We have fetishized economics. Tomáš Sedláček

Transforming education in the digital age

Digitization’s impact on learning is comparable only to the changes wrought by the printing press and compulsory education

A revolution has just begun. Education is changing, more than at any time since the introduction of the printing press and compulsory school attendance. Internet and Big Data are radically transforming how we learn, as examples from the United States, Asia and South America clearly show. This means much more than just equipping schools and universities with tablets and smartboards. The online educator Coursera is already instructing 15 million students, almost six times the number enrolled at all of Germany’s institutions of higher education. The Khan Academy’s tutoring videos have been viewed half a billion times and its founder, Salman Khan, has become the first pop star of digital learning. Last year, almost $2 billion were invested in education-technology startups. Education’s digital revolution is turning the way we teach and learn upside down. Exclusive programs for a limited few in the western world are now being replaced by courses meant for global mass consumption. One-size-fits-all instruction based on a rigid teaching plan is giving way to personalized support tailored to each learner. And the cachet of elite institutions is becoming less important than the skills students actually have at their disposal. It’s an attack – on traditional notions of who has access to education and on established networks and elites, many of whom are somewhat mistrustful and resistant. Some people have even described it as a “digital tsunami” destroying the educational ideal advanced by Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Once other countries looked to Germany, which now lags the field

The opposite is actually true. Humboldt would have been in favor of digitization. Wanting “education for all” to serve as the basis for self-determined lives, the great 19th-century reformer created Germany’s model of compulsory education. His long-unfulfilled ideal: anyone with ability could go far, no matter where they were from. This sort of democratization is now possible. Thanks to digital tools, people who were once left behind now have access to affordable and personalized education. Aptitude is becoming more important than background or title.

Few of these trends have yet to make themselves felt in Germany, however. What is missing is the sense of urgency. Teachers complain about large, increasingly heterogeneous classes; they know little about the progress each student is making and want the freedom to provide individualized support. Unfortunately, the idea that digital learning is not an additional burden but part of the solution has yet to be embraced. According to the international comparative study ICILS, German teachers not only have less training in using computer-related technologies, they are significantly more skeptical of today’s media than their peers in 19 other countries. At the same time, few people have experience with new media; they are used less often in German classrooms than in any other country examined in the study. The situation among Germany’s universities is just as bleak. In some cases the only thing digital innovations are used for is to stream introductory courses taking place in overfilled lecture halls to students watching in nearby cinemas. Other countries once looked to Germany for effective educational reforms; today, the German educational system is in danger of losing out globally.

The country’s need to catch up is clearly visible to anyone who peruses today’s worldwide educational landscape. Four areas in particular illustrate Germany’s shortcomings – and the changes revolutionizing the world of education.

Access for everyone: Stanford in California’s Silicon Valley is considered one of the world’s best universities. Anyone studying there has it made. Yet as innovative as things might be in its tech-industry environment, Stanford’s methods of instruction remain traditional, with students learning in lecture halls and libraries. Nevertheless, in 2011 Professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig tried something previously unheard of. They suspended the elite university’s rules of exclusivity by offering the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” not only to students on campus, but on the Internet as well – free of charge, as a MOOC, a massive open online course. More than 160,000 people from 190 countries signed up. Everyone listened to the same lectures, solved the same problem sets and took the same tests, regardless of whether they were physically present in Stanford or not. The problem sets were corrected by a computer and students discussed related questions in online fora. In the end, 23,000 students passed the final exam and received a course certificate – more than both professors could possibly have taught on campus in their entire lives. Yet what is truly revolutionary about this MOOC is not how many people took part, but where the best students came from. Of the 248 participants awarded the highest grade, not one was from Stanford. The top on-campus student placed a mere 413th on the final exam. That means that 412 people who otherwise would not have had access to the exclusive university actually did better than the carefully chosen, presumably elite students permitted to matriculate there. One of the online participants who successfully passed the course was Khadija Niazi from Lahore, Pakistan. It did not matter that she was only 11 years old when she took the final; all she needed was a computer, a high-speed Internet connection and perseverance. For her, as for many of the others, a top-level education had previously been out of reach. Today, all it takes to have free access to the world’s knowledge is a few clicks of a mouse.

Algorithms structure learning – and ensure success

Personalized learning: At David A. Boody Junior High School in Brooklyn, New York, 80 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch since they come from low-income families. Many are immigrants; many require extensive learning support. In principle, each student needs his or her own customized teaching plan – something youngsters at Boody have been receiving for the last four years, thanks to New Classrooms. The program replaces teacher-in-front-of-the-class instruction with digital learning that matches each lesson to the student’s current level of understanding. Some 90 young people sit together in a room so large it takes up an entire floor, learning math at different workstations. Some watch videos, others use specialized learning software. Others work in groups or interact with a teacher. What is special at Boody is not how diverse the learning methods are, but the way they automatically personalize daily lessons. At the end of class, students take a short online test; that night a computer in Manhattan ascertains which students need to catch up and which method would be most helpful when they do. The result the next day is an individualized learning plan that students first see on overhead monitors when they arrive in the classroom. The technology does not replace teachers, however; it merely changes the role they play. They are no longer the fount of all knowledge, but become “learning coaches” instead. That gives them more time to engage with individual students – a change that has proven highly successful. Before New Classrooms arrived at Boody, the sixth graders there were performing slightly below average compared to their peers. These days, the New Classrooms students learn almost one-and-a-half times what students do on average in the US each year.

