Dedicated to my students and my teaching team @ Medienfaktur, University of Oldenburg, 9th of February 2021
Introduction and Overview
This essay is about more than just hedonistic fun in hybrid (analog-digital) learning. It is about the unusual question of deep happiness and joie de vivre in so-called ‘new learning’. It is about eudaimonia – to use the Aristotelian term. After a discussion of our current societal context, I use Carol Ryff’s classic six-factor model of psychological well-being (Ryff, 1989) to apply it to our new, digital learning worlds. In doing so, the psychological conditions and factors of freer and happier learning are elaborated.
Poorly organised distance learning during the COVID-crisis cannot currently replace schools as a social place, in particular for children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In Germany, these groups are currently losing out on a large scale (see Wübbenstiftung, 2020). Sophisticated technical and advanced pedagogical concepts are a long way off for these groups. This should be reason enough to develop positive psychology for Blended (or ‘hybrid’) Learning, extending to post-COVID times, as a quality standard and guideline.
The Hagen Manifesto in a Landscape of Social One-Way Streets
I would like to use the Hagen Manifesto on New Learning, published by the Open University in Hagen, as an impulse to address the broadening question which ideas of individual well-being and societal freedom digital practice implies, intentionally or unintentionally.
In his collection of political writings ‘Die Neue Unübersichtlichkeit‘, Jürgen Habermas (1985) stated that modernity has exhausted and used up utopian energies. On the one hand, this is due to the negative connotations of future (for us, for example, climate crisis, growing social inequality, lack of democratic-participatory opportunities, etc.), on the other hand, disillusionment with the social utopias of the 19th century. In the German education sector, negative outlooks include widespread scepticism and even hostility towards digital technology, the prevention of local progress by bureaucratic hurdles or the indifference towards international perspectives in digital education.
Social utopias in which science, technology and planning provide promising instruments for the rational control of nature and society have only survived as advertising promises by Google, Apple or Microsoft. It comes as no surprise that courageous educational reformers operate within a strange vacuum: No one dares to take the big utopian leap, while schools suffer the dilemma of choosing between collapsing, under-funded federal-owned school clouds or large commercial providers.
A good example of the clear localisation of the dilemma to the education sector was the recent Karlsruhe Lerntech xChange, where numerous cutting-edge high-tech learning platforms and start-ups were presented for the corporate sector. Where money flows, that much became clear, technology sparkles. Meanwhile, digital reformers in education have to deal with outdated and user-unfriendly technologies such as ‘Moodle’ or ‘Big Blue Button’, harassed by data protectionists and over-regulated by federal ministries of education. The top-down hierarchies of the federal states and the top-down hierarchies of the ‘digital overlords’ of Silicon Valley turn out to be defining one-way streets.
Opportunities for a ‘New We’?
Probably due to the experience of an increasing political top-down dynamics, the liberating question of a ‘new we’ has arisen in the discourse among German intellectuals that opposes vertical power hierarchies and ideologies.
In the Think Tank 2021 of Deutschlandfunk (DLF), the discourse on this ‘new us’ was opened in an exemplary way. The underlying epistemological interest asks: What drives modern societies apart and what keeps them together despite the increasing impossibility to foresee autobiographical life-paths and the ambiguity of social developments? The discourse on new forms of solidarity is positioned against the background of the disintegration of a democratic public sphere, as it was still conceptualized by Habermas. As the sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer critically remarked on DLF, it is no longer about the decline of utopian energies, limited to the reference of Western welfare states, as it was with Habermas, but about the far-reaching de-securing of life, the experience of loss of control: What is to become of me? How can I earn money tomorrow? How is my outlook of the future? Will most of us be threatened with old-age poverty? Reality starts moving like quicksand below our feet.
The concept of an inclusive public sphere kaleidoscopically evaporates into the countless filter bubbles and echo chambers of social networks. German public media channels are caught between provocations by populist movements of all flavours and a technocratic, alienating political establishment, which offers its citizens hardly any (if any), opportunities for participation. As a quick positive notion, alternative approaches can be found in Scandinavian countries.
