Interview with Niina Impiö and Pirkko Hyvönen

Pirkko Hyvönen and Niina Impiö

Please tell us some basic information about your master’s degree programme. What is the programme about and what do the students learn?

Pirkko and Niina: The first Edutool master’s degree programme was launched in 2005 as re-training. This far, three groups of master’s degree students have taken the programme, and next autumn the programme will take the form an international LET (Learning, Education and Technology) programme. In the past, the programme has concentrated on education technology but now there is a strong focus on learning as well.

The core of the master’s degree programme consists of three central theoretical starting points: self-regulated learning, collaborative learning, and the learning of expertise. In fact, the key goal of the programme is expertise in learning. The concept is introduced to the students, and as the programme progresses, they reflect their development as experts. At the same time, we market the programme. We seek to reshape the research-based image of learning of expertise and widen the idea of what competencies are needed in teaching and education.

How is the programme optimized for working life and working life cooperation?

Pirkko: In addition to theory, it is possible to examine learning of expertise from the point of view of working life. The concept of learning to become an expert is based on research that has been applied to our programme by paying particular attention to the requirements of working life. Consequently, our degree students are true experts of working life. They are able to adjust to established practices, generate new working methods, and use technology to enhance interaction between people. This is why we frequently give the students real working life cases to solve. These cases, consisting of real problems, can be solved in many different ways. The students apply research results and learning theories to the problems, observing people’s activities in different situations. This enables them to realize that theories really hold water in any context with people interacting. Most of our students work alongside their studies, and they can apply the information to their work.

Niina: How can the students recognize the expertise they possess already when they begin their studies and the expertise that they gain during their studies? In addition to collective problem solving, we use expert profiles that the students write during their two-year master’s degree. Once a term, they are given an assignment which enables them to analyze the past term. The questions of the assignment relate to the on-going study modules, and, to a certain degree, to the abovementioned learning theories. This encourages the students to understand what they have learned in the LET master’s degree programme and, for example, helps them in describing their competencies to their future employer.

Another tool for reflecting one’s learning process and recognizing one’s growing expertise is the digital portfolio. In this method, the students write a blog in which they reflect their learning process and consider their studies. Some students have also linked their work projects and hobbies to the blog. This is a great way to implement working life into the learning process.

In addition to the working life aspect, the mentioned working life cases also focus on collective work. The students participate in at least ten different groups that work for two to five months on a certain topic. This supports their problem-solving skills and ability to work as members of different groups of experts.

In your programme, the students carry out projects and form groups of experts. How would you describe these learning methods? Based on your experience, can you give us some examples about working life problems solved by students?

Niina: We run two study modules: the Training Projects and the Learning of Expertise study module. Every year, we seek assignments and cooperation partners for these modules. Our cooperation partners include companies, learning institutions and the voluntary sector.

The goal of the Training Projects study module is to learn skills for project work. The students form a project group around an assignment, and work together for about five months. The process resembles typical working life projects. Before the beginning of the study module, we check with the partner company that their assignment supports the theoretical competency goals of the programme.

Pirkko: To give an example, this year we developed a communications plan for a nursing company. The goal was to pay attention to social relations. The background theory drew on social relations and self-regulated learning. The self-regulatory aspects included things such as the personnel’s committal to the communications plan and working in a goal-directed manner.

Let’s take the project with the town of Pudasjärvi as a second example. In this project, senior citizens were taught to use iPads. The elderly people in this region live very far away from each other which makes interaction and day-to-day affairs difficult. The group of senior citizens applied iPads to things that they themselves judged important. It was wonderful! In addition to practical things, they used iPads for entertainment and increased interaction. The press was interested, too.

Niina: Thirdly, we carried out a project with the Northern Ostrobothnia Hospital District. The project was directed at doctors working also as regional medical instructors, instructing physicians who specialize in health-care centres. These doctors have to drive a lot, sometimes hundreds of kilometres for a two-hour instruction meeting. We set out to solve the problems caused by long distances and to integrate new, interaction-supporting technology into workplaces. The project group coached the regional instructor doctors and investigated their needs. With this knowledge as their starting point, the students set out to solve the problem.

