Authors: Marcelo Giglio, Mauri Kantola, Mervi Friman, Inneke Berghmans & Manuel Peixoto.
In this Special Issue The European Association for Practitioner Research on Improving Learning (EAPRIL) joins forces with the Journal of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS Journal) to highlight practitioner-researchers’ visions of future education and learning. This is the second special issue reported by EAPRIL and UAS journal (see https://uasjournal.fi/arkisto/eapril/). EAPRIL and UAS Journal both focus on research and development in education. That is, on the one hand, UAS Journal focuses on the fields of practice-oriented higher education in Finland since 2011 and, on the other hand, EAPRIL focuses on practice-based research and bridging research and practice with the aim to improve learning, both in education and organisations.
From the point of view of the higher education research, the classification proposed by Teichler (1996) may serve a good basis to analyse the themes of the articles included in this special issue. As of the beginning of the millennium, Teichler’s classification proved to be an important model for structuring higher education research (Ahola & Hoffman 2012). In addition to the classification itself, Teichler’s four areas of research have thought to include links to the different knowledge interests in various fields of science.
Teichler (1996) has argued that research on the challenges in our demanding higher educational system has an integrative task on two important stages: firstly, it aims to stimulate the use of theories, paradigms and methods of the various disciplines, and secondly to integrate knowledge concepts in different disciplines. He has pointed out that if research on higher education tries to draw from single disciplines, paradigms and spheres of higher educational research, this might be only appropriate for a minority of themes. It could also lead to artificially narrowing the scope of the subject, which is not suitable for striking the balance between theoretical insight and a sufficiently complex understanding of the object of analysis (Teichler 1996). In this sense, the Teichlerian framework (Teichler 1996, 2000, 2003) also suits our purposes when studying the included articles of our special issue, as this special issue aims for a multidimensional approach, covering various paradigms and settings.
In this issue, the pedagogical research has been popular among authors. These themes have included questions that have otherwise also sparked plenty of discussion in the public platform. Workplace orientation towards the future of students, including workplace relations and employment, has not been a particularly common topic in this edition. The classification of the articles presents clearly the profile of EAPRIL, which promotes practice-based research on learning issues in the context of initial, formal, lifelong and organisational learning. EAPRIL’s mission is to bring together persons who are interested in the connections and reflections between research and practice. (https://www.eapril.org).
* * *
Last year, EAPRIL hosted its 12th annual conference under the theme ‘Inspired by the visions of future education and learning’ in Hämeenlinna, Finland, at the Häme University of Applied Sciences in close cooperation with the Federation of Universities of Applied Sciences (FUAS). This EAPRIL 2017 Conference proved to be a rich space for creative, innovative and reflexive exchanges between delegates. It has inspired the EAPRIL Executive Board to call for papers on this important topic, looking from the past to the present, but also anticipating the future visions of education and learning based on current views and expertise. This particular focus complies with the contemporary need of the world and, consequently, with the current need of all the levels of education and training. Starting this millennium, UNESCO promoted a humanistic vision of learning based on principles as respect for life, the human dignity, the cultural diversities, the social justice and international solidarity presented. It was reported in the two landmark publications by UNESCO ‘Learning to Be’ (Faure et al. 1972) and ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’ (Delors et al. 1996). Between 2010 and 2016 several informal and formal meetings of UNESCO served as platform opportunities to reflect and present frameworks for competencies and learning objectives for Education for Sustainable Development, Global Citizenship Education on the future of education and skills programmed by OECD. Some of the conclusions were that education needs to aim at interdisciplinary learning and students’ competencies to solve problems through multiple lenses considering an uncertain and volatile world. The publication ’The Future of Education and Skills 2030’ (OECD 2018) offers a shared vision on the advice as need for new solutions in a rapidly changing world; need for broader education goals with individual and collective well-being; learner agency – navigating through a complex and uncertain world – ; need for a broad set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values in action; competencies to transform our society and shape our future; and design principles for moving toward an eco-systemic change. Giglio (2014) identifies five dimensions of educational and institutional creativity and innovation:
the purpose of the change as a challenge to the future,
the reaction to change by actors,
the creative action to improve the roles and skills of the actors,
the social interaction between individuals and partnerships, and
the forms of contribution to the future.
In this international context the contributions of this EAPRIL – UAS Journal Special Issue address practice-based research as a form of inquiry, to share visions, ideas and solutions that inspire the presence and future of education, while acknowledging historical-cultural backgrounds. In fact, different contributions and discussions organised at the EAPRIL 2017 Conference illustrate how our professional experiences and research are situated in this evolutional world. Step by step, we face new opportunities for human advancement in the future of education. Creating and following-up on these opportunities entail uncertain and unpredicted creativity and innovation of education and learning. However, current research can help to understand, reflect and anticipate some of these problems and/or to provide some tools and methods to improve learning. Looking back at the past years, we can sense the speediness of change experienced today. How can we consider this in the future of education and learning? How can we utilise current practitioner research as a doorway to the future? The universities of applied science have definitely a crucial role to serve in educational research. However, which designs, methods, tools and ideas are pivotal? What are (or should be) the roles of educators, developers and employees in evolutionary forms of thinking and acting of students and employees in a continued evolution of technologies?
Knowledge, working, research, teaching, and learning are never exhaustive and always evolutionary. Consequently, a future vision on education and learning cannot be but a part of the current and professional thinking and acting of educational practitioners and researchers.
This EAPRIL – UAS Journal Special Issue hopes to contribute to the development of education, curiosity, imagination, creativity and innovation by presenting ideas, perspectives and values of our contributors. Both ‘study cases’ and ‘research results’ are presented in this Special Issue, matching our aim to bridge practice and research. Both will demonstrate the important role of practice-based research as a form of inquiry, of creating and sharing visions, dreams, new ideas and innovative solutions, all with the aim to inspire both contemporary and future educational developments, while acknowledging historical-cultural backgrounds.
It was a pleasure to edit the articles of this Special Issue, which invited us to reflect and to (re)think our own understanding of education, today and tomorrow, generating new ideas on living, working, learning, teaching and research. We hope these articles can plant some seeds for new educational developments, covering our foremost aim of improving learning for the future.
