Harmaahiuksinen nainen. Old lady.

Empow­er­ment of Older People in Inter­na­tional Collab­o­ra­tion between Karelia UAS and CUAS

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