Immersive learning tool from Finland wins UNESCO Prize for innovation in education

In 2005, Ulla Maaria Koivula was a Ph.D student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Her passion for art and culture and her interest in technology gave her the idea to develop a tool where she could integrate information and links directly in image. “I got fascinated about connecting culturally or personally meaningful physical artifacts with digital information about them,” remembers the founder and CEO of the ThingLink education and media technology company. Five years later, with her friend Janne Jalkanen, she gathered a team of engineers to make this idea come to life. ThingLink was born.

With now over 6 million users worldwide, the ThingLink digital tool provides an easy way to improve the learning experience of children, including those with learning disabilities. This innovative tool has been selected to receive the 2018 UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa-Al Khalifa Prize for the use of ICT in Education.

Also available as a mobile app, the tool helps students get more involved in the learning process by being actors of their own learning experience. “Adding the materials to the image using ThingLink is the easiest part of the process, but as it is the student who owns the process, it empowers and engages them in a new way,” underlines the CEO.

Indeed, while simultaneously expanding their digital skills, ThingLink sits the students in the teacher’s chair by letting them document a picture they took themselves with their own words. Ulla Maaria Koivula explains the process: “A student can use a phone or tablet to take a photo of a plant or a historical artifact, even an old family photograph. In the classroom or at home they start enriching the photo with more information, perhaps text and voice notes about what it is, closeup photos, drawings, or video clips.” The different stages of the process help develop in turn children’s creativity, critical thinking and collaboration in a group setting.

Building around images instead of texts not only makes the learning process more engaging for students, but it also provides a more inclusive learning platform for children with disabilities, offering a new range of possibilities. “They can look at images and touch icons that play audio automatically translated to their own language,” points out the CEO.

It also can be used to raise cultural awareness by allowing virtual visits with the use of 360 images technology and give a better understanding of real world environments such as natural ecosystems, local or foreign cultures, technical working environments, or service situations. ThingLink is already working with some vocational schools, using this technology to find a way for students to spend more time in a work environment without disrupting the employees. “A virtual tour with information about key concepts and vocabulary can do this, and it can also save teachers' time for more meaningful interactions,” adds Ulla Maaria Koivula.

Approaching ten years since its creation, the company also wants to use its technology for documenting local heritage. “Documenting local knowledge and practices in the cloud creates a new kind of global learning environment. It's like a global virtual school built by teachers and students that is always open,” notes Ulla Maaria Koivula.

The founder and CEO of ThingLink now hopes that the recognition of their work by UNESCO will bring more partners to their door and will inspire more women to build new solutions to the many challenges in global education today.