Marcelo Giglio, HEP-BEJUNE, Switzerland & University of Neuchâtel Mauri Kantola, Turku University of Applied Sciences, Finland Mervi Friman, Häme University of Applied Sciences, Finland Inneke Berghmans, University of Leuven/EAPRIL Project manager, Belgium Manuel Peixoto, EAPRIL Board, Portugal
Delors, J., Al Mufti, I., Amagi, I., Carneiro, R., Chung, F., Geremek, B., Gorham, W., Kornhauser, A., Manley, M., Padron Quero, M., Savane, M.-A., Singh, K., Stavenhagen, R., Won Suhr, M. & Nanzhao, Z. (1996). The treasure within. Report to UNESCO of the international commission on education for the twenty first century. UNESCO Publishing. Referred 25 June 2018: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0010/001095/109590eo.pdf
Faure, E., Herrera, F., Kaddoura, A.-R., Lopes, H., Petrovsky, A. V., Rahnema, M. & Champion Ward, F. (1972). Learning to be. The world of education today and tomorrow. UNESCO. Referred 25 June 2018: http://www.unesco.org/education/pdf/15_60.pdf
Teichler, U. (2000). Higher education research and its institutional basis. In S. Schwarz and U. Teichler (eds.), The institutional basis of higher education research – Experiences and perspectives. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 13–24.
Teichler, U. (2003). The future of higher education and the future of higher education research. Tertiary Education and Management, 9, 171–185.
Recent developments in brain research methodology allow the use of neuroscientific methods in natural learning situations in order to monitor learning while it happens, which makes neuroscience a relevant tool for educational sciences.
The paper discusses the role of neuroscience in understanding learning, shows how the variations in the learner’s physiological status can be measured, and discusses their effect on learning.
Two important lines of neuroscientific research in education are discussed in more detail. First, the benefits of using music in learning are presented from the brain development and plasticity point of view. Second, studies on the use of embodied learning methods are presented, highlighting the role of physical activity, craft and design activities in developing embodied cognitive capacities.
Finally, future trends of neuroscience in learning are presented, drafting a future where neuroscience has an empowering role in the everyday lives of learners. Understanding individual learning and physiological states may change the way that we organize learning.
The decade of the brain, the 1990’s, was the advent of neuroscientific methodologies in a large scale. Funding invested in the development of accurate and usable, non-invasive and precise neuroscientific measurement instruments, devices, systems, and methodologies paid off, and multi-channel electroencephalogram (EEG) measurements, magnetoencephalography (MEG) with whole-head systems, structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI, fMRI) and navigated transcranial magnetic brain stimulation (NBS and TMS) became possible in hundreds and later in thousands of research laboratories around the world.
After the decade of the brain, the neuroscientific devices have taken two opposite paths of development. First, laboratories are investing in more and more accurate devices, including higher magnetic field strengths in MRI and fMRI, very large number of electrodes in EEG and hundreds of channels in MEG, and combinations of adjacent or even simultaneous measurements with different methods. This high-precision line of development makes the results far greater in temporal and/or spatial accuracy and can thus reveal new details of brain structure and function. It should be noted, however, that this development is restricted solely to laboratory settings. For this reason, the second path of device and method development has taken the opposite turn. With a very fast preparation, mobile and affordable devices based often on EEG or other physiological electric signal recorded from skin surface with electrodes or light, offer the possibility to move to the locations of natural environments, schools, day-care centers, work places or even outside, and study real-life events. With this natural-environment path, the temporal and spatial accuracy of the experiment usually cannot be as good as in the laboratory setting, but this is compensated by the natural environment, natural stimulation, and larger amounts of data collected easily from large groups of people even simultaneously and for extended periods of time, sometimes even by the participants themselves.
Both of these development paths, extreme accuracy in laboratory settings and maximal naturalness in real-life settings, are important for learning research. In laboratory settings, the brain indices of key cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory, and learning can be accurately studied in isolation and basing the studies on the large amount of prior data collected from the same processes in earlier research. Such studies can reveal phenomena that could not be observed without accurate neuroscientific data. An example of studies in both paths, with high relevance for understanding learning, are presented here.
A good example of laboratory-based studies crucial for understanding learning is that of Näätänen et al. (1993). They studied the process of learning to perceive a complex sound (fast mini-melody) and to detect minor changes in the sound (Näätänen et al., 1993). In the first experiment, they gave their fourteen participants a test of detection accuracy asking them to press the button every time they observed a change in the sound. The test was performed three times after being passively exposed to the sounds for 30, 60, and 90 minutes. Five participants could perform the task adequately, while two participants could not detect the changes in the sounds. Interestingly, seven participants learned to detect the changes during the experiment (their performance in detection improved from the beginning to the end of the experiment). In their second experiment, they tested fourteen new participants only once after being passively exposed to the sounds for 90 minutes.
This laboratory-based experiment yielded several interesting and important results. First, the brain responses of the three groups of performers in the first experiment differed drastically from each other. Those five participants who could perform the task already in the initial test showed fast and clear brain responses to the changes, while the brain responses of those who learned to detect the changes improved step by step. Importantly, their brain responses showed increases prior to the learning being evident in their performance, highlighting the possibilities of neuroscience to detect skills that have not yet materialized in the behavior of the learner. Further, no improvement was seen in the brain responses of the participants of the second experiment which involved only passive exposure, highlighting the importance of testing and the power of attentive listening in learning.
