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Oxford-Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger gestikuliert

“Escape the straightjacket”

Are smartphones, tablets and similar devices distractions in class? Not at all, says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Are smartphones, tablets and similar devices distractions in class?
Not at all, says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an Oxford professor and a member of the German federal government’s Digital Council.
Professor Mayer-Schönberger, you believe the educational system is about to undergo a tectonic shift as a result of digitization. Some of the biggest changes are reserved for teachers. Are we ready for the challenge?
First, let me say that I’ve met a lot of teachers who are motivated and open to new ideas. Generally speaking, though, I know an anecdote that sums up the situation rather well. It’s about two men who jump from a skyscraper. Do you want to hear it?

Sounds dangerous – let’s hear it!
The first man jumps a little earlier from a higher floor. Halfway down, he meets the other man, who asks, “So, how’s it coming along?” And the first man, who’s been falling longer, replies, “So far, so good!” That’s an apt description of teachers today. If you ask them how things are coming along, they’ll reply, “So far, so good!” But only because our school and educational system hasn’t hit rock bottom. At least not yet!

Is it realistic to believe that things may get that far?
Absolutely. There’s a risk that we are educating our children in such a way that they won’t be ready for the future. That they won’t find work or a place of their own in a society where smart automation is highly advanced – all because they’ve only learned how to conformistically adapt to the average. What we really need is to develop a method of learning that makes allowances for the individuality of human existence.

How can digitization tools like learning analytics help?
In today’s schools, only one method is used to teach a subject. But that method may not work for the majority of students, let alone for one particular student. We use this method because it’s what the teachers have worked out in their minds or what the teaching materials suggest. Digital learning provides data that educators can analyze to answer important questions: What exercises do students spend a particularly long time on? Where do they give up? These insights, combined with direct feedback from students, help us continually improve and adapt teaching materials to students’ needs. That could be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged students.

Gesten von Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

In what way?
Personalized help with schoolwork used to be limited to families who could afford private tutors. Digital tools have opened that option to everyone. One example from my book, “Learning with Big Data”, illustrates what I mean. It talks about a seventh-grader in the US who was the worst math student in her class. During a computer-aided summer school session, the PC kept showing her ever-new ways to solve problems. These ways didn’t work for her – until the system leveraged the data to find a method that the girl immediately grasped.  By the end of the summer, she was the second-best math student in her class. 

So what’s the connection to big data?
This approach only worked because the system collected and analyzed large amounts of data. Instead of only looking at snapshots – such as tests – big data lets you constantly track how students actually learn over an extended period of time.

That sounds like Big Brother for students and teachers ...
Look, we have to escape this straightjacket of judgmentalism in education. Digital technologies shouldn’t be used to punish differences as mistakes, but rather to value students and teachers for their differences. They can help to identify which educational approach works the best for a particular student, or which teacher accomplishes the most with a particular class. Teachers won’t just transmit knowledge in classrooms any longer. That’s something students can do at home. Instead, schools will be places where students can discuss what they’ve learned. Teachers can turn the classroom back into a place of social learning and social exploration.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is a member of the German federal government’s new Digital Council. This Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation teaches at the University of Oxford. He researches the social impacts of big data, among other things, and has authored several books on digitization. His latest work is “Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data”.


Fotos: Andreas Süß