Parallel, on the economic level, individualisation processes lead to an increased economic evaluation of individuals and groups according to their usefulness, usability and efficiency: As consumers, we mutate into single-celled organisms. As groups, we devolve into prey communities. Economic practice produces growing social inequality and thus, complementarily, reinforces the filter bubbles of social networks.
A ‘new we’, as the DLF think-tank proposes, attempts to find points for re-establishing community spirit in a ‘culture of digitality’ (Stalder, 2016). A ‘new we’ attempts to counterbalance the centrifugal forces described above and to explore new, positively occupiable terms.
New Learning: Technology and Pedagogy intertwined
New Learning is not limited to criticising Germany’s notorious ‘Funklöcher’ (GSM dead zones) or lamenting the lack of teachers’ digital skills. The authors of the manifesto justifiably tak about transformation processes of society at large. The manifesto also addresses all the missed-out best-practice developments of past decades that have long been established in other countries. These include equal opportunity, the promotion of personalised and collaborative learning and the introduction of new roles for teachers and learners. Alison King’s famous publication ‘From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side’ appeared in the modest journal ‘College Teaching’ in 1993 and it sounds like it was published only recently:
‘Engaging our students in such active learning experiences helps them to think for themselves to move away from the reproduction of knowledge towards the production of knowledge and helps them become critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers so that they can deal effectively with the challenges of the twenty-first century.’ (King, p.35)
This was in 1993. What happened during the past three decades? What went wrong?
In Germany, we encounter two developments to catch up on. One is a missed pedagogical paradigm shift and the other is a technological paradigm shift, whereby technological and pedagogical processes can no longer be separated: Technology orders the functional basis of learning while pedagogy informs the educational strategic design of new media technology. Modern teaching concepts had never arrived in the mainstream of German schools, which clung to instructional teaching (‘Frontalunterricht’), traditional knowledge transfer and standardised examinations.
New Learning implies, at a closer look, a technological as well as pedagogical reform – a socio-digital renewal of society as a whole. To ensure that the proposed fresh ideas do not fade into obscurity, they needs to be concretised in a meaningful way.
From Learner-Centredness to Personal Development
In the following, I argue that Carol Ryff’s empirically well-reserached six-factor model of psychological well-being (Ryff, 1989) offers relevant starting points in the search for a ‘new we’ that can be extended into the digital domain.
Learner-centredness (point 3 of the Hagen Manifesto) is one of the best known international criteria for educational excellence. Learner-centredness, for example, has been defined as the fifth competence cluster of the European competence framework model DigCompEdu (Digital Competence for Educators) titled ‘Empowering Learners’ (Redecker, 2017). It is precisely this area of competence that is missing from the federal KMK model ‘Education in the Digital World’. Not only is learner-centredness about lifelong learning (point 1 of the manifesto), but it is about self-determined learning (point 6) in the context of self-determined life goals (point 7). In the following, I shall discuss Ryff’s model within the context of digital society and learning and transform her approach accordingly.
Autonomy is key to psychological well-being, especially concerning social connectedness. Ryff’s original operationalisation of autonomy was as follows:
High scorer: Is self-determining and independent; able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways; regulates behaviour from within; evaluates self by personal standards.
Low scorer: Is concerned about the expectations and evaluations of others; relies on judgments of others to make important decisions; conforms to social pressures to think and act in certain ways. (Ryff, 1989, p. 1072)
As the first line reveals, Ryff is particularly concerned with freedom from social pressures and the development of personal integrity.
In the digital domain, at a closer look, this classical dichotomous definition of autonomy implies reciprocal relations: Only if I am autonomous and competent, can I help you. Only if you are autonomous and competent can you help me. Helping means, among other things, correcting, supporting and assisting. Since there is no independence in the digital domain in the sense of solipsistic thinking or isolated autonomous action, we share a common interest in each others’ autonomous perspective-taking in necessary connection with the ability to act to share, explain and help. Shared digital resources via shared digital media (as a basic feature of the culture of digitality) suggest, on a social level, the preference for an autonomy-enhancing behavioral logic. This is, of course, if we haven’t subscribed to dystopian models of social engineering.