A good example of maximal naturalness in real-life learning situations is that of Leinikka et al. (2016). We studied the physiological responses of artists and art students while they were drawing and forming clay in a studio. Here, data from 30 participants were collected during the actual process of drawing and forming, while wearing portable sensors (Faros, Mega Electronics, Finland) capable of recording the full electrocardiogram and accelerometers (Actigraph, GENEActiv, Finland) on their both wrists for hand movement detection. In a quasi-controlled situation, the participants performed three different given tasks (copying based on a photo of a cup, designing a cup, and free improvisation). The cardiac activity measures, especially those reflecting the activity of the autonomous nervous system, showed interesting connections to both the material and to the task that the participants were performing. Working with the clay was physically more demanding than drawing, which was reflected in several heart-rate variability (HRV) parameters. The greatest amount of free mental resources was observed in the design and improvisation tasks in fast drawing compared to any other task. The results suggest that free improvisation involving drawing fast, improvised works, seems to be the most effective way of freeing mental resources. The HRV effects were consistent with the participants’ own views of physical and mental stress. This study shows that even demanding learning tasks related to creative work can be studied with physiological methods in conditions that greatly resemble natural learning situations.
The two experiments above are presented in order to highlight the possibilities of neuroscientific and physiological measurements in understanding learning processes. A good knowledge of the brain indices of memory, attention and perception in laboratory-based settings allows researchers to move away from laboratories and to study learning in real-life situations. Results from physiological studies highlight the importance of building motivation, states of flow, collaboration, and goal-directed actions in learning, and the importance of the awareness of the physiological state of the learner (see below). Such studies also show the harmfulness of poor learning environments, including acoustic and visual noise, for learning (see below). For the first time in history, we now have the tools to monitor learning while it happens, and to see how the brain reacts to different types of learning environments, learning methods, and physiological conditions. This makes neuroscience a relevant tool for educational sciences.
Below I will present some examples and the most relevant approaches from neurosciences to education and learning.
Neuroscience of learning environments
Learning environments have important physical and mental characteristics that give boundary conditions for learning. Studying distractions caused by sudden sounds in the environment have shown that surprising, unpredictable sounds make learning less efficient. Every time a sound starts in the environment, even when the learner is not paying attention to it or does not feel distracted by the sound, the auditory system will invest some resources in analyzing the sound acoustic properties. These analysis processes are partially unconscious and have developed in order for the auditory system to be able to detect potential dangers in the environment.
The most distracting background sound stimulus in learning situations is intelligible speech. Speech that can be understood will load the phonetic loop of the brain, which is also needed in reading, writing, and speaking. In contrast, unintelligible babble does not load the phonetic loop.
Interestingly, listening to background music during learning may be beneficial for some learners. In most studies, listening to fast and pleasant music prior to learning has been shown to enhance learning and performance in cognitive tests, while results from studies researching the effects of listening to music while learning are more mixed.
Acoustic characteristics of learning spaces affect learning. Long reverberation times and high background noise levels decrease speech intelligibility and increase the effort needed to achieve learning.
Also visual noise in learning environments can be disturbing to learning. Observing movement especially in the peripheral areas of the visual field gives rise to distractions. Such problems are far fewer in smaller rooms and smaller group sizes.
The key importance of the physiological state for learning
The physiological state can be defined as a combination of the operating modes of the physiological systems in the human body, including the autonomous and central nervous systems and especially the hypothalamus-pituitary-axis, the hormonal systems, the cardiac and blood circulation systems, breathing, and muscle movements including blinking. Most typically, these systems follow the emotional state and physical activity of the individual, optimizing the mental and physical performance for each condition.
The cardiac system is a fast-reacting system that reflects the presence of both physical stressors like movement and physical activity, and mental stressors like fear or anxiety. The activity of the cardiac system is most typically investigated by recording the electro-cardiogram (ECG), an electric signal originating from the heart muscle and nerves that accurately depicts the fast and slow regulatory changes in the activity of the heart. For example, the heart-rate variability (HRV) is the natural fluctuation in the beat-to-beat (R-R) intervals of the heart. It reflects the current activity status of the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomous nervous system. Increased mental stress leads to decreased HRV, which is a sign of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and a decrease in the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is typically associated with faster heart rate, higher muscular tension, faster breathing, and feeling tense, irritated and/or restless. Generally, short-term increase in HRV is associated with relaxation, openness and positive mental efforts, while long-term high levels of HRV are related to good health. Previous studies (Cinaz et al., 2013) have shown that several time- and frequency-domain HRV measures are relevant in tracking the interaction between cognitive and physiological processes. It should be noted that while levels of physiological arousal and stress are highly correlated with these physiological signals, there is no measure of the direction of the emotional valence, i.e. is the learner experiencing positive or negative emotions.
The variations in the learner’s physiological status are highly important in characterizing the learning. States of flow are the most optimal physiological states of learning, and feelings of fear, threat or other strong negative emotions, as well as low-activity negative emotions like boredom are not boosting or enabling learning. It is important to note that these can be measured and recognized, both in individual learners and in groups of learners, with non-intrusive, low-cost devices, and this information can be used to guide learning. Specifically, choosing the learning methods, environments, groups, goals and tasks of learning could be directly based on the physiological data of the learners. Such data could be empowering to the learners and guide them in understanding and optimizing their own learning.
Maestro, music, please! How could music enhance learning?
The benefits of using music in learning have been shown both from the brain development and plasticity point of view, showing benefits of long-term practicing to play a musical instrument or to sing, but also in terms of short-term benefits altering one’s physiological state by listening to carefully chosen music.
Several studies have shown the long-term benefits of learning music: the musician’s brain in terms of cortical and subcortical capacity, connections, both in structure and function, are used as an example of learning benefits of music activities. Adult musicians’ brains show changes that seem beneficial both in young and old age. Long-term cognitive benefits of music learning have been shown in small children (Hyde et al., 2009; Putkinen et al., 2014a), school-aged children (Putkinen et al., 2014b), and hearing-impaired children (Torppa et al., 2014a, 2014b). Minor deficiencies in language processing have been shown to be alleviated with group music activities (Kraus et al., 2015; Overy et al., 2000; 2003). All in all, learning to sing and play a musical instrument has plastic effects on the brain that make it easier to learn other things.
Music is very fast in changing the physiological state. Already after some dozens of seconds of listening to music, physiological changes in bodily functions can be measured. Thus, carefully chosen music is a potential tool for changing the physiological state towards a more optimal state for learning. Many learners practically know how to use music to help their learning: they listen to their favorite, fast, energizing music before doing their homework to motivate themselves, or reduce stress by listening to calming, pleasant music (Saarikallio et al., 2013). Conscious use of music prior to or even during learning may help some learners, but it can also be distracting. It is important to note that the effects of music vary largely across individuals according to their distractability and history of music listening. Individuals with musical training are more often distracted by background music during learning than others, while individuals with attentional problems seem to benefit from background music more often than other learners.
