The following blog entry has been compiled for educators dealing with the implementation of digital CPD-programs in Higher Education. This script is a summary of experiences and thoughts during my past two years as a digital education consultant at the University of Oldenburg.

Picture Credit: Jon Tyson (Unsplash.com)

Introduction

One of my key insights from getting started in digital education was that digital education is not primarily about technology or providing sufficient staff training on hard- and software (which is, of course, an integral part of CPD). On a wider scale, it is about dealing with changing mindsets, attitudes, habits and deeply-rooted social practices. This is how dealing with digital education translates into nurturing social and cultural change in the public sector. By creating hybrid analogue-digital (‘blended’) environments, we redefine and re-negotiate traditional ways of learning and teaching. To rephrase a song by REM – ‘It is the end of education as we know it‘. I shall elaborate.

Digital tribalism vs digital democracy: From history lessons at our doorsteps to implications for digital education

Before going into the specifics of digital education, I couldn’t ignore as an educator the current state of the world, in particular the rise of populism, nationalism and autocratic leaders. Education means education to thrive in an open and democratic society, to be free from intimidation, repression and fear. But what does this specifically mean and what consequences does this statement entail when it comes to the digital domain?

Some backtracking on media and the authoritarianism. I witnessed the implications of authoritarianism first hand when I was still living in Thailand. Back then, the populist PM Thaksin and his family divided the traditionally content Thai society and polarised the nation (the narrative: impoverished country folks had been set up against the wealthier middle-class in Bangkok) to the brink of civil war. Media, social networks like Facebook (more than 70% of the Thai population uses Facebook), reinforced by partisan TV- and radio stations, played a major role in polarizing society. After Thaksin was ousted, the military junta failed likewise serving a pluralistic Thai society. The turmoil left Thailand broken and shattered. I wrongly assumed that such a major political and cultural catastrophe would never occur in the ‘advanced’ West and was greatly mistaken. Only a little later, Trump started polarising America. Again, social media, biased TV-stations and media manipulation played a key role in distorting public discourse. Populists also gained political influence all across Europe and set foot in local and national parliaments. Their rise would not have been possible without the help of social media that favour digital tribalism, sensationalism, oversimplification, constant moral outrage, the manipulation of public opinion by fabricating false and misleading information, spreading propaganda and emotionalising discourse beyond argument.

The common goal of populists is the dismantling of democratic institutions. Burning down a house is easier than building one. The political chaos around Brexit (currently, Boris Johnson versus the British parliament) reveals the same script of populist elites attempting to dismantle functional democratic institutions. From Edward Snowden to Cambridge Analytica and the Great Cyber-Wall of China we have learned that controlling people via the digital sphere is of highest economic as well as of political interest. In such times, how can we teach students to protect themselves and fight for their rights to free personal development? How is free personal and social development (im)possible in the digital domain anyway?

In the world-view of the Alt-Right any majority, the so-called ‘will of the people’, is entitled to ignore and to suppress minorities, even if, as in the case of Brexit, the ‘minority’ amounts to the other half of the population. In a post-truth environment, facts don’t matter. According to populists, any majority reign can be called democratic as long as the so-called ‘will of the people’ has voted them into power. It takes no long stretch of the imagination to grasp how populist ideology ends in forms of dictatorship and the suppression of anybody who disagrees with its dictate. However, notions about a democratic way of life are not mentioned anywhere in most digital competence models. Social behavior seems not part of the equation.

Our grassroots initiative, the ‘Medienfaktur‘ was included in the best practices database of the HRK (German Rectors’ Conference/ Hochschulrektorenkonferenz)

This is how the legacy of John Dewey, to finally enter the educational discussion, requires a transformation into the digital domain. Social networks should not fall prey to organised hatred, cyber-mobbing, political intimidation or social exclusion.

There are two consequences that I drew out of the predicament for digital education: (a) The first conclusion was that students need to master socio-digital competencies to build inclusive communities. (b) The second conclusion was that educators themselves, in developing digital learning environments, should invite a representative panel of students to the development of digital CPD-programs. Educators should also invite independent external consultants to projects in order to avoid groupthink. There are two aspects here: one is for social actors to collaboratively participate in the design of new environments, the other is to invite a wide range of competing ideas that go beyond the horizon of participating stakeholders. The rationality of a digital space equilibrium is guaranteed by these two forces: from the inside-out by collaboration and from the outside-in by keeping group-interests bracketed within a global perspective.

