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Who would want to discard everything?

In this guest commentary, Prof. Michael Jäckel from the University of Trier discusses the challenges which digitalisation presents for German universities
Researching literature at Münster University Library. Digitalisation and the Internet are bringing about numerous changes for universities.<address>© WWU/Julia Holtkötter</address>
Researching literature at Münster University Library. Digitalisation and the Internet are bringing about numerous changes for universities.
© WWU/Julia Holtkötter

"Distance is a great promoter of admiration." This quotation from the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) describes a familiar experience which reflects the opposite of the saying that "a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country". For years now, for example, universities have had to face the expectation that one day they would have no more students. One is reminded, in this connection, of a forecast made in the USA in the 1990s which asserted that in 30 years’ time traditional universities would be a relic of the past. Here in Germany, by contrast, the idea of an institution at which teachers and students are actually present points to a tradition which accentuates the idea of studying together. At the same time, the modernization of this place of teaching and learning is being emphasized. But what is currently drawing particular surprise is not local campus-related initiatives, but – as in the past – expectations of radical changes to the international education market. The reason is that – again, far away, and, again, in the USA – we are seeing an increase in nano-degrees, micro-degrees and masters degrees which are being offered by platforms such as edX, Udacity or Coursera. New business models are being tried out in many places.

Thus it is that many new ideas with special names or acronyms are leaving their mark on the digital agenda. To these belongs the subject of "Open Educational Resources" (OER) – as it has done for years, and now increasingly so. This not only favours a creative approach to teaching and learning, but also supplies the relevant tools: Makerspace, EduLab, TinkerBib – three terms and concepts selected at random from a special booklet just published. Each of these ideas could stand for an element in a circuit diagram of the future – an element which Frank Schirrmacher, a former publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, once described as follows: "Every new item in the output from Silicon Valley […] is an event of social physics". Something changes the rules of the game and the structures. In other words, we register activities on many levels but do not know how they will interact with each other.

The Enlightenment ideal which Diderot represents also aimed at changing the rules of the game, aimed at a different access and approach to education. Connected with this was a claim to autonomy: "changing the world".

A process of change? An educational process can hardly be described more autonomously. But what were some of the answers? Something spectacular, for example, was the Automatic Professor Machine, which delivered a lecture paid for by credit card. The ordering process contained the comment "It’s all information to me" – certainly meant satirically. This example is paradigmatic for the suggestion of access to educational content which is simple but not actually free of charge. Good teaching is assumed. Didactics are always included and need not be specially called for.

Scepticism towards lectures in an electronic format is, therefore, nothing new. This, for example, is what a representative of the University of Southern California had to say in 2015 about the idea that such lectures could open up the world of education (today, that would mean with Massive Open Online Courses, MOOC): "Sure, the MOOCs movement wanted to reach broader sections of the population. But university education doesn’t just mean getting information. It’s also about talking with professors and other students, it’s about mutual respect and interaction. In other words, the educational process is a much more wide-ranging one."

There it is again: the familiar surroundings which are, however, also described too romantically. Nevertheless, admiration for what was happening some distance away was able to engross rectors’ conferences and many other congresses besides (as regards content). Two examples are the brochure "Potentials and Problems of MOOCs", produced in 2014, and the MOOC@TU9 initiative of Germany’s large Technical Universities.

Everything revolves, then, around the following: the question of good teaching, the extent of interaction between teaching staff and students, the quality of teaching formats, the cognitive effects of different forms of learning, presence and absence, flexibility, focus and distraction, independence and control, and infrastructures.

It is no coincidence that such contrasting favourites as "electronic lecture" and "IT-based laboratories for learning together" stand face-to-face. The former has a lot to do with a business model, the latter with a "farewell to one-dimensionality". What can be seen in teaching/learning laboratories is an important complement to traditional curricula. Opportunity structures are to emerge on the campus which permit flexible didactics (analogue/digital). Recognition, it is said, will also emerge in the right place, and this is precisely the place where students can be involved – for whom, apparently, digital teaching is not that important at all.

But just because digitalisation is somehow relevant to everything, we need not, and we cannot, go along with everything. It makes no sense to want to create a "digital second-life university" (because the time, money and personnel do not exist), and it makes just as little sense to play out a one-dimensional model against the "participatory" model. Both can be successful, but both can also disappoint. Undergraduate studies are still a university’s core business. So what should be important is invigorating the courses on offer – which can also be done through a greater involvement of students. There are many "lab" concepts currently starting up. The acronym stands both for experiment and control. Nevertheless, digital competencies will be unevenly distributed and will probably remain so. This steers the level of commitment and creates differences in everyday academic life. Universities therefore take careful note not only of "digital heroism", which can be admired no longer just in faraway countries, but also of attempts and calls to make stand-alone solutions more widespread. The (their own) digital revolution is to remain controllable.

Talking of controllability: in consumer research there is an effect, named after Diderot, in which a unified group of objects can be discarded as a result of a single decision.

Why would anyone want to discard everything? We do not need any "Peace of Westphalia" between an analogue and a digital faction. No one need expect any "celebrations" (to quote Münster University historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger). What is important is to admire things close by and up close.

Prof. Dr. Michael Jäckel<address>© University Trier</address>
Prof. Dr. Michael Jäckel
© University Trier
Michael Jäckel is Professor of Sociology at the University of Trier. Since 2011 he has been the University’s President. He is a member of the Council for Information Infrastructures, as well as representing the interests of the University Rectors’ Conference at the IT/Digitalisation summit organized by the German government and playing a central part in the Universities Digitalisation Forum, an interdisciplinary group of experts who observe and analyse developments in the digital world.

 

Source: "wissen|leben" No. 1, January / February 2018

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