Embodied learning occurs in the brain with the help of the body
Embodied cognition can be defined as a dependency and shaping of human cognition by its interaction with its environment by using the body (Johnson, 1987; 2007; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Noë, 2004; 2009). Action and perception appear as key methods in knowledge formation, creativity, and learning. Hence, neuroscientific research related to embodiment and motor activities demonstrate how motor processes are connected to cognitive functions (Borghia & Cimattic, 2010; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Embodied cognition is reflected in the research paradigms and research designs of cognitive science, when researchers study the human-environment system as well as the situated and embodied nature of human cognition (Hari & Kujala, 2009).
Craft and design activities are complex brain activities that allow part of our cognitive capacities to be located in an embodied space, between the brain and the hands, and between brains and hands of groups of people. Utilizing craft and design as learning methods is making use of embodied capabilities of the learners.
Physical activity during learning and as a lifestyle have been shown to affect learning capabilities and especially memory functions. Interventions of physical activity are shown to increase learning results both in school children and in the elderly. Increase of physical activity was also shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus and enhance memory functions.
Several neuroscientific studies presented above and elsewhere reflect the importance of the active use of the body, in crafts, in design, and in physical activity in general, for the optimisation of learning. The applications of this knowledge, however, are not straightforward and need pedagogical development in order to succeed. Potential caveats include auditory and visual distraction when physical movement is not relevant or guided.
Future use of neuroscience in learning and education
The future use of neuroscience in understanding learning include research at several levels. First, highly accurate simulations of learning events, occurring in brain research laboratories with precision instruments, offer new insight into the details of learning processes. Second, experiments in natural conditions in schools, day-care centers, universities and work places will help us understand a holistic view of learning, taking into account different learning methods, learning spaces and inter-individual differences in a much more detailed fashion than ever before. In the future, it is possible that schools want to utilize such measurements when planning large-scale changes like changes of learning environments, or when aiming at solving problems in learning. Third, neuroscientific measurements may become a normal part of the daily lives of learners. We can compare this development to the treatment of diabetes: currently, the measurement of blood sugar level is something that diabetic individuals do every day, even though some decades ago it was not possible to get such information so quickly. In the future, each learner may want to have information on his/her brain activity, physiological status, and learning in order to optimize learning efforts and outcomes. Solutions for making the measurement easy and the data analysis automatic are becoming more and more efficient. It is just a matter of time when we have such devices and possibilities for every learner.
Understanding individual learning and physiological states may change the way that we think about learning and how we organize it. This information may profoundly change the way that we understand what learning actually is. Such changes will also demand large-scale changes in schools and in education, in their environments and how the whole educational system is organized.
Minna Huotilainen, D.Sc., Professor of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland
Borghia, M. & Cimattic, F. (2010) Embodied cognition and beyond, Neuropsychologia, 48, pp. 763–773.
Cinaz, B., La Marca, R., Arnrich, B., & Tröster, G. (2010). Monitoring of mental workload levels, In Proceedings of IADIS eHealth conference.
Hari, R & Kujala M. M.(2009). Brain Basis of Human Social Interaction: From Concepts to Brain Imaging, Physiological Reviews. Vol 89, pp. 453–479.
Hyde, K. L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A. C., & Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(10), 3019–3025. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5118-08.2009
Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Johnson, M. (2007). The meaning of the body, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Kraus, N. & Strait, D.L. (2015). Emergence of biological markers of musicianship with school-based music instruction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337, 163–169.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought, New York: Basic Books.
Leinikka, M., Huotilainen, M., Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P., Groth, C., Rankanen, M., & Mäkelä, M. (2016). Physiological measurements of drawing and forming activities. Proceedings of DRS2016: Design+ Research+ Society-Future-Focused Thinking.
Näätänen, R., Schröger, E., Karakas, S., Tervaniemi, M., & Paavilainen, P. (1993). Development of a memory trace for a complex sound in the human brain. Neuroreport: An International Journal for the Rapid Communication of Research in Neuroscience.
Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge: The MIT press.
Noë, A. (2009). Out of our heads, New York: Hill and Wang.
Overy, K. (2000). Dyslexia, temporal processing and music: The potential of music as an early learning aid for dyslexic children. Psychology of music, 28(2), 218–229.
Overy, K. (2003). Dyslexia and music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999(1), 497–505.
Putkinen, V., Tervaniemi, M., Saarikivi, K., de Vent, N., & Huotilainen, M. (2014). Investigating the effects of musical training on functional brain development with a novel Melodic MMN paradigm. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 110, 8–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2014.01.007
Putkinen, V., Tervaniemi, M., Saarikivi, K., Ojala, P., & Huotilainen, M. (2014). Enhanced development of auditory change detection in musically trained school-aged children: a longitudinal event-related potential study. Developmental Science, 17(2), 282–297. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12109
Putkinen, V., Saarikivi, K., Tervaniemi, M. (2013). Do informal musical activities shape auditory skill development in preschool-age children? Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 572. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00572
Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Reviews of Neuroscience, 27: 169–192.
Saarikallio, S., Nieminen, S., & Brattico, E. (2013). Affective reactions to musical stimuli reflect emotional use of music in everyday life. Musicae Scientiae, 17(1), 27–39.
Torppa, R., Faulkner, A., Huotilainen, M., Järvikivi, J., Lipsanen, J., Laasonen, M., & Vainio, M. (2014a). The perception of prosody and associated auditory cues in early-implanted children: the role of auditory working memory and musical activities. International Journal of Audiology, 53(3), 182–191.
Torppa, R., Huotilainen, M., Leminen, M., Lipsanen, J., & Tervaniemi, M. (2014b). Interplay between singing and cortical processing of music: a longitudinal study in children with cochlear implants. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1389.
