Preparing for multiple scenarios in challenge-based online teaching

Experiences and thoughts on adaptability and online learning from Aalto University’s staff who manage challenge-based learning programs.
A male student sits in a red armchair and gazes into the distance with a Mac laptop on his lap

Universities face a new operating environment when the COVID-19 pandemic sends students home around the world. Online learning has become the main mode of studying in a quick instant during this spring. Student mobility has been hit with a setback and it will take time until students will be able to travel normally. Teaching faculty around the world are working hard to rapidly transfer existing courses into an online format and working with new ideas to develop online learning. New opportunities arise to reach wider audiences of students both locally and internationally.

We discussed with Petra Fagerlund, Laura Kitinoja and Silva Saulio their approaches to making quick changes in teaching environments and working with company partners in challenge-based online courses. Petra Fagerlund is the Program Manager for the multidisciplinary minor program Information Technology Program (ITP) at the School of Business. Laura Kitinoja is the Program Manager for the global short-term mobility course Digital Business Master Class. Silva Saulio is the Program Coordinator for the Aalto Thesis program, which brings together students from all schools of Aalto University working together on their Masters’ theses.

Petra, you are managing a minor program with 90 students working with company partners during the summer. It is still unsure what the mode of teaching will be during the summer semester, how are you preparing for different teaching scenarios?

These are interesting and exceptional times we are currently living. As a considerably new Program Manager at Aalto University, I am undoubtedly jumping right into the deep end of the pool and similarly facing unexpected challenges like we all do. However, I strongly think my freshness could turn into a blessing if ITP, Aalto University’s summer minor program, will be moved online. The program has been running for 25 years and never before has there been a need for online teaching due to the strong challenge-based nature of the program. If ITP goes online, this change would inevitably be almost like a full make-over on what comes to teaching methods and organizing the program.

We are prepared to be very flexible and agile with new kinds of teaching arrangements with the students and the lecturers. I think that exceptional circumstances require exceptional arrangements and flexibility from all stakeholders (e.g. students, lecturers, business partners). The current situation has decreased people’s sense of safety but with good communication, the feeling of safety can be restored. This hopefully decreases the resistance to change and allows us to quickly adapt to new ways of providing high-value-adding teaching.

The selection of the right tools is crucial for running a successful online program. With colleagues, we have had substantial discussions about suitable online tools and platforms which will build an essential part of the whole program. The tools and platforms must serve ITP’s particular purposes with challenge-based learning and also smooth business project teamwork between the students, coordinators and business partners. Other essential questions in terms of program management need to be taken into account, e.g. questions regarding student engagement, international lecturers, different time-zones, business project facilitation, provision of special design tools, team building, and delivering the well-known ITP spirit.

I am currently studying how to facilitate change and also how to facilitate online. I already have some experience from online facilitation as I have previously coached clients online. In addition to books and courses, learning from others who already have some experience from similar changes, is an excellent and considerably easy way to build a better understanding of what can be done and how. Thus, I have listened to my colleagues’ and our lecturers’ experiences with online teaching. Benchmarking plays a vital role here too when trying to figure out the best ways to create a cohesive online learning experience: learn how others have made it and apply the best and most suitable practices. Despite being relatively new to ITP, I could also find fresh ways to turn a well-functioning on-site program into a smooth online set. I am ready to accept the challenge!

Laura, you have experienced quickly changing situations with running the Digital Business Master Class spring cohort in the midst of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you share reflections of your experience in making agile changes in teaching environments?

The Digital Business Master Class is an intensive course, with a two-week contact teaching period of daily lectures and project work. We have a strong focus on international participants from Aalto University’s partner schools. This spring, over 80% of our students were short-term exchange students visiting Finland for only two weeks. Unfortunately, the significant global COVID-19 outbreak happened during the first intensive week of our course. The quickly changed situation meant that the majority of the students had to return home in the middle of the program, and we had to find a way to move teaching online as quickly and efficiently as possible to give the students a way to finish the course.

I had discussed different online teaching methods and environments with two of our visiting lecturers earlier that week. They both shared good experiences of using Zoom for online lectures, so I decided we would try it for the Master Class as well. The transition to online lectures was surprisingly smooth, although there were a few technical difficulties. The situation was new and unexpected to everyone, so luckily, both the students and lecturers were understanding and willing to try out a new way of teaching and learning. Something I found useful was having a quick test call with visiting lecturers the day before their class to make sure everything worked well and to get them familiarised with the features of the software.

