The pandemic can turn out to be the long-awaited catalyst for the digital learning revolution


  • 21/12/2020

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Ralph Müller-Eiselt. Director of the programme Megatrends at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany
Ralph Müller-Eiselt (1982) is a researcher who studies how digital change is transforming education and society. He is running the programme Megatrends at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany, which examines the social effects, opportunities, and risks of digitalisation. He cowrote the book We Humans and the Intelligent Machines and Digital Education Revolution, and is in charge of the blog 
In your book, Digital Education Revolution, written together with Jörg Dräger in 2015, you already argued that the future of education passes through digitization. To what extent is this statement still valid after the COVID-19 crisis?
Digitization will change education as profoundly as perhaps only book printing or compulsory schooling did before. This is about much more than equipping schools and universities with tablets or smartboards. The digital education revolution is turning the way we teach and learn upside down: away from exclusivity for the few in the Western world, towards global mass offerings; away from standardized learning according to a strict curriculum, towards individual support for everyone; away from signalling effects of reputable of elite institutions, towards measuring and improving the actual skills of every individual.
All these trends can already be observed for quite some time in the USA, Asia, or South America – where education costs are exploding, or where there is often simply a lack of teachers or buildings which makes digital learning an attractive alternative for this reason alone. In Europe, however, the sense of urgency for digital learning was lacking until COVID-19. Now that the digital backlog of our schools has become evident and governments have taken immediate action, I am quite confident that the pandemic can turn out to be the long-awaited catalyst for the digital learning revolution.
What aspects of digitization do you think can be applied today in educational (schools) and training centers?
Traditional education's biggest challenge is the heterogeneity of the people. Digital learning comes with the promise of mastering this challenge. Everyone's motivation to learn, learning style and speed of learning is different. In some German schools, we can observe a learning gap of more than two years within one classroom. And the older we get, even more diverse our life situations, our professional qualifications and the specific learning requirements are. That is why we need personalized learning paths also and especially in adult education. Digital learning offers can help here, which not only respond to different individual needs and goals, but can also develop a high motivational power, like good computer games. Digital learning, done right, adapts to the life of the learner and is thus part of the solution for better education and more equal opportunities in life.
How can artificial intelligence and algorithms help to achieve digitization in education? What specific benefits do they bring?
First of all, it is important to note that digitalization should not be seen as an end in itself, but as powerful means to achieve better educational outcome and more equal opportunities. To do so, the greatest benefits of algorithms and artificial intelligence lie in personally tailored learning and the orientation about suitable educational offerings and labour market opportunities. Experiences from the United States are very promising: students learn 50 percent more than in traditional classroom settings, and first-generation university students complete their studies with the help of algorithms and Big Data significantly more often within the standard period of study.
"Digitalization should not be an end in itself, but as powerful means to achieve better educational outcome and more equal opportunities".

Could you give a good practice example of how AI and algorithms can help digitize education?
Just as Netflix gives film and Amazon buying recommendations, more and more American universities are using software to recommend lectures to each student that match their interests and abilities – signalling where they have both a promising learning opportunity and a realistic chance of passing. Especially for young people from educationally disadvantaged families, these data provide the orientation necessary for a successful career. In a European country like Germany with more than 20,000 courses of study alone, finding the right way through this jungle of opportunities is a real question of social equity and justice. Modern software systems can help to find answers to this question.
This example, however, also shows that using AI in education means much more than online learning – and at the same not a pure digital learning experience. The mix of online and offline learning does it. At universities, for example, we will – after Covid-19 – certainly neither continue to learn only digitally nor in purely analogue ways. Some lectures will simply be better online, be it because of the fantastic professor or be it because of vivid experiments or simulations that could not be realized in a lecture hall. Other seminars will work better in small groups on site than on the Internet. And there will be many offerings that combine analogue and digital elements, as it suits best for learning success.
What are the main difficulties in advancing more quickly and efficiently in the digitization of education and how could they be solved?
Of course, the great opportunities are accompanied by great risks; in the worst case, digitalization does not promote more justice, but creates more injustice. If educationally disadvantaged young people do not use the Internet and their electronic devices sensibly, if learning data are misappropriated and abused, then social inequality in society threatens to increase further. It is precisely in awareness of these risks that we are all called upon to actively shape digital change for the better. Scepticism and rejection, at any rate, will not be able to stop it in education in the long term.
Important barriers to overcome such sentiments are inadequate digital infrastructure and teacher training that does not prepare for teaching in an increasingly digital world. Therefore, many teachers still perceive digital learning as a problem that adds to many others they already have to deal with. Instead, we need to cultivate an open attitude that embraces digitalization not yet another problem, but as viable part of the solution to existing educational challenges.
What role do teachers play in the education based on algorithms and artificial intelligence? Does their work is in danger because the use of these technologies in education?
Teachers will always be the core to a successful learning experience. A very important part of education is relationship work – tablets and software are less suitable for this. Of course, seven-minute educational videos cannot replace personality development and computer technology cannot replace the bond between teacher and student. But they can free up more time for this very essential. Thanks to algorithmic opportunities, teachers can finally teach children instead of standard knowledge. This sounds easier than it is, since it comes with a profound change of their professional role: They are primarily no longer knowledge mediators but learning companions instead. The sage on the stage becomes a guide on the side.

Photo: © Britta Schröder / Ralf Emmerich

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