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Real life solutions to real life problems: Living Labs approach within university of applied sciences pedagogical practice

Recently, institutions of higher education have adapted practices that bring together students, members of the teaching staff and institutional partners. It is typical for these practices that students work in teams to solve challenges provided by partnering institutions (private business, public agencies, NGOs, etc.).  Current pedagogical theories fail to cover certain aspects of these practices. The aim of this article is to describe pedagogical practice in question through theoretical inquiry and a case study. As a result, the Living Labs approach is proposed in order to complement current pedagogical theories.

Questions of learning and how the pedagogical process should by designed accordingly are central to each pedagogical institution. As a community of experts, every pedagogical institution needs a shared vision and defined curriculum to be communicated to teachers, students and partners.

Institutions of higher education have adapted practices that bring together students, members of the teaching staff and institutional partners. Students work in teams to solve challenges provided by partnering institutions (private business, public agencies, NGOs, etc.). Also, concepts of innovation and innovation pedagogy are considered important.  Faculty members serve as facilitators. They mediate between the wishes of the partnering organizations providing the student teams with tasks and requirements of the curriculum.

Even within Finland, examples are many. University of Tampere has Demola, Laurea University of Applied Sciences has introduced Learning by Development. Metropolia University of Applied Sciences has Minno and Aalto University has developed similar practices (i.e. Hämäläinen 2015).

As a case author uses his employer, Diaconia University of Applied Sciences. Diaconia University of Applied Sciences (Diak) is a nation-wide university of applied sciences, which offers Bachelor’s degree programmes in social services, youth work and diaconia, nursing, sign language interpreting, and community interpreting. All Diak’s five campuses are actively engaged in the development of social and health issues in the regions where they are set. Diak has about 3,000 students, which makes Diak the largest higher education institution providing social work education in Finland. Diak has a distinct profile among the Finnish higher education institutions in immigration and refugee issues, the work against poverty and marginalization, and social inclusion. (Diaconia University of Applied Sciences, 2016.)

Author works as a lecturer and development team leader in Diak. Author has taken part in the process described below.  First of all, author and his team designed the new thesis process to fit into Curriculum 2015 and ideals presented in OSKE –pedagogy.  Secondly, team has implemented these ideals into study assignments and instructions. Thirdly, team has been central in communication new practices to students and staff members.

Knowledge creation approach in pedagogy

Pedagogical practice referred to above falls under the constructivist learning theories.  In the following different categories within constructivist learning theories are discussed.

Characteristic of the knowledge-creation approach is to examine learning in terms of creating social structures and collaborative processes that support knowledge advancement and innovation. The knowledge-creation view represents a ‘‘trialogical’’ approach because the emphasis is not only on individuals or on community, but on the way people collaboratively develop mediating artifacts (Paavola & Hakkarainen 2005, 539).

Scardamalia and Bereiter (2014) use the concept knowledge creation in order to differentiate between knowledge building and knowledge creation. They see the former as deriving from the learning sciences and latter from the organizational sciences. Both these approaches consider knowledge as created, rather than discovered.

In their view, Knowledge creation refers to learning organizations. Knowledge creation is about a socio-cognitive process in which the tacit knowledge of individuals figures centrally both as source and an outcome. Organizations develop and became more productive and efficient through the knowledge  process of knowledge creation. Also, within the knowledge creation approach, students are valued for their contribution. Students learning is not a process taking place within their minds. Rather, learning is a shared process aiming for a certain outcome.

While organizational sciences see learning and human development as tools for better organizational performance, learning sciences consider learning and human development as aims in themselves. What can we expect of the students, and what conditions for leaning and development can we set?

Insightful interpretations or explanations of the work of others qualify as knowledge creation, as do identification and clarification of problems, providing supportive or disconfirming findings, offering a different perspective on an issue, and even popularizing knowledge advances – putting them within reach of the less sophisticated. All of these are within the capacity of students working collaboratively. (Scardamalia & Bereiter 2014, 398.)

One strong argument for the knowledge creation approach within learning sciences is that they prepare students for the current conditions of life in general and working life especially. These are the 21st century skills for the knowledge driven societies and knowledge driven organizations.