Without the underlying concept of personal responsibility for others as a motivational basis for the constitution of competence-based self-determination, autonomy can therefore not be developed. Responsibility formally represents the completion of feedback loops of successful social reciprocity. Digital autonomy is thus, by definition, not an individual but an intersubjective good: Freedom is not only the freedom of the other – without the freedom of the other, there is in principle no more personal freedom in a digitalised solidarity community, not even for me. This is true since we use a shared global infrastructure. The entanglement of the intersubjective validity of autonomy has been well-recognized and internalised by the Net community, from Jaron Lanier to Edward Snowden.
Within this global and entangled setting, participants that get left behind represent a loss of resources and perspective that an open digital learning community cannot afford. Subsequently, new pedagogical goals get established, such as a focus on individual learning progress, competency-based learning or adaptive learning pathways.
In Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), as an additional argument to Ryff, true autonomy is based on intrinsic motivation. It is not just about freedom from peer pressure as sketched out by Ryff (heteronymous control), but about true self-directed and reflective behaviour. In the context of education, this includes, for example, learning contracts, self-submitted project proposals or the active construction of new knowledge, Kantianly speaking, ‘of one’s own free will’.
Interestingly enough, a friend of mine also differentiated between ‘learner-centred’ and ‘fake-learner-centred’, precisely when learners are presented with options, learning paths or AI-supported recommendation systems as a ‘free’ choice, whereby learning goals were never truly self-determined. Instead, past data used to train AI systems serves to reinforce filter bubbles while keeping new knowledge, unknown and surprising experiences away from us. We lose curiosity about new things.
In contrast to the Hagen Manifesto, I regard the use of Big Data, Data Analytics and AI critically, even if the authors point out the potential correction of possible algorithmic bias in their point (8). I ask: In so much manipulation, where is the freedom of learning? Is there something like a ‘self-determined lack of freedom’ if we only learn what arises within our comfort zone?
Montessori education teaches us that autonomous learning processes can only take place on an equal footing between teacher and learner: I cannot act autonomously as long as others do not interact with me and respect me as their equal. The greater the power difference between learner and teacher, the fewer opportunities open up for self-directed thinking, acting and feeling. Autonomous learning, therefore, requires hybrid learning ecosystems in which teachers and learners meet as equals. However, this can only happen if learners and teachers can (self-)critically address and question the dynamics of their interactions. In science, we speak of individual and social metacognitive competences. These are further differentiated into metacognitive knowledge (I know how to learn better), metacognitive experiences (I experience how to learn better) and metacognitive regulation (I can regulate myself so that I can learn better). For an extensive literature review, see my blog posts on metacognitive skills (Part I and Part II)
In future learning environments, metacognitive dimensions should be incorporated into the instructional design as LX (learning experience) scenarios. As so often quoted, it is about learning to learn. Surprisingly, applying metacognitive strategies is far from common practice. Albert Bandura added that self-directed identity must take into account ontological as well as epistemological factors. Learning occurs in triadic interaction between intrapersonal, behavioural and environmental influences. The latter is shaped by the learning ecosystem and the underlying social norms of the learning environment.
Bandura noted that ‘People have evolved the biological capacity for the very agentic attributes that are distinctly human. These include deliberative and generative thought, forethoughtful self-regulation, and reflective self-evaluation.’ (Bandura, 2008, p.42)
What makes us human and distinguishes us from machines is self-awareness and a socially-aware identity that is capable of developing new ideas and to reflect critically on itself. Eudaimonia means living this freedom and being able to experience the state of being human joyfully.
In the Hagen Manifesto, the construct of autonomous learning refers primarily to the points (3) Learning places the learner at the centre, (4) New Learning rethinks the roles of teachers and learners, (6) New Learning enables flexible and self-determined learning, and (7) New Learning measures learning success in terms of achieving individual goals. As has been analysed, these points are traceable to the far-reaching implications of an expanded definition of human autonomy within a digital learning culture.
