Will the coronavirus crisis help digitalisation achieve a breakthrough in the field of education? Professor Heidrun Allert believes that this would be rather missing the point. "Exceptional circumstances cannot be the yardstick for this," comments the scientist, who is equally at home in the fields of education and IT.
There are a lot of people that believe digitalisation is simply about doing things on the computer and using the Internet. However, Heidrun Allert responds to this by saying: "There is no ONE form of digitalisation, but rather a whole range of completely different technologies, digital knowledge practices, business models and forms of digital participation. So it is first important to know what we are talking about and what we really mean. Homeschooling using the Internet, for example, is something very different to daily interactions in classrooms that are supported by digital technologies. Research-oriented learning is something different to instructional videos."
Digital or non-digital? This is not the key distinction for the qualified educator with a PhD in IT. "The real question focuses on which forms of education, learning and digital knowledge practices we are keen to drive forwards and which we are not," she stressed. However, questions such as the following are also important from her perspective: "What can learners find out about the technologies they use and the data infrastructures encountered in educational systems? Which models are these based on and what kind of questions can be answered with the data?" With technologies of this kind, the key is how "learning" and "education" are modelled and datafied. According to information provided by Allert, until now most data has generally been used to measure basic concepts, such as examining the effect of heart rates on attention. Facial recognition technologies for presence verification are already in use in the US and Australia. The concepts, logics, analysis tools and algorithms often originate from areas such as marketing, engineering and business intelligence.
"However, learning and education are highly complex subject matters," stressed the Kiel-based professor. It is therefore all the more important for the whole of society to engage in a discussion that goes beyond the bounds of science on exactly what digitalisation should achieve in the field of education. Almost all experts agree that pure homeschooling, which essentially delivers the same kind of teaching materials as those used in classrooms but conveys them via monitors in children’s bedrooms, tends to make the disparity even greater. "All of this is happening despite the fact that we are tasked with familiarising pupils and students with the latest knowledge and data practices of the modern science and Internet culture," commented Heidrun Allert, describing the dilemma. In addition to this, further pitfalls can also be encountered when digitalisation is tackled without a proper plan in place. For example, anyone conveying knowledge "as if our world were stable" is clearly barking up the wrong tree from her perspective. Acquiring knowledge together with pupils and students, while internalising "the fact that we live in a world that is continuously changing" is more or less how she envisages digitalisation in this sense.
Homeschooling using the Internet, for example, is something very different to daily interactions in classrooms that are supported by digital technologies.
Handling constant change also represents a challenge for universities here. As Allert explained, universities have played a key part from the outset in helping develop and shape digitalisation, and the Internet in particular, by conveying defining principles to the modern research arena, itself highly networked. However, they have also separated the concepts of research and teaching somewhat. Among other things, this means that the transfer of knowledge and learning practices is still heavily influenced by analogue thinking. Yet she believes that this is "not so much due to a lack of expertise among teachers, who are also researchers at the same time". Indeed, Heidrun Allert suggests that focus should rather be shifted to questions of power. Here, she is thinking of multinational digital groups, which claim to be able to perform public duties more effectively than state or local authorities. Yet if teaching then becomes "precision education", which puts together huge data packets for personalised learning optimisation, ranging from individual genetics, all the way up to social environments, the scientist believes that we should all be more than just concerned. "Education is tough to get right with undercomplex optimisation models," argued Allert, while at the same time making reference to the special quality of the established public educational institutions "to handle uncertainty and change democratically."
In the meantime, Allert and her team for media education and educational computer science at Kiel University no longer consider digitalisation of teaching to mean transporting old content in new packaging. Instead, they are looking forward to "open research processes" together with students. "We are really learning a lot at the moment," she commented in reference to a process that has definitely been accelerated as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Author: Martin Geist