The knowledge creation approach is developed through different concepts.  According to Krajcik & Shin (2014) project-based learning (PBL) environments have certain key features such as (i) the driving question, a problem to be solved; (ii) focus on learning goals; (iii) student participation in scientific practices, etc.

In the pursuit of solving the driving question, students engage in a meaningful process which is characterized by social interaction and the use of cognitive tools. In project based learning, driving questions are selected or students can develop their own driving questions for projects. A good driving question is feasible (students can design and perform investigations in order to answer the question), worthwhile (they contain rich scientific content), (iii) contextualized (relate with real world), (iv) meaningful (interesting and exciting) (v) ethical (not harming the participants’ environment etc.) (ibid. 281.)

Problem based learning, on the other hand, is “an active approach to learning in which learners collaborate in understanding and solving complex, ill-structured problems” (Lu et al 298). Central to problem based learning is the tutorial process. The facilitator, usually a member of the teaching staff, uses different strategies in order to enhance learning and problem solving. These include the use of open-ended and metacognitive questions, revoicing, summarizing, etc. (ibid. 307.)

Also, the role of the problems themselves is high-lighted. Out of four types of problems (diagnostic problems, design problems, strategic performance problems and decision-making problems), two are the most efficient. Design problems and strategic performance problems proved the greatest achievement effects. Design problems involve creating an artifact, generally based on a set of functional specifications. Strategic performance problems ask for “applying tactics to meet strategy in real-time complex performance” (ibid. 304-5).

For the knowledge creation approach in general, Scardamalia and Bereiter suggest that a meta-discourse should be created and supported. This is especially important from the point of view of engagement of all students in sustained creative activities. Metadiscourse is the discourse of the students themselves regarding their ongoing   building practice and discourse. It is a discourse on discourse. Students should be given tools and stimulus to discuss and evaluate their progress, ways of argumentation and recognizing and dealing with obstacles etc. (Scardamalia & Bereiter 2014, 407),

The previous issue relates with the question of adequate and authoritative literature. In an information society, where information is more and more easily available, it has become more and more unclear who or what defines the authoritative sources of literature. Traditionally literature has been regarded as providing the theory on a given issue, while student engagement in the practical process provides the practice or experiment. Who should provide the coherent theoretical and conceptual framework for the students in which to reflect on their practical process?

This is also one of the skills in the 21st century tool box. Transliteracy, the ability to use different sources of information in order to produce a coherent understanding of the phenomena and issue at hand, is a valuable skill.

Bereiter (2014) uses the term principled practical knowledge to refer to know-how combined with know-why. In a more formal manner principled practical knowledge can be defined as “explanatorily coherent practical knowledge” (Bereiter 2014). This type of knowledge is created in the process of solving problems. However, there is an additional element here. Instead of merely solving a problem at hand, explanatorily coherent practical knowledge includes aspects that are useful beyond the immediate problem. These elements enable the development of the field of practice.

Explanatorily coherent practical knowledge does not make a difference between conceptual knowledge and practical knowledge. It is explanatory, it makes easier to understand the issue and the field at hand. Also, it is coherent. Explanatory practical knowledge cannot refer only to one issue or topic. Rather, the reference is on the wider field which is explained and described coherently.

Open Innovation 2.0 and UAS curriculum: the case of Diak

Within the Finnish framework, institutions of higher education are relatively free to set they own curriculum. Legislation (Ammattikorkeakoululaki 20.3.2015/325 14§; Valtioneuvoston asetus ammattikorkeakouluista 18.12.2014/1129), the definition of competences for each profession (i.e. social worker, nurse, etc. defined by network of UAS’s) and the UAS contracts with Ministry of Education set a frame for institutions of higher education to create they own curriculum.

Diak published a new curriculum in the fall of 2014. Compared with the previous one, Curriculum 2015 is structured differently and includes new biases. Here I will focus only on the issues relevant to the topic at hand, without trying to cover all the aspects of Curriculum 2015.

From the RDI point of view, Curriculum 2015 builds on the idea and practice of participatory action research. Partners, citizens and service users should be included in the RDI process. They should not be considered as objects of the study. Rather, they should be understood as active participants of the process. Within Diak, participatory action research goes under the acronym OSKE (Osallistava ja tutkiva kehittäminen; see Gothoni et al 2015).