We could call this approach the equilibrial digital-democratic paradigm. Its aim is to provide a dynamic and yet stable platform for developing open societies and communities. The idea of a democratic society embraces all of its members regardless of gender, origin, culture, age or personal worldview. The premise of a democratic society states that a majority has never and under no circumstances the right to dictate the way of life for everybody else. Currently, the development of a democratic mindset and ethos is not a popular topic in any major competency framework. Furthermore, inclusive and sustainable communities require rational public discourse (Habermas) to keep the described equilibrium alive, based on the skills of argument, to use Deanna Kuhn’s book-title.

Illustration: Our key concept is the equilibrium between stakeholder co-creation and competing external ideas. Students were also professionally trained on our LMS, hence ‘expert group’.

When our workgroup at Oldenburg University contacted the Public Service Division (PSD) Innovation Lab in Singapore, I was delighted to find in the blueprint of the lab how the ability to empathise with a target group was regarded as as a necessary and categorical prerequisite for policy development. The ability to empathise with target audiences stems originally from design thinking, such as developed at the Stanford design school. Before any idea, product, service or policy gets published, it needs to go through iterative cycles of development and refinement.

Design Thinking at Stanford d.school

Good solutions are developed, not assumed. This is the reason how standard top-down policy-making in technocratic democracies (who conduct their decision-making under the influence of lobbyists) fail and frustrate many people. The moment policies are designed without the input, insights and understanding of essential stakeholders, (a) the probabilities of policies failing to address critical needs and (b) multiplying undesired side-effects, increase exponentially. From a scientific perspective: the fewer data, the higher the chances of false predictions.

To support the digital-democratic paradigm in our project, we have adopted design thinking as our guiding approach. We have set up a student advisory committee and we have invited external experts from Asia, the US, Ireland and the UK to provide feedback on our prototype designs. This process is still ongoing. We have also granted all co-creators access to our learning management system (LMS) so that they would be able to comment more specifically on problems, to contribute new ideas or alternate ways of designing learning experiences for students.

Digital competence and learner profile definitions

There have been many termini employed over the past decades to describe the need of young people to master their life in digital society and economy, such as e.g., future skills, 21st-century skills, digital literacy or digital competencies. In Europe, the European Commission has developed a comprehensive framework named the ‘digital competence of educators’ in short DigCompEdu. To support internationalisation, our expert group at the Medienfaktur at Oldenburg University decided to build on this comprehensive model. What sets DigCompEdu apart from other competency frameworks is that it not only defines essential professional and pedagogical digital competencies of educators but furthermore defines the profiles of digital explorers, newcomers, experts, leaders and innovators.

When starting an initiative in digital education, it makes sense to define where we want to go first. Which levels of development do we expect from our students at various stages of their education (e.g., Bachelor or Master-level)? How can we formulate and justify our expectations? In an ideal case, competencies inform profiles.

Competences are more than just skills, proficiency levels or knowledge. Competence implies that students are capable of developing abilities in a self-organised and self-directed manner while receiving support within a responsive educational environment (the keyword is ‘feedback culture‘). This is how the idea of digital competence is intrinsically tied to the idea of social scaffolding (Vygotsky’s ZPD), both in regards to connecting with peers as well as educators. Educators, to add a semantic extension, are not only professors and lecturers, but can include student tutors, paraprofessionals, invited experts or simulated clients who play new and novel roles within digital learning environments. The classroom of the future involves a variety of learning opportunities provided by different types of social actors in a multitude of analogue and digital spaces.

Interactions in digital learning environments build on intrinsic motivation. We should remain sceptical when software developers offer well-packaged ‘e-learning solutions’ that promote a predominantly behaviourist, rather than a constructivist approach to learning. For example, quizzes can be an engaging tool for students to test their knowledge, but quizzes alone would not be insufficient to validate social or organisational competencies. For this reason, we have to be prepared to employ a plethora of different toolsets to assess professional and pedagogical competencies.

When employing Learning Analytics we need to keep in mind the entire spectrum of fully automated, half-automated and analogue, reflected assessment strategies. Machines cannot replace human understanding, but they can make it easier to streamline assessment processes and derive inferences from data collected by knowledge tests, the analysis of participation levels, networking behaviour or outcomes from self-assessment tools.

The initial question for developing digital education is to ask which competencies and subsequent student profiles need to be developed. The second question is how an institution can provide the necessary social scaffolding for learning, given that we are not dealing with an Online Course design but Blended Learning scenarios. We may ask questions such as: Which discussions and meetings should be organised face-to-face and which types are better conducted online? How can we offer adaptive learning paths and personalized support? How much of tasks can easily be managed online and when do we need to meet in person? How do we foster student ownership in both the analogue and the digital domain? How can we reinforce learning progress? Etc. In getting the best out of the digital and the analogue world we can leverage their respective advantages.

