Please tell us a little about your research background.

My research background is closely related to developing teaching practices in virtual or digital environments, by combining theoretical and practical knowledge. During my PhD (2012–2016) I developed a virtual course based on recent theories on distance education and collaborative learning among students. I examined dimensions of virtual learning through interviews with upper secondary school students. Most studies on distance education are done in higher education which is why my PhD offered new knowledge on how younger students perceive responsibility, time, freedom and collaboration in virtual learning environments. This got me invited to join a project where three rural primary schools in Finland wanted to develop distance education through teacher collaboration. I acted as a participatory action researcher that supported and documented the process of four teachers. The project received funding from the European Social Fund (2016–2017). That project led to me being invited to join a Swedish programme “Digital learning environments – equal education at a distance” where we develop and research distance education in 8 Swedish and Finnish municipalities between 2019–2021.

Where have you been recently for your research fieldwork?

Primary and adult education providers in Visby in Gotland take part in the programme Digital learning environments – equal education at a distance (Photo taken by Charlotta Hilli)

This fall (2019) I visited eight schools in different parts of Sweden; Pajala in the North, Storuman to the west, the island Gotland to the east and Torsås to the south. It paints a picture of how distance education is developed and executed across the vast area that is Sweden.

What was the purpose of this fieldwork?

I wanted to meet the teachers, school leaders, school administrators and other people involved in the programme. I conducted interviews with them and also observed teaching situations and discussed issues, challenges and possibilities with distance education in their specific local contexts. In some cases, I talked to students, but they are not part of the programme and I will not analyse their comments. Questions about the programme from the teachers and process leaders were also addressed during my visits. I usually stayed two days to have time to learn more about the schools and to have time for unofficial talks too after school hours and during breaks.

Did you have to do anything to prepare for this fieldwork? If so, what were your preparations?

Anna Åkerfeldt and I planned a semi-structured interview guide for the teachers and one for the school leaders. We also prepared an observation guide for the distance lessons. We recorded the interviews and brought with us recording equipment. We took pictures to understand the practical and social realities of the teachers.

Can you please tell us more about who is part of this research project and its fieldwork?

Around 80 teachers, school leaders and administrators from primary, secondary, adult and vocational education take part in the programme. Myself (from Åbo Akademi University) and Anna Åkerfeldt (from Stockholm University) who is also the project leader and second researcher will follow their documented processes (e.g., written reflections, meeting minutes, lesson plans, recorded lessons) and also colloquial discussions and seminars either on-site or online. Local process leaders at the schools organise the work of the teachers and also collect the data during the programme. We want to develop didactics for distance education in digital learning environments and examine the educational development on different levels; classroom, local and regional. We are inspired by Design-Based Research, as researchers we not only document and analyse, but we take part in and support their processes by identifying important matters to them and introducing relevant research, guiding them with distance education theories/models and taking part in the development of new distance education practices (so called prototypes).

Given the involvement of other researchers and actors (e.g. communities, teachers, school administrators), what do they contribute to the project’s research and potential for impact once its done?

Magnus Rönnholm at Luspengymnasium teaches physics to upper secondary school students in Tärnaby Alpina Gymnasium (Photo taken by Charlotta Hilli)

The programme works on several levels since school leaders, administrators and teachers are actively involved making it a long-term investment in the educational development of the school and part of the previous practices. You need school leaders and administrators to support and organise these kinds of processes, but teachers also need to be on board to ground them locally and collectively. Ideally, regional support will also be part of the programme to make sure there is funding and other resources like digital infrastructure available. Distance education is not easy to implement but since we work on regional and local levels according to the needs and interests of the participants there is a good chance this programme will support them long-term. The programme also makes it possible for the schools to collaborate regionally in the future.

Storuman a sunny and beautiful day in the fall of 2019 (Photo taken by Charlotta Hilli)

How do you contribute to this research project?

I choose relevant literature, introduce theories and models on distance education. I collect data and analyse it to develop prototypes for distance education practices in different contexts. Together with Anna Åkerfeldt I write empirically informed articles and reports. I listen to and talk to the process leaders and support them while they in turn support the teachers and organise the local initiatives in dialogue with school leaders. As a researcher and distance teacher myself I provide knowledge about distance education and I stay empathetic towards the needs of the schools and the knowledge the teachers have about teaching in digital learning environments. It is a flexible and practice-oriented role that requires me to establish trust and dialogues with everybody involved. I want the schools and teachers to flourish by learning from previous research. I hope we can maintain the rural communities and provide students and pupils with good education through distance education.

In what way is this research important for different people in the Arctic and the North?

Distance education can provide learning and teaching opportunities in rural locations. Ideally, distance education offers flexible solutions that are sensitive to local contexts. For example, having teachers that can teach in the mother tongue of children from minorities is important for the diverse Arctic cultures. People can live, learn and work anywhere they want to and remain a part of and keep contributing to their local communities.

What has your fieldwork experience taught you about doing research in the North?

The local context is really important to understand. Every child and student that does not receive an education is a tragedy for the student, for the family and for the rural community. Qualified teachers can be difficult to find in remote areas, but distance teachers can fill that gap by collaborating with local schools and teachers. Pupils and students can get more classmates and good learning experiences through distance classes. Distance education can offer students of all ages the opportunity to study in their home region which makes them more likely to remain and work there too. Adult students rarely have the time or means to live far from their families. Distance education can make it possible for adult students to study from home or part-time while they work, in that sense it can be a sustainable solution that provides them with new knowledge and continuous learning opportunities.

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