International projects provide new tools to geography teaching

Experiences Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for higher education
The cooperation carried out by the University of Eastern Finland in the development of teaching has produced international pilot courses and new teaching content. It has also opened wider European prospects to teachers and students alike.
Students doing group work

“University teaching has traditionally been regrettably slow at renewing itself. We are tied to the curriculum periods and at worst, it may take up to three years before something that is topical now can really be included in the teaching,” says Minna Tanskanen, Vice Dean responsible for higher education at the University of Eastern Finland.

Teaching development projects make it possible to organise pilot courses to experiment with new types of approaches and teaching methods. This way, it is possible to integrate new content in the education as a whole.

Tanskanen, whose field is geography, already has a lot of experience in developing education in an international team. She coordinated a three-year project which was funded through Erasmus+ and brought the perspective of low-carbon society to the teaching of geography and is now involved in a new project in the field of landscape planning and land use.

Carbon neutrality in all areas of society is the European Union’s key objective in mitigating the progress of climate change. In a low-carbon society, the use of fossil fuels has been minimised and the level of greenhouse gas emissions is significantly lower than today. In future, we will increasingly need specialists who know how to diversely assess the environmental effects of different activities and their impact on climate.

When the On the Way towards a Low-carbon Society project was launched in 2015, low-carbon society was discussed only very briefly in different courses. The University did not have an integrated study module related to it.

“We created a training module consisting of three pilot courses that enabled students to learn in a problem-oriented manner the role of transport, travel and tourism, forestry and wood construction in the implementation of a low-carbon society,” Tanskanen explains.

The result is a learning platform and new working methods

The most permanent result of the project is a learning platform, which is an open website that provides basic information on low-carbon society, helps the teacher create a themed course and provides material for independent study.

Posters, videos and small reports drawn up in the pilot courses by students and teachers in Finland, Spain and Poland were compiled on the learning platform.

The project also produced new openings and ideas for teaching. Especially the Polish partner learned a lot about inquiry-based learning, student-centred approaches and collaboration between teaching and workplaces.

“With the partners, we had to discuss whether a monologue in an auditorium was the only way to teach students or whether other methods could also be allowed at universities. I realised that here in Finland, we have done well in adopting student-oriented approaches in teaching.”

International work opened new prospects to teachers and students alike. The students learned about societies in Finland, Catalonia and Poland and gained experience of teamwork in a foreign language with people who may come from very different circumstances.

Minna Tanskanen says she personally benefitted from the administrative experience that coordinating the project gave her. Soon the others at the University also realised that it was possible to get funding from international programmes and that project management is not impossible either. Since then, there have been more Erasmus+ projects.

Learning environment expands outside the campus

In the SavingScapes project currently under way, students and teachers meet different actors party to the debate on land use and landscape issues: public authorities, companies and active citizens.

“Here in Finland, land use and landscape planning are sectoral. Forestry, industry and leisure activities are all separate, and what we wanted was cooperation and a holistic point of view,” Tanskanen explains.

Our aim is to expand the learning environment. The University provides the student with a conceptual and theoretical basis, but collaborative production of knowledge and the inclusion of citizens cannot be learned at lectures.

In both projects, we have been seeking contact with the world of work and those real questions that have to be dealt with in the field of land use and landscape planning. In addition to universities, our partners have included actors involved in practical work, such as Metsähallitus from Finland and a waste management company from Poland as well as regional government and organisations. They are happy to participate as they value the opportunity to contribute to the education of new professionals. As a result, they get employees who are familiar with the topical issues and practical challenges in the sector.

“Young workers are important in implementing the change. Imagine trying to get the older men in the local government to think in a new way, one of our partners described the situation.

The projects have also served as a gateway to the world of work as some of the students from the courses have found employment in the participating organisations.

Coronavirus epidemic and inflexible administration

The projects have not been without surprises.

“In the first project, the differences between the university cultures and working methods in different countries came as a total surprise to us. There was a good atmosphere between the project partners and everyone was interested in the project. The courses were a success and the students were satisfied with them. But the administration...”

The Polish partner faced many problems regarding project management and financial administration within their university. The university did not even agree to having the receipts translated.

In the end, the Erasmus National Agency in Poland contacted the university, acted as a mediator clarifying things and we managed to solve the main problems. Minna Tanskanen also thanks the Erasmus administration in Finland for the support and advice provided during both projects.

When the other project had just started, the coronavirus epidemic spread to Europe. Universities suddenly had to change over to online teaching and the implementation of the project was delayed in the middle of everything.  The plan was to organise a Learning lab, an international intensive course, in four countries, but at least one of the courses must be implemented online. They then had the idea that in future, the course could also be made into a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that is open to everyone. 

Minna Tanskanen says that, for the project to be successful, it is important to know the partners. The departments of geography at the Universities of Girona and Eastern Finland have been organising intensive courses and student exchanges for years.

“We have a close partnership with Girona from Catalonia at the heart of our work, but you should also keep renewing your group of partners.”

A lot of time has also been used to plan the projects. Parties that were thought to be suitable for a new collaboration idea were invited to the final seminar of the first project. In addition, the persons who planned the project participated in the coaching event of the European University Foundation, which challenged them to think especially about the impact of the project proposals from different points of view and with different time spans.

“We learned that it is important to make a distinction between the results and the impact. The impact is actually not visible until after the three-year project has ended. The trainer advised us to keep looking ahead to somewhere between five and ten years from now.”  

On the Way Towards a Low-Carbon Society

  • Project type: Erasmus+ for Higher Education, Strategic Partnership
  • Coordinator: University of Eastern Finland
  • Project period: September 2015–August 2018
  • Partner countries: Poland, Finland and Spain
  • Funding: EUR 315,188

Author: Päivi Kärnä