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The ABC “Classic” Workshop at the University of Helsinki



Institution: University of Helsinki, Finland (Erasmus+ ABC to VLE project partner)

Description: The ABC “Classic” workshop at the University of Helsinki

Authors: Sanna-Katja Parikka and Veera Kallunki

Description: This report details the context and developments of the ABC workshop at the University of Helsinki, Finland. The aim is to present considerations for how and why we adapted the workshop design to our contexts and goals, while providing insights on the successes and lessons learned, as well as our observations regarding the the workflows for organizing and implementing ABC blended and online course creation workshops.

Context of Change: Introduction of the ABC Workshop to the University of Helsinki

In 2017, the University of Helsinki Educational Technology services had been actively looking for new ways to introduce pedagogical considerations into the processes of elearning tool selection in blended and online course development. As part of the LERU network of universities, the University of Helsinki began participating in a collaboration to adapt the ABC workshop for our contexts, as the design method and approach seemed to be perfectly fitted for this elearning and pedagogical goal. In 2018, we were able to bring the University College of London (UCL) elearning experts and the original ABC workshop designers, Dr. Clive Young and Nataša Perović to teach a train-the-trainers ABC workshop to our elearning teams, as well as a demo to a group of faculty members. This train-the-trainers event was key in launching our own adaptations of the workshop.

Since then, the the University of Helsinki Educational Technology Services elearning specialists have facilitated ABC blended and online course creation workshops, in Finnish and English, for course designs across disciplines, adapting new versions of the workshop to fit the local course design contexts. The workshop has gradually been gaining significant traction at the institution. Altogether, the ABC course design workshop has been taught over 30 times, and more than 500 faculty members have participated in the workshops so far.

While the University of Helsinki has so far launched adapted workshops for academic development, ABC for MOOCs, and ABC for program-level course design, the “ABC Classic” version here refers to the most ‘generic’ version of the workshop, closest to the original ABC lesson plan designed at UCL. This workshop version is meant for blended and online course design in general, however, a variety of pedagogical topics may be integrated into the workflow based on the working group’s goals. The workshop development at the University of Helsinki has progressed in collaboration with the Erasmus+ project, lead by UCL during 2018-2020.

Case Studies

Since the launch of the ABC workshops at the University of Helsinki, the ABC design method has been adapted for many types of use cases, including ABC for MOOCs, ABC for academic development, and program-level ABC course design workshop. Furthermore, the workshops have been noted to be of particularly effective when utilized for the so called Digital Leap projects that typically center around creating a novel course with a specific elearning focus (e.g. flipped learning or learning object creation just to name a few). In addition, the workshop has been seen to be very well suited for course development with a group of teachers within one study program who are designing one course or a sequence of courses together. Lastly, the Educational Technology Services has also been utilizing the ABC cards for collaborative activities during other workshops that, for example, aim at introducing the university’s elearning tools.

Based on the number of requests for the ABC workshop at our institution, the ABC design method seems to be well suited in its capacity to conveniently gather together the relevant expertise for the design of a variety of course plans for an effective few hours of design work. Moreover, although the workshop typically results in a course visual storyboard, one of the central aims of the workshop is nevertheless to provide a discussion framework for the time-pressed scholars, teachers, and course designers on teaching and learning. They are ultimately the experts of their own courses, the subject matter, respective research, and discipline-specific pedagogical approaches and methods. The elearning and pedagogical specialist are there to help facilitate these discussions and provide information and advice on the required elearning aspects and tools, or other pre-selected pedagogical topics. Importantly, the workshop allows to design elearning from a pedagogical standpoint, as the groups works gradually from the course learning goals and ways of learning towards the selection of the elearning tools. Many workshops see a continuation in further organizing of specific elearning tool trainings which have been identified during the pedagogical workshop, as well as in consulting and supporting the actual build-up and teaching of the courses through the LMS and other elearning tools.

An example of an ABC workshop design storyboard:

The ABC "Classic" Workshop at the University of HelsinkiThe ABC "Classic" Workshop at the University of Helsinki

The workshop was a more extensive concept than I initially expected. During the workshop, I noticed that it fits well for planning modules, in addition to individual courses. The way that the workshop allows for looking at courses as well as sequences of courses was really useful.” The workshop “offersinsights right fromthestart“.

