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How to Get Students Engaged In Online Learning: Lessons from Finland

Kyla Ball

Some university courses can move online easily, but how do you engage your online students in hands-on subjects involving machinery, materials and complex construction, where they would normally have access to a workshop, lab or building site? Read how one tutor at Karelia University used ThingLink during pandemic site closures to create an immersive and interactive learning environment for his learners.

This is an outstanding example of how education technology can be used to solve access issues and create an online learning environment which replicates the real thing. The course materials created proved so valuable that they continue to be used as an introduction to the workshop despite the venue now being open to students once more.

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Karelia University of Applied Sciences is located in the city of Joensuu, eastern Finland and runs courses to bachelor and masters level in seven fields. Within the field of civil engineering, their special area of expertise is wood construction. Restrictions on university teaching were introduced during the pandemic. So Ville Mertanen, tutor and Project Specialist in Wood Construction, had to quickly create an online course to introduce students to all the workshop machinery which they would be using regularly when back on-site.

How to create engaging online learning

It’s vital that engineering students fully understand the operating rules and features of each piece of machinery – for their own safety and that of their classmates. So to ensure his students were ready to enter the workshop when restrictions were lifted, Ville created this virtual workshop for teaching online. Feel free to have a look around.

He used a 360 camera to take interior shots of the space, which were used to create a ThingLink, linking individual studios with the tour tag. In each studio he added tags to each workstation, which contained videos of his own detailed introductions. Additional tags included a PDF summary and use guidelines.


Ville noted that his students were far more engaged with the instructional content when it was presented in ThingLink. Plus, he could see that adding the information in a number of different accessible ways ensured equal access for students from different backgrounds and with different learning styles and preferences.

“If we had presented it in slides, their attention could have lasted perhaps 30 minutes. Now, they are following it better and discussing it.” 

How do you measure the engagement of your online learning?

In real-life teaching environments, it can often be difficult to ascertain whether every student has seen, heard and fully understood the instructions. But embedded in the Karelia ThingLink is a comprehension test the student must sit, marked individually by a course tutor. A pass is required to earn your physical check-in permit to the workshop; without it no student can enter.  So the ThingLink provides all the active learning materials as well as the proof of learning itself – the whole package.

What are the benefits of engaging online learning?

The platform proved so successful that many students as well as other Karelia UAS tutors began using it themselves to create presentations for individual and group projects. And having started using ThingLink to present and examine workshop-based learning, Ville realised it was also the best way to show his students around all the innovative construction projects in Joensuu when they couldn’t visit in person.DSC_8052

Ville Mertanen, Project Specialist in Wood Construction at Karelia University of Applied Sciences

Online site visits for students

Research, development and innovation (RDI) activities are key to the university’s work, and for Ville’s students this means visiting some of the city’s unique and ground-breaking wooden buildings – some complete and some under construction. Completed sites include the Lighthouse – Finland’s highest wooden building, Kerubi stadium – the largest wooden stadium in the country, and Joensuu Arena – which was Finland’s largest wooden building when it was constructed.

One site that the students would also have visited in person pre-Covid is a new school under construction. Ville created a ThingLink “walk-through” tour of the school including a number of 360 images, which was then presented to groups of students online via Teams. The school’s head teacher used the 360 tour to present the project herself in online classes, despite being completely new to the platform – testament to ThingLink’s simplicity and built-in ease of use. “I think it worked as well as going into the real building”, says Ville of this new approach.


An engaging online learning experience

The successful trial and positive feedback he received from students after using ThingLink in this way convinced Ville that it could be used as a viable alternative to a forthcoming international construction conference.

Karelia UAS works with international networks throughout many Asian, African, European, and North- and South-American countries. Pre-Covid, civil engineers would have travelled to Joensuu in June 2021 for an international conference, visiting the city’s famous wooden constructions. Instead Ville will be using the 360 tours he has created in ThingLink to provide site visits virtually instead.

Benefits of online learning environments

He has identified a number of interconnected benefits to facilitating the tours this way, for both organisers and delegates:

  • In countries like Finland where distances between sites can be huge, virtual tours cut down on travel time and thus expense for delegates; more sites can be fitted in per day and per event.
  • Safety briefings, protective equipment protocols and refreshments even for small group can easily extend a 30 minute site visit into a 2-3 hour event in real life. This limits the number of sites that can be visited per day. Many more can be presented via a virtual tour.
  • Tours can also be explored by delegates in an asynchronous way at any time including “out of office hours”. This makes the tours more accessible to those for who live or work too far away to visit in real life.
  • Real life site visits may require workers on site to pause or moderate their work during each visit; virtual visits can take place with no interruptions to the site team.
  • Despite safety precautions, there is still an element of risk to visitors on-site from machinery, noise and dust. Noise on-site can make it difficult for some visitors to hear, particularly in a large group. Virtual site visits ensure accessibility for all.

The remote learning alternative
In-person conferences have now resumed, the ThingLink tours provide a valuable and convenient remote learning alternative for those who for any reason are unable to attend but who would like to learn from these extraordinary wood-build projects. Ville is now experimenting with using 360 videos to create narrated, immersive walk-throughs of the sites, to supplement the 360 image-based tours. Meanwhile using ThingLink to assess his students’ knowledge of workshop machinery has changed the course content used for this part of the syllabus permanently:

“We won’t go back to what we had – you can add in so much more information – in so many different ways.”  

Ville Mertanen, Project Specialist in Wood Construction at Karelia University of Applied Sciences

What activities engage students in online learning?

We have seen an explosion in original ThingLink content created for further and higher education students in the last few years. Educators across the global learning community have discovered that they can increase student engagement, increase accessibility and inclusion, and track student learning using ThingLink.

Learning activities have included:

Virtual Field Trips: Award-winning virtual field trips created in ThingLink by Queens University Belfast, which result in student success that rivalled in-person learning

Virtual Labs from Keele University

Virtual Breakout Rooms for medical students created at University of Central Lancashire

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To learn more about what ThingLink can offer to your school, college or university, schedule an online meeting with one of our product experts below.

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