Digital learning: Be proactive, have your say, ask questions

21 Jun 2021

On the added value of digital media, or why listening to lectures is not enough: An interview with educational psychologist Frank Fischer.

Frank Fischer, educational psychologist at LMU Munich

Frank Fischer, educational psychologist at LMU Munich | © LMU

Frank Fischer holds the Chair of Empirical Education and Educational Psychology at LMU. In this interview he explains the challenges that digital education poses for teachers and pupils, why it generally works well – and why it sometimes doesn’t.

What are the main differences between digital teaching and face-to-face instruction in the classroom – or can the latter be translated into the digital realm?

Frank Fischer: That might be possible in cases where the teaching model or situation was very much a head-on affair. But when all 25 pupils in your class are now at home, you’re unlikely to hold their attention for very long. In the classical frontal scenario, one person speaks and everyone else listens. The dominant model in Germany is one in which the teacher asks questions, the pupils respond, and the teacher then evaluates the responses. The whole process is controlled by the teacher. Trying to translate this model one-to-one into the digital context is a not a good idea. In particular it isn´t the best way to go about cultivating complex skills.

Why not? What is wrong with face-to-face instruction?

The disquisition ex cathedra is a cultural heritage. One person speaks, the others listen – and many of them learn from the discourse. Explanations that are well thought out can work wonders, but they are not enough to enable pupils to acquire complex skills. Lectures alone cannot teach the art of problem solving, either in schools or universities. Lectures can indeed convey new knowledge in a coherent and structured fashion, but that in itself is not enough to enable the student to apply it constructively. That requires engagement and effort on the part of the student.

Students must think things out for themselves, reflect on connections and contexts, solve problems. – And one way to nurture these skills is to give them tasks in which they have to develop examples, compare or evaluate concepts.

Is it possible to nurture these skills by digital means?

Actually, this is one sphere in which digital media have an important edge over conventional teaching methods. Digital learning makes it possible, for instance, to search for more enlightening information on the topic on YouTube or to find an online game that challenges the player to solve problems and provides direct feedback. The teacher is no longer the sole fount of knowledge. Digital media can provide contexts in which new knowledge can be applied and the students receive direct feedback – either by means of adaptive technologies or by enabling groups to work together on a related problem.

One of the dilemmas raised by digital teaching and learning is that it doesn’t work equally well for all. In our latest survey of digital education in schools, teachers and parents pointed out that one of the biggest problems posed by the present pandemic – apart from dodgy internet connections – is the lack of effective self-regulation mechanisms for home learners. They have problems organizing their studies and find it hard to define realistic learning goals.


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

Read more

Can this not be done by instructors?

One of the most important skills that good teachers possess is the ability to orchestrate the learning processes of their students – the capacity to recognize that so-and-so is able to work effectively alone and asks penetrating questions, whereas another is all at sea and needs more attention and support. In the classroom, many teachers recognize such distinctions intuitively.

In the online situation this is more difficult, and if the teacher fails to ask the right questions in time, students at risk may be left behind. Moreover, this doesn‘t apply only to schools. There are also very significant differences between university students with respect to their relative ability to structure material, and the amount of help they need.

How can young people be helped to develop self-regulation and organizational skills?

One of the big difficulties in schools is what’s called pacing: How long does the class need to complete an assignment? When pupils are on their own in homeschooling, they often have little sense of how much time they can take over any single problem, given that they have several to solve. The ability to gauge how one can best tackle a problem is a metacognitive skill, something that many pupils develop relatively late in the course of their schooling. Teachers can do a great deal to help – simply by specifying a time frame for the task, and signaling that pupils who need longer should say so. When teachers allot too many tasks and fail to check differences in performance, big learning gaps can open up between members of the class.

In other words, guidance and feedback are both vital for successful digital learning?

Definitely – as in all learning situations. The opportunities offered by digitalization in this context have yet to be fully exploited. Lots of research is being done on the use of artificial intelligence to analyze pupils’ behavior and provide feedback – not to the pupils, the diagnostics often aren’t good enough yet – but in the form of aggregated information for teachers. This allows them, for example, to discern that some groups are not working on the assigned topic or that some pupils always upload their work at night. This is the kind of information that can prompt the teacher to discuss the matter and offer more support.

It has now become clear that the classical strategies of inculcating the art of self-regulation are less effective online. Digital learning typically offers a range of ways of doing things, and different sources of information which are not ranked in terms of efficacy. So the choice of the best learning strategy has a subject-specific component. As a teacher, I have to give pupils guidance on how to distinguish between reliable and less reliable information sources for the subject in question, and I need to know how they carry out searches, so that I can give them feedback.

