Skip to main content

Education in times of the pandemic – How schools and universities master digitization

Girl in Homeschooling | Photo: AdobeStock/Halfpoint
Student works in homeoffice | Photo: AdobeStock/fizkes
Photo : AdobeStock/Halfpoint
Photo : AdobeStock/fizkes
… and universities had to operate almost exclusively from home and digitally in 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions on public life led to a kind of forced fast-track digitization in spring 2020. This has affected many fields of work as well as education – in schools and universities. But did it work? Which digital formats have probably turned out to be better than face-to-face instructions and what fell by the wayside? And what lessons can schools and universities draw from the crisis for their digitization strategies? Matthias Zimmermann spoke about these issues with Dr. Gergana Vladova and Dr. Antonia Köster who are studying the effects of digitization on society in general and education in particular.

Dr. Köster, Dr. Vladova: You both conduct research on digitization in educational contexts. What are your conclusions after nine months: Has digitization worked?

Köster: The Corona pandemic and the concomitant closing of schools in spring 2020 confronted all schools in Germany with the task of developing a broad range of digital learning opportunities for students to be able to provide hybrid and distance learning. The closing of schools was a particularly great challenge for elementary schools since not all teachers had the necessary (digital) skills, and appropriate digital learning opportunities were not available for all subjects. In addition, some school children did not have access to digital end devices or were not yet trained in using them. Where digital devices were not available, teachers also personally took teaching materials to the children’s homes or sent them by mail while schools were closed. It became apparent how important it is for children to retain a connection to school and their social environment as well as to take part in a regular school day.

Vladova: The transition was much smoother at universities. Lecturers and students managed it very well and gained very important experience. Methodological and didactic skills increasingly gained priority. Many things were tried out and applied, and the opportunities, possibilities, and limitations of the digital classroom also became apparent.

How has digitization changed education in times of Corona?

Köster: At the Chair of Business Informatics, Social Media and Society of Prof. Hanna Krasnova, we conducted two empirical studies on this question. We interviewed parents of school children in the U.S. about the current situation, and we interviewed school administrators and teachers of elementary schools in Germany after schools had been closed down. School administrators and teachers reported that attitudes toward digital learning methods had changed among the teaching staff. In this exceptional situation, teachers noticed that well-trodden paths cannot be followed, that they have to act more flexibly and are dependent on digitization and digital end devices. In higher grades, the use of digital learning opportunities often worked smoothly. While the schools were closed, communication among the teaching staff was also largely digital, and their feedback on experiences with video conferencing was quite positive. The interviews show that the schools have a more positive attitude toward digitization because today’s world needs digital learning opportunities. This is not least due to Corona.

Vladova: The lockdown situation inevitably required fast actions and all those who acted gained a lot of empirical knowledge. Uncertainties and the fear of making mistakes were thus minimized. Teachers and students were able to build competencies.

Köster: An online survey of over 300 parents in the U.S. in April 2020 also showed that the vast majority were in favor of digital education, and only very few parents expressed a negative attitude toward it.

What is the bottom line for teachers and students after the first lockdown?

Köster: Parents of elementary school children were especially grateful that the time of homeschooling was coming to an end and that their families could return to a more or less regular daily routine without childcare challenges. Parents gained direct experience with conveying knowledge, and showed a greater appreciation for teachers’ work. This appreciation had long been missing, and the schools reported very positively about it. Students were pleased to be able to return to school and to their friends. Social learning, which is so important for development, basically does not take place during digital instruction. It is a fact that hybrid and distance learning do not match the quality of face-to-face instruction at elementary schools because younger students do not have the same learning skills without adult support.

Which content and learning formats can be successfully conveyed digitally, and which are more difficult or impossible to convey?

Köster: The elementary schools reported in the interviews that teaching first reading strategies and literacy can only be implemented to a limited extent digitally. Content such as theater, music, and sports is not really suitable for distance learning either. Artistic and natural science topics were popular with elementary school children, and German and English exercises are also well suited for digital distance learning.

Vladova: In the academic context, the Chair of Business Informatics, Processes and Systems of Prof. Norbert Gronau conducted a survey with about 900 students from different universities. In principle, they expressed a positive attitude toward digital education. There are, however, differences in the expectations of students from different disciplines and with regard to teaching formats. Lectures can be digitalized without any problems, and this has various advantages (e.g. the possibility of watching recorded lectures several times or flexibly). On the other hand, exercises, project work, and internships present greater challenges when it comes to digital instruction. It is even more difficult to design suitable instruction formats for subjects such as creative studies, art, music or theater classes. These rely very much on the social component of teaching.

What needs to be done to prepare schools and universities even better for the digital future?

