Hochschulforum Digitalisierung Responses to the digital transformation

German universities seek responses to the digital transformation
German universities seek responses to the digital transformation | Photo (detail): © kasto/Fotolia

Experts at the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (the German Forum for Higher Education in the Digital Age) spent three years debating the challenges posed by the digital transformation. At the end of 2016, the think tank presented comprehensive recommendations to German universities.

At first there were the MOOCs – the Massive Open Online Courses offered by higher education institutions that large numbers of students from all over the world can attend without having to travel to a specific geographical location. How will universities – in their role as places of teaching and learning – be affected by such digital formats? How will this change the way they teach, and what impact will these changes have on the university’s research, organization and administration?
These and other questions were put to a panel of voluntary experts in 2014 when the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD) was launched – a forum organized by the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) and the Centre for Higher Education (CHE), and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The experts explored the issues during a number of constructive debates. Three years on, the results are impressive: the HFD has generated 25 publications.
“Three years ago, we had expected that the Forum would be able to make a contribution to ‘coping with’ a digitization process that could potentially engulf universities like a tidal wave”, explains Joachim Metzner from the HRK. However, this idea was quickly superseded by a question: “How can digitization be utilized to resolve the problems that universities had already had for a long time?” In other words, it was not the technical opportunities offered by the digital age that were the primary focus of this “national forum for contemplation”, agrees Volker Meyer-Guckel, vice secretary-general of the Stifterverband, nor was it “a question of simply transferring analogue content into online formats, but of coming up with didactic concepts.” 

Open process and room for experimentation 

The HFD experts drew up their recommendations in six thematic groups. Anyone interested was able not only to track the progress of the ongoing debates online but also to contribute input of their own – the results can be seen at hochschulforumdigitalisierung.de. For example, a list of the legal framework conditions is now available, as is a study into the digitization of examination processes that will help universities introduce such innovations. Furthermore, it is recommended that digital offerings be used by universities – in areas such as continuing education, lifelong learning or foundation courses for new students – to enhance their profile. However, online courses are also particularly advisable for universities wishing to internationalize their range of courses, improve their collaboration with foreign partners, increase student mobility or attract students from abroad. When it comes to implementing their suggestions, the experts recommend that the universities invest both financial and personnel resources in setting up advice and support centres for teachers wishing to employ digital forms of learning. 

More information – more structure for digital education 

This is not the only outcome of the intensive sharing of ideas and opinions concerning university-specific solutions and strategies in the digital age, however. In just three years, the HFD has generated an awareness of a process that is still ongoing and is far from complete. After all, even students will not constructively embrace the digital opportunities of their own accord. This requires more information on every level. Digitization makes it possible to embark on a personalized course of study that is very much tailored to individual needs – irrespective of place and time. This is something that students need to understand and must then demand. “Once students realize that this will allow them to take an exam early, for example, or indeed to take it while still abroad – that will really generate momentum”, believes Jürgen Handke, a professor at Philipps-Universität in Marburg who has been studying the digitization of university teaching for years. Among other things, Professor Handke runs the Virtual Linguistics Campus and is a member of the HFD expert group on “Innovation in Teaching and Assessment”.
Universities also have to make a “clear commitment to ensuring that digital education becomes a structural part of higher education”, said German Education Minister Johanna Wanka in the winter of 2016, speaking at the HFD’s closing conference in Berlin – though it only marks a temporary end to its work, as the multi-level debates about the digital transformation will continue at the HFD with the support of the BMBF.
There are still many items on the agenda. At the end of 2016, the HFD identified and published online information about digital higher education issues that it believes are worth debating over a further five years – for example questions relating to law, security, recognition and certification, as well as the far-reaching matter of the goals of education. Joachim Metzner is delighted: “The future has already begun.”