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33 Questions to Prof. Dr. Katharina Scheiter, Professor of Digital Education at the Department of Education

Prof. Dr. Katharina Scheiter
Photo : Tobias Hopfgarten
Prof. Dr. Katharina Scheiter

Digital media are increasingly finding their way into schools. On the one hand, their use in schools is intended to prepare children and adolescents for a competent and critically reflected use of media in all spheres of life. On the other hand, they can support and optimize various teaching and learning processes in class. Prof. Dr. Katharina Scheiter, Professor for Digital Education at the University of Potsdam since May 2022 and funded by the Hasso Plattner Foundation, is researching the conditions under which this can be successful.

Professor Scheiter, the pandemic has shown every family, every child, every teacher how significant digital media can be for learning. Looking back, what turned out to be the most important lesson?

As through a burning glass, we were shown what we actually already knew before the pandemic: The prerequisites that students bring with them are the decisive factor for learning success. Those who could work in a self-directed manner, had the appropriate techniques, and were supported by their parents were able to cope better. The difficulty for teachers was to provide quality teaching that met the needs of all learners. The quality of the implementation of distance learning varied greatly. There is still much to be done.

How does Germany compare internationally when it comes to learning with digital media?

Still not good. In terms of media skills, we are in the midfield at best. Surveys from 2013 and 2018 also show no significant development in this field. Countries like Australia and Denmark are consistently at the top. It is interesting that countries like the Czech Republic, which have far less technology than we do, have higher media literacy. So, it’s not just a question of equipment.

Many schools have better technical equipment today. What is important now?

In some places, the equipment is still very poor. Even the best technology is of no use if there is no fast internet and no knowledge of what to do with digital media. Training teachers accordingly and enabling them to use digital media purposefully for good teaching is crucial.

What can digital learning media do that other media can’t?

They can create adaptive offers. They are well suited to assess the individual learning level of the pupils and to provide them with targeted support. Of course, digital media can also make things comprehensible that we cannot observe directly, or only with great difficulty: melting glaciers, Ancient Rome, or microstructures in chemistry. Here, different types of visualization – for example, realistic illustrations of an experiment and the abstract representation of the observed connections at the model level – can also be linked in a didactically meaningful way.

And what can’t they do?

Turn bad teaching into good teaching. Or to quote Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD’s PISA Program, “Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.” We need to have an idea of what good teaching is and not just impose technology hoping that it will automatically make learning successful.

What makes good teaching with digital media?

Basically, these are exactly the three things that also make for good analogue teaching: cognitive activation, empowering support, and class management! So, it comes down to mentally stimulating the students, providing helpful feedback, and ensuring that the lessons run smoothly.

What do teachers need to fundamentally understand when they want to use digital media efficiently in class?

They must know exactly what they want to achieve with it and which special functions they can use for a subject-specific or interdisciplinary teaching objective. A medium does not simply work alone but must be coherently integrated into an overall teaching concept.

Which other competences are necessary?

Teachers need to be able to learn throughout their lives and to constantly bring themselves up-to-date: What media with what kind of functions are there? What can I do with them? They must be open and willing to engage with new things. Ultimately, it is a question of teachers’ attitude towards understanding their own continuing education and training as a component of their professionalism.

Qualifying while school is in session is certainly not easy. How can teachers manage this?

It is probably not very useful to go to a further training session one day a year. If possible, continuing education should take place in parallel to teaching over a longer period. It should give teachers the possibility to try out what they have learned and include regular peer feedback and coaching. Another promising method, because it is credible and close to practice, are so-called micro-trainings amongst the teaching staff, in which teachers share knowledge and experiences with each other. In the future, individual subjects could also network more closely across schools to jointly develop new learning units and exchange proven teaching concepts. Not everyone has to invent everything themselves.

Prof. Scheiter, you are actually a psychologist. At what point in your career did you take the path towards becoming a digital literacy expert?

Already as a student assistant during my psychology studies in Göttingen. In 1999, I wrote my diploma thesis on “Learning with Hypermedia”. By the way, I still see myself as a psychologist, although I like working at the interfaces with other disciplines, with educational sciences, computer science, subject didactics, medicine ...

What appealed to you about your diploma topic?

Linking basic theories with contexts of application. This was specifically about the motivational psychology question of the conditions under which we are able to pursue our goals even when we are constantly confronted with distractions. In fact, we put more effort into our goal and are less distracted when it becomes more difficult. This means, when learning with digital media, the task should not be too easy, so that we do not too easily read tempting additional information on the net.

Could you also have become a psychotherapist or did you always want to go into research?

At the beginning of my studies, I definitely had the wish to become a psychotherapist. But after two internships in child and youth psychotherapy with many routine tasks in predefined structures and hierarchies, I knew that this was not the right thing for me. Maybe I am just too impatient. I found working on a research project and being able to delve into a topic more exciting even as a student assistant. After the diploma thesis, everything was clear.

What do you like about science?

Working in a knowledge-oriented way and being able to apply only one’s own quality standards, i.e. determining yourself when something is good enough that you want to present it to the public. Research is always interest-driven, you are free to do what you want. And of course, I like the interdisciplinary exchange.

You are particularly committed to the transfer of knowledge into practice and were awarded the Franz Emanuel Weinert Prize of the German Psychological Society in 2022. Is transfer automatically part of scientific work for you or does it require additional effort?

If you do research on a socially relevant topic and can offer knowledge against the backdrop of this research that can provide orientation, then transfer is part of it. Yes, it requires additional effort, especially since your studies and the subsequent academic qualification do not adequately prepare you for this. For me, however, this is part of my social responsibility. Of course, it is also a question of personal inclination and the will to take part in shaping change in a larger area. However, it would be wrong to measure the quality and value of research by how “utilizable” it is. There must always be room for basic research, also because for many things we do not know what their practical use might be later, for example the development of a vaccine for a yet unknown threat from a virus like Corona. Even if research is not directly transferred into an application, it is valuable and must be promoted.

Which instruments do you use for transfer?

Above all, the continuing education and training of teachers. In order to be able to change overall structures, I also advise political institutions and education administrations. I recently developed the prototype of a digital teaching medium together with a textbook publisher. In addition, I often give interviews or write articles myself for practice-oriented magazines.

What do you yourself learn from that?

To express myself clearly. Not using triple interactions in the description of a research finding does not immediately mean turning away from a scientific approach. I learn to abstract from my own research and, in exchange with practitioners, find out what precisely concerns teachers. This in turn provides new impetus for research.

You went to school in the 1980s. Where did you first encounter electronic learning media as a student?

Tellingly enough, not in Germany but in Canada, where I spent half a year at a high school during 10th grade. A programming course in C++ was compulsory there. This was almost the only experience, by the way. At home in Göttingen, I was only once in the so-called computer cabinet of my secondary school.

What did you learn from or with these media?

In fact, I only learned to work with digital media during my studies. And there, too, I was a late adopter. I didn’t have my own first computer - a second-hand Apple Macintosh Classic II - until my main course of studies in 1995.

Did you like working with it?

Yes, I did. I was already writing presentations and articles with my thesis supervisor back then. Being able to work on a document together and quickly access a variety of digital sources without having to first fill out the interlibrary loan slip in the library and then wait for delivery was a real relief and enrichment of academic work.

Did media education already exist in your school?

No, interestingly not even on classical media. I would have liked to see a comprehensive education here, for example on the origin of media content, to be able to better understand the news, or the effect of advertising.

Do you read print books today or only digitally?

I prefer printed matter in the bathtub or at the lake. When I go on holiday, I am happy not to have to carry 12 books with me but to comfortably download them onto my tablet.

You manage to read 12 books during your holidays?

Yes, besides hiking and canoeing reading is one of my main activities. And since I like to travel to remote areas of Scandinavia, I don’t have too much other entertainment there.

Do you read more technical and non-fiction books or novels?

Both, although I have a very clear preference for English-language crime novels in my spare time.

Do you regularly take digital timeouts for yourself?

I am very digitally active and online much of the time or frequently, but always with a purpose. I use digital media as a tool, rarely just to pass the time. For example, when I go hiking and discover a plant I don’t know, I use an identification app on my smartphone to fill the knowledge gap.

And when you’re not hiking or reading, how do you spend your free time?

Gardening, swimming, going mushrooming, cycling ... I really like being out in nature. Sitting still is not exactly my strength.

You live in Potsdam-Eiche near the Campus Golm. By chance or intentionally?

Intentionally. When I moved to Potsdam last year, my main criterion when looking for an apartment was to have a garden. I also like short distances to work. Eiche is very nice, you have a lot of green and yet you can get to the city center of Potsdam quickly by bike.

Berlin didn’t appeal to you?

No, Berlin is fine as a nice suburb of Potsdam. I like going to concerts, to see Grönemeyer at the Waldbühne or to a classical concert at the Philharmonic Hall. Apart from that, I don’t miss anything in Potsdam.

You were Professor for Empirical Research on Learning and Instruction in Tübingen, which was linked to leading a working group at the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (IWM). Why did you switch to Potsdam?

After 20 years in Tübingen, I felt like doing something new. I had been associated with the IWM since its foundation, had held the professorship there from 2009 and had done many things. The offer from Potsdam appealed to me because of its new creative possibilities and a lot of freedom. The structures here are not yet so firmly established. It’s a dynamic environment with many great colleagues. Besides, I had already fallen in love with the city and its park and water landscape on my first visit to Potsdam. That was in 1992 in my last year of high school. As a native of Lower Saxony, it was always clear to me that I would like to live further north again. With my somewhat direct manner, I’m probably better off here.

Your professorship at the Faculty of Human Sciences is funded by the Hasso Plattner Foundation. What connects the HPI and the Digital Engineering Faculty?

The conviction that digital technologies are an integral part of our living, educational, and working environments and also tools for structuring and developing education. The first joint projects are already underway, such as the development of digital and hybrid continuing education in STEM subjects based on LERNEN.Cloud as part of a joint project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

What else is still conceivable here in the future?

The school cloud also offers various connecting points when it comes to the design of digital content. Together with HPI director Ralf Herbrich and David Schlangen from the computational linguistics department, I’m currently getting an overview of what is being done with regard to artificial intelligence at the University of Potsdam. In the future, I would like to focus more on the possibilities of AI for the design of adaptive teaching and learning.

What are your fist impressions of the student teachers in Potsdam when it comes to digital education?

I have noticed that the students in Potsdam already have a lot more experience in the digital field than students elsewhere. On the one hand, this could mean that the topic is already better anchored in the various subject didactics here, but on the other hand, it may be related to the fact that students have more practical training during their studies. This is something that can be built on, even if there is still a long way to go before the offer is coherent across all phases.

The new year has just begun. What are your plans?

Two very demanding BMBF-funded large-scale projects are launching, and I am responsible for their coordination. In particular, the networking and transfer office for the Competence Centers for Digital and Digitally Supported Teaching will be a great, exciting challenge, but it will also tie up a lot of resources. It started in February and will bring together about 25 - 30 project networks nationwide and support them in transferring their findings to practice. In April, the joint STEM project will begin, in which professionalization measures for digitally supported teaching will be developed based on research and across locations. “On the side”, establishing my working group and the conception of a new Master’s program on the topic of digital education are on the agenda. Both are things that clearly fell short in 2022 due to the applications for the two projects. And I don’t think I need to plan more than that, the work will come all by itself.

And what do you wish personally?

More time (laughing). Astrid Lindgren wrote in her diary in 1964, “Och så ska man ju ha några stunder att bara sitta och glo också!,” freely translated, “And you should also have time to just sit and stare.” All restlessness aside, there is something to that! But I had a very good start here, both professionally and personally, so I wouldn’t mind if things continued this way.

The Researcher

Prof. Dr. Katharina Scheiter studied psychology at the University of Göttingen and obtained her PhD at the University of Tübingen in 2003. In 2009, she was appointed full Professor for Empirical Research on Learning and Instruction at the University of Tübingen, which was linked to leading a working group at the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (IWM). Since 2022, she has been Professor for Digital Education at the University of Potsdam, funded by the Hasso Plattner Foundation.
Email: katharina.scheiteruni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - One 2023 „Learning“ (PDF).


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Sabine Schwarz