During the Spring 2020 semester all teachers around the world were faced with similar challenges as schools were closed and students sent home. As spring is usually a very busy time in our vocational school workshops in Tartu, Estonia this meant a lot of adjustment. In situations like these some things that had been practiced on the sidelines have proven useful. For example the several Erasmus+ projects that school has undertaken in the past years for blended and digital learning development. We feel as if now we were put to the test – is it really worth while doing all these projects?
Piloting Digital Distance Learning in CORE
In the Cooking for the Future – CORE project we had tried some digital distance learning with the students in fall 2019. As the project had now funding for student mobilities project partner had to improvise how to achieve the outcomes. Our brave Finnish lead partners came with the idea to organise learning for all our students together online. The first sessions were organised and then we had to regroup and rethink – the digital classroom is not the same and cannot be used with same methods as the regular classroom. We were facing challenges after only a few elective subject lessons. It proved harder to get across to students and hold their attention. Also group work assignments did not work the same they do when people are in physical contact.
We believe this experiment made us feel a little bit what was to come in March 2020 when all the teaching and learning had to go online literally overnight.
In Tartu we feel that the students adapted better to digital distance learning when the tasks were very clearly described and goals set for them. As in vocational school not all our are students are strong in literacy skills sometimes it helps when the tutorial is given by video. As did our confectionary and bakery teacher Lilija Suburg. Actually we believe the school should encourage more teacher to become Youtubers to reach out to young learners. Some teachers gave the written task and then asked the students to report back by sending them a video and photos as did our hospitality teachers when they asked students to film the breakfast service they did at home. Of course keeping in contact using GoogleMeet has also been important for students and teachers as this way they could also ask questions and give feedback. Such creative tasks of course demanded a lot of preparation from teachers, but helped keep the students engaged. When setting the tasks for the students the teachers had to always keep in mind the different home circumstances and what would be available to the students in a home kitchen environment. The tasks could not therefore include all the ingredients or making use of the technology we have at the school study kitchens.
Figure 1. First year hospitality student Milana Reemets is making pancakes for breakfast service in quarantine conditions.
In Estonia we were in a different situation from many European countries.- our students could still do work based learning. Surprisingly quite many cooking and catering students could still remain in their enterprises and finish their practical training period. For hospitality students this was different and teachers again had to be creative in trying to think of simulations that could done in home environment. The school also prolonged all active WBL contracts to be effective until the end of the academic year on August 31st. The management again emphasised to teacher that in all learning to pay close attention to the student achieving the learning outcomes and not so much on the exact hours spent on a given task.
Of course this has been not a learning experience only to our students but also for our teachers. Having to adjust so fast has definitely not been easy which makes us even more proud of the work the colleagues have done.
DDL - Digital Distance Learning is the way forward
Although the period of quarantine measures and having to close school workshops has been challenging we believe Digital Distance Learning is here to stay. Tartu VEC has already planned 2 weeks of DDL into the academic calendar for next year. This does not mean we are looking forward to the pandemic wave, but rather the belief that this form of learning is suitable for our students and teachers. Hopefully we will be able to resume also regular classroom work in the autumn, small groups are doing practical training already after May 18th. Digital and Distance should be a part of the learning process, but not replace it entirely. One thing we learned is that having a strong group that already has met each other in person and built bonds as students fare better in the distance learning. Hopefully we as teachers are also better prepared to carry out our tasks in the CORE project and DDL planned for next academic year there thanks to the experiences gathered this spring.
Sigrid Ester Tani Tartu VEC