Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Bye bye blackboards – a cool one billion for educational IT!

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Wouldn’t it be a great idea to set ourselves the goal of becoming world leaders in educational IT in the next five years? Jan Arpe thinks so.

Education is a key factor in dealing with the impact of global megatrends. This is not the least of the reasons that motivated Europe’s biggest circulation newspapers, BILD and Hürriyet to join forces with management consultants Roland Berger and the Bertelsmann Stiftung in initiating a major survey aimed at giving the maximum number of people a direct opportunity to tell political decision-makers what they think of the current education situation in Germany. Thousands of people took part in the survey at

A call for radically new ways of learning and teaching

In October 2010 at the TEDx Rhein-Neckar-Conference, Gunter Dueck, chief technologist at IBM Deutschland, called for an end to chalk and blackboards. Yet he wasn’t so much thinking of simply replacing the good old classroom blackboard with an interactive multimedia whiteboard as a radical new revamping of the whole education system with – perhaps not so surprising for a techie – IT coming to the rescue.

Teaching against the Internet?

His call was based on the assertion that we have already undergone a radical transformation in the availability of knowledge. If a student today has to give a paper on Goethe’s classic “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, all she has to do is go to Wikipedia and Co. and in next to no time she has a bank of information at her fingertips – factual info, critical appraisals, historical references, background literature and so on. Yet nearly all German classes still treat reading as though they were stuck in the 19th century and in some cases students are even sternly admonished to keep well away from the Internet because the Internet ….Well, what’s the matter with the Internet again? The Internet with all its patchy, biased, unscholarly and downright false information is a dangerous source to deal with? Wouldn’t teachers be better advised then to help their students deal with this kind of research and teach them to distinguish the scholarly from the slap-dash amateur, the biased from the objective and poor academic research from high-quality erudition?

It’s all out there!

Or is it the fear that library research periods will be shortened or even worse rendered obsolete as background reading can now be viewed on Google Books? Are we perhaps really seeing a last stand to defend the teaching profession’s sovereign sway over knowledge? Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that such complete classroom control will be steadily eroded in the future as all the information is already out there on the Net. And available for everybody, students and teachers alike, whether they’re in Germany or somewhere else in the world. And available in such a profusion that no teacher in the world can fully grasp and know it.

Don’t worry about those changes, start shaping them!

All these arguments against the use of new technologies have one thing in common: they are all based on outworn deeply ingrained habits and an obsessive rejection of change. Yet it’s high time to understand the opportunities now being offered and to seize them. Obviously it’s just as foolish to have a blind faith in progress and find everything good that’s new. Real change needs to be actively shaped and steered. Take Wikipedia, for instance, a project created more as a by-product of the evolutionary process in the Internet. Endowed with a clear vision yet not tailored to the systematic provision of learning material. Wouldn’t that be an opportunity – not just to passively consume what’s already there but to shape things in line with social needs? To develop Wikipedia so that it becomes more responsive to the learning needs of all age groups?

Care for little examples?

Dueck waxed lyrical about his future visions: “virtual modules for physics and chemistry” instead of poorly presented experiments in dusty auditoriums with excruciatingly long set-up times; “Geography  with Google Earth Technologies” instead of slowly leafing through school atlases as big and heavy as paving stones; “Youtube for biology – with all fauna and flora” instead of endless fiddling with clumsy unfit for purpose microscopes; “Skype exchange students” instead of English teachers whose heavy Bavarian accents are all too apparent in the foreign language as well.

New roles for teachers

“But what would be left for the teachers to do?” runs the question. Wouldn’t all the school students and undergraduates be turned into high-tech zombies with their eyes glued to their laptops and iPads? Regimented in rows in the class room before flickering monitors (sic!), wouldn’t they become brutalized and isolated and loose every kind of social skill? Where is humanity in this high-tech equation? Dueck has a perhaps mind-bogglingly obvious answer to such questions. He says that if the use of educational IT significantly improves both the quality of teaching and students’ enjoyment in learning and thus relieves teachers of one of their key traditional duties – the transmission of knowledge – then the teacher’s job description and the way they perceive their own role must be changed! They should no longer (“merely”) give instruction in particular subjects but rather help students to acquire skills and – even more importantly – to develop forward-looking attitudes. And not just in schools but kindergartens and universities too – in short, across the whole of lifelong learning!

Raise the whole education system onto the next level

What kind of skills and attitudes are meant here? Dueck gives us a whole list including “social”, “cooperative”, “communicative”, “conflict and problem-solving”, “leadership“; “humorous“, „intercultural“, “confidence building”, “curious”, “self-responsible” – the list goes on and on and can easily be extended. Teaching such skills and attitudes is a daunting challenge for any teacher. But it is the only way to take, Dueck believes, not just to turn out “more people with A levels” but to raise “the whole education system onto the next level” so that we can become “a society of excellence” – a society which doesn’t just promote the excellence of its elite but which also takes care to nurture excellence in everybody and especially in its weakest links.

The way to go

How should this all function? Basically we need three things. Firstly, a complete new generation of educational software which should be easy to use and put up on the Web for everyone free of charge. Wouldn’t it be a great idea to set ourselves the goal of becoming world leaders in educational IT in the next five years? Secondly, we need the infrastructure to make this educational IT accessible to everyone in properly designed environments. This would cost a lot of money but there’s no way of getting round it even without educational IT – and even if we could, there’d still be the risk of the whole process taking much much longer and of Germany once more losing out on the chance of playing a leading international role. And thirdly, we need a completely new understanding of the role played by professors, teachers and educators including a complete reorganization of the way they are trained. That too will cost money, time and effort. So we’d better start on it today and not put it off till tomorrow or the days after.

PS: According to Wikipedia, construction of 1km of motorway costs on average €26.8 million in Germany. So €1bn would give us around 37.3km of motorway.

For €1bn we could easily get 1,000 top-notch software developers to work on development of knowledge platforms for five years. Just think of all the marvels such dedicated experts could come up with in that timeframe! So the first phase could be easily managed – at least in financial terms. Or we could build another 37.3km of motorway. Ask your children which alternative they prefer!

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