Köster: Schools in Germany differ greatly with regard to their digital equipment and, depending on the subject matter, the digital offers are more or less extensive. For the future, digital learning offers that are compatible with the curriculum are planned, and the technical equipment of schools is already underway. In addition, mandatory in-house training courses at schools would bring the entire teaching staff consistently up to date.

Vladova: Our surveys among lecturers and students suggest that challenges are, among other things, particularly apparent in the central organization and coordination of the digital learning processes as well as the appropriate didactic concepts. For this purpose, working groups or networking opportunities and the exchange of experiences would be recommended. Moreover, it is necessary to provide advanced training for teachers. There are various offers of this kind. It would be conceivable to set up a central office and commission it to recommend and specifically inform about these training offers. Overall, acceptance by teachers and students is seen as the lowest hurdle. The technical requirements are also regarded as less critical compared to organization. And yet, as I already said, not all types of courses can be prepared digitally in the same way. Hybrid forms of learning, for example, are important in this regard. In general, however, the transformation to digital teaching is easier to design at universities than at schools. One reason is that university students as learners are not as dependent on social interaction in class and are generally also better able to organize themselves.

Does the digital transformation (of education) help reduce existing inequalities – or have they even become bigger? Why?

Köster: Our survey among elementary schools showed that the education gap widened during the distance learning phase. Based on the experience of the first lockdown, the following observations particularly suggest that hybrid and distance learning have not been able to match the quality of face-to-face instruction. Students from socially disadvantaged families notably have a harder time participating successfully in distance learning. Children from families with an immigrant background with only basic German language skills also lack the necessary support at home. In this respect, the Corona time has even led to a situation where weaker students, who had little support at home, had to abandon educational goals they had already achieved before the lockdown because there was no revision and regular confrontation with the content. By contrast, students who were supported at home were actually able to make greater progress. Policymakers responded to the challenges associated with distance learning and the revelation of educational inequities with policy measures and the recognition that face-to-face instruction in elementary schools, but also schools in general, is of particular importance during the Corona crisis.

Vladova: In the context of the COVID 19 crisis, a difference on a global level has become evident. Reports from developing countries show that it was not as easy as in Germany to continue studies there. Such inequalities must be taken into consideration because – not only in this extreme situation – access to knowledge and information is a decisive competitive and educational advantage in our age. We also have rural regions with poorer home networks. Besides, a quiet workspace at home or outside the university is crucial for the success of digital education. This sounds trivial but only existed for 64% of the university members surveyed. About the same percentage said that their internet connection had been sufficiently stable.

Of course, potential social isolation is also an undesirable effect. Universities are there to impart knowledge but also to provide a framework for social life. Traditional university learning processes are structured, which is why self-motivation and organization are not necessary to the same extent as in digital classes. And these can be quite overwhelming, especially at the beginning of one’s studies. In addition, it is much easier to get distracted than in the traditional classroom environment. As discussed before, direct contact is important for us as social beings to construct a shared social reality. It is still questionable whether technological development as well as the next generations’ affinity for technology will change this. Current studies show that the Net generation also considers social contact to be particularly important in the learning context.

Do you think that digitization in education will be established in the long term? Which developments are to be expected?

Köster: The benefits of digital education have become clearly noticeable during the lockdown. There will certainly be attempts to integrate these findings and experiences into everyday school life. In the long term, one should take into consideration that digital learning offers opportunities tailored to individual needs thus enabling children who work completely individually to achieve learning progress. However they lack social interaction and cohesion in a group. Especially younger pupils learn in school to interact in a larger community. If digital learning becomes generally established and social learning no longer takes place in daily interactions, we do not know yet how this will affect society in the future.

Vladova: At universities, there is a clear trend in this direction. The use of digital self-study tools is an increasingly integral part of academic studies. Hybrid teaching methods, in particular, will become increasingly established after the Corona crisis.

Which ratio of digital to analog would you consider appropriate in education?

Köster: The younger the students, the more face-to-face education should be offered because the skills of pupils at elementary schools are closely linked to the support and assistance from teachers. The older the students, the more digital components can be offered.

Vladova: It is very important not to make any general claims here. The answers of the participants in the survey did not show a clear line either. The teachers’ needs, their competencies as well as the type of knowledge to be imparted must be taken into account when making a decision.

The Researchers

Dr. Antonia Köster studied business administration at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich). Since 2018, she has been doing research at the Chair of Business Informatics, Social Media, and Society. She is the group leader of the research group “Digital Integration” at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society in Berlin.
Mail: antonia.koesteruni-potsdamde

Dr. Gergana Vladova studied international economic relations at the University of National and World Economy in Sofia (Bulgaria), and communication sciences and economics at Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2009, she has been doing research at the Chair of Business Informatics, Processes and Systems, and since 2017 she has been group leader of the research group “Education and Advanced Training in the Digital Society” at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society in Berlin.
Mail: gergana.vladovawi.uni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - One 2021 „Change“.