Helsinki: the whole city as a learning environment

Tommi Tiittala, pedagogical expert of learning environments, talks about the innovative programme that’s transforming education in Helsinki

The city of Helsinki’s Phenomenon-based learning approach has turned the entire city into an interactive learning environment. 

The city recognises that learning is becoming less time- and place-based as advanced digital tools enable new, broader ways of engaging with learning. They have taken full advantage of this, working closely with educators to co-create Phenomenon-based learning, a 21st-century approach that turns everything into a learning opportunity, integrating the entire city and technology into part of the learning process.

A revolutionary shift for education

While traditional classroom learning continues, teachers also utilise the surrounding world and available technology to engage students with real-world phenomena to encourage deeper learning. In this approach, a phenomenon is an observable event, and Phenomenon-based learning is a way of using overlapping methods and perspectives to understand that observable event. That observable phenomenon will be something that interests the students – environmental challenges, for example, or transport solutions. This represents a transformative shift away from teacher-centred pedagogy towards more student-centred methods. 

Learners of all ages use personalised digital portfolios to set goals and monitor their own achievements. This transparency makes the learning process more visible to the learner, the teacher and to parents.  Portfolio tools make it easy to get important feedback from both your teacher and your peers as you go along. This only works smoothly if there is a well-functioning infrastructure with state-of-the-art hardware, software, networks and platforms available for students and teachers to access.

Perks of a Phenomenon-based learning environment

Every teacher in Helsinki receives their own laptop. Every upper comprehensive school student is given a laptop to use as their own. These are all kept up to date and maintained by the city and equipped with all the software, applications and security software required. At the lower comprehensive school, there are 75 computers for every 100 students aged nine to 12 and 50 computers for every 100 students aged seven to eight years old. 

While laptops for the younger learners are kept during out-of-school hours, any tasks that require the use of a computer can be done during school hours, at breaks or at designated times after school, so no parent has to buy a computer for their child to complete their school assignments. Learners in early childhood and childcare prefer tablets. 

The number of laptops and tablets is growing all the time, with approximately 10,000 tablets and 12,000 laptops currently in circulation as part of the programme.

These tools, of course, require excellent access to WiFi and top-notch cybersecurity. There is increasing attention being paid to network performance and security in these schools. There are also plenty of wireless networks and hotspots available to support this kind of studying across the city. 

To succeed in a project like this, you also need user-friendly platforms to work on. Finnish teachers have autonomy to choose the suitable tools for their teaching. Currently, Helsinki offers two commercial platforms  – Google and Microsoft – free of charge to all teachers and learners. The city’s Education Division experts are in the process of developing new evaluation support tools for integration into these platforms. Additionally, a recently completed tendering process will soon provide all students and teachers in Helsinki with a new learning management system. This system is currently undergoing a testing process to fine-tune it in order to meet the versatile needs of our pedagogues and learners. 

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