Rapid changes in the world of work due to globalization and digitalization have transformed higher education and students’ lifelong learning, career management skills and digital competences have become more important. These skills and competences need to be strengthened in authentic settings by engaging students and making their evidence of competences transparent with ePortfolios. In this paper, the authors describe and summarize research done in five European countries and six higher education institutions on three different perspectives (student, employer, teacher) on ePortfolios. The results show that the benefits of ePortfolios need to be made clear for students and the use of ePortfolios needs to be embedded into curriculum to make it systematic and meaningful, not just some extra work. This requires new kind of collaboration between teachers but also students need to take ownership of their learning process and involve other stakeholders to their assessment, i.e. peers, representatives from the world of work. Nonetheless, from the employer interviews it is evident that ePortfolios, if done properly and with thought, can make competences and skills more visible and thus, create better matches in the recruitment processes.
Introduction and theoretical background
The critical points of the quality of learning in competence-based education are the assessment and guidance practices. However, if competence assessment is done by using traditional methods in individual basis and within the school environment, it fails to both motivate the students and to create constructive alignment of the desired competences (Biggs & Tang 2007). In addition, the assessment practices should support the development of competence-based education (Koenen, Dochy, & Berghmans 2015) as well as the 21st century skills (Voogt et al. 2013), which are crucial in the rapidly changing world of work. The globalization and digitalization have transformed studying and working environments, and students’ lifelong learning, career management skills and digital competences need to be strengthened by engaging students to be more involved in their own learning and assessment processes in higher education.
Inspiring assessment and guidance practices, like peer assessment, collaborative digital assessment, and creating evidence of competences in real life settings are still not comprehensively used in higher education (e.g. Medland 2016). Further, the use of multimodal assessments seems to be limited (Connor 2012). Creativity and innovation are needed to under-stand what the evidence of competences is in real life settings and how students can document and make their skills transparent with digital tools. The need to have a digital professional profile has been recognized, but it is evident that there is still a lack of guidance and skills to create that, both from the students’ and teachers’ point of view.
Digital portfolios have a dual meaning – they can be used as a workspace for learning and reflection process making it more transparent and inspiring, and as a showcase being the inventory of all evidence/artifacts of skills and competences (Barrett 2010). With ePortfolios, assessment is not just assessment of learning or assessment for learning, but also assessment as learning. Thus, ePortfolios are used in self and peer assessing, giving feedback, co-creating evidence of competences in shared platforms and utilizing different digital applications. This is likely to increase the students’ feeling of competence, relatedness and autonomy, which are fundamental for creating motivation and wellbeing in learning (Kunnari & Lipponen 2010; Ryan & Deci 2000). In addition, ePortfolio as a story and positive digital identity development (branding) enables students’ choice and personalization, further helping them to find their voice and passions (Friedman 2006).
In this paper, the authors analyze all the data and outcomes collected from one case study (Yin 2009) in “Empowering Eportfolio Process (EEP)” research and development project funded by the European Union, where five European countries (FI, DK, BE, PT, IE) and altogether six higher education institutes (HEIs) participated. Based on the research done in the project, this paper aims to establish a common understanding of ePortfolios and find out what the key elements and challenges in the process of using ePortfolios in higher education are. Not only that, but also how to develop the use of ePortfolios to empower and motivate students in their own learning process and how to improve their employability, and skills related to that. Thus, in this case ePortfolios and the learning and assessment processes related to them are investigated from three different perspectives (student, employer, teacher/educational institution) in order to find elements to empower and engage students.
In the framework of this paper, the authors understand ePortfolios based on the following definition of ePortfolios:
“ePortfolios are student-owned digital working and learning spaces for collecting, creating, sharing, collaborating, reflecting learning and competences, as well as storing assessment and evaluation. They are platforms for students to follow and be engaged in their personal and career development, and actively interact with learning communities and different stakeholders of the learning process.” (Kunnari & Laurikainen 2017.)
This definition highlights the dynamic nature of ePortfolios and students’ ownership, but also how connected the creation of them is to other stakeholders. To develop the use of ePortfolios it was needed to hear all the voices, students’ and teachers’, but also to study and raise the awareness in the world of work. In the current labor market, finding open positions and jobs as well as the recruitment processes are evolving through digitalization. Social networking and online presence help to connect with potential employers, and companies are increasingly following potential employees’ online presence. Indeed, there are less traditional résumés, virtual ePortfolios or résumés are easy to build (technically) and manage because one can access them from anywhere and anytime (Forbes 2011).
The aims of the research of three perspectives on ePortfolio are described below. The methodological approaches in all three are presented in the chapter Methodology.
The aim of the research done on students’ ePortfolio process was to investigate the assessment and guidance processes as well as ePortfolio environments and tools available in participating countries. In addition, the career learning and motivating or engaging aspects of the process were investigated. Ultimately, the research aimed to give an understanding on how students’ competences versus assessment practices are constructively aligned in order to create empowerment for students and what kind of tools can support this the most efficient way.
The research on employers’ perspective aimed to reveal how students’ competences and the needs of the world of work meet. In addition, it aimed to find out what kind of digital portfolios the representatives of various organizations want to see when they are recruiting a new employee and the specific things they assess from the (digital) portfolio. Educational institutions are only starting to understand the meaning of ePortfolios or online presence. Thus, educational processes do not yet fully support the building of the skills and competences needed for this new kind of job hunting. The research on employers’ expectations on digital portfolios was made to improve the ePortfolio process within educational institutions as well as to raise the awareness of employers of the benefits of ePortfolios.
The third and final research aimed to investigate teachers’ guidance processes related to ePortfolios and how ePortfolios are implemented in different participating HEIs. Further, it aimed to describe how ePortfolio processes are integrated into curriculum and how sustainable those processes are, how the assessment processes are organized, and what the structures for good utilization of ePortfolios in the learning infrastructure are.