Materials Adaptation

A Finnish version of the materials is available through the ABC LD website. The cards were localized with local elearning tools and localized symbols. Below is an example of the University of Helsinki cards in English:

The ABC "Classic" Workshop at the University of Helsinki

production card tools

Organizing an ABC Workshop

At the University of Helsinki, there are multiple ways to initially organize a workshop. First, the ABC workshop can be requested by a faculty member for their own group of teachers by emailing the Educational Technology Services. The faculty get to know the workshop through various communications, they read about it from the staff training catalogue, or from having participated in a workshop previously. Secondly, a workshop might be recommended by the Educational Technology Services for particular collaboration groups: especially for the Digital Leap projects and for launching MOOC designs. These are typically projects that aim to create a novel type of course or course sequence from scratch, or completely revise a course, and they have a group of teachers responsible for collaborating to create these courses. In addition, the workshop has been provided as individual consultations, as well. The workshop can be taught to a group of teachers in one particular study program to align the program level designs, or it can be held as an open-call workshop that will include teachers from various disciplines who will then form small groups to work on their course plans together.

Once the Educational Technology Services receives a workshop request, the educational technology specialist in question will coordinate the workshop dates and facilitators. They will then organize a planning meeting or discussion with the workshop requestor and plan to adapt the workshop plan according to the goals. This would include making sure there are enough facilitators available and the relevant expertise in terms of the pedagogical and technical themes (e.g. LMS specialists, video production specialists, and pedagogical research specialists). The aim is always to include one to two main workshop presenters and (them included) one educational technology specialist per small group in the later part of the workshop. But this is rarely possible, so that the facilitators typically will each have 2-5 small groups to attend to during the workshop. We maintain that each small group would have two or more participants in addition to the facilitators to ensure the constructive, collaborative learning method that is utilized as a central element in the workshop.

ABC Workshop Lesson Plan Adaptation

The University of Helsinki ABC workshop adaptation includes 3 hrs per workshop. If there is time available, we allocate up to 4 hours. This way, there is ample time in the beginning for us to add pedagogical topics, such as MOOC principles. Also, at the end we have needed often to have a longer whole group discussion, especially if the workshop participants are designing together a course sequence within the same study program. We also find that filling in the graphs in the beginning can take much more time than in the original lesson plan.

Typically, the workshop is facilitated by elearning specialists from the Educational Technology services, with one to two presenters sharing the responsibility for the lecture part. One of the facilitators is also tasked to be the timekeeper. We try to include as much expertise in the topics in focus as possible, for example we have invited senior lecturers in university pedagogy to give an more thorough introduction to learning research and learning theory for particular topics, if the workshop for the group has been organized with this topic in mind. These topics have included, for example, assessment of learning and constructive alignment in course design. In addition, we may have the main organizer of the workshop in some kind of a facilitating role, particularly in the program-level course sequence workshops. In order to share information about the ABC in Finland, we have opened our workshops for auditing visitors, e.g. an elearning expert from an institution who are interested in launching workshops, have come to attend and help in one of our workshops, where they then get to experience the workshop as a participant and also provide their elearning expertise to one of the small groups.

We aim at having one elearning expert present per small group, because we find that it is easier to participate in the group’s work if you are discussing with the same group for the workshop duration. This is not often possible, however, and so each elearning technologist present will be assigned to two to three groups to discuss with during the small group work. Or, the main facilitator can or course always help out all groups in the workshops with only one facilitator.

Before the Workshop

A week or so before the workshop, the participants will receive an email describing the workshop and its goals. There is always a link included to the UCL page, with a recommendation to watch the videos by Dr. Laurillard to familiarize with the workshop framework. In addition, the participants are asked to write up and print out the learning goals for the course they would like to work on in the workshop. It is basically assumed at this point that they will bring with them well-formulated learning goals, as there is no time in the workshop to focus on writing learning goals otherwise, unless this is decided as the specific pedagogical goal of a given workshop. Due to time contraints, there are no other pre-workshop activities or pre-workshops. However, the University of Helsinki ABC project working group has, in conjunction with and inspired by the ABC Erasmus+ project, is launching a local ABC blog that aims to represent the ABC framework in Finnish so that it could be provided for the participants as advance (and post workshop) materials.

