The findings in studies on distance learning in Germany during the Covid19 lockdown period that are available so far are rather shocking: learning has often been unstructured, inefficient and in no way comparable to what is expected from orderly teaching processes in classrooms. Admittedly, empirical studies like the most recent one by the ifo Institute are misleading in that they disregard the numerous cases of successful distance learning and best practice models that many schools across the republic have developed for distance learning from a standing start. This is not only unfair, but it also obscures where and how one can and must start in order to be prepared for future phases of (partially or completely) closed schools. It is also unfair if teacher bashing starts now, because what individual teachers (are able to) do is tied to institutional preconditions.
Organising digital learning
It is obvious that almost all German federal states have failed over almost twenty years to build a reliable, efficient and pedagogically sensible digital infrastructure in their schools. As many schools with complete digital equipment have now demonstrated, this infrastructure not only enables a rapid switch to distance learning; it is also the only way to ensure that learning and working in digital environments and with digital forms of knowledge and skills achieves normality for all those involved, teachers, pupils and parents alike, so that it is not merely perceived as an emergency solution. If this had been the case, working in digital environments would have long since become part of everyday life for teachers. It is therefore obvious in every respect that the lack of a strategic plan for distance learning must come to an end. There must be a plan D for digital distance learning as soon as possible.
Plan D, part 1: managing the digitization project
The education ministries of the German federal states can no longer leave it up to the individual schools to build a digital infrastructure that meets high standards of school education. As can be seen in companies and also in the universities, all of which are equipped with professional computer centres and support systems, the digitisation of the infrastructure requires a high degree of professionalism. The basic digital equipment of a school with hardware, compatible software, WiFi and terminals, with an intranet and cloud, with instruction and training programs is a complex project that requires professional management and expert knowledge. The days when dedicated teachers looked after a computer lab and the digital terminals, perhaps even administered the whole range of software and applications across all subjects, are finally over. It is no coincidence that the fund of millions of Euros from the Digital Pact of the German federal states and the national administration is only very hesitantly utilized: How can schools possible manage such large digitisation projects? As school authorities, municipalities suffer from the same problem: not only are they barely or not at all able to equip their schools adequately from their annual budgets; they also do not have the know-how or the personnel required to digitally equip, maintain and continuously support the schools. In other words, a digital pact between the federal governments and the school authorities is required as soon as possible, so that this task can be carried out by task forces for schools in towns and cities across the country, both financially and in terms of personnel, before the school year begins.
Plan D, part 2: digitization as an educational task for schools
Digital learning must become a curricular dimension of learning in all subjects – not as an emergency solