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“I am enthusiastic about the open-mindedness with which digital media are being explored” – Computer scientist Ulrike Lucke on the possibilities offered by e-learning during the corona crisis

On the corona pandemic – contributions from the University of Potsdam

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Lucke. | Photo: Ernst Kaczynski
Photo : Ernst Kaczynski
Prof. Dr. Ulrike Lucke
Since mid-March educational institutions have been closed, with schoolchildren and students at home. Virtually overnight, digital learning suddenly needs to work, despite it being at an early stage of development in many places. Ulrike Lucke is a Professor for Complex Multimedia Application Architectures and has been involved in e-learning for years. She talks about failures of the past, challenges in the present and opportunities for the future.

For two weeks now, schoolchildren and university students have been learning from home. As far as you can judge this from your home office: Is the complete switchover to digital and online learning working?

Like any radical change, the current rushed transition to media-based teaching has its pitfalls. I am seeing many exciting ideas and developments, but also shake my head from time to time when avoidable mistakes are made.

What are you positively surprised by when it comes to the inevitably spontaneous e-learning transition?

I am enthusiastic about the open-mindedness with which digital media are being explored; be it at schools or universities, for learning or for work. In research we have been using digital data formats and tools as a matter of course for years – with few exceptions in experimental subjects or book sciences. The previously lacking courage to transfer these methods to teaching now seems to be growing. Creative approaches, not only for teaching and learning, but also for examinations, are being implemented. I am referring to both didactic innovations, such as open book exams, and to regulatory easing.

What's not working properly yet?

What startles me a little is that many working groups seem to have a reflex to use their own money to set up their own online platforms. These resources will not only be lacking later on in the group and in the development of efficient central services, but technicians will also be unnecessarily tied up working on this. The causes certainly lie in a mixture of lack of trust and lack of communication. It is much more difficult for some schools, which did not have any online services before. If no changes are made from the top and the individual teachers are left to their own devices, it will be difficult.

You have three children. How are they being taught? Using a chalkboard or a tablet?

Under normal circumstances, my children are mostly taught using a chalkboard with the occasional use of a PC or tablet in the classroom. For homework, notebooks and the internet are used regularly. The school closures have now led to an increased media use. The variety is broad, depending on the teachers' affinity for the media. From the primary school of my youngest, almost all tasks are sent to us via e-mail by the class teacher. These include conventional writing, arithmetic or arts and crafts tasks, but also online quizzes. My two older children had already been using online learning platforms at their high schools. We are now seeing the different ways in which teachers use them – some more and some less creatively. Some experiment with video conferences or chats. And schoolbooks are still being used, of course.

Does the homeschooling work well for you with the offers provided by the school or did you put some (additional) things together yourself?

We haven't had to put anything together ourselves yet. So far, the teachers tend to give too many tasks rather than too few. Lesson planning does not yet seem to be adjusted to the somewhat slower pace of self-learning. Younger children in particular have difficulties with self-discipline if no teacher dictates the pace. And as parents we have not been trained on how to teach after all. I have the impression that the activities developed specifically for online learning work much better than simply sending out lists of tasks from pages in the textbook or workbook designed for classroom lessons. This demonstrates that media didactics is, after all, different from conventional subject didactics.

How does e-learning differ from traditional learning methods, and what challenges are teachers facing?

The first thing that stands out is the different kinds of resources that are used: Hardware and software. Time is another resource that tends to be overlooked. In the classroom, everything has already been worked out: There is a schedule, which tells us where to be and when. A bell that reminds us if we are running late. And a big stock of materials in the classroom for all the tasks to be done there. At home we do not have the same conditions in our working environment. We are sitting alone in front of the computer, a feeling of loneliness quickly sets in, we miss help and assurances. This favors problems in motivation and thus, a decline in performance. It requires more precise planning on the part of the teachers; they must anticipate what is going to happen and cannot really improvise. Initially, social components are lacking in online learning, which means that they must be consciously recreated. Awareness of the presence of others, their intentions and activities, is something that we have to work hard to achieve in the digital world. In the classroom, places, times and behavior were clearly defined; we still lack such routines online.