During the Workshop

The current ABC Classic workshop runs for a minimum of 3 hrs (adapted from the UCL original 90 minutes), and the recommendation for our groups is 4 hrs. There have also been versions that include a full day of design work. The ABC lesson plan begins with a short introduction to the workshop background, then moves on to possible pedagogical topics (e.g. research on designing peer review processes, elearning best practices, MOOCs, etc.), and then to introducing the ABC learning cards’ framework. At this stage we form the small groups (if they were not already formed). Since having included additional pedagogical topics into the workshop plan, we have decided to introduce the cards in an interactive way:

  1. Participants groups’ are given one to two card types
  2. The groups discuss for five to ten minutes about the cards with the following prompt: Based on your card: Familiarize and describe in your own words the type of learning in the card. See both sides for elearning tools and methods. How would you apply this pedagogical tool in your own teaching to foster the learning type in the card? Please discuss. What kinds of activities would you design with the learning type you were given? Describe a few activity types. What does the student do?
  3. Then we facilitate a whole group discussion going through all the card types, with the small grups presenting. When the groups present on their card, the facilitators place the card in question on a projector and make sure to note the most important considerations for the card with reference to the topic in the workshop, such as MOOCs.

After this activity, all groups are given all cards (6 x 6 types) as per the UCL’s recommendation for number of cards in the original workshops. The small groups are then directed to fill in the A4 graphs and “tweet-sized” summaries of their courses. They can actually tweet them at the ABC handle or just write down on paper. We share the tweets for the whole class. Then the poster work starts and facilitators are placed in their respective small groups. Note that the stages of the workflow are introduced one by one, with a powerpoint slide or two supporting each step:

  1. Introduction to the workshop (10-15 minutes)
  2. Pedagogical topic (15-2o minutes)
  3. Card activity (20 minutes)
  4. Tweet and graph activity (15-20 minutes)
  5. Poster work: pedagogical side of the cards (30-40 minutes)
  6. Poster work: elearning tools and methods side of the cards (60-120 minutes), including adding assessment stickers, and at the end any other theme to be mapped
  7. Final discussions, groups present their course and whole group discussion on elearning topics (20-75 minutes)
  8. Concluding remarks, pedagogical best practices recap, next steps after the workshop and further elearning tool training info (15 minutes)

The ABC "Classic" Workshop at the University of Helsinki


After the Workshop

The participants will have received information during the workshop on how they can contact the Educational Technology Services or Senior Lecturers in University Pedagogy. They would have gained ideas on what specifically they would like to develop more: topics regarding the LMS, learning object production, interactive tools, etc. They are equipped with info on ways to get support: email, individual consultations, group trainings, and the training calendar. if it’s a particular collaboration group, they might request a second ABC further on to keep developing the courses or onboard new teachers and course designers.

The participants will receive a follow-up email from the facilitators that includes the workshop materials digitally – the paper materials they get to keep from the workshop – accompanied with any other information that would need to be sent out based on the what was identified at the workshop (links to tools, guidelines, contact infos, etc.).


Towards an ABC Workshop Online

The latest modification of applying the ABC pedagogy was designed because of the exceptional time during the COVID-19 pandemia during spring 2020. In this implemention of the workshop elements, the participants worked in small groups in Zoom’s breakout rooms and designed their courses collaboratively, according to the following steps:

  • Familiarizing oneself with the ABC cards​. The cards help you to think different learning types, teaching methods and online methods for your course​.
  • Discussing each course plan in your small group.​
    • What kind of teaching methods would support your course’s intended learning outcomes?​
    • What kind of online tools could you use and how do they support students’ learning?​
  • Concluding discussion: Sharing ideas
  • Participants gathered their course plans into a shared file. This could be “freeform” write-up according to the set task, or a more structured form that is filled systematically during small group work. Note: The course plan may be written in shared file, provided for collaboration through an online collaborative space such as OneDrive.

