FernUniversität Hagen has 40 years of experience in distance education. While the demand for distance education is increasing, the expectations of students are changing as well. Daniel Otto spoke to Professor Ada Pellert, president of the FernUniversität Hagen, about the revolution in distance learning, the shift form teaching to learning and the role of technology in the process.
The mission of distance education has nowadays shifted into the heart of higher education policy. 40 years ago when the FernUniversität was founded, distance teaching was rather at the periphery of the higher education system. Today, lifelong learning has come right into the mainstream and that has repercussions for the mission of open learning. Several higher education institutions have experiences with blended learning and try to become involved with lifelong learners. While the competition continues to intensify, the achievements of the FernUniversität are recognised and other higher education institutes are paying more and more attention to what we are doing and how we do it.
To meet these challenges, we have to accept that there has been a transformation from teaching to learning. We should take this change very seriously because it affects the way of how we think about the individual learner. Starting to think from the learner’s perspective, we have to ask what the learner´s needs are and how a suitable personal learning environment could look like. This, however, presupposes that we concentrate on how to best support the individual learner to facilitate and to enrich his or her learning. All the new media offer us a lot of possibilities to accomplish that, to personalize learning, to satisfy the different types of learning and to combine different tracks of learning. I guess you will always need good study material, written ones, but we also have to provide opportunities to meet onsite in seminars for those who appreciate that format. Then there are the huge possibilities of online learning. Online learning is especially valuable for collaborative working so a virtual university is a place where you can meet others, exchange experiences and so on.
But again, one of the most important challenges is that the individual is taken more seriously and is supported in his or her learning environment. This is a challenge for the institutions because they tend to start thinking from the supply side and not from the demand side. Huge institutions like for instance the FernUniversität, being the largest university in Germany in terms of students’ numbers, have to start thinking about how to satisfy our very diverse clientele. We are currently starting a reform of our structure to respond to different demands. For example, some students want to do a full time bachelor’s program while others want to do a part time master’s program, and a third group might just want to complete a single module. Furthermore, some students might want to study, for example, philosophy at the end of their job career, while others are looking to return to work by achieving an academic degree. Overall, we have to understand that all our students are in different stages in their lives. They are all lifelong learners and our goal has to be to offer a study program that is well suited to meet their personal needs. We have good starting conditions because we can build on 40 years of experience of how to deal with diverse needs. However, it is pretty challenging to be a frontrunner and to perpetuate this advanced experience into the future.
Is it ‘business as usual’ for Higher Education or can we expect to see dramatic change?
Surely not business as usual, I predict a lot of dramatic change. The role of the students is already changing, they are going to be drivers of their own learning path, are able to select and combine ways of learning according to their needs. Therefore, we have to create an adequate surrounding for the individual. Then of course the role of the teacher will alter and in my opinion, this is the biggest challenge at least in the German speaking countries. Teachers and professors perceive themselves as the provider of content. For them, learning is teaching and teaching means to be in front of an audience and to deliver the content. In the future, there will be a prerequisite to differentiate the roles of teachers. No doubt we need those who contribute the content but this task will be widely shared. If a student can compare internationally, for example, who is giving a course about microeconomics, he or she can chose which course is the most appropriate. Regarding teaching, we already observe that everything is more transparent and this is good on the one hand, since this is always good for the quality to be able to compare. But on the other hand, we need people that really facilitate the learning experience. Who is responsible for creating a decent learning setting and a learning environment? In my eyes, this is a crucial task. In the German speaking countries, this question is not part of a professional educational self-image. Frankly speaking, these didactical issues are often considered as not worth the professors’ time.
As a consequence, it is essential to differentiate these roles. We rely too much on the idea that one person can do all that: excellent research, professional teaching, and good higher educational management. But all of that cannot be accomplished in one lifetime. Of course, as an institution we have to combine the strengths but likewise we need professionally qualified learning staff.