The next logical step is to sketch detailed flowchart diagrams that specify interactions within the social scaffolding and how the acquisition of competencies can be measured. The complex development of digital learning environments can be considered a meta-competence.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) as a central digital education infrastructure

Due to the enormous amount of qualitative and quantitative data produced by students, institutions of Higher Learning require powerful LMS to manage data and to support students based on the analysis of data.

A recent idea coming from AI-development is the employment of interactive learning objects, this means that students interact with dynamic learning objects (by action and behaviour) that can provide feedback on students’ personal learning process and progress. As mentioned before, learning experiences include human feedback from peers, student tutors, invited experts, paraprofessionals, lecturers or professors. Automated feedback is only one option among many.

Screenshot: Course Development in Canvas LMS at the Medienfaktur Oldenburg

The criteria for employing an LMS depends on an institution’s culture and needs as well as the underlying vision and mission. It makes sense to test and evaluate competing LMS to find the best fit. As for any data-based systems, the ethical use of algorithms, data security and privacy need to be explicitly addressed.

Learning management systems should not end up as a static depository of learning materials, but should provide a media-rich and engaging learning experience that fosters a collective growth mindset (Carol Dweck). And then there is a developer’s workload. Building question banks for quizzes, producing sequential- as well as interactive videos, creating evaluation rubrics, designing problems of various levels of complexity etc. are highly work- and resource-intensive challenges. In designing courses for teacher digital professionalisation, we decided e.g., to develop a general qualification module (Bauhaus philosophy) followed by optional programs that students can choose to build personalised competence profiles. In this way, students can exercise ownership of their growing competence portfolio.

Last, but not least, our team works on installing makerspaces. Makerspaces are designated places at the university where students can produce digital artefacts (such as e.g., producing videos, interactive graphics and podcasts), experiment with various types of media and meet peers for exchanging ideas and practice. Maker education provides an additional space beyond the analogue and virtual classrooms to foster active student engagement: To learn is to create.

Photo: My personal media studio. I grew up with digital media. Besides teaching interactive media in my former job, I am an avid electronic musician.

From my personal experience and educating media students for more than two decades, playing and experimenting with new media are key to building intrinsic and lasting motivation.

I started with Problem-based Learning (PBL) under Prof. Howard Barrows and see PBL, Design Thinking as well as maker education complementing each other.


Closing thoughts

This brief script outlined the basics of digital education. To sum up the key ideas, responsible digital education requires a democratic mindset, allowing for an experimental, creative and goal-oriented development of academic programs. There is no one model that fits all sizes, which is why academic development in the digital domain is best conducted collaboratively, ideally inviting students and external experts for creating sustainable and efficient solutions. The employment of LMS is inevitable once large amounts of qualitative and quantitative data need to be managed and organised. Unlike the first generation of LMS that focused on merely providing learning materials and content online, today’s systems are geared towards rich interactive learning experiences, creative problem-solving and collaboration.

In the meantime, institutions of Higher Learning need to network to exchange best practices. The question is not if digital education is superior or inferior to traditional, analogue education. Culturally, we have already passed the point of no return. Students still value personal exchange, especially about complex concepts that are not as easily communicated via video conferences or by an email. When it comes to combining the analogue and the virtual, Blended Learning appears to provide the best solution to get the best out of both worlds.

Digital society and economy have become a reality. Students who are denied exposure to well-developed digital learning environments miss out later in life when facing a digital world where working in networked teams and in technologically-advanced environments has become the de facto standard. After the digital revolution, we can already anticipate the quantum-computing revolution or the neuro-biological revolution etc. The cultural world will not become less complex and it is unlikely to slow down its pace, so we should not deprive our students the valuable experience of studying in a fluid digital learning environment.

In this essay, to sum things up, I have proposed key concepts that guide digital education:

  • A democratic understanding of what education is all about
  • A self-critical approach that not only finds consensus among stakeholders but can measure up to a great variety of external ideas
  • To employ Design Thinking for developing sustainable educational programs
  • The need to organise large amounts of qualitative and quantitative data in designated LMS
  • To promote maker pedagogy as part of constructivist learning theory to promote active student engagement. At the Medienfaktur, we call the approach the ‘digital playground’, a joyful experimenting with media as the first engagement with the digital world. This may be hard to accept in a non-play academic environment.
Our logo for the digital playground. It is targeted at newcomers and explorers.

I like to end on a philosophical note. David Chalmers concept of an ‘Extended Mind’ seems to prove true for digital learning environments. The digital domain allows for an extension of our mind, which encompasses our private as well as social space. Digital education, in this respect, is not only about using the latest technologies to make learning more efficient, but it broadens our mental horizons and connects us (in an amplified manner) to the society and the world at large. Hopefully, learning communities will evolve and connect over time to form vivid meta-networks that transcend and enrich the local groundedness of traditional brick and mortar universities.


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