In this article we aim to discuss the empowerment of older people through international collaboration in higher education. We focus on analysing some pedagogical objectives and choices to deepen activities that have already begun between the education institutions of Karelia UAS (Finland) and CUAS (Austria). We utilise a participatory action research framework to state our arguments and to describe our practical suggestions for pedagogical solutions in this field of interest.
The research questions are: How can demographic development due to the ageing process be viewed from an international perspective? What practical recommendations for empowerment and active ageing can be derived from this, and how can these be communicated pedagogically? In the discussion section we define empowerment of older people as a concept, and describe some pedagogical needs and possibilities for the future according to previous studies. As conclusions we state that participation, interdisciplinarity and empowerment are made possible on the most diverse levels, such as students, teachers, projects and the discussion of organisational questions. International collaboration between our education institutions advances the competence of future professionals and the empowerment of older people.
Ageing is a worldwide phenomenon, and the number of older people is rapidly increasing globally. To respond to possibilities and challenges of this megatrend in society, higher educations of applied sciences in Finland (Karelia University of Applied Sciences) and Austria (Carinthia University of Applied Sciences) have collaborated actively in recent years on these issues, in an attempt to find empowered solutions to this contemporary phenomenon.
Karelia UAS and CUAS have the same kinds of strategical objectives to ageing issues. Applied science, research and development are strongly on the agenda in both institutions, e.g. at the Institute for Applied Research on Ageing (IARA) at CUAS. For these reasons, preconditions and organisational structures support and advance productive and future-oriented collaboration between Karelia UAS and CUAS. On a practical level, the shared interests of ageing between teachers and the same kinds of pedagogical approaches promote a different kind of collaboration “in the ageing and digital era”. For example, a joint study module piloted online in 2020 in the Active Ageing master’s degree programme at Karelia UAS and the Disability and Diversity Studies bachelor’s degree programme at CUAS represent several opportunities to study and learn via online and independent of place. Furthermore, on a practical level different kinds of common projects, development work and cooperation have been done in recent years between these organisations, such as cooperation in the EMMA Project (Erasmus+) and the AliVe project application in 2022 (Erasmus +).
In line with these strategic and collaborative aspects, in this paper we aim to discuss the empowerment of older people in international higher education collaboration and focus on analysing some pedagogical objectives and choices to deepen activities that are already in progress between our education institutions on this topic. We focus on utilising a participatory action research framework to state our arguments and to describe our practical suggestions for pedagogical solutions in this field of interest. Our research questions are: How can demographic development due to the ageing process be viewed from an international perspective? What practical recommendations for empowerment and active ageing can be derived from this, and how can these be communicated pedagogically?
The origin of the concept of empowerment lies in the philosophies of community work, which emphasises people’s power and participation. The idea of empowerment is to raise people’s social consciousness and change the environment to eliminate the social constraints acting on people’s lives (Kam 1996, 231). Empowerment theory connects individual well-being with the wider social and political environment, and suggests that people need opportunities to become active in community decision-making in order to improve their lives, organisation and communities (Zimmermann 2000, 58). In this context, the empowerment of older people is understood from the perspectives of three levels of action: individual, social group and society. Demographic change shows that it is important to recognise older people as an independent, heterogeneous group and to strengthen their abilities and skills. Understanding empowerment in a broad way, as explained above, also leads to social inclusion of people in old age.
An idea of empowerment is historically closely linked to the fight for civil, human and social rights (pedagogy of the oppressed, the US civil rights movement, feminism and self-help movements). Empowerment is intended to help people understand the effect of power and to promote their own power in order to reduce disadvantages. It turns to people’s individual and collective resources, and could of course also lead to professional attitudes in the sense of helping other people (peer counselling) (Lenz & Stark 2002).
However, empowerment as a concept is difficult to define, since it depends very much on specific forms of action of the persons involved in practice, communities, etc. (Zimmermann 2000). Below we list examples of structural barriers of empowerment among older people according to Berry (2009), de Souza (2003) and Lauder et al., 2006): Low levels of income, lack of money, poverty, loneliness, living alone and mobility problems, widowhood, poor sense of belonging, lack of optimism, ill health, lack of trust and poor mental health, negative stereotypes towards members of older generations, and low levels of community-level social capital may be associated with higher levels of depression. In the international higher education context, former points of views are vital. Described definitions of structural barriers express the universal nature of ageing issues; therefore, the empowerment of older people concerns us regardless of where we live. An international comparison in particular shows that the social, institutional and individual challenges associated with old age and demographic change are similar and that empowerment of this group of people can therefore also be discussed jointly. The reflection on the joint study module, which was carried out in 2020, showed that similar problems and fields of research were identified in the exchange between students.
The consequences of demographic change in ageing guide educators to consider and analyse ageing issues more accurately. From an international perspective, collaborative discussions and analysis widen the points of view and support to see all the dimensions of ageing. In practice, by focusing on individual, institutional and societal levels, students are able to recognise entanglements of demographic change, and can find solutions to provide recommendations to support empowerment at all levels for individuals, groups, policies, etc. Hand in hand with these perspectives, international collaboration brings in future-oriented approaches and novel pedagogical solutions, and enables students and teachers to learn from each other by sharing good practices.