Therefore, I am very convinced that we will have different roles: One group of people excels at carrying out research, a second group of people is especially good at giving seminars or offering virtual learning formats due to their communicative skills while a third group might be especially suited to creating and managing teams or designing study programs. Even though the FernUniversität already employs people in these different roles, we definitely need to pursue this way further. Also, we have to look at the associated career paths for employees who want to work at the university in the field of professional learning and teaching without aiming to achieve a PhD and follow a classical academic track and work as a scientist. I think that we need to take these kinds of alternative approaches seriously and make sure those are not regarded as a less valuable.
How does the University’s strategy contribute to the specific international challenge of sustainable development in its many guises?
One of the main missions of education as such is to enable people to behave more self-reflective. To be able to connect the different issues of a problem and thereby to respond to bigger societal challenges in my view is sustainable in itself. Awareness of what is necessary for a sustainable future is the overall goal of university education. At least my wish and my hope would be that everyone that graduates from a university has been confronted with ways to make our world more sustainable. This is a core value of modern liberal education and should be part of every university program. That also means that in the students working environment – most of our students are already working – and in your professional life you can link the bigger societal topics to what you are actually doing at your workplace. I do not think of graduates as solely educated to fulfill their tasks and not looking left or right. I always liked the idea of reflective practitioners. Of course they have to do a good job but they likewise have to improve it. Somehow, I would have the romantic view that as a result the world becomes a bit more sustainable. This also applies for institutions. We, as a university, have to reflect about the bigger problems of our society, not only small bits and pieces.
What is the likely future for MOOCs?
I consider MOOCs as an interesting challenge but they should always be thought of in terms of a broader learning arrangement. Surely MOOCs are a stimulating new development, but in their current state they cannot be considered as proper education. MOOCs need to be embedded in a learning environment where individuals can benefit from them. Apart from MOOCs, education has to be guided by the question of how we can manage to support and enhance the learning of the individual student. New media and innovative ways of teaching have to be critically examined regarding how they enrich the individual learning environment of the students. MOOCs, I think, work a little bit the other way around as one teacher is responsible for a massive amount of students. From a didactical point of view, this is a very traditional model that reminds me of the last century where one professor gave lectures in the auditorium. If we perceive MOOCs as a provider of an additional channel for individualized learning, they can be a supportive tool for the learning progress.
Is distance learning going to remain the preserve of a few specialized agencies or do you think it will become more widely provided by other agencies?
I am convinced the second prognoses will hold true. We can already observe that blended learning has become the model for teaching and learning combining different tracks of learning experiences. I am noticing that a lot of other institutions integrate distance learning to their spectrum of teaching. This is reasonable, as the institutions try to address new target groups. Europe is an aging society where the numbers of young students are decreasing. Consequently, we have to think about new target groups that do not necessarily have to be the classical full-time students. Distance learning plays a crucial role in providing the opportunities for these target groups to study. Likewise, here in Hagen, we have many regular students working part-time. Unfortunately, many other institutions have not yet recognised this development. Many German universities just assume all of the young students are fully dedicated to their studies. However, this is not the case. We have a lot of empirical evidence showing that most of them have a job or other private commitments. Conventional universities would benefit from intensifying their efforts to integrate distance learning in their teaching program. The golden mean of blended learning combines the benefits of distance teaching and face to face teaching in higher education.
As country and language boundaries change – how important is a sense of place to the University?
A sense of place is surely important but in my opinion this could also be a virtual place. Creating a community which feels that it belongs to a certain group or institutions is of vital importance. But I am not convinced that an actual geographical point of reference is necessary to achieve this feeling. As I mentioned, I am in favor of the concept of blended learning and therefore acknowledge opportunities for the students to meet. However, togetherness is accomplished through communication and solidarity regardless of an actual sense of place. A delightful campus, like we have it here in Hagen, does not guarantee a comfortable feeling when you do not consider yourself integrated. On the other hand, even though you have never been in Hagen you can feel attached to the university because of the positive experience you accumulated during your studies.
This interview was first published in: Bell S and Chris D (2016) Editorial: the breadth of Open Learning. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 31(3): 189-193.