Digital education: “We need to step it up a notch”

18 Jun 2021

An interview with Dr. Florian Schultz-Pernice about digital education in schools.

There is often a lack of motivation and self-discipline when learning with digital media at home. | © IMAGO / K. Schmitt

Digital education in Bavarian schools has been much debated and often criticized. Where do schools stand now? Scholars from Professor Frank Fischer’s Chair of Education and Educational Psychology already investigated this question back in 2017. A second study followed in 2019, and then came profound changes in 2020 with coronavirus, the first lockdown and home schooling. These were reflected in a second part of the latest study, titled “Digital education in Bavarian schools before and during the coronavirus pandemic”.

A 250+ page work on successes and shortcomings, the study illustrates how Covid-19 accelerated the pressure to act, but it also recommends actions that can be taken. Dr. Florian Schultz-Pernice, who was involved in the study, explains the key findings.

The study contains over 250 pages of scientific findings about digital education in Bavarian schools. If you had to boil the results down to one sentence, what would it be?

Dr. Florian Schultz-Pernice: The coronavirus pandemic made it clear that a lot has already been achieved around digital education in recent years, but that we still need to step it up a notch in order to be able to exploit the real potential of digitalization long term.

The subtitle of the 2017 and 2019/20 study is “Bavaria on the road to digital education”. How much longer is that road, or is the journey the destination?

Probably a bit of both. There are important milestones that need to be reached. The most important thing right now is to provide schools with the basic equipment they need to be able to offer good education digitally. That means getting them connected to fast, high-performance internet across the board. The other thing—which is now being rolled out—is handing out electronic devices to teachers, alongside disadvantaged school students, so that they all have at home the digital equipment they need. We are already well on the way to achieving this.

So, has the goal already been partly reached?

There’s an interesting phenomenon here: When the equipment available in schools improves, the teachers’ demands of this equipment appear to increase as well. So, although the equipment is better, the teachers are now a little bit less satisfied with it. It’s probably that they’ve tasted blood and they want to do ambitious things but the equipment isn’t quite up to the task. So, the end of the journey will probably never be reached, they’ll have to keep making things better and better.

It can’t be down to money. There was the “Digital Pact” worth five billion euros, and in Bavaria an additional two billion, of which 1.1 billion came from the state’s own coffers. What’s the problem?

It’s partly an administrative problem. The funds are made available but they don’t actually get distributed so quickly. They arrive too late at the schools, many of which had already developed a media and equipment concept prior to 2019, but then they still had to submit the funding applications. It went well in some districts, but in others—for various reasons—they haven’t got there yet. That seems to be the sticking point: The schools know what they need, the teachers are highly motivated, and then they have to get through all the institutional red tape.

Much of this had already been discovered in the study you planned for 2019. Then came coronavirus and changed so many things. Is that a considerable challenge for scholars, too?

From a pure research perspective, it’s interesting that we were able to make a cut in the project before Covid-19 and then watch, as if through a looking glass, major changes happening in the first phase of school closures. Before that, certain trends had been visible but it suddenly became clear where the sticking points were, where action was needed, and where things got going very quickly.

You’ve mentioned teachers’ high motivation levels. But you also noticed this among school students. They are becoming more active. There is this gradual model describing the quality of digital learning, from passive participation to interactive co-design. What stage have they reached?

The model describes different ways of using digital media to achieve different types of learning objectives. We found that teachers are increasingly able to exploit the full spectrum and know what to use where.

At the same time, we found that school students did more than expected during the lockdown, for example not just passively watching an explanatory video but actively engaging with it. This is partly related to the fact that the school students were apparently working with the media themselves for the first time during home schooling and not just listening to a PowerPoint presentation at school, themselves remaining “analog” to a certain extent. So they independently contributed to the activation of their learning.

However, there is often a lack of motivation and self-discipline when learning with digital media at home.

Surely it depends a great deal on the teachers’ pedagogical and didactic skills with the digital tools?

Exactly. That’s what our institute is about. We educate future teachers and try to give them the skills to use these media. On the one hand, this means enabling our student teachers to apply all the different forms of activation in a school setting and, for example, guide joint, cooperative work with various media. The other aspect is that they are expected to learn to empower school students to deal with digital media later on, from the perspective of self-direction—motivation, in other words.

In that sense, all school students should reach a certain level in digital media. However, the resources to enable this are still lacking in some cases right now.

What does the situation after graduation look like?

We were not able to gain such a deep insight into the teacher training phase because, for example, there’s no mention of media at all in the exam regulations. That doesn’t mean they don’t do anything on media, but it is not an obligatory part of the exam.

Our recommendation is that proof should be required, in the sense of output monitoring, that trainee teachers are using digital media in a sophisticated way in at least one demonstration lesson. Things are better later when it comes to continued professional development. A great deal has been and is being done in this area, the range of courses on offer is large and readily taken up by teachers.

But does this also mean that teachers will be faced with a host of new tasks?

Teacher bashing is something our study cannot support. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many teachers to breaking point. They are very engaged, and school students and parents said as much in the survey. It wasn’t just about teaching and learning, teachers also reached out to their students and kept in touch in other ways, too. However, there were some students who remained unreachable.

The recommendations detailed in your study also talk about an educational/learning partnership between school and home. But it has been shown that parents, especially mothers, are already very involved in home schooling, spending an average of three to five hours a day helping their children. Can they be expected to do even more?

I too was surprised by these figures. They are proof of just what parents have done. Not only did they have to set up a workplace for themselves, they also helped with their children’s learning. The question is not whether they can or should do this, but rather how we deal with it, because that’s the way it is. But not everybody can provide the same level of support. It’s partly a time issue, but it’s also a matter of their own educational background. That leads to educational disadvantage and social inequality.

What do we do about it?

Our suggestion was to first take a really serious look at it. What does it make sense to do? The school educates, and so do the parents at home; it’s always been recognized as an educational partnership. But if it’s now becoming so clear that parents are also supporting and accompanying their children’s learning, the question is whether we actually want that, and to what extent. And what do we do with school students whose parents can’t? The message is: You can’t pretend any more that it isn’t like that. Of course, we wish that parents didn’t have to help out. On the other hand, it was good that with our study during this coronavirus period we were able to make things visible that might otherwise have been missed.

At the end of your study, you make a series of recommendations, sort of as “homework” for all involved parties. Do you think they will be implemented?

The pandemic and home schooling have actually done a lot. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to include in our study all that happened after the first lockdown, for example the fact that participating in home schooling was made mandatory in the Bavarian school regulations or that teachers were issued with electronic devices, which was never seriously discussed before— but all of a sudden it became possible. I certainly hope that, based on the experience of this period and the findings from our study, it won’t be possible to fall back from this level. I don’t think the digital push that came during the pandemic will be lost.

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