Digitalization is happening… in your aerobics class

Foto: Scott Robinson. Dance! / CC BY 2.0

With the Expanded Learning Worlds initiative, Germany’s adult education centres, or Volks­hochschulen (VHS) seek to integrate digital tools into their methods and curricula, embarking on a wide-ranging campaign for digital literacy. An interview with Stefan Will.

iRights.Media: What are Expanded Learning Worlds?

Stefan Will: VHS centres have a long tradition in adult education, but this has been primarily focused on classic classroom instruction. We have both the facilities and the expertise for this approach. But now there are digital tools we can use to simultaneously support and broaden learning. As publicly financed educational providers with a public duty, we want to be able to offer citizens as many different teaching and learning settings as possible. Crucially, we are continually adopting the perspective of the student who sits in front of me. Through these kinds of methods, we are creating positive learning environments that allow everyone to achieve their goals.

What kind of methods do you use?

It could be a social-media group of language-class participants working as an asynchronous learning group. It could be a simple, homemade video clip produced by an aerobic dance instructor, who records a certain step combination for those students who need a little longer to learn the steps when set to music. This way, they can practice the steps at home and keep up better in class the next time. I can expand the learning space through video chat by bringing in an expert or giving a nursing mother the opportunity to attend a French conversation course.

What concrete first steps have you taken in the eleven months since the German VHS Association decided to implement Expanded Learning Worlds?

The Expanded Learning Worlds master plan envisions several strands. First, we must open doors and persuade our users to take an interest. The attitude that “digitalization doesn’t really affect me” still persists in all sections of the population. We like to use Whatsapp because it’s simple and practical, but the mechanisms behind it remain unknown. It is only slowly starting to dawn on people that something really is changing in their world. But there are serious reservations and anxieties when it comes to confronting these changes. There is often a lack of knowledge about the technology and the digital processes that are fundamentally changing society.

We have formulated this issue in terms of the concept of participation. We are genuinely concerned that if our society cannot acquire the basic competencies to understand the processes and tools of digitalization, the future participation of individuals or whole groups of the population is in danger. This would be difficult for our society to bear. Therefore, next to the didactic-methodological questions of how to use digital media in a course setting there are other questions regarding social discourse and political education in relation to digitalization. Answering these questions is just as important to us.

Could you give an example?

I’ve already mentioned social-media groups within which you can set up an asynchronous learning group. If you have fifteen people in Spanish class, there will be three or four who don’t want to be on Facebook or don’t have Whatsapp. One part of this group still decides to form a social media group because it helps them study and learn. If someone has a question during the week’s session, then the others can answer it. Educationally, this is great. But teachers are faced with a real problem: the three students who can’t or don’t want to take part in the learning group are upset. It can get tense.

As a public institution in Germany, we are barred from using Facebook and Whatsapp by data protection regulations. That means that the VHS needs an internal messaging service like Whatsapp to form learning groups, but one that we can use in accordance with German law. We are working on this—a communication network for the VHS system. This would include not only a chat function, but also a video platform, user profiles, etc.

How do you hope to achieve that?

In the next years we want to create 35 so-called digicircles. One digicircle would encompass three to five VHS centres, which would form a workshop that would be closely supported by VHS associations at the state and federal level. Every one of these schools would be asked to choose a “lighthouse” project, which would represent a solid, practical application of the Expanded Learning Worlds concept. They then implement this course, name all the obstacles they’ve encountered and solutions they’ve found. We then gather this information and use it to create modules that we make available to all VHS centres. The centres get our support, mainly in the form of training and coaching.

Why did it take so long for the VHS system to tackle this issue? Digital learning tools have been around for twenty years.

I think that we focussed primarily on curricula, didactics and methodology and overlooked questions of long-term organizational development. We also failed to get teachers and course leaders completely on board. Of course there are great people in the VHS system and many who have engaged with digital trends, but the important thing is to set standards that apply across all centres.

The second pillar of our concept, political education, tackles this issue. It’s fundamentally important to realize that technology is changing our society. We also need to understand how. Education and lifelong learning must answer questions arising from the dangers and opportunities created by new technology. If you want to create a movement on this basis—one that all users comprehend—then people need to appreciate the central role technology plays in everyone’s life.

Have you already begun some of the projects? When can VHS students gain the benefits of this new concept?

Well, for example, the first digicircle is already up and running in Berlin. It’s comprised of five VHS centres working together on a model project for a business qualification: financial accounting, payroll accounting, and so on. Students can attend the course as a series of normal classroom lessons at the VHS centre, or they can attend from home in a combination or enhanced learning approach. There is a book and a webinar for the program. They can work on-site with the book, and use the webinar to move at their own pace to repeat and reinforce what they have learned.

By the end of February 2017 there should be a digicircle in every German state, each comprised of three to five VHS centres. By summer 2017 they should be trialling this kind of offer in every state.

You said earlier that political education would form an important part of the Expanded Learning Worlds program. What are your concrete plans in this area?

Political education is just as important as our traditional educational responsibilities. Specifically, we want to start with the topic of “big data” in the health sector. In other words, what happens with all my fitness data? Fitness courses and preventive health plans are a major part of VHS centres. If this data were to fall into the hands of health insurers, they could use it to generate profiles where clients would be rated in terms of their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. This poses a serious danger for the system of social solidarity on which our public health system is based.

A lot of people who carry fitness-tracking devices and willingly surrender this data don’t see this. We are working on providing training to our fitness instructors all over Germany, so that they can discuss these issues with people on their courses. We are taking a different approach here: if we offered an evening talk on “how big data is changing our society”, then maybe two people would show up who might be familiar with the issues and may have already made up their minds. This doesn’t mean that we won’t be offering evening lectures on this kind of topic, but we want to reach the people where they are and where it’s relevant.

We are responsible for about 50 million citizens who will never again visit a school or a college or university. We need to offer them a program, a digital literacy campaign. It is a question of participation: these people have to be given the chance to understand and learn how best to use all the tools provided by the internet.

Interview by Valie Djordjevic .

Valie Djordjevic

Valie Djordjevic

Valie Djordjević is an editor, author and speaker. She is interested in web culture, the social effects of technological innovation, literature and art, as well as gender politics. She is a founding member of
Valie Djordjevic