Digital learning is leading to a democratisation of our knowledge, that is the main argument put forward by Jörg Dräger in his book “Die digitale Bildungsrevolution” (The Digital Education Revolution). But what does that mean in concrete terms? And why, up to now, have people in Germany been so sceptical?
Herr Dräger, in your book you hold the opinion that the digital transfer of knowledge fosters a fairer education system. How does that work?
In the USA and in many threshold countries high costs and poor access to education have actually promoted the boom in digital alternatives. Many people simply cannot afford private lessons or the fees demanded by the universities. As an alternative, there are numerous digital learning alternatives available free of charge on the Internet and these can be accessed by millions of people way beyond the auditoria and classrooms. The variety of people who want to learn or study is becoming more and more diverse and this also requires a digital approach. With the help of software and algorithms various tasks and exercises can be tailor-made to suit the capabilities and learning speed of each individual. Up to now the main teaching principle has been to give everybody the same task at the same time and at the same place – this approach has now had its day. Thanks to digitalisation those people who have been left high and dry by the system now have more of a chance.
Scepticism on the part of the Germans
Freely accessible online courses, so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), play a vital role when it comes to substantiating your democratisation theory. Why don’t you address the criticism that in the meantime has been vented on this format? The drop-out rates are high and no way are all platforms freely accessible.
MOOCs are just the first step. They enable masses of people to access them, but they still do not personalise the way people learn enough. You are right, the drop-out rates are still high, but when 160,000 people enrol for a Stanford course in artificial intelligence and 23,000 complete the course successfully, then it is still many more students than the number a professor would reach in his entire career by means of conventional lectures.
In Germany there is as yet little evidence of a digital education revolution. Many teachers and lecturers are somewhat sceptical about using digital technology in their lessons or lectures. Can you understand that?
The majority of teachers in Germany are still of the opinion that digital learning would lead to a greater workload. One might arrive at this assessment, if digital education is reduced to the mere use of iPads and Smartboards. One thing, however, is patently clear – all that is technologically possible does not necessarily make educational sense. Digital technology can, in fact, be used in a way that would reduce, and not increase, a teacher’s workload. For example, in the case of individually promoting students’ skills in a large, mixed-ability teaching group. Or when it comes to supervising students at our increasingly overcrowded universities.
Promoting students’ skills individually
Because promoting students’ skills individually is no longer possible in such situations?
When the group is small, the teacher can attend to the individual needs of the pupils in the best possible way. A teacher who has to work with 30 children has a more difficult time, in threshold countries that often have classes with 50 children in them this is not really an option. Then we have the professor lecturing 250 students in an auditorium – how can he possibly introduce a more personalised approach in his lecture? Every individual pupil and student, however, has different skills and different levels of knowledge. This poses a major challenge for the teachers – should they take it slowly until everybody has understood the material? This will bore the better students to death and standards will slip. Or should they carry on regardless and overtax many of the students?
So what opportunities does digital technology provide us with?
Today, at some schools in the USA they are actually working with individual curricula that are drawn up every day for each pupil by a computer. Universities are using software to recommend lectures that are geared to the interests and skills of each individual student – lectures that provide him with a realistic chance of passing the course. This means that teachers and lecturers are now embracing a new role – they are changing from conveyors of knowledge to learning guides. They leave the imparting of standard knowledge to the computers and have more time for things that are more essential – the personal supervision of students.
More than just using applications
Nevertheless there is empirical data that verifies the fact that digital aids and applications actually have more of a detrimental effect on students’ learning capacities rather than a positive one. There is hardly any mention of this debate in your book. Why?
It's all in the mix. Neither the purely analogue nor the purely digital approach to learning produces optimal results. The one thing we shouldn't do is to play off the analogue approach against the digital approach. Both worlds should be combined in a useful way.
Might one say that you, as the managing director of a foundation that has invested a fortune in the realm of digital education, have a more pragmatic approach to the new technologies than many of the sceptics?
Our foundation is above all interested in how we can get as many people as possible involved and participating in our society. Does e-voting really increase election turn-out? Does telemedicine provide improved access to medical care in rural regions? And of course the question – can digital learning sustainably improve the way people learn? We still do not understand all the long-term effects of digitalisation. That is exactly why we have to examine and research this trend – and definitely not ignore it.
Do you have a prognosis for Germany's educational infrastructure?
Prognoses are always difficult. Our educational institutions, however, are going to continue to develop. They are going to offer more individual approaches to learning, more immediate feedback for the people learning and in more and more situations learning is going to be much more fun. The way diversity is dealt with is going to become much more a matter of course and achieved in a much better way. In view of all this, digital study programs and learning videos are going to be part of our everyday lives.
Jörg Dräger | Photo (detail): © Jan Voth
Since 1st July, 2008, Jörg Dräger has been a member of the board of directors at the Bertelsmann Foundation, in the Department for Education, Integration and Democracy, as well as director at the CHE – Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung (The Centre for Higher Education Development). His book was recently published entitled Die digitale Bildungsrevolution. Der radikale Wandel des Lernens und wie wir ihn gestalten können (The Digital Education Revolution. The radical change in learning and how we can shape it).