Getting a degree thanks to Big Data: Austin Peay State University, northwest of Nashville, Tennessee, is a small institution with big ambitions. It advises its 10,000 students the same way Amazon interacts with prospective book buyers: by providing individualized recommendations from its extensive catalogue of lectures and seminars. Degree Compass is the name of the system that compares a student’s completed coursework and prior grades with the performance of past students. It then suggests the most appropriate courses based on more than half a million data points. The software not only considers when courses are scheduled, it also knows if a student cannot attend classes on Tuesday afternoons because of a work commitment. Yet the major advantage offered by Degree Compass is its ability to forecast results: not only can it predict whether a student will do well in class, it can even reliably say what his or her final grade will be. More than 90 percent of students who follow the system’s recommendations pass the suggested course. The service is particularly useful for first-generation college students who are less likely to succeed in the university system. Degree Compass can provide guidance to those who might otherwise get lost: its algorithms point the way through the thicket of educational options, thereby reducing the risk that a student will give up and drop out.

Computer games instead of grades: “Grade point averages are worthless for hiring. We found that they don’t predict anything,” says Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google. The company’s data mining has shown that neither how a person performed at college nor the college’s reputation is important in determining how successful the individual will later be in the working world. Knack, a startup from Silicon Valley, tries to evaluate a job candidate’s skills using computer games instead. By having applicants play Dungeon Scrawl or Wasabi Waiter, the company can ascertain within 20 minutes who is suitable for a job. During a game of Wasabi Waiter, for example, candidates must serve customers in a sushi bar. The faces of the patrons display sadness, joy or anger, and the waiter has to provide each customer with the appropriate type of sushi, recognizable by small signs. The challenge, however, is that the number of guests continues to grow, as do the types of emotions. Players must decide who will be served first and who will have to wait. That allows the program to determine how players react when making decisions – when they hesitate, whether they learn from their mistakes, which priorities they set. And that provides insight into their personalities. Using algorithms, the software can then very accurately predict their prospects of professional success: based on the job description and the experiences of past employees, the Knack program identifies the qualities a candidate needs to carry out the required tasks, qualities it then compares with results from the computer game. If the findings match up, the candidate gets the job – regardless of past education or personal connections. As a result, a degree from a top-level university or a recommendation from a brand-name employer no longer guarantees a top position. In contrast to a human decision-maker, the Knack program is a neutral observer. That means people now get a chance who might never have had one before. At the same time, the situation becomes more unpredictable – for those with a conventional educational biography. The all-powerful algorithms upend old certainties: half an hour at a computer is suddenly more important for a person’s career than everything they have previously achieved.

Education for all thanks to MOOCs, personalized learning, a college counselor named Big Data and hiring decisions based on computer games instead of degrees – those are only a few of the developments revolutionizing the world around us. Social background and financial resources are no longer the keys to educational achievement and professional success. With that, Humboldt’s vision might indeed become a global reality.

Nowhere to hide – more Orwell than Humboldt

Yet digital education also entails major risks: learners become exposed and leave indelible traces on the Web. Their data, moreover, can be misused. People suddenly have nowhere to hide, educational paths are determined by computer algorithms and life becomes a series of probabilities. That sounds more like Orwell’s Big Brother than Humboldt’s educational Eden. If we are to have control over our data instead of having it control us, we must create a regulatory framework that provides greater data sovereignty. After all, there’s no “stop button” for education’s digital revolution.

If a digital ecosystem is to develop in Germany, as elsewhere, and if equitable participation for all is to be more than just a pipe dream, then what educational institutions need is legal certainty when students and staff use the Internet, digital learning materials and electronic devices. What they don’t need is red tape. That means liability issues must be resolved, copyright laws must be updated and regulations determining class size and teaching loads at universities must be reduced to the lowest level possible. In other words, instructors must be able to count online courses as part of their teaching hours and thus spend less time in the classroom. Instead of prohibiting the use of mobile phones, Germany should install wireless networks in all of its schools. That would cost a few hundred million euros per year, but it would be a modest investment compared with the billions the country is spending to create all-day schools. A wide-scale “digital qualification program” for teachers is also needed. It’s not enough for individual instructors to undergo additional training; upskilling is needed for all teaching staff.

Not least, Germany’s educational system needs to become more experimental. Colleges and universities should recognize MOOCs and award academic credit to those who complete them. What is now being tested at a new online university for refugees must become the norm for all students. Germany’s leading institutes of technology, known as the TU9, could offer an online engineering degree “made in Germany” to a global market – thereby becoming a needed counterweight to the myriad US-based programs on offer. Both business and government must do their part. Initiatives and competitions that promote freely accessible learning materials send signals that are just as important as programs funding critical activities or venture capital funds designed to aid educational entrepreneurs. If the above is to be successful, Germany’s policymakers must see digitization as a chance to improve the country’s educational system. Digital transformation is not a problem, but part of the solution that can ensure educational excellence and equity.

By Jörg Dräger and Ralph Müller-Eisele

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Read more in this debate: James Dilworth, Iavor Rangelov, Harold James.

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