2. The Construction of Meaning
Ryff operationalised the dimension of meaning in life as follows:
Purpose in life
Purpose in life High scorer: Has goals in life and a sense of directedness; feels there is meaning to present and past life; holds beliefs that give life purpose; has aims and objectives for living.
Low scorer: Lacks a sense of meaning in life; has few goals or aims, lacks a sense of direction; does not see purpose of past life; has no outlook or beliefs that give life meaning.
In the digital domain, Ryff’s definition of meaning-making expands primarily in the form of autobiographical continuity in lifelong learning. Meaning in the digital domain is mediated through social networks (at the micro-level) and networked professional and educational opportunities (at the meso- and exo-levels). We could say: ‘I find meaning in connecting to networks that can provide relevant opportunities for me’. Ideally, this would lead to education ‘on-demand’. Since there is always a connection between institutional (formal as well as informal) educational offers and my inner beliefs, attitudes and direction of development, finding meaning is constituted in the dialogue between the offers of external networks and my claim to autonomy. For education providers, the reverse is true: a New Work or New Learning explicitly addresses the personal development vector of learners and thus promotes the development of their autonomy. However, there is an obstacle.
Autonomy can only be developed at the societal level if there is are equal opportunities, the Achilles heel of the German education system. Young people with inferior or no educational opportunities from disadvantaged social milieus can never confidently follow the same innovative development paths as wealthy learners with privileged institutional access. Once disadvantaged, always disadvantaged. Meaning-making also takes place in teams, that we find in virtually all more advanced educational programs. Teamwork enjoys a key position within the set of ‘Future Skills’ since only autonomous team players are good team players from a systemic perspective.
In a world made of heteronomous social actors, there would be no need for team organisation. Instruction and rule-based behaviour would perfectly sufficient for any type of social engineering. However, no leading company and no quality-conscious education provider can afford the fallibility of a ‘group think’ (Irving) in a networked world, let alone a manufactured consensus. Using Bandura’s social cognitive theory, we can argue that meaning-making through personal and good team relationships can provide a solid motivational base for social learning.
In the Hagen Manifesto, the construct of meaning construction is indirectly referred to in points (1) New Learning means lifelong education and point (2) New Learning promotes equal opportunity. However, the motivational aspects of the individual and social construction of meaning have not (yet) been addressed.
3. Self-Acceptance and Mindfulness
Ryff operationalised the dimension of self-acceptance as follows:
Self-acceptance High scorer: Possesses a positive attitude towards the self; acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of self including good and bad qualities; feels positive about past life.
Low scorer: Feels dissatisfied with self; is disappointed with what has occurred in past life; is troubled about certain personal qualities; wishes to be different than what he or she is.
Among the strong impressions of Internet trolling, the dropping of all netiquette and daily public aggression on the net, the lack of self-acceptance plays a critical role. We know this effect from transactional analysis (Harris) under the following life attitudes: ‘
I am ok – you are not ok’ or ‘I am not ok – you are not ok’.
If I cannot accept myself, for example by constantly perceiving myself as a victim, I project my inner dissatisfaction onto others. If I am dissatisfied with personal life, I blame others through such an inner attitude. In the digital domain, however, there is more to it than pure self-acceptance, which could very well be staged intentionally (for example as a social influencer) and/or narcissistically typed.
Mindfulness is a concept that stems from Buddhism. Mindfulness involves self-acceptance and refers to our conscious relationship with ourselves, the world and others. Mindfulness involves the practice of pausing, to defer judgment, to foster an empathic understanding and holistic reflection that knows how to include and cherish the diverse perspectives of others; not just one’s view.
Self-acceptance, on the other hand, is a fundamental prerequisite to avoid cognitive dissonance (Festinger) between Global Self and the digital Alter Ego, our public personality in cyberspace. Mindfulness supports and develops self-acceptance by providing a pacified zone between the Global Self and the world.