Another critical aspect for the Digital Business Master Class was company projects that were also moved online. Students typically already use online collaboration tools in team projects, so what caused more difficulties were travelling and different time zones. We asked the student teams to record their final project presentations instead of giving synchronous presentations to the class and partner company representatives. I provided clear instructions for this, with a few tips for recording presentations. Each team chose the method that suited them best, and we saw recorded Zoom calls and narrated PowerPoint presentations. The students shared the presentations with the whole class through Microsoft Teams. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of comments and questions that students shared in the online learning environment! The interaction was surprisingly more vibrant than in many classroom presentations I have seen. 

Overall, I would say that the critical factors in making the agile changes to online teaching was having a flexible can-do attitude, understanding the situation from a student perspective, and mutual respect with the company partners. In a global pandemic situation like this, there is no option but to be agile and make changes to adapt to the new teaching environment. Since company partnerships are such a valuable part of challenge-based learning, it is essential to make sure that projects get completed, even if it requires a bit of flexibility from all parties. Finally, you need to remember that students also need some time to adapt, which can be accommodated, for example, by postponing deadlines.

Silva, how are you supporting students working with their Masters’ theses in remote project teams? What are the biggest challenges students are facing while studying from homes?

During the Aalto Thesis program, student teams are working on a joint project and their individual Master’s theses for 6 months. We have several ongoing projects, which had to jump into the remote mode in the middle of the project. One new project has just kick-started entirely online, so let’s hope they are able to have a face-to-face encounter before the project ends!

The change to a new way of working has affected all of our student teams in different ways. Working in laboratory conditions or planning to organise a big workshop for data gathering has required rapid re-adjustments and adaptability. Students are used to studying at the campus or libraries, so the shift to home context has not been easy. It is harder to divide the working hours from free-time at home, especially as a student. Remote work requires even more self-management. Keeping the motivation up while working on a demanding project requires a lot during uncertain times. One of the hardest parts is simply not knowing when the situation changes. These feelings are surely quite universally shared.

I have been communicating more with the teams, and we have had additional Zoom meetings. In these meetings, we have gone through possible challenges, and we have created solutions together to overcome the obstacles. Showing that we as Aalto staff are available and here to help is extremely important. However, sticking to deadlines, setting up clear objectives, and having concrete next steps have proven to help proceed with the project. Low threshold check-ups with open communication enable the best outcome despite the unfortunate situation. 

Generally, our students have shown incredible flexibility, even when working from different time zones. I pay special attention to thanking the students for their excellent work and to giving positive feedback. Also, our Aalto Thesis partners have been very understanding and supportive, which means a lot to the teams. In May, we have our very first online final presentation coming up, which is very exciting!

Adaptability in a constantly changing learning environment

The global COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that the future might require a lot more adaptability and acceptance of quick changes. Working and studying from home for shorter or longer time periods might have become the new norm. Universities need to find adaptable approaches to designing programs and courses. It might be necessary also in the future to build multiple scenarios for execution and prepare to make quick changes on-the-go.

Although many students are inherently tech-savvy, studying in a fully online environment might come as a shock. Learning online and remotely from other students calls for additional skills that students might need to acquire on their own - especially self-management when there is not a team member or teacher physically there to motivate you forward. These are exactly the same challenges many people in work-life struggle with, when suddenly all work is done remotely and from your own home.

Designing challenge-based learning courses with multiple company partners requires a lot of effort in regular times and extra effort is required in preparing for multiple scenarios in exceptional times. Certain elements need to be considered in much detail in the planning phase of a course when students interact with company partners and work on real-life projects during the course. Bringing an on-campus course to life in an online setting is a new challenge for many teachers, but as we can see from the answers above, it can also be an exhilarating challenge. In uncertain times we need to remember to communicate clearly to all stakeholders, even though we might not yet know which teaching scenario is most likely.


Laura Sivula is the Head of Summer School at Aalto University and she believes that work-life relevant education is a must-have for any higher education institution. She is an active lecturer and works with companies and partners to build competence in agility and self-management.

Petra Fagerlund is the Program Manager for the Information Technology Program (ITP) at Aalto University School of Business. She is a certified life coach and has previous program management experience with digitalisation themes from Aalto EE and Aalto PRO.

Laura Kitinoja is the Program Manager for the Digital Business Master Class at Aalto University School of Business. She is specialised in facilitating teamwork in online learning environments and building unforgettable academic experiences for international students.

Silva Saulio is the Program Coordinator for Aalto Thesis at Aalto University. She works with companies and partners with co-learning initiatives and manages multidisciplinary Master’s theses projects.

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