This paper is framed within a 3-year R&D-project at the Åland University of Applied Sciences (ÅUAS), aiming at changing the current practice related to the final diploma project (a thesis of 15 credit points) for the bachelor degree. A survey preceding the project showed that a majority of students within the Maritime programme never completed their studies. This has become a problem on three levels: firstly, the individuals experience failure in their studies and thus they don’t get the job they where aiming at by attending the education. Secondly, on the organisational level the student drop-out is defined as a quality problem. Thirdly, the shipping industry cannot, due to international security regulations, employ these students as anything but seamen. Well aware of the problem, ÅUAS had already made efforts to improve their education. Rhetorically, the thesis (although a problem) was considered an important part of the education. Based on an activity theoretical perspective the diploma project was presented as an educational action central to the Maritime programme (Engeström, 1987; Leont’ev, 1978). Being described as a central action the problems can be seen as somewhat contradictory (Engeström, 1987).
The R&D-project, here presented, was initiated by ÅUAS. A short-term aim was to help this group of students to complete their thesis and thereby finishing their studies whit a bachelor degree as master mariners. The long-term aim was to identify needs and initiate changes in the educational practice.
The project started with an investigation aiming at mapping the problem from the perspective of central actors. Teachers and management ascribed the problem as related to academization of the education, resulting in a diploma project “of no use” for students’ future career as master mariners on the one hand, and in students’ “lack of motivation and laziness” on the other (Berthén, Eriksson & Lindberg, 2006; Haggis, 2003; Hagström, 2005; Mulligan & Kirkpartick, 2000).
Interviews with students, however, gave a different picture, indicating that the diploma project was peripheral to the programme. Students were scheduled for the diploma project during three semesters in total, but mostly for random free periods and a few occasional days. Further, these periods and days were cancelled when time was needed for something else. Also, it was common that students had no idea of who their supervisor was and no supervision was scheduled. According to the students, asking for help meant increasing the burden of the teachers.
Based on these findings, intervention studies on three levels were designed: hands-on teachers’ supervision work (intervention in action), in-service course on diploma projects and supervision as part of polytechnics/professional higher education (intervention for action), and organising for diploma project (organisational level, intervention for action).
The issue of this paper is to discuss the indications of change that we have identified at the end of the project. The preliminary result shows that teachers’ conceptions of the diploma project have changed. This is shown in their talk and actions when meeting the students. Both those enrolled in the project and those that still are participating in the education. The diploma project is now seen as a possibility instead of as a problem. In addition, the teachers’ have started to address the management with requests of time – scheduled supervision with students, time for teachers to develop their supervision collaboratively. Based on these indicators, we argue that the project has contributed to the diploma project have (at least partly) becoming a central educational action. Instead of leaving the students to their fate when it comes to accomplishing a thesis – on their spare-time and beside the regular programme – it seems to becoming a part of the programme and supervision something more than certifying whether the students have managed on their own or not.