The data for this article was collected from one case study (Yin, 2009) “Empowering Eportfolio Process (EEP)” research and development project where five European countries (FI, DK, BE, PT, IE) and altogether six higher education institutes (HEIs) participated. All of the HEIs are in different stages of implementing ePortfolios and use them in very different contexts. Two of the HEIs represent initial teacher training, one HEI is starting to integrate ePortfolios in the context of health and welfare education. On the other hand, one HEI focuses on the aspects of adult/continuing education, career guidance and recognition of prior learning, and one HEI represents the point of view of an educational development unit, which promotes the quality of academic education and supports continuing education and other forms of lifelong learning. In addition, one HEI represents both professional teacher training and bachelor level education, in this case especially in the fields of business administration and bioeconomy.
The research was done by teams of 1‒4 researchers who are experienced in different aspects of educational development (digital, pedagogical and curriculum development) as well as implementation of ePortfolios in higher education. The research was conducted between autumn 2016 and spring 2018 in the participating HEIs. During this time, the research teams communicated and collaborated through digital platforms as well as meetings in events on ePortfolios (seminars) which provided opportunities to discuss the findings and draw up common recommendations.
Data was collected in a small-scale field research on three perspectives of the ePortfolio process – from students’, employers’ and teachers’/higher education institutes’ point of view. Firstly, a desk research was made to map the current situation related to national policies, strategies and recommendations, existing practices and models in participating HEIs (and beyond) related to ePortfolios. These were collected into a digital publication “Collection of Engaging Practices in ePortfolio Process” (Kunnari & Laurikainen 2017), which was a starting point for the research on the three perspectives.
For all three studies, there was a unified framework for data collection and analyzing. However, the data collection in each country was implemented in a way that served the purposes and specific circumstances of that specific HEI and country the best possible way. Thus, the methods (e.g. surveys, interviews, literature research, and focus groups) and samples vary but still follow the same overall framework. In addition, in all HEIs participating in this research there were internal pilot activities, which fed data collection and analyzing process.
Methods in investigating students’ perspective
Due to different stages and situations in ePortfolio implementation in each country and participating HEI, the samples used to this research vary in size, degree programme, degree cycle and phase of the studies. The average size of the sample was n=19 and mainly from BA level students. The average response percentage was 35. The country specific information is provided in Table 1.
Table 1. The sample used to investigate students’ perspective on ePortfolios
(Kunnari, Laurikainen, & Torseke 2017; Korhonen, Ruhalahti, & Torseke 2017; Poulsen & Dimsits 2017; Devaere, Martens & Van den Bergh 2017; Van Eylen, & Deketelaere 2018; Pires, Rodrigues & Pessoa 2018; Choistealbha 2018).
Existing in some programmes and teacher training, Emerging in others
Existing but only in the application/ entrance phase
Existing in some courses/ programmes
Number of students
n=18 (10 BA, 8 Teacher training students)
n=16 (13 for interviews, 3 for narratives)
Sustainable Development & Professional Teacher Training
Digital technologies in VET-programmes
Medical Laboratory Technology (MLT)
Different programmes, diversity of profiles (criteria of having been in learning situation using digital media in the previous school year or being enrolled in different courses at IPS
Bachelor/Master/PhD/ continuing education/ other
BA & Professional Teacher Training
Continuing education/adult education
Two BA groups, 1 MA group
2nd year (BA), 1-year teacher students
Three classes of the same programme, two classes completed in autumn 2016 and one in sprint 2017
Three different student groups;
three groups of students for interviews (diverse profiles), three Master students for narrative writing
1st to 4th grade, During work placement – i.e. when they were beginning to utilise the ePortfolio
N/A, targeted survey
33% (15 /48 respondents)
46% (6/20 BA; 7/8 MA)
N/A, targeted survey
For investigating the students’ perspectives on ePortfolios there was a co-designed overall structure of themes and questions that was used in each participating country, however, the methods were applied based on the situation in each country. The common framework included four themes: 1) Students’ experiences and perspectives on ePortfolios, 2) Identification of the personal dimensions that facilitate students’ engagement in the ePortfolio process, 3) General competences and digital competences developed by students in the ePortfolio process (example: European Commission Framework, 2016: e.g. information and data literacy; communication and collaboration; digital content creation; safety and problem solving), and 4) The learning environments and organizational dimensions that support students in the ePortfolio process (engaging contextual conditions).
The methods of data collection and analysis as well as the content of the study from each country are introduced in Table 2.
Table 2. The methodology used to investigate students’ perspective on ePortfolios
(Kunnari, Laurikainen, & Torseke 2017; Korhonen, Ruhalahti, & Torseke 2017; Poulsen & Dimsits 2017; Devaere, Martens & Van den Bergh 2017; Van Eylen, & Deketelaere 2018; Pires, Rodrigues & Pessoa 2018; Choistealbha 2018)
Online questionnaire to a student focus group (GoogleForm)
Online questionnaire (LimeSurvey)
group interviews and narratives written by students
Online survey (SurveyMonkey)
Filled in during guidance session
Discussion of the common themes and their sub-questions described above; In addition, specific questions for teacher students about the role of ePortfolios in becoming professional teachers, user experiences, benefits/challenges while creating ePortfolios, support for facilitation, ePortfolios in assessment.
Ten open questions, statements on: challenges and possibilities of ePortfolio, competences needed to create an ePortfolio, definition of the concept “ePortfolio”.
Open questions; BAs experience of their nursing internship during 2015 and 2016 summer and their patientcare internship in December 2016; MAs had no previous experience in ePortfolios
Discussion of the common themes and their sub-questions described above
Discussion of the common themes and their sub-questions described above
The research question “What are students’ perspectives of the benefits and challenges of using ePortfolios?” guided the research: Discussion of the common themes and their sub-questions described above
Collected, compiled and analysed with the focus on emerging ePortfolio use and what needs to be addressed and taken into account
Focus on meaning-making, statements of the respondents’ about how to understand/make sense of ePortfolios (concept, learning space)
Driven by two aspects: collecting the broad variety of answers due to the exploratory focus of this study and the frequency of answers given
The responses were further outlined by frequency diagrams and by descriptive analysis
Qualitative content analysis
Thematically in line with the survey questions
Methods in investigating employers’ perspective
The research was implemented in a case study format. Again, there was a common framework and themes to investigate through individual or group thematic interviews with employers, representatives of career services, recruitment companies and other organizations. The themes to discuss were existing recruitment settings, the benefit of ePortfolios in these processes and how employers see their role in supporting the creation of ePortfolios of students, what kind of mutually benefitting collaboration there could be.
There were altogether twelve diversified cases from the participating countries: Finland with five case studies, Denmark with one, Belgium with three, Portugal and Ireland with two cases each. The cases came from the field of medical services, education, universities’ alumni and career services, human resources and recruitment services, project coordination offices, creative industries and digital services.
Methods in investigating teachers’ perspective
The participating HEIs were asked to collect data from their organizations related to teachers’ guidance practices in the ePortfolio process, how they are implemented, is the process integrated into curriculum and how sustainable it is, how the assessment is organized and what the structures for good utilization of ePortfolios in the learning infrastructure are. The research teams in participating HEIs utilized existing materials, discussed them with teachers and others involved in ePortfolio process, and based on these, drew a framework image of their organizational context related to ePortfolios.
During a seminar in Belgium in February 2018, the research teams had a wider discussion on the similarities and differences between each HEI’s context, and based on the discussions they further developed their own frameworks. A consensus was reached that it is very challenging to describe one frame that fits all HEIs due to differences in e.g. structures, programmes and digital environments. However, each HEI can present their own framework and highlight the good practices in it and thus, there is a collection of good practices that others can utilize depending on their own context.
Results of the analysis on three perspectives on ePortfolios
The methods and results from the field research in five countries on three different ePortfolio perspectives (student, teacher, employer) were reported in a structured summary by the participating HEIs. In addition, the preliminary results were presented in poster sessions during three different seminars: in Portugal in March 2017, in Ireland in September 2017 and in Belgium in February 2018. A common qualitative analysis of the findings was made based on both the summaries and the poster sessions. The following three sub-parts describe the findings from each perspective.
Students’ ePortfolio process and development of digital competence
What is evident from this research is that the use of ePortfolios is still emerging only in these six participating HEIs. There are some good examples in singular courses and study programmes but in general, the understanding of ePortfolios is not sufficient, with both students and teachers.
The students had a general positive and engaged attitude towards the use of ePortfolios but the benefits were not completely clear nor the possibilities. They could see how ePortfolios can support their personal and professional development and give transparency to the learning process, which correspond to the previous study related to students’ adaptation to ePortfolios by Lopez-Fernandez (2009). However, this study demonstrated the diversity of students’ experiences related to the use of ePortfolios as well as different conceptions about the process and the tools: not all of them were familiar with the definition of ePortfolio and thus understood it in several different ways. Nonetheless, generally it was seen “as an online student-owned learning space, based on technological and digital tools, that can store and share their reflections, learning outcomes, achievements and evidence of competences, by using non-traditional resources — such as blogs, CV’s, web pages and LinkedIn profiles.” (Kunnari, Laurikainen, Pires & Rodrigues 2017).
The findings showed that two types of digital competences are needed in the ePortfolio process: in the creation of ePortfolio (technical) and in compiling the ePortfolio (editing). In addition, in order to create content for the ePortfolio, students need transferable skills (e.g. reflection, collaboration, communication, organization and visualization). The study also revealed that students perceive their digital competences from intermediate to high level; however, even though they may be competent in using digital tools and apps in their leisure time and socializing purposes, they may not be aware of digital solutions in the learning context. This means that before starting to use ePortfolios, they need preparation and support in their digital skills. (Kunnari, Laurikainen & Torseke 2017).
Another issue students emphasized is that ePortfolio creation and development need to be integrated into curriculum throughout the studies, i.e. there needs to be time allocated for this as well as other resources such as teachers’ guidance. Eportfolio should be in the core of the learning process in collaboration with peers, employers and other stakeholders.
Competence transparency and its innovativeness – Employers’ perspective
In participating HEIs’ contexts, ePortfolios are mainly used as a learning space during the studies where students collect evidence of their skills and competences and utilize self- and peer-assessment to reflect their own learning. In many cases, the connection to life after graduation, i.e. when seeking for an employment and/or further studies, was lacking or not very evident. This corresponds to a more general challenge in Europe, which the European Union has recognized in its modernization agendas i.e. the models and intensity of cooperation between universities and businesses are scattered (European Union 2018). Nonetheless, ePortfolios can increase the potential for matching successfully the skilled future employees with the companies that are recruiting.
What is it then that the employers value in ePortfolios? The findings illustrated in Figure 1. are summarized in three main points: 1) concise and formulated personal evidence of competences, 2) selection of evidence or materials, and 3) person behind the CV.
The employers emphasized that ePortfolios need to be well structured and all the main information should be available in an understandable format with a quick look. They also highlighted that if they want to go deeper into something very specific, they should be able to find more details behind links. Thus, the structure and navigation should be carefully thought in order to make it simple and logical but having different layers of information. Another important issue the employers pointed out is that some crucial information e.g. work experience should be opened up in more detail to the reader. It means that instead of using just titles (place, position), one should explain more what the specific roles and tasks were, in what kind of networks one operated, etc.
This leads to the next point, which is selection. The employers accentuated that the content of ePortfolio should match the specific position or work profile, i.e. one should select from all the materials the ones that are relevant evidence of competences for a specific work position they are applying. In addition, it is beneficial to think about what kind of other material can support this specific application process – perhaps something from the leisure time activities e.g. voluntary work or maybe evidence of personal characteristics. In any case, the materials one selects should highlight the person behind the ePortfolio, which leads to the third point the employers pointed out.
Employers are mostly looking for the right kind of persons to fit to their working community, having the right kind of attitude and the way of working. Thus, it is important that they see the person behind the ePortfolio and all the selected evidence. Moreover, not only the person but also their dreams, visions, motivation, and what drives them further. As Dan Schawbel said in his blog on Forbes: “Job seeker passion has become the deciding factor in employment” (Forbes 2011)
Employers receive amounts of applications from equally educated and qualified people. This means that one needs to stand out from the mass and this can be done with cleverly planned and visually implemented ePortfolio where all the relevant information is available and also other supportive evidence to demonstrate e.g. transferable skills that are increasingly important for employability but in a much more flexible and visual way than mere CV.