Even if the thesis process is traditionally the central channel for a student to take part in RDI, Curriculum 2015 aims further. Participatory action research should be present also in other study units, not only in those related to thesis process.

On the level of implementation, this means the integration of different processes. These include the process of the students, the Diak RDI –process and the process of the Diak partners. Within Diak, there had been previous attempts to integrate these aspects. However, Curriculum 2015 is unique because for the first time these ideas are included in the curriculum. Previous attempts to bring together the student process with RDI were less structured and based on the decisions of individual lecturers. Within Curriculum 2015 there are specific study modules under the OSKE head-line to give a defined place and room for the practices integrating the students’ process, the RDI –process and the needs of the Diak partners.

Having a new curriculum is not enough, however. An implementation process is also needed. Implementation took place in phases. The way to arrange the co-operation between the students, lecturers and Diak partners is based on the long lasting collaborative workshops. These workshops are called OSKE -workshops. Several workshops were to be set up, each based on the specified theme. The core of each workshop is practical co-operation between the Diak teaching staff (i.e. lecturers) and the representatives of Diak partners.

Since the OSKE –study modules form the core of the thesis process for the student, it was necessarily to make sure that these study modules provide possibilities for students to plan and execute one’s thesis process. During the process, questions of innovation pedagogy and entrepreneurship studies were taken up. As a result, Innovation pedagogy and entrepreneurship studies were considered necessary to include these aspects into the OSKE –study modules.

In order to facilitate different ways of developing and indicating students’ professional competencies, an OSKE –blog was developed and taken into use in spring 2016. This is based on the older Diak experiment with a blog provided for students (Alavaikko 2010). The OSKE –blog provides an easy access publication channel for students to publish their texts, videos, photographs etc. The OSKE -blog also creates a semi-open forum for communication between students, lecturers and Diak partners. Students and the Diak staff can comment on each other’s ideas, external experts and Diak partners can be invited to comment on a student’s publications. (Alavaikko 2016.)

Arenas for interaction

Several arenas for interaction were created. First of all, the OSKE blog aims to bring together students, lecturers and Diak partners. It provides a possibility to communicate ideas and implementation plans from students to lecturers and Diak partners. Furthermore, OSKE blog gives a possibility to comment on these ideas and develop them further.

Since the first study modules were implemented fall 2015, became apparent that a forum for student recruitment was needed. There was no channel to recruit students into the OSKE –workshops.  To meet the need for student recruitment, the first OSKE –forums were arranged in February 2016. The OSKE –forum is an event taking place in each of Diak campuses. OSKE –forum lasts approximately 3 hours and brings together students, Diak lecturers and Diak partners.

The OSKE –forum is a key element in combining the student process, the Diak RDI -process and Diak partners. Their schedule defines possibilities to combine processes of different shareholders. For instance, there are short term projects (1-4 months). They have a limited possibility to be linked with the students’ process. On the other hand, scheduling OSKE –forums beginning at the beginning of the term, means that planning needs to be done during the previous term. Lecturers need to work with their partners, plan what they provide for the students at the next OSKE -forum and during next term.

This way, several arenas for interaction were created. First of all, OSKE workshops are the central element of the system. They are the ones where cooperation takes place, where credits are turned into action and practical real-life problems are solved. These long term processes bring together students, staff members (lecturers and RDI) and partners (business, public sector, civil society).

On the other hand, OSKE forums, arranged 1-2 times every semester at every Diak campus, are the arena for networking and student recruitment into OSKE workshops. Thirdly, the OSKE –blog makes one arena of its own. While the OSKE forums take place 1-2 times every semester, the blog remains. Future students can build on the texts and other products published by the previous student generations, students can interact amongst each other and exchange ideas with the Diak staff members and partners.

The blog for testing one’s ideas is central during the first stage, innovation and planning. Innovation and planning of one’s process consists of two courses, one focused purely on innovation and the other focused on creating a plan for executing and documenting one’s idea. Students’ ideas are based on the earlier Diak projects with domestic or EU funding, and/or ongoing cooperation with our partners. These ideas are published in the blog. This means that ideas can be commented on by ‘outsiders’, outsiders referring here to representatives of projects and organizations outside Diak.

