Case: Student assignments when working remotely

An introductory course offered to international MSc students specialising in environmental engineering titled Living lab: Circular city introduces students to the challenges relating to the implementation of environmental technology solutions and the ways to address them. As opposed to a conventional teacher-centred approach, the course provides a framework for challenge-based learning. Students’ learning was supported with the help of systems thinking and futures research methods that facilitate the examination and analysis of challenges. The course was delivered fully online, and some of the participants were not even in Finland when they attended the course. This tip tells you how you can integrate some of the elements of the Living lab approach into your classes.

What do I need?

The course was delivered via Moodle and Teams. The Moodle page included the course schedule, structure and the materials for each week. A Teams group was set up for the students, and they worked in small groups via Teams throughout the course. The tools used during the assignments included, for example, backcasting, problem-based learning, causal diagrams and futures triangles. These are universal tools for stimulating thinking and reflection and can be utilised when teaching just about any subject.

What do I need to do?

The most important insight that resulted from the course relates to the organisation of assignments. Before each class, students had to submit a pre-assignment that focused on the theme of the week. During class, students discussed the results of their pre-assignment in small groups and worked together to complete a more advanced assignment on the same theme. At the end, one or two small groups presented their results to the entire group of students, and all the small groups submitted a visual presentation of their assignment (such as an image or a single PowerPoint slide) through Moodle or some other platform.

One time the theme of the week was Governance, and students had to read an article exploring waste management challenges in six cities in Europe. Then they had to choose a city and carry out a similar analysis about waste management in that city. They worked in small groups and followed the future workshop method where each student represents a specific group of stakeholders. The goal was to find solutions for waste management problems. The workshop included a preparatory stage where the students analysed the challenge, a visionary stage where they generated ideas, and an implementation stage where they selected the most feasible ideas. After each stage, they shared their ideas using Padlet (Flinga could also be used), which allowed the teacher to monitor the groups’ progress in real time.

What should I take into account?

The students liked the structure of the assignments. As they had to read up on the topic before class, they were able to actively participate in the group activities. However, this type of approach is likely to work only if the pre-assignments and class assignments are mandatory.  The students enjoyed the learning-by-doing approach and felt that the course provided them with practical information and skills for addressing sustainability challenges in their later studies and career.

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The methods and tools used during the course: