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Teaching in the Digital Age

“Teaching in the Digital Age” was the subject of the fourth event of Junges Wissenschaftsforum Dahlem, which took place on May 20, 2014, in the Seminaris Conference Center in Berlin-Dahlem. Featuring four experts on the development and application of tools for digital teaching, this event gave the participants an opportunity to engage in a discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of such new educational instruments as online lectures and laboratory simulators.

The evening began with a presentation on technology-driven transformations of teaching“ by Prof. Dr. Martin Gersch (School of Business and Economics, FU Berlin). Today’s lecturers, Prof. Gersch argued in his talk, have to recognize that they are not “omniscient narrators” anymore but rather designers and moderators of various “arenas of interaction.” For that reason, Gersch made clear, the understanding that lecturers have of their roles will be just as important in the future as the technological changes that are going to occur.

In the first of the evening’s three expert interviews, Prof. Dr. Nicolas Apostolopoulos talked about how he and his team at Freie Universität’s Center for Digital Systems help lecturers in addressing some of these challenges. Researchers interested in digital teaching can make use of Cedis’s consulting services as well as its e-learning lessons and semester-long training courses. Prof. Apostolopoulos also presented a number of successful applications that have come out of these efforts, such as an online lecture series of Freie Universität’s Department of Education.

In the second interview, Dr. Jürgen Kirstein (Department of Physics, FU Berlin) introduced the audience to some of the digital experiments developed by him and his colleagues. These on-screen experiments are used whenever limited space or personal constraints provide an obstacle for working in the laboratory itself. The experiments also help initiate students into the handling of scientific equipment. By taking photos of the experimental setup during various stages of completion and then animating these photos, the developers provide their users with a digital experiment that can be manipulated as if it were real – a didactic effect that met with great enthusiasm from the audience.

The evening’s final interview was conducted with Prof. Dr. Christoph Meinel from the University of Potsdam’s Hasso-Plattner-Institute. Prof. Meinel talked about OpenHPI, an online platform that allows students from across the globe to participate in interactive online classes. He put particular emphasis on the dynamics that can be seen in the use of message boards as well as in the way that lecturers interact with each other, a process in which he and his team sometimes participate via written comments or video messages. Something that has proven quite popular, Meinel told his audience, are self-administered mock exams which allow students to keep track of their personal learning progress.

As his remarks show, university teaching today may not be all that different from university teaching in the past. While its technical possibilities have undoubtedly increased, its core is largely the same: What still matters most is the interaction between students and teachers and the feedback that the latter can provide for the former. If this exchange works well, then it is not that significant whether it takes place in an online forum or a lecture hall. 

Something that could not have taken place in an online forum, however, was the exchange between the participants that took place after the final interview, when many continued their discussions over food and drinks in the courtyard of the Seminars Conference Center.