Jan 16, 2020

My Learning Journey Part 2 – Educational Experts 2019 in Berlin

Von Prof. Dr. Susanne Staude

For the second part of our learning journey, we (17 German and eight American leaders in higher education) met in Berlin from 8–13 December 2019 for another five days of talks, visits and discussions.

This blog post was first published on the blog of the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung on December 20, 2019. Read part one of the learning story from the educational experts seminar taking place in the U.S. earlier this year here.

The Educational Experts Seminar 2019 was organized by Fulbright, Stifterverband, Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, DWIH New York and Impacthub Berlin. It aimed at fostering exchange and mutual learning. You can also retrace the journey on Twitter through the Hashtag #EdExperts.

The EdExperts discovering Berlin. Photo: Paul Kohn

Since some of us arrived in Berlin on the weekend before the seminar, we started with a bit of joint sightseeing. And happily mixed Christmas shopping with history, cultural exchanges with discussions on digitalization, the future with a silent disco, and rain with Glühwein. And it all worked fantastically amongst people that have known each other for four days only!

Sunday, December 8

We started by checking-in over dinner with everyone and sharing some success stories – some of us have already put some of their learnings into practice! Like a podcast, for example.

Monday, December 9 - Educational Experts

Passing by the Checkpoint Charlie. Photo: Friederike von Reden

On the way to the offices of the Impact Hub Berlin we walked past Checkpoint Charlie.

At the Impact Hub, we were welcomed officially to Part 2 of our Educational Experts Seminar by Fulbright Germany and the Stifterverband. Dr. Gordon Bölling from the German Rector’s Conference (HRK) gave a short introduction into the German higher education system, the role of the HRK and some of the current policy issues. I was not able to hide completely my slightly different viewpoint on some of the topics raised – Students as a challenge? Seriously?!

Then, Oliver Janoschka (HFD) and Alexander Knoth (DAAD) spoke about "International Higher Education Mobility and Collaboration in Times of Digital Transformation". It was a little like preaching to the converted, of course.

The rest of the day, we spent at the conference Strategies Beyond Borders. My fist session was "Driving Innovation Together: Edubadges for Microcredentialing" with Janina van Hees from SURF. This is a Dutch initiative for a nationwide approach to badges in higher education. The idea is that these badges are then easily transferable between institutions. In the current pilot, 17 higher education institutions are working on this together – impressive! I will definitely be following this development.

So, I also joined their next session "Towards a More Flexible Higher Educations System". Making education more flexible is part of the Dutch “Acceleration Plan for Educational Innovation with ICT”.

What struck me from both sessions was the clear student perspective: Both the edubadges and the flexibilization efforts respond to the requirements of the students rather than those of the teachers.

Virtual Exchange as a bridge over the Sea of Provincialism. Source: Alexander Knoth

My key learning of the day:

Both in the US and in Netherlands, the importance of taking the students’ perspective on teaching and learning has been recognized at least at the institutional level. And in both, this is also one of the drivers for digitalization. In Germany, not so much yet.

Next stop for us was the christmas market at Potsdamer Platz (taking control of our own cultural learning as best as we could).

Back at the conference, we watched together the summary of part one of our learning journey:

Best of EdExperts in the US

Tuesday, December 10

We started the day at Freie Universität Berlin. I missed the introduction to the university (thanks to modern technology I could virtually attend the – successful! – election of my vice-presidents) but arrived in time for the world café discussions on institutional strategies and change management. Learning more about the Innovation Hub at MSU left a most lasting impression on me. The Innovation Hub is a kind of internal design consultancy for learning, teaching and technology:

The Mission and Vision of the Innovation Hub. Source: Jeff Grabill

The Innovation Hub facilitates students and teachers to work and think together. The guiding principle for the work there is this: If we always involve the same people working in the same ways and in the same locations, then we will always get the same outcomes. So, for new answers (i.e. innovation), we need:

  1. New people
  2. New space
  3. New processes

Particularly interesting was also to hear how they work with design sprints – usually of 3 hours, 3 days or 3 weeks. That is quite a different pace to normal university processes!

What I learned here very much connected our learnings from the US part of the trip:

  • Delay solutions – use design methods to open up the solution space
  • Space matters
  • Language matters – design is not the same as development
  • Leadership is essential
Discussion on the role of computer scientists. Photo: Friederike von Reden

For the afternoon, we took the bus back into the center of Berlin to the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF), where Prof. Johann-Christoph Freytag gave us a short overview of the center’s ideas and structure. It reminded me a little of the MIT Media Lab in the idea to bring people from different disciplines together to research on digitalization. However, at the ECDF the professors are employed by one of the partner universities rather than by the center directly. They also don’t permanently sit at the center. I wonder how well the collaboration will actually work across disciplines there…

It was also very male-dominated.