In the educational context, mindfulness plays a major role in role-taking: as teachers, learners, learning facilitators, tutors, researchers or team players we take on social roles that each make specific demands on our self-acceptance (‘I can do this and feel comfortable in this role’) and mindfulness (‘I can position myself considerately and responsibly to others’).
Communicative competences and teamwork require mindfulness as well as a high level of differentiation and self-regulation. Unfortunately, there are no references to these aspects in the Hagen Manifesto or the common digital competence models.
4. Personal Development
Ryff operationalised the dimension of personal significance as follows:
High scorer: Has a feeling of continued development; sees self as growing and expanding; is open to new experiences; has a sense of realising his or her potential; sees improvement in self and behaviour over time; is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.
Low scorer: Has a sense of personal stagnation; lacks a sense of improvement or expansion over time; feels bored and uninterested with life; feels unable to develop new attitudes or behaviours.
Continued development’ is unfortunately a somewhat general formulation of personal progress. I would call it the Hegelian argument: We are bound up in a narrative in which our subjective history is woven into social, cultural and historical-material patterns in which we constitute ourselves. Objective data merges with subjective data into the fabric of life. Personal development means continuous emancipation, expansion and further development before these horizons of understanding, from one milestone to the next.
For our personal development, the digital domain allows for a far more precise preparation, accompaniment and tracking of autobiographical milestones than was ever possible in the analogue world. A lifelong and networked portfolio development seems within reach. Moreover, the internationalisation of education has opened up geographically unimagined possibilities when we think of language trips or stays abroad. Consequently, personal development in the digital world is linked to (global) equal opportunities.
In this light, sustainable happiness means finding roles and tasks in life that both prove congruent with our experienced identity and offer new challenges. We recognise that personal development cannot be thought of without linking it to new social role-taking. Therefore, hybrid learning ecosystems would do well to purposefully design social role assumptions and align them with personalized learning experiences.
In the Hagen Manifesto, this topic can be found on point (7): New Learning measures learning successes against individual goals. It includes, most relevantly, the social and educational recognition of learning successes beyond formal educational qualifications as well as the call for alternative, modular educational formats and qualification certificates that should be become an integral part of the current educational system.
In particular, the non-recognition of educational qualifications that deviate from the narrow definition of the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) has destroyed numerous biographies and has ended careers. The ominous consequence of this, which the KMK does not see or does not want to see, is that many excellently qualified people turn away from serving public education permanently. The very justified demand in the manifesto is the advocation of inclusive practice, which is already practised in numerous European countries. Adopting the concept of inclusive versus exclusive, exclusionary practice would be worth considering.
5. Positive Social Relations
Ryff operationalised the dimension of positive social relations as follows:
Positive relations with others
High scorer Has warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; is concerned about the welfare of others; capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understands give and take of human relationships.
Low scorer: Has few close, trusting relationships with others; finds it difficult to be warm, open, and concerned about others; is isolated and frustrated in interpersonal relationships; not willing to make compromises to sustain important ties with others.
From the above description, it becomes clear that positive social relationships, whether on a friendly, collegial and/or professional level, analogous to the concept of autonomy, represent an intersubjective good: only if at least two people are capable of relating can there logically evolve positive relationships.
Keywords in this context are the learning community and the learning culture, which prove themselves via their social practice. Solidary learning communities in a ‘new we’ leave no one behind and integrate weaker learners. Such a learning community is not conceivable without genuine empathy and communication skills. However, the moment it does become tangible, it offers a learning community a unique, protected as well as a productive academic learning zone. Smaller classes are easier for teachers to moderate. Besides, personal responsibility is easier to encourage and demand in smaller groups.
The concept of a learning community does not appear in the Hagen Manifesto and is not nearly represented by the reference to efficient forms of networking and cooperation (5).
6. Mastery of Sustainable Ecological Design
The dimension of an ‘Environmental Mastery’ (roughly translated as environmental mastery) is proposed here translated as sustainable ecological design. It has been defined by Ryff as follows:
Environmental mastery High scorer Has a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment; controls complex array of external activities; makes effective use of surrounding opportunities; able to choose or create contexts suitable to personal needs and values.