The students always coach or instruct the target group. At all times, we also undertake to convince the partner that provides the assignment to fully commit to the project, in the form of control group meetings, for example. The more committed the client, the better the experience will be.

Niina: The Learning of Expertise study module uses a different method than the Training Projects study module. The focus is on collective problem solving. The students form expert groups, and a couple of the client’s representatives can participate as well in the different stages of the process. The expert groups emphasize creativity. For example, cooperation in the early stages of the Business Kitchen project involved planning the use of the project’s working spaces and methods. The students formed three groups and discussed the questions from the point of view of creativity and playfulness.

The degree programme encourages collective problem solving by taking creative thinking and crazy ideas as the starting points. The idea is to form groups of experts around certain problems. After this, the group members collectively decide how to continue. They communicate using the technology of their own choosing. These cases take at most three months. Many students work on the same case, which gives a similar starting point for everyone.

How do you search for partners for assignments?

Niina: Through our own networks. We make use of our contacts and search for new ones all the time. When necessary, we try to think of a form of cooperation that would benefit both parties. The cooperation projects revolve around social relations and problem solving, the two main points of the curriculum of our degree programme. In the beginning of the programme, five years ago, finding enough cases for the students required a whole lot of effort. However, over the three previous years the situation has changed: now the clients contact us and we get to choose. Knowing what we need better than before, we spot situations that can make good contacts and cases more easily.

Your master’s degree programme becomes international. What does this mean from the point of view of working life? How do you advance the integration of international students into the Finnish society?

Niina: This means new challenges for us regarding working life cooperation. To this day, our students have mostly been employed already during their studies or have had long work histories. Now the students come from a different cultural background. They might have some work experience but some arrive directly from another school. They are much younger, too.

This far, many of our working life cases have been related to learning educations. In these cases, it is important to be familiar with the Finnish education system. If a foreigner sets out to plan something related to the Finnish education system, for example, we have to pay attention to the student’s knowledge on the topic.

International students face totally different troubles than Finnish students. One of them is the language barrier. It is clear that not every client wants to communicate in English. In fact, this is one of the reasons why we have participated in the VALOA project: we have tried to grow with the approaching change, even though the students are going to join in only in the following autumn.

Pirkko: We are naturally eager to learn what happens to the graduated students. We have actually asked this from each graduated student. A major part of them intends to carry on to further education, and this is a natural path to employment. Some want to work already during their studies. One group is clearly determined to study here and then return to their home country and put their skills to use there. The applying process contains an interview which has given us an overall picture of the students and their goals; in other words, what motivates them to study.

Niina: International students are clearly interested in getting employed already during their studies. Since our degree does not contain practical training, employment possibilities have to be mapped out during the working life cases. Furthermore, students have often written master’s theses about their jobs, but now these things have to be thought all over. For example, is it possible to write a master’s thesis here for a foreign company? We certainly have to think of thesis topics that can be carried out here.

We realize that previously our position has been ideal: our students have arrived directly from working life, and therefore it has been easy for us to stay up to date about the developments of working life.

What kind of working life skills do the students acquire and recognize during your master’s degree programme?

Pirkko: The students gain working life experience and become aware of how to develop their skills. They are able to come up with new working methods and rationalize the benefits of their solutions. Theory provides leverage for this, and personal experience only strengthens the students’ theoretical means and abilities. The graduates of the previous spring specifically state that they have gained courage and accumulated knowledge.

The students also learn how to fluently combine technology with work processes in order to improve communication and increase interaction. They realize the significance of social relations in working life, and strive toward making people realize the strength of collective work; and this does not apply only to work but also to sharing creativity and structuring knowledge. The students are able to make use of self-regulatory strategies: to set goals, to see that the goals are attained, to reflect their methods, and to set new goals. Furthermore, with these strategies they can convince other people in the workplace of their opinions and working methods.

They have learned to be experts. That actually summarizes it pretty well.