it comes to remote teaching tools and methods, and there's a decent amount of support available for everyone. Remote teaching and learning are lonely pursuits, and maybe as a result of this COVID-19 ordeal we can all appreciate contact teaching and learning more than before.
The members of my team in the School of Engineering Learning Services have also smoothly and flexibly adopted tools like Teams for student guidance. Teams has also proved to be a nice platform for holding meetings and morning coffee sessions.
What do you think could be the teaching tools of the future?
What an interesting question – there are many different visions of this, I'm sure. I believe we have learned much during this exceptional period of remote teaching and that there will be no return to the way things were before. We have discovered tools and practices that can even make some tasks or matters easier to handle remotely than face to face. One professor mentioned that while students rarely visited their office on campus, their meeting hours became noticeably busier after the move to remote teaching.
I also believe that hybrid teaching will continue, with only the most crucial subjects taught through contact teaching and the rest handled through remote teaching and independent study. Flexibility and not being tethered to a physical location are also important principles.
However, both teachers and students miss and require contact teaching and instruction as well as opportunities to speak face to face in person. This is important for all of us and has become highly valued in this time of remote teaching. Community supports the well-being of teachers and students alike!
In closing, a few words from Jani Romanoff, professor of marine technology. Jani is one of the many professors to have participated in training organised by Maire.
'My own pedagogical studies began in 2008 with Aalto's O3 course. My personal learning goal for that five-credit course was to discover the optimal way to teach. The first lecture made it clear that I was headed back to school, so to speak. Many things have changed since then in professors' teaching and supervisory duties as well as in the management of larger ensembles. Having pedagogical training that supports problem-based learning and hands-on work is absolutely a strength. It helps us ensure that any changes we might make are on solid footing with regard to both content and pedagogics. For this, we must thank Maire and the team she has led.'