Germany’s strict return to classrooms risks ‘missed opportunity’

Universities seen as lacking capacity and strategy to embrace blended learning long-term

May 10, 2022
recycling Germany
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German universities’ rush to return to in-person teaching risks neglecting hard-learned lessons from the pandemic, it has been warned.

Efforts to curb online teaching could allow lecturers to revert to old methods rather than adopting blended digital and in-person approaches, according to Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education (CHE) thinktank.

Many German university leaders, who have a legally limited say over teaching, want staff to return to classrooms. Professor Ziegele said rectors “want to send a strong signal to make people return because we all know it’s not easy to bring back people from sitting comfortably at home, and we all know that especially for students, this is not good”.

At the University of Bremen, staff must justify continued online teaching to their dean. “What we do not want to prolong is online lectures that are just recorded lectures from some years [ago] in the classrooms, because they’re first of all boring and they’re not really the material students can learn from,” Thomas Hoffmeister, Bremen’s vice-principal (academic), told Times Higher Education.

Many staff were sceptical about returning and were “tired after two years of extreme load, doing the teaching in a completely different way, reorganising everything”, he explained. “They fear that the load is too high to do the next step and again evolve the teaching approach,” he said.

Professor Hoffmeister said pandemic improvements meant that his university had the recording facilities and instructional design staff to develop better digital teaching materials, but that it would take “years” to ensure their wider use.

The applied science university HTW - Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin has a 25 per cent cap on online teaching hours for “on-campus” courses. Tilo Wendler, vice-president for teaching, said its push for in-person tuition was driven partly by the quality of online teaching materials.

The university needed “more time and more money” to improve its online offerings, but he said it “would not be appropriate” to ask the local government for more after having received extra funding during the pandemic.

There would be a shift online again once better materials were developed, said Professor Wendler, who noted that personal circumstances meant that some staff were justified in preferring the digital option, such as an external lecturer teaching just two hours a week.

Aside from exhaustion, Professor Ziegele said, universities often lacked a blended learning strategy, a hands-off approach that he said was a “typical German problem”. Professor Wendler said HTW had been forced to pause development of an overall strategy because of the pandemic. “There needs to be a new discussion process; this is what we’re trying to start now,” he said.

Professor Ziegele said the “classical lecture” in front of 500 people “should be over”, but that in many cases it was now “coming back” with the return to campus.

“If you only send this strong signal, then there is the danger that you forget all these lessons learned that you had throughout the pandemic,” he said. “If we just say now all the lectures are on-site again, you miss these opportunities of a flipped classroom.”

A CHE study from the pandemic found that “hybrid” learning, in which students attend in person and online as they choose, was five times more popular with students than with teachers, who must address two audiences at the same time, while the appetite for asynchronous blended learning was similar among both groups.


Print headline: Germany’s rush back to classrooms risks ‘missed opportunity’

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