Several cooperation processes between students, faculty members and partners are currently taking place. (i.e. Alavaikko et al 2016). Considering these experiences, it is possible to reflect between the pedagogical theories (above) and reality of the pedagogical practice within Diak.

As discussed by Krajcik & Shin (2014) above, experience has proved that the nature of the problem is significant. Also, the tutorial process is of central importance, as pointed out by Lu et al. (2014). However, there is a certain aspect in Diak OSKE –practices that theoretical approaches above fail to acknowledge. All problems, tasks or challenges that students are facing within OSKE practices, are real. They are provided by Diak partners (private, public, NGOs) for the student teams. The student teams then work collaboratively in solving these problems, in projects facilitated by staff lecturers. In order to highlight this aspect, the Living labs approach is defined below.

Living Labs approach and Open innovation 2.0

By Living labs, we mean reconstructing the interaction space. This space for interaction can be any space, anywhere, suitable for collaborative design, the application of knowledge for empowerment, uplift, and the development of people and communities for the use of innovation. (quote from the interview, Leminen et al 2012.)

Living labs wish to accentuate their informal nature and define themselves as a movement (Garcia et al. 2015, 16-27). Still, there are certain ways of formalizing Living labs. Living labs are benchmarked by European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), and through benchmarking process it is possible to get a membership in ENoLL. Five basic requirements for a Living labs are as follows:

  • active user involvement (i.e. empowering end users to thoroughly impact the innovation process)
  • real-life setting (i.e. testing and experimenting with new artefacts ”in the wild”)
  • multi-stakeholder participation (i.e. the involvement of technology providers, service providers, relevant institutional actors, professional or residential end users)
  • a multi-method approach (i.e. the combination of methods and tools originating from e.g. ethnography, psychology, sociology, strategic management, engineering)
  • co-creation (i.e. iterations of design cycles with different sets of stakeholders).

(Garcia et al 2015, 19)

Apart from this ‘official’ definition, Living lab is also used as general reference to practices and organizations of similar characteristics, with or without membership in ENoLL (i.e. Curley 2016, 314). In this general sense Living Labs refer to user-centric research methodology for sensing, prototyping, validating and refining complex solutions in multiple and evolving real life contexts.

In fact, Living labs are usually seen within the discourse of innovation and co-creation. Open Innovation 2.0 and the concept of innovation ecosystems put innovation onto the forefront. Innovation is regarded as a driver for economic growth. (OECD 1998). For these reasons, innovation discourse has a strong political backing and therefore innovation draws economical and other resources. In the current discussion, Open Innovation 2.0. and innovation ecosystems came hand in hand.

[i]nnovation as a discipline has now moved from being something invented by a brilliant researcher, through the era of open innovation, into an ecosystem-centric view of innovation, where the ecosystem is often the distinguishing unit of success, not individual companies or universities. (Curley & Salmelin 2013, 3.)

No company or institution of higher education can pursue their aims alone. Co-operation is the key to success. What is also needed is openness. Ideas need to be tested and developed together or by the users, not in an isolated laboratory.  Quaprable helix refers to academia, government, civil society and business to work together in developing products and practices (Curley & Salmelin 2013; Curley 2016).

In a sense, the circle is full: the innovation ecosystem, with co-operation and co-creation between academia, government, society and business, provides a framework and a function for institutions of higher education to engage in development processes, providing challenges for students and staff members alike. On the other hand, institutions of higher education want to ‘mingle in’, they wish to be part of the regional ecosystem of private companies, public sector organizations and civil society. They wish to find they place in the quaprable helix for Open Innovation 2.0, formed in the co-operation of academia, government, private sector and civil society.

As for the concepts, I will use the Living Labs approach in order to refer to the web of concepts created by Living Labs, Open Innovation 2.0 and Innovation ecosystems. They are interlinked and related, even if they all have they own point of reference. The idea of innovation ecosystems forms the rationale for institutions of higher education to seek their place alongside the public sector, the private sector and civil society. Within this framework, institutions of higher education seek to relate with local and global systems of innovation, economics and production (i.e. ecosystem).