Low scorer: Has difficulty managing everyday affairs; feels unable to change or improve surrounding context; is unaware of surrounding opportunities; lacks sense of control over external world.
This last aspect is a nice theme for the Fridays for Future movement. Sustainability does not only mean CO2-neutrality but also refers to ‘psychologically sustainable’. Ryff’s definition expresses the creative aspect of ecological design, i.e. the competence to develop new solutions through creativity and problem-solving skills. Even though the sustainability criterion was not as prominent in Carol Ryff’s work in 1998 as it is today, I have allowed myself this reinterpretation and addition (‘ecological sustainability’).
To promote and develop a sustainable ecological design, innovation labs and corresponding learning spaces are needed. A school without an innovation or learning lab is like a plant without sun and water. Makerspaces are well-known variations of autonomous design spaces.
Environmental mastery, therefore, deserves to be institutionalised as a social norm. At the University of Oldenburg’s Medienfaktur, we have named this competence social making. Teachers as well as learners should create their learning ecosystem cooperatively. This is where our motto ‘Let’s Co-Create Digital Education’ has been derived. The logic behind it is as simple as obvious: only in learning environments that are tailored to the needs and media habitus of young people can the motivation for active learning be awakened. Learning culture and learning environment should be designed congruently, i.e. they should enable fluent studying within hybrid learning settings.
Last, but not least, social making implies a design mindset (Dosi et al., 2018), which is based on design thinking. Depending on the orientation and field of action, competencies such as Tolerance for Ambiguity and Uncertainty, Human centeredness, Empathy, Mindfulness and awareness of process, Multi- / inter- / cross-disciplinary collaboration, Openness to different perspectives and diversity or Abductive Thinking play a crucial role.
The development of a ‘design mindset’, as well as the development of scientific thinking, are neither found in the Hagen Manifesto nor official competency framework models, presumably due to their more content-related didactic nature.
In the culture of digitality, personal and social autonomy evolve mutually dependent. So-called soft skills are necessary to enable active learning and personal development. New Learning joins New Work: we learn in teams, whether at school or later at work. We learn with digital media, whether at school or later at work. Very soon, I would presume, we will no longer work in rigid employment contracts, but in networks that provide us with a rich repertoire of projects compatible with our lifelong learning trajectories. Let’s call it fluid, autobiographically-informed employment.
Classical educational qualifications, this would be my forecast, will fade into the background. You are as good as your last projects, but not as much as decade-old degrees. Adaptive role-taking, the assumption of personal responsibility and solidarity in ‘new we’ will (hopefully) replace elbow mentality and the last remnants of Prussian school tradition.
I share the Hagen Manifesto unconditionally. From a psychological perspective, there is a need for additions to the Manifesto, especially concerning the development of learning communities, the personal construction of meaning as well as the development of mindfulness and a creative, pro-active system-shaping mindset. We can agree on a basic consensus: a new learning culture is not just about efficiency and rational feasibility, but about how we can develop the capacity for building communities, joie de vivre, eudaimonia and human love.
The dystopian counter-design to a ‘new us’ is a functionalist view of humanity and society. In his book ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Meaning of Life’, David Precht (2020) had critically questioned the claim to the validity of current transhumanist and political ideologies. Whether it is China’s social credit dictatorship or the omnipotence fantasies of Silicon Valley overlords – both influences are based on the premise of heteronomous control versus self-determination. Truly creepy is the fact that these dystopias have already been realised on a large scale and are continuously being expanded.
A positive psychology of hybrid learning environments could serve as a counterweight to support a humanistic and open outlook on future societies. It could, to use the expression of classical Greek philosophy, develop an order, a cosmos from which we can live.
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Wübbenstiftung (2020). Corona verstärkt Bildungsungerechtigkeit. Pressemitteilung vom 14.05.2020. Abgerufen unter https://wuebben-stiftung.de/fileadmin/media/presse/PM_Wuebben-Stiftung_Corona_Unterstuetzung_Schulen.pdf