Below: An example from the Flinga tool for how the cards were provided to participants online during a Zoom meeting. The activity task was also provided in the green background, and the write-ups came from the small groups’ ideas. The ABC learning types, elearning tools and methods were used as a reference. In this particular training, most of the group had already participated in a contact teaching ABC workshop, so it was convenient to use the cards as a quick reference and discussion starting point.

The ABC "Classic" Workshop at the University of Helsinki



Impact and Lessons Learned

The impact of the all ABCs workshops was evaluated as a part of ABC Facilitator and Participant surveys that the facilitators filled after the workshop. According to the results, 78 % of the facilitators think that their workshop facilitates participants’ discussion with colleagues about course design at least to a great extent. Indeed, this facilitators’ evaluation comes very near to what the participants actually thought themselves: 74 % of them said that they have discussed with colleagues about course design to a great or very great extent.

In addition, 41 % of facilitators find that the ABCs have a great or very great impact on (re)designing of their participants’ course. Here the actual impact was even higher, because 53 % of the participants found that the ABC method has impacted on their (re)designing at least to a great extent. According to one participant, “the workshop ensured alignment between module learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities and assessment.”

Also, the participants increased confidence as teachers was evaluated positively after the ABC workshops: 27 % of facilitators and 44 % of participants thought that the confidence had increased at least at a great extent.

I think that the participants finished the workshop feeling much more confident about the form the course should take, the activities they needed to use to achieve the LOs, and what they needed to do next. The discussions all enabled the development of a shared (or at least commonly understood) vision.

Throughout the project, the ABC workshop concept has been iteratively localized based on feedback from participants and facilitators. We have made multiple small adjustments to the workshop. Below are some of the most central considerations for the localization of the ABC “Classic” at the University of Helsinki:

  • As can be seen from the workshop timeline, we expanded the workshop duration to a minimum of 3 hrs, with a recommendation for 4 hrs, to allow for sufficient time for discussions particularly for the program-level workshops.
  • In order to keep the work better within the timeframe, we created a powerpoint presentation that introduces the workshop phases one by one; i.e. we provide instructions one step at a time.
  • To support groups’ self-management of time during the high energy design process, we have included into the workflow a digital timer which is projected onto a second screen – and set for countdown of each of the workshop phases separately. This seems to really help structure the workflow to keep in time.

The ABC "Classic" Workshop at the University of Helsinki

  • Due to the massiveness of some of the workshops (approx. 75 participants and 15 small groups), we experimented with laminating so as not to print out so many cards. Participants attached their ideas and plans by post-it notes to the cards. Also the golden and silver stars that are used to mark the formative or summative assessments on the course were attached to the post-it notes. However, the participants did not seem to like this method. Instead, they kept asking why can’t they write their ideas and plans directly to the cards. Thus the laminating was abandoned and replaced by the paper cards in the next workshop. It has been noted that typically the participants would like to take the posters and cards with them; a good indicator that the posters can be utilized even after the workshop itself.
  • One issue which we have been discussing many times is among the facilitators, is how to introduce the learning type cards in the most effective way. It has been quite clear that the cards do need to be introduced before the work begins at any rate, but what is the most effective practice to achieve this? We decided to let the course developers to introduce the cards to each other after a few minutes’ familiarization with the cards. We then ask the groups to present their card and how they might use this type of learning, methods, or tools described therein, for their own course. This lesson modification helps to add topics to the beginning presentation, because the cards are introduced in a participant-centered way, and thus help to shorten the “lecture” part of the workshop, which provides time in the workshop to add specific pedagogical topics to the beginning introduction.

Scalability and Transferability

The ABC workshop has proven quite adaptable to various contexts and goals. As facilitators, we have experienced that these can be varied for instance by adding pedagogical topics into the workshop. It is also possible to add themes to be mapped into the course designs, for example we have mapped timeframes for international exchange in a study program, collaborative activities in a course, and eportfolios in a course. Furthermore, the ABC workshop seems scalable from being utilized in a consultation with just one teacher, or with a group of teachers, and we have successfully run workshops of 15 small groups (75 participants), although the ideal group size is probably something to the effect of 16-25 participants forming 4-6 small groups. In addition, we have started teaching elements from the ABC workshop as part of other trainings, including general infosessions on elearning tools, as well as online course collaborative creation meetings done in Zoom.


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