The coronavirus crisis has forced teachers, schoolchildren and parents to rethink everything overnight. On the challenges and opportunities of digital learning.
The Waldpark School in the Heidelberg district of Boxberg initially experienced teething problems when switching to digital learning, but has since won the German School Award.
A crossed out cell phone symbol is displayed on the glass entrance of the 1960s pavilion in the Hamburg district of Bahrenfeld. Blackboards hang on the walls. In the classrooms of Max Brauer School, a multi-award-winning progressive school that is also regularly praised for its forward-looking digital profile, the students are familiar with the sound of squeaking blackboard chalk. How does all that fit together? “Pretty well,” says Stefan Zelle, who has been the school’s media officer since 2012. When asked what exactly the school’s digital concept is, he answers with a smile: “We actually follow more of a no-concept approach.” Working with mobile devices and using social media and apps in lessons is natural here. The school regulations have long allowed students to use their own tablets or laptops for lessons. Getting there wasn’t a straightforward process, however. “We have always invested in digital technology when there was a specific need for it,” explains Zelle. As a result, the school has become digitally more literate with each passing year, without ever needing to concretely formulate that as a goal. “Digitalization is not an end in itself. We always start with the question: what’s it for, ultimately?”
The progressive school encourages personalized and independent learning, and that right from elementary school, where the children work with their teachers to develop work plans, which they then implement independently. Digital media is an important requirement because the students may all be sitting in one room, but they are all working on individual subjects that are of interest to them. How do they coordinate the personalized lesson plans? Doesn’t that involve a huge amount of work for the teachers?
“All the teaching material we develop is available to all teachers as a matter of principle, and is handed over to the next grade every year. That only works because we are a united team of teachers, each happy to share own knowledge and the results of own work, and prepared to upgrade on digital skills.”
Stefan Zelle, media officer at the Max Brauer School in Hamburg
When we conducted this interview with Stefan Zelle in the deserted school shortly before Easter 2020, it was still impossible to predict when schools could re-open in light of coronavirus concerns. One lesson can already be drawn: when faced with the Herculean task of switching from classroom teaching to decentralized teaching in just a few days, schools that had already used digital technology in the past were at an advantage – the students and the teachers were simply better prepared. That is also confirmed by Matti and Ake, twelve and fourteen years old, two students who attend Max Brauer School.
“We already knew how the apps used for homeschooling lessons worked. Teachers upload tasks onto platforms such as “Schulcloud”, and as students we are then responsible for preparing a weekly work plan in which we set out their learning objectives.“
Ake, 14, student at the Max Brauer School in Hamburg
“And when we need help, that’s all really easy via Schulcloud. We also frequently upload videos showing what we’re doing in our free time. That’s all somehow helped us to make us feel closer to the school and our classmates. Learning is far more fun when you have these kinds of options. And you’re also much more productive.“
Matti, 12, student at the Max Brauer School in Hamburg
At the end of March, the German government decided to allocate €100 million from the “Digital Pact” (an agreement between the federal and state governments for better equipping schools with digital technology) to expand digital teaching during the period German schools would be closed. There is also a significant social dimension to the issue. The School Barometer, a representative survey commissioned by the Robert Bosch Stiftung in collaboration with the German weekly DIE ZEIT, found that two thirds of all the teachers surveyed in Germany were not prepared when distance learning started after the coronavirus hit. In addition to a lack of equipment, the survey respondents noted their own shortcomings when using digital teaching formats as a reason for this. Not all students have ideal conditions for learning at home, and digital inclusion is often particularly limited for those from underprivileged educational backgrounds; but this is the very environment in which support through efficient communication and access to teachers is so crucial.
That problem is not new to Thilo Engelhardt, school principal at the Waldpark School in the Heidelberg district of Boxberg. When he joined the school in 2007, about 70 percent of the children in some classes came from families who relied on unemployment benefits. The concept of the school, which, like Max Brauer School, has been awarded the German School Award of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and of the Heidehof Stiftung, is geared toward individual learning, just like that of the Hamburg-based school. “We achieve this by working in smaller learning groups that provide more space for the needs of the individual, in addition to the large classes.”
That was not always the case. In the beginning, they only had the traditional computer room, but meanwhile the students have access to more than 100 iPads, and every classroom has a visualizer, a smartboard, and a student PC.
“We first had to take the topic of digitalization out of its niche and democratize it, in other words empowering students to use the media critically and responsibly. Even if cell phones have effectively been banned in general classroom situations, it’s not realistic these days to ban smartphones from school outright. They’ve become an integral part of our everyday lives.”