Reflecting on this with some of the EdExperts, I think we need to change the hiring process completely (see above: New process!). Girls are still educated with a strong focus on cooperation and collaboration – if we realize that collaboration is the way into the digitalized future, it seems only logical to ensure that women are involved in significant numbers. Maybe the proof of high level research and publication quantity is not the measure we need in future? Especially when we hire to create innovative, interdisciplinary research centers. Here is an idea: Let’s design a hiring process for faculty of the future.

The next world café was focused on research in the digital age. My key learnings from this session are (befitting the subject of research, they are often still questions…):

  • Research methods are changing (we did not agree on whether that change was going to become fundamental…).
  • From a deductive approach (pose hypothesis -> find proof) to a more explorative approach (“Let’s look at all this data and see what it tells us”)
  • Will research questions also change?
  • Computer scientists and other sciences need to be able to talk to each other – therefore everyone needs digital literacy.
  • There is a difference between using digital tools for research and doing research on algorithms to answer questions of other disciplines.

Wednesday, December 11

German federalism in action. Photo: Julia von Blumenthal

The day started cold. We were due for a talk at the Federal Chancellery of Germany. But first had to wait. A long time. Apparently, the list of participants had been sent to security in the wrong format, so it hadn’t been processed. The wrong format being PDF instead of EXCEL. So obviously, it took a long time to transfer the data from the PDF to the spreadsheet, manually. That says a lot for the state of digitalization in German administration.

Eventually though, we were allowed to enter and Kirsten Rulf, Head of Division General Digital Policy Issues, spoke to us about the role of her division. This then prompted a short introduction into the funding and governance of higher education in Germany, especially concerning the roles and responsibilities of the federal government vs. the 16 state governments. Luckily, we had representatives both from the federal ministry for research and education as well as from a state ministry (sitting left and right of Kirsten Rulf in the picture on the right).

My key learning from that session was again a question:

  • Is it time to stop strategizing and to start doing things?

In the afternoon, we went to the betahaus for lunch and then an "Unconference". We were joined by some students as well as representatives from ed-tech companies. The first session I attended was hosted by a student from the #Digitalchangemakers and looked at how students could be involved in curriculum or teaching development. We had an interesting discussion after some provocative questions from some of the EdExperts that led us to the following conclusions:

  • In order for students to be contribute they need: Information, to be asked for their needs (and not for a solution), & to be heard in the decision making process.
  • It is important to have diverse students as contributors, which is not easy to ensure (e.g. those who already struggle with their studies are less likely to engage in anything extra).
  • Some possible ways to involve students: One-year partnership for one specific issue & use the digital footprints of students to make informed decisions & install a “student advisory board” (and pay the students for their time).
The idea of a virtual exchange and (in green) the design principles. Photo: Susanne Staude

The second session I hosted myself together with Dr. Ahmad Ezzedine from Wayne State University. We were discussing our idea of a virtual exchange as an international learning experience, which doesn’t require the students to spend a whole semester abroad.

In the discussion, we identified some success factors:

  • Get faculty planning together, so they build a relationship
  • Incentives for teachers
  • Students see the benefit (“How will you ensure that my time is well spent?”): ​This needs strong leadership from the teachers & ​there has to be fun (and a bit of a holiday-feeling in the time abroad)!

My key learnings from these discussions:

  • The future is uncertain, so it’s wise to try a number of different approaches.
  • We need to be less afraid of failure!

Thursday, December 13

Lots of plans for the future: In the end, ten subjects for further collaboration emerged. Photo: Oliver Janoschka

At the Humboldt University, we spent the morning distilling our learnings from the 2-part seminar and establishing perspectives for future collaborations.

These are some of the results on digitalization:

  • Digitalization is about people.
  • Online learning is underestimated (at least in Germany) – it is used very effectively in the US as a marketing instrument.
  • We need “Data Bildung”, which goes beyond data literacy.

Key learnings on transformation:

  • Use design methods: Space matters & Language matters
  • Design rather than development
  • Experiments rather than trial & error: Have the courage to stop things that are not working (but don’t abandon things too soon). It frees energy for innovation.
  • Stop planning – start doing

And on the difference between the US & Germany higher education institutions: In the US they move as individuals whereas in Germany they move as a block. That makes change in Germany a lot slower.

Watch this space!

At the end of this second part to our Educational Experts Seminar we were both exhausted and exhilarated. It has been a fantastic experience with amazing people in astounding places on exciting topics. Thank you to the Fulbright Stiftung, Hochschulforum Digitalisierung and Impact Hub!

Read more about the first part of the journey here: My Learning Journey Part 1 – Educational Experts 2019 in Boston and New York

Prof. Dr. Susanne Staude

Susanne Staude is president of the University of Applied Sciences Ruhr West (HRW). Since 2015 she has had the role of vice president for study and teaching at HRW. Susanne Staude is professor for Thermodynamics and Fluid Energy Machines at the Institute of Energy Systems and Energy Economics. Her Twitter handle is @StaudeSusanne.

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