Open innovation 2.0 comes hand-in-hand with the idea of innovation ecosystems. Open Innovation 2.0 underlines the open nature of the way innovations are understood to come about. While RDI used to be the business for the highly ranked experts, innovation is currently understood as an open, almost chaotic system where the brokering of seemingly unfitting ideas and approaches plays the crucial role. Innovation is not about geniuses in their ivory towers, innovation is about every one of us relating our ideas with others.

The driving force behind Open Innovation 2.0 and Innovation ecosystems is that innovation is believed to be the central ingredient of economic growth. Living Labs, both in their formal and loose sense, form the practice where the representatives of academia, civil society, public and private sector come together for innovation. Universities feel the pressure: the list of most innovative universities in the world was currently published (Ewalt 2015).

Without the openness of the current practice of innovation, students who are not yet experts would not have a role in the innovation. Within the framework of Open Innovation 2.0 students can represent the everyman and everywoman in the innovation process, while at the same time learning the ideas and procedures of the innovation. Organizations representing the private and the public sector and civil society are the ones that UAS’s co-operate with, in that they bring them into contact with students. These organizations provide students with content, with tasks for their assignments, team-works and theses. It is then a task for the teaching staff to arrange and formulate these tasks so that they communicate with the curriculum and are functional and logical from the pedagogical point of view.

It should also be noted that the discourse of innovation forms something resembling an ideology. Key words are the economic growth and national competitiveness, as Professor Pauli Kettunen has pointed out (Kettunen 2011). Innovation discourse is not politically or socially neutral. According to Kettunen, innovation discourse it is not merely a question of how to arrange elements of RDI in the best possible order. Innovation discourse has its connotations and political implications also.


I propose the Living Labs approach to be used when referring to pedagogical practices that fulfill the following criteria:

  • real life problems and challenges (the public sector, the private sector, NGOs) are brought into pedagogical practice
  • activity takes place in an ecosystem (multi-stakeholder environment)
  • active user-involvement is central for the process

The Living labs approach does not remove a need for other theoretical concepts. On the contrary, the knowledge creation approach in general and problem based learning and project based learning are the most relevant tools in analyzing and designing the students’ processes within the Living Labs approach.

It is also important to differentiate the Living Labs approach from other pedagogical approaches within knowledge creation. Differentiation is important in order to be able discuss possible problems and challenges.

For instance, it is possible that a focus on the needs of the partnering institutions and their clients overshadows the pedagogical aims. The development and learning of the students should be the aim of the pedagogical institutions. How to combine this aim with the aims of partnering organizations?

The Living Labs approach brings into light further topics. A significant dimension is that attention should be paid to the problem itself. In this respect, problem based learning identifies two dimensions. First, how structured the problem is, and secondly, how complex the problem is (Lu et al 304-305). However, the framework where the problem is set receives less attention. Within the Living Lab approach, problems are supposed to be real-life problems. Urge to solve real-life problems with real-life partners creates a new, difficult-to-control dimension into the learning process.

Even if the literature suggests that problem based learning should be the core of the curriculum rather than an addition (Lu et al 2015, 300), there are also other catch-words present. Innovation pedagogy, entrepreneurship studies, start-ups… How to relate these together, how to include these aspects into a curriculum and still have a logical and approachable curriculum?

It is, however, also a pedagogical and practical question how to arrange the principles of Open Innovation 2.0 and Living Lab within an institution of higher education. How to create arenas for sharing and discussion and interaction (civil society, business, government) within a pedagogical institution? What type of the student process is needed and what type of arenas (virtual, face-to-face, mixed, etc.) are needed at the different stages of the process? How to link the pedagogical approach with interests in business and government and civil society interests?

Also, an ecosystem -type of environment (different types of organizations, focus on the contacts, sharing and learning between organizations, not within a given organization) poses new challenges from the pedagogical point of view. There is a significant amount of literature on the management of innovative ecosystems and networks (i.e. Harmaakorpi 2013; Parjanen 2014; Prince 2014). This literature needs to be related with pedagogical theory and practice.


Mika Alavaikko, Lecturer, development team leader, Master’s Degree in Social Sciences, Diaconia University of Applied Sciences, Finland, mika.alavaikko(at)diak.fi

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