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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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Prof. Dr. Iris Clemens: Learning in virtual environments as a pedagogical and social challenge


The digital start of the semester has been a new experience for everyone. On the first day, there were 38,000 hits on the online offerings of the University of Bayreuth. In the meantime, things have settled down. However, digital teaching will not be equally well received everywhere - indeed, literally, because the expansion of infrastructure in Germany has been neglected for years. And socially, too, because an already existing socio-economic divide could widen. This is the assessment of Prof. Dr. Iris Clemens, Chair of General Pedagogy at the University of Bayreuth and Principal Investigator at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, as shared in a recent interview with the University's press and marketing department.

This has been the first digital semester. How is it going from the perspective of a professor of pedagogy?

First of all, it has been a new experience for everyone, which of course makes it exciting. Some people are already worried they will never again meet up in the conventional classroom to study together and discuss things face-to-face. In fact, some learning content can be integrated comparatively well into digital forms of learning, where you can then work with playful elements such as quizzes etc. and really take advantage of digital environments. Other learning content, however, is not open to such disambiguation. This is a fundamental problem that has long been discussed in the educational sciences. The case of our colleagues from sports science, for example, who are particularly affected, is very different: Practical sports tutorials simply need real conditions. This is where the Digital reaches its limits. Yet regardless of that, students are saying they definitely miss the campus and campus life.

Is Germany well-prepared technically for digital instruction?

Of course, the intention is to reach all learners. However, this is only partially possible. On the one hand, we are now feeling the consequences of the fact that the expansion of digital infrastructure has been neglected in our country for a long time. Germany, for example, is still riddled with many so-called dead spots, areas where there is no or only very poor Internet access. Everyone has seen the ratings, in which Germany is always lagging far behind. The Federal Ministry of Education, of all people, once said that you don't need Internet “at every milk can". We all know the problem: What use are the proverbial tablets in school lessons if you do not have full Internet access, even in the capital city? In these circumstances, they cannot be the basis for setting up and running high-quality digital learning services.

So much for the technical infrastructure. What about the state of digital content?

Digital learning environments are basically very different from classroom teaching: You need special know-how to design and create these learning spaces. It is not without reason that there are colleagues amongst us who have been working on such digital offerings and learning environments for years, spending a lot of time and resources, and who have continuously raised the bar, resulting in the development of high-quality offerings that enable challenging and interesting learning processes. Hence, it is not something you can do from scratch overnight, and certainly nobody is expecting that. Nevertheless, at the University we are seeing, for example, that basically all teachers and students are now having to deal intensively with these learning opportunities, and are committed to doing so.

Is that a one-off thing, or will it have a sustained impact?

I assume that this will lead to long-term changes in the professional design of learning processes beyond the current, extraordinary circumstances. Even after the current exceptional situation, it will therefore be essential to investigate thoroughly exactly what combinations of digital and conventional learning offerings represent the greatest possible opportunities for all learners. Until then, improvisation skills will be in demand from everyone - teachers and learners alike. However, this must not lead to the so-called digital divide further exacerbating the already significant social education problem in Germany.

What do you mean by that exactly?

Germany has long been criticised for its education system putting certain groups at severe disadvantage. These are in particular children from socio-economically deprived or immigrant families, and children with special needs. Generally speaking, we are talking about major social disadvantage in and as a result of the education system. The United Nations Human Rights Inspector, Vernor Muñoz, for example, long ago censured the German education system for being socially unjust. The digital divide now threatens to further intensify and/or ossify such unwanted structures of disadvantage. Once again, many different aspects of socio-economic disadvantage are in play. On the one hand, it is a question of digital equipment in the broader sense, because anyone who wants to do well in digital learning environments is dependent upon certain equipment. This ranges from terminal equipment to data volume and Internet access. Especially in rural areas, it can be assumed that not everyone necessarily has continuous or reliable Internet access... 

And on the other hand?

The problem is more complicated because there are other forms of social disadvantage. After the initial euphoria about the new possibilities offered by digital learning opportunities, for example, people have become more reserved in lauding digital learning opportunities, even before social distancing becoming the order of the day. First of all, the idea was to 'simply’ put education online and thus give people worldwide the opportunity to access first-class educational opportunities. Elite institutes such as Harvard, the highly renowned MIT, and Stanford put offerings such as lectures on the Internet free of charge, and people were already dreaming of the global democratization of education. The expectations were very high, aiming to offer education everywhere, free of charge and globally. A lot of money went into these developments. However, we have seen worldwide that students with a weak socio-economic position are not able to use certain online forms of learning as successfully as their socio-economically better-off fellow students, i.e. the medium continues to perpetuate disadvantage. To put it simply: Silicon Valley figureheads like Bill Gates or Marc Zuckerberg come from well-off families and had already made it to university - both at Harvard. Particularly for certain forms of digital learning, learners need specific skills and behaviours which members of educated, middle-class families develop with greater ease, and already have in their toolbox, so to speak. Learners from socio-economically weak families, in comparison, end up failing more often.

Who could possibly solve this problem?

The Digital will not solve this problem, which is what politicians have been working on for many years, with only moderate success. One must warn against overly high expectations. At the moment, we must above all be mindful of the Digital not exacerbating the problem. But especially digital learning offerings that do not require attendance in real time can, in turn, reduce disadvantages for some students, if fixed attendance times cannot be adhered to due to childcare or working hours etc., but can be fulfilled when the learner’s own time schedule allows it. This is where digital offerings would facilitate time management.


Prof. Dr. Iris Clemens
Chair of General Pedagogy
University of Bayreuth
Phone:  +49 (0)921 / 55-4128
E-Mail: iris.clemens@uni-bayreuth.de

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