On a Mission to Make It Meaningful: A Conversation With Finnish eLearning Designer Mira Perämäki

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It’s easy to see that Mira Perämäki is passionate about what she does. As an instructional designer with Mediamaisteri, an industry leader in Finland’s corporate training market, Mira works to ensure that learning technologies are used as effectively as possible. 

Her philosophy is that when learners are engaged and invested in their learning, then they’ll put their best foot forward for their companies. Her expertise lies in learning management, competence development, online pedagogy, and instructional/learning design. We spoke about the training landscape in Finland, rising trends in L&D, and the role learning technologies play in the corporate market.

Hi Mira. Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a vocational teacher, but I started as a nurse in 2005 and was doing that through 2011. So I’m a registered nurse, and I remember when I was still in nursing school, one of my teachers said that I was going to be a teacher when I “grew up,” and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard. But she was right! 

I did my master’s in health sciences. After that I completed my teachers’ pedagogical training, so I’m a vocational teacher. I’ve also studied some design management and project management stuff. I earned my MBA in educational leadership a year ago—I just can’t stay out of school! My husband actually told me that it’s okay to buy pens and stationery even if I don’t go to school. Every August, I get this overwhelming urge to go and buy school notebooks and study.

We get it. There’s just something satisfying about new school supplies. So how did you get started in eLearning?

I worked for 15 years in Finland’s second biggest hospital district, first as a nurse and then in HR in L&D. I got into eLearning, like most other instructional designers do, by accident. Basically, we had this learning management system that looked like everybody’s will to live and learn went there to die [laughs]. That’s what I started with, and then I got into that and started asking myself, “Why is it so boring? Can we do something to make it more interesting and more engaging?” So I independently started to study that. 

Then I started looking into what I could study to actually get into learning design. Service design was the first step. I learned to analyze the problem before starting to solve it. I learned to narrow things down. Then a little over two years ago, in 2019, my current employer, Mediamaisteri, contacted me with this interesting position. They thought I might be a good fit and asked me to come over and talk to them. That’s when I switched completely to eLearning. It was by accident first, and then I just dove into it head-first, and I love it.

What’s your role at Mediamaisteri?

I’m an instructional designer, so what I do is try my best to help our customers make the best of their learning management system. My role is about enhancing the experience for the learners and figuring out how to help clients achieve that goal. I don’t like the “go there and click that” kind of training. I like the challenges. When clients say things like, “I have this course, and I want to achieve this goal. How can we make it better?” Those are the coaching sessions with our clients that I really get into. It’s not so much the technical part, but the whole problem-solving part of it.

In your experience, what’s the training landscape like in the Finnish corporate market?

Finland doesn’t really differ that much from the rest of the world in terms of L&D. In Finland, we’ve usually held corporate training and onboarding sessions face to face. There’d be an expert, people would gather in an auditorium or a classroom, and the expert would give a lecture. It’s pretty similar to how corporations in other countries were doing professional training.

Then in the spring of 2020, all of a sudden we couldn’t host face-to-face learning. We had to transfer this onto our learning management system. We had one week to get 200 PowerPoint slides into our LMS. Most of the corporations and organizations, in Finland and everywhere else, had an LMS, but it was more like a big old folder with all our PDFs in there. Learners would go and read through them, and that was that. But suddenly online learning was forced, and it was like a panic situation everywhere. Now everyone’s starting to get more used to it and they want more eLearning.

With everyone wanting more eLearning, what would you say are the hottest L&D trends in Finland right now?

As far as trends go, microlearning and using different media elements for creating courses are gaining more traction. They’re starting to gain interest in L&D. Everything is already being planned to be held online. People are seeing the benefits of online learning

Employees are starting to demand a more personalized experience, and we’re realizing more and more that trying to personalize everything for everyone in the same physical space just doesn’t work. Employees want to have the ability to pick their courses and what they want to learn. With LMSs, you need yours to be a good system. You need good tools to be able to give the learners what it is that they want. 

L&D is starting to be a more important factor, more so than it used to be a couple of years ago. I’m guessing 2019 was the last time we thought, “I’m going to hold my lecture in the auditorium with 250 people. Done.” But now it’s like, “Oh, I can do it online. I can have 2,000 people and they can do it whenever it suits them.” I think it’s starting to be more that the learners, the employees, are starting to notice that training can be different than it used to be. There’s still room for improvement, but I think it’s starting to become more personalized.

Some are saying the world is going through a “Great Resignation”. Is Finland having a similar experience with its workforce? Do you see L&D as a component to finding and keeping talented employees?

I don’t know if it has been the same as it is in, say, the US. The working culture is very different. But people are starting to notice that they don’t necessarily have to be at the office all the time. They don’t want to spend all their time traveling to and from an office. And if an employer doesn’t let them work from home, they can just switch to someone who is more lenient toward hybrid working. I think getting more resources to L&D teams helps with that.

Are there any particular challenges in L&D that are unique to the Finnish market?

I don’t know if it’s necessarily unique, but people are starting to notice that the “quick and easy” approach to eLearning doesn’t work when you want to make it effective. Just putting PDFs online with a quiz afterwards doesn’t really qualify as decent online learning. It’s affecting the way that L&D professionals are doing their work. It’s a completely different set of skills that’s needed when starting to design and create online learning from scratch. We want our learners to actually be able to apply what it is that they’re learning into their working life. It’s very different from just uploading PDFs for learners to read.

What’s something corporate leaders need to be aware of when it comes to eLearning?

More training without data isn’t the answer. When there’s a problem or a gap, it’s important to use analytics to understand what learners need. Then ask yourself if you need to give your employees an opportunity to acquire new skills and learn how to use those skills in their everyday work life. Analyze the problem before trying to solve it.

If you want the online course to be engaging, effective, and useful, and have learners get something from it, then it needs a whole lot more than the PDFs and the quiz. Creating meaningful eLearning needs a professional. It’s not impossible for anyone to learn how to do it, but usually it’s easier if you put some time into getting professional training in instructional design first. Consider investing in having someone to help you get started. Get someone who knows what they’re doing and has experience to help you on your way.

What makes an eLearning experience meaningful?

One of the things that makes it meaningful is creating it to serve the people who are actually doing the course. The first person you’re supposed to think about when you create an online course is the learner. You’re doing it for them, not for yourself. If they find value in their learning, then they’re more likely to do a good job. The eLearning has to answer a need for the learner. There’s a specific goal, and it helps the learner to achieve that goal. Learners need to know what’s in it for them. They want to know what they’ll get out of studying something. And when your learners understand what’s in it for them, that’s when it starts to be engaging. 

I’m definitely passionate about meaningful eLearning. I’m on a mission to get rid of information dumps. If I get one organization a week to consider that online learning can be more than PDFs—I hate PDFs—then I’m happy. I really want to get people to think about the learners.

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