Thilo Engelhardt, school principal of the Waldpark School in the Heidelberg district of Boxberg
At first, Engelhardt was concerned with increasing the students’ awareness of the areas in which it makes sense to use a smartphone, and when and why they should be consciously put away. To improve the students’ media competence, the school is currently setting up a digital center in an area of the assembly hall, where they can borrow iPads and engage with various digital media, under guidance. Although the school already has the necessary resources, it is likely that the project will be modified drawing on the experience the school is currently gaining in the coronavirus crisis.
“The abrupt closure due to the coronavirus crisis meant we, like every other school, had to improvise to start with. We initially used the controversial app “Discord” to stay in touch with students.”
Thilo Engelhardt, school principal of the Waldpark School in the Heidelberg district of Boxberg
The online service for messaging, chats, and voice conferencing is particularly popular with computer game players, but it has also made headlines due to allegations that it is used as a communication channel by extremists. “We had to bite the bullet,” says Engelhardt. The advantages outweighed the disadvantages: the majority of students were familiar with the app since they were already using it in their social and personal lives. And, unlike e-mail, it allows teachers to establish direct contact.
“It was good to know that the teachers could be reached quickly via the app if there was a problem.”
Züleyha, fifteen, a girl in the tenth grade at secondary school with the aim to continue her education at a business high school, would have had to study under even more difficult conditions if she didn’t have Discord. “It wasn’t always easy to concentrate. So it was good to know that the teachers could be reached quickly via the app if there was a problem.” However, Engelhardt is not planning to use Discord in future. “We are currently working on a software that works in a similar way but that is on a secure server, over which the school has sole control and through which we can also reach all the parents.”
Data security is perhaps one of the reasons why there are still significant social reservations with regard to digital media. A study by the foundation Wübben Stiftung in 2019 revealed that around half of all teachers are critical of the use of digital technology in teaching. The study also shows that 49 percent of school principals believe that the advantages of digital media are vastly overrated.
The journey to become one of Germany’s most modern schools
An attitude that isn’t completely alien at the academic high school St. Josef Gymnasium. However, change is possible, as the school in Dingelstädt in Thuringia shows. Here in the countryside large-screen TVs, whiteboards, and projectors are standard; every student from the ninth grade up has their own iPad, and teaching had already gone digital even before the coronavirus crisis hit. Stephan Reich, teacher and media officer at the school, explains that the school was “traditionally analog” when he arrived there as a trainee teacher. Then, in 2016, they began the journey to become one of “Germany’s most modern schools,” as the media would have it.
St. Josef Gymnasium, an academic high school in Dingelstädt, Thuringia, shows that digital transformation is possible in schools.
“The catalyst was actually a discussion about giving the students programmable pocket calculators that could also display graphs,” explains Reich. “The school management was wondering whether it wouldn’t make more sense to offer a tablet because they can be used more universally and offer greater value in teaching.” In the end it was all a question of numbers. While a pocket calculator costs around €150, parents would have to spend around twice as much for an iPad. The school management ultimately persuaded the relevant authorities to back the school’s digitalization efforts and to make the funds available. The experience from these lessons produced a domino effect.
“If you ask me what the big advantage of digitalization is, I’d say it’s the chance to get away from teacher-centered teaching.”
Colleagues from all subjects were gradually won over by the idea of the tablet as a neutral tool that allows you to display and send content in a variety of ways. Jonas Schröter, 18, who experienced the school’s digital transformation first hand, is also familiar with the tablet’s potential.“If you ask me what the big advantage of digitalization is, I’d say it’s the chance to get away from teacher-centered teaching – and the way students and teachers can work together more effectively and connectedly.” The iPad facilitates individual group work, everyone takes part in their classmates’ learning progress, and the medium often leads to numerous creative solutions. “I get the impression that direct feedback from the teacher via the new teaching aid helps all students advance in their learning process. I think the iPad and the communication possibilities it offered during the school closure have meant that the quality of learning remained high.”
There are also still things that aren’t going that well. The facilities for children up to the eighth grade are still not up to the same standard as those for older students, and the greater time requirements of self-paced learning sometimes places excessive demands on students in homeschooling.
“It should be possible for the students to contact the teacher directly, but that isn’t always the case. We need to standardize the communication channels more in this regard; some colleagues still prefer e-mails, while the students use Messenger.”
Stephan Reich (right), teacher and digital officer at the St. Josef Gymnasium high school in Dingelstädt, Thuringia
Conventional school practices – such as rigid time units and prescribed subject choice groups – limit the possibilities even more, he says. “Multimedia, interactive, and cooperative teaching doesn’t work in 45-minute segments.” But the good thing is that anything that doesn’t quite work out right now provides valuable experience for the future. “The digitalized school is always a process. We are learning new things every day.”