Teachers’ engaging assessment and guidance processes
As has been stated before, the findings of the analysis on teachers’ processes reveal that ePortfolio as a learning space exists, although not systematically, but the second phase i.e. showcase ePortfolio is still rather challenging for many universities (see figure 2.). As the whole connection with the world of work, also the showcase ePortfolio process needs to be developed and requires new kind of thinking from the teachers and the educational organizations in how they understand their role in the surrounding society. In addition, students need to see the benefit of ePortfolios from the lifelong learning perspective, i.e. how they can utilize their ePortfolio after graduation as a tool to find their first employment and later on to build their professional identity and career aspirations.
The foundation for a successful use of ePortfolios as an essential part of learning processes is that it is embedded to curriculum. This means that ePortfolio process is in the structures and there is allocated time and resources to develop it. However, in order to establish the use of ePortfolio systematically in the entire programme (and organizational) level and throughout the studies requires that teachers collaborate with each other and plan the ePortfolio process together. Thus, at first teachers (or at least most of them) need to see the benefit of ePortfolios. Further, teachers need to realize how ePortfolios can support student-centered and competence-based education, continuous guidance and assessment processes and how students themselves should take the role in these processes and ownership of their own learning.
As in student-centered education in general, the role of a teacher shifts more towards a facilitator of learning and building of competences; this is the case with ePortfolios as well. Students need to have the ownership of their ePortfolios and freedom to build them the best way for their own purposes and goals. First, teachers need to justify the benefits and purpose of ePortfolios to students and then give them space for creativity in demonstrating the competences, collaborating with their peers and others as well as networking with the world of work. However, sometimes the structures of HEIs do not support the building of students’ ownership.
Many HEIs use standardized ePortfolio platforms that do not leave much space for students’ creativity. There are some good tailored examples of platforms (e.g. in IE with Mahara) that are structured but give some possibilities for students to modify the layout of their ePortfolios. Nonetheless, certain space for creativity motivates and engages students more and thus, builds up the ownership of their ePortfolios. Further, the ideal situation would be that students could choose their ePortfolio platform or tool themselves. Another issue, which could be solved with students’ own choice of ePortfolio is related to the ideology of lifelong learning; in many cases if the HEI has its own ePortfolio platform, the students lose their access to it after they graduate. They can only download the content but cannot edit it anymore. This is a problem when thinking about the whole purpose of ePortfolio as a tool to demonstrate personal and professional growth, especially in transition phases in life such as from education to employment. (e.g. Cejudo 2012; Vuojärvi 2013; Fiedler 2012)
In the creation of the showcase ePortfolio, the role of a teacher is crucial, as students do not always have a clear view of how to demonstrate their strengths – if they can first even identify them. In addition, sometimes students do not have a full understanding of the world of work and its requirements. Teachers need to encourage students to be innovative with feedforward and support the peer cooperation between students so that they can benefit from other points of view and further develop their own ideas and evidence of competences. (Kunnari, Laurikainen, Pires & Rodrigues 2017).
Conclusions and discussion
The results from the research on three perspectives (student, employer, teacher) on ePortfolios show that there already are good ePortfolio practices in Europe but mostly they are isolated islands within higher education institutions, not systematically implemented in programme (not to even mention institutional) level throughout the studies. The following conclusions and recommendations arise from the findings:
1) Understanding the benefits of ePortfolios:
Teachers need to understand how ePortfolios can support students’ employability by making their skills and competences visible and transparent.
Teachers need to highlight the lifelong learning perspective of ePortfolio and students need to understand how ePortfolio serves them in different situations in their lives. If they find the process meaningful and they are empowered and engaged during the ePortfolio process, this should happen automatically.
2) Embedding ePortfolios into curriculum and normal educational structures within the institution:
Time and resource allocation for students to create ePortfolios and for teachers to facilitate and guide the process,
Collaboration between teachers to implement the use of ePortfolios in the entire programme level
Teachers need to understand assessment as a continuous process where students take an active role
3) Freedom and ownership of students:
Teachers need to support the ownership of students in the ePortfolio process and give space for students’ creativity, collaboration with their peers and networking with world of work.
4) Skills needed
Two types of digital skills are needed: technical skills to establish ePortfolio and editing skills to compile the content for ePortfolio
In addition, certain transferable skills are needed and developed during the ePortfolio process (e.g. reflection, collaboration, communication, organization and visualization).
5) Clear formulation of the content of ePortfolio
Concise and well-formulated personal evidence of competences
Simple and clear structure (easily browsed, more detailed information available behind links)
Selection of evidence to match the specific work profile the employer is looking for
Selecting the evidence is probably the most difficult part in building up the ePortfolio. Perhaps one should have a “meta ePortfolio” with many kinds of information and select the most suitable evidence to a showcase ePortfolio that suits the specific situation or purpose.
6) Show personality
Employers emphasized that they want to see the person behind the CV
Show your interests, dreams, goals, passion and motivation in order to stand out from the mass of applicants
Even though this research was done in higher education context, these recommendations can be transferred to any level of education (with perhaps some adjustments in lower levels). The future generation, the digital natives are used to operating in digital environments from their first years of education and digital appearance is a norm to them. In addition, the digitalization of the world of work, and the whole society, requires new kind of digital management and presentation of competences and personal identity. It is easy to foresee that ePortfolio will be a common tool to be used in education (and beyond) in the future where the presence in digital networks and social media and digital branding is probably a skill one needs to learn very early on in life.
Marja Laurikainen, M.BA., Education Development Specialist (Global Education), Häme University of Applied Sciences Irma Kunnari, M.Ed., PhD Fellow, Principal Lecturer (Global Education and Research), Häme University of Applied Sciences
Fiedler, S. (2013). Emancipating and Developing Learning Activity: Systemic Intervention and Re-Instrumentation in Higher Education. Academic dissertation. University of Turku, Centre for Learning Research. Turku: Painosalama.