What sorts of skills do instructors need to have in order to facilitate digital learning – and how can they acquire them?

Teaching staff in schools and universities need professional media-related skills that go beyond the general level of media literacy. Not only must they be in a position to employ digital media to achieve teaching goals, they should also be able to assess their relative efficacy and, if necessary, reconfigure them. Evaluation, documentation and propagation of successful digital educational activities are now playing an increasingly significant role. There are already some interesting models in use in teacher training colleges, in which different subjects and subject-specific didactic approaches are combined with psychology and education. But across the board – from supplementary courses for lecturers at universities and teachers in training to further education for schoolteachers – as far as implementation is concerned, we have a long way to go.

How should digital learning (sessions) be structured temporally?

That depends on the type of course involved. In lecture courses it’s a good idea to pause often, to ensure that phases of exposition and explanation are not too long. University students tend to refere lectures when they are divided into segments of 20 or 30 minutes rather than given as 90-minute marathons.

And learners can be activated by putting questions to them on the material that has just been presented, giving short tests, using audience-response systems to do little surveys, and providing opportunities for discussion. That‘s really what interactive learning entails. And truly constructive learning would, for example, involve saying: Now that I have explained concept X to you, can you give me more examples of its application? That can all be done in 45- or 90-minute slot.

Where do the limits of digital learning lie?

We still don’t know, for instance, how long digital learning and digital get-togethers are likely to remain effective. Owing to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, many of our students have never actually been inside the university. We don’t know what kinds of effects that might have, or whether we might need to compensate for them. In my view, all the socialization processes that normally take place in educational environments have become much more difficult. Learning course content and methodologies is one thing, but becoming a journalist or a psychologist is something else again. What exactly does it entail? What role does the university environment itself play? How important is one’s own understanding of one’s professional role?

Processes that normally take place more or less incidentally, must be explicitly addressed in digital environments – organizing digital fireside chats, for instance. And issues to which the teachers themselves have no settled answers are also much more difficult to get across in the digital realm.

In many other areas too, I believe it’s too early to say where the limits lie. – In schools and universities, we will have plenty of opportunities to find out. I’m thinking here especially about the future use of simulations and AI. According to a meta-analysis that has just been published, simulations are among the most effective forms of teaching and learning at university level.

What is the best advice one can give students on how to make the best use of digital learning sessions? Learn in groups and ask questions if you’ve lost the thread?

Exactly. These tips are no less relevant to the digital world. But there is one finding on self-motivated and self-regulated learning, which is particularly applicable to the digital setting: The students that are most in need of help are those who are least likely to ask for it. One of the reasons for that is that those who have little knowledge, and are poorly equipped for the task of learning, often don’t even realize that they need help.

I always tell my students that alarm bells should go off whenever they have the impression that they have no problems at all. They should try to obtain feedback on how they have tackled problems – and what they can improve.

Moreover, from a cognitive point of view, although it can be very relaxing to passively follow the lecturer‘s discourse, if that’s all you do, it’s highly unlikely that you will subsequently be able to apply the material you have heard. You learn more when you engage personally with the material, even if you only take notes. The best way is to become involved, bring your own ideas to bear. – And if the teacher doesn’t assign exercises that stimulate reflection, make up your own.
That can all be done in collaboration with others.

But one has to be careful. In group situations, one or two people very often do all the talking and the rest are passive bystanders. In that case, the teacher, who can explain things better, is the better bet. Whenever a teacher says “you can now discuss the lecture together in small groups”, it’s time to be skeptical: When you form a learning group, remember that it needs to be structured. Ask the teacher how to make sure that all members of the group gain from its discussions. Make use of what you already know, consider the kinds of roles the exercise offers, think up a plot in which everyone has a constructive part to play, so that everyone benefits from the interactions with all the other members

It has been suggested that over the course of the last several months of digital learning, many students have fallen behind to a significant degree. Is that true?

In light of the great efforts that schools and universities, and, of course, the students have put into digital alternatives to face-to-face teaching, it seems to me highly unlikely that there are pupils and students who have learned nothing over the past year. As humans, we start learning as soon as we open our eyes. Indeed, we continue to learn when we shut them and fall asleep. So the question is what pupils and students have learned, and what has been left out – or more importantly who has been left behind. How can those who have experienced particular difficulties in digital settings be effectively helped? In my group, we are now engaged in identifying the skills that have not been properly taught during the pandemic, as well as those that have been put across more successfully, such as media-related subjects that have not previously had that much exposure. I believe we can look forward to some surprises, both in terms of deficits and new educational opportunities.

What are you looking for?