Regarding previous studies of conceptions of learning and online learning environments among higher education social and health care students, students’ learning conceptions and traditional learning contexts and styles are rupturing as online and collaborative learning is increasing. At the same time, study orientations are changing, and individual learner agency is becoming more and more emphasised. Student groups are becoming more heterogeneous and unbound, as studying is no longer limited to the classroom or some other physical context. Despite the growing distance between students, collaborative groups and tasks are typically required (Myller & Vänskä 2018). The needs of pedagogical development and solutions represent ruptures in the traditional pedagogical environment, but they also describe future-oriented approaches, where learners are in a part of a worldwide network (Downes 2012, 9). Moreover, different kinds of blended learning applications are utilised increasingly in higher education, and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has sped up this development (Bashir A, Bashir S, Rana, Lambert & Vernallis 2021).
At Karelia UAS and CUAS, we have a common and global interest to promote our students’ competence in empowered ageing. By educating future professionals in applied gerontology and Disability and Diversity studies, we have to consider different pedagogical choices to advance our students’ practical knowledge and skills, their ability to take part in multiprofessional and intercultural groupwork, their readiness for applied research and development, as well as phenomenon-based learning, critical thinking and inter- and transdisciplinary work. These competencies will be required in the future. International collaboration brings in a learning space where online pedagogy, for example, can support us to pilot and monitor these kinds of experiments together to respond to ageing issues from a higher education perspective. Furthermore, students learn how to work together with diverse people in an international context, and they learn to organise themselves in group work and discussions. In addition, students’ digital competencies are strengthened by finding online digital solutions for working together (e.g. by using MS Teams for synchronous group work or other digital tools and platforms for asynchronous work).
To achieve the competence of empowerment of older people among our students in international collaboration, a participatory process of working together is needed. For example in Finland, Toikko and Rantanen (2009) state that participatory research-based development is a useful method of approach for applied science education. This approach is used to a significant extent in Finnish higher education of applied sciences and especially in master’s theses. In the context of international collaboration, participatory research-based development would also be suitable. In accordance with this approach, students bring in their individual experiences of their working fields or internships, they develop research questions together and focus on specific questions which arise from their experiences.
In relation to classic and current literature on participatory research (e.g. Arnstein 1971, Bergold & Thomas 2012, von Unger 2014), it becomes apparent that the level of participation in particular is decisive for whether genuine participation can succeed or not. The joint module has shown that the involvement of students from the beginning of the research process on the topic is central. After a brief overview of the content and reflection on existing knowledge on empowerment and active ageing, it was particularly important that the students got involved right away and worked out research questions together in international and interdisciplinary groups. In addition to the challenge of language differences in an international team, it is especially the interdisciplinarity that can pose challenges for students – and teachers. Interdisciplinarity or, subsequently, transdisciplinarity, especially in the context of empowerment and active ageing, opens up opportunities to think beyond one’s own disciplinary boundaries and to develop something new (Brauer et al. 2018).
The combination of participatory and inter- as well as transdisciplinary approaches in teaching requires some coordination processes. Time preparation and planning are particularly relevant on the part of teachers: on the one hand, there must be precise coordination of content in advance, and on the other, for a joint module that integrates synchronous moments, it is also necessary to define time windows in which the students can actually meet virtually. The main focus must therefore not be purely on content-related aspects; administrative points must also be clarified. Furthermore, it is particularly important to clarify central concepts and terms from the start so that a common language can be spoken.
The interests of both Karelia UAS and CUAS lie in the field of ageing and related processes. The joint module was an opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of these issues and to discuss them in an international context. It is planned that a module of this kind will be carried out again in the future and that it will offer more opportunities for systematic exchange, especially for the students.
With regard to our research questions (How can demographic development due to the ageing process be viewed from an international perspective? What practical recommendations for empowerment and active ageing can be derived from this and how can these be communicated pedagogically?), it can be stated that the joint module has shown that ageing processes in the two participating countries show socially, politically and economically similar structures and that, from the students’ point of view, comparative analyses are possible here. This promotes, especially with regard to the second research question, international and interdisciplinary exchange between students from different countries. Nevertheless, in the pedagogical considerations for planning such a module, different national structures must be taken into account, which are framework conditions for empowerment and active ageing. At the same time, in the pedagogical implementation attention must first be paid to a clarification and understanding of main terms, as well as to intercultural and interdisciplinary cooperation between teachers and students.
In order to strengthen the exchange between Karelia UAS and CUAS, it is generally planned that, in addition to joint project cooperation (e.g. EMMA, AliVe), joint proposals or exchanges within the framework of blended intensive programmes will be considered. This should strengthen physical and virtual cooperation and create opportunities to work together on different facets of the topic of ageing. Participation, interdisciplinarity and empowerment are thus made possible on the most diverse levels, like students, teachers, projects and the discussion of organisational questions.
Terhi Myller, Principal Lecturer, Karelia University of Applied Sciences
Christine Pichler, Professor of Sociology of Disability and Diversity Studies, Head of: IARA Department ISAC – Intergenerational Solidarity, Activity and Civil Society, Carinthia University of Applied Sciences
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Photo: Moe Magners