Platforms and apps for online learning from home are now appearing all around us. How can parents and students separate the wheat from the chaff?

That is indeed difficult. I am not aware of any reliable quality seals for online learning offers. Even the big textbook publishers sometimes miss the mark, while some smaller apps can be worth their weight in gold. Sometimes there are recommendations at state level for apps to be used in schools, but these are usually not available to parents. I recommend that care be taken in the selection process to ensure that the fields and levels of competence covered are clearly identified, preferably with reference to the framework curricula. A reference to an underlying didactic principle can also be an indication of quality, but it is difficult to verify this without expert knowledge. And finally, I also consider data protection to be a significant criterion: When personal data is exchanged, and even more so when communication takes place via chats, forums or the like, commercial providers outside Germany should not be chosen. Even teachers are sometimes quite thoughtless in this matter.

Is the crisis a real accelerator for the development of e-learning or are the current initiatives just a flash in the pan that will fade when schools and universities reopen?

I firmly believe that after the pandemic we will teach and learn together again in classrooms with renewed joy. But until then, we will be able to gain experiences with digital media – and many of us will do so intensively for the first time. We will then have a much larger pool of teaching examples at our disposal, we will know what works well and what can still be improved. We can build on this to support our teaching and learning processes with digital media in an even more targeted manner in the future. After all, digitalization cannot be the goal, but at best a tool; but digital media are far from being the only true way to good teaching. This is demonstrated not least by the five goals of the University of Potsdam’s new mission statement for teaching – which can be supported well with digital media, but do not necessarily require them.
Furthermore, I hope that the simplifications in administrative procedures introduced in the corona crisis will not completely disappear again. Perhaps we will gain new courage in this regard, too, in order to reduce the accumulated density of regulations at one point or another and to be able to expect and trust us all to be more flexible again.

What contributions can research offer in the current situation?

Recourse to research results can now help us avoid wrong turns, and keep us from reinventing every wheel. There are many findings from media didactics and educational technology on when and how the use of media in educational processes can be successful – and how institutions of higher education can prepare themselves for digitalization.

Which educational technologies already exist? Which ones are being researched?

Interactive learning systems have been around for decades. In the beginning, the focus was on knowledge retrieval, e.g. to learn vocabulary or solve arithmetical problems. With the simplification of tools for media production, more and more creative tasks were added which cover higher competence levels. There is a great variety of offers. A major focus is currently put on the media-based assessment of achievements, the so-called e-assessment. With all these developments, there is always the challenge of digitally representing the vast experience and unconscious actions of teachers. One difficult aspect, for example, is a fair and yet motivating allocation of grades, taking into account individual characteristics. The computer is accurate in this regard, but without mercy – it doesn't exercise leniency.

Planning for a digital summer semester is also in full swing at the University of Potsdam. How are the plans progressing?

They are progressing well. I think by now everyone has grasped the gravity of the situation. The teaching staff is adapting their teaching offers to the new conditions, considering the goals to be achieved and the available resources, and trying out new teaching formats. The Dean's Offices coordinate demand analyses and assistance offers. The central institutions are further intensifying their cooperation on the use of media in teaching, bundling them on the website dedicated to online teaching. And helpful information is also provided by the directorate of the university. I also hope for a certain degree of flexibility if students are unable to complete their credit points or lecturers are unable to deliver on their full teaching load due to the spontaneous switch to online teaching. Insisting on compliance with quantitative requirements would probably be detrimental to quality.

Which areas still require a lot of work?

I would like to single out three fields of action. For students, it is imperative that they not only set up a suitable working environment, but also develop a realistic picture of their own digital competence; I still encounter a clear overconfidence in this regard all too often. As far as teacher training is concerned, it is now urgently necessary to systematically integrate media education into university studies and further training; we cannot afford any further delay in this respect. And last but not least, I would like to see increased awareness in politics of the fact that e-learning is not a means of saving on investments in education, but rather a means of improving the quality of education – if implemented correctly. And that requires investments.

Overview page of all contributions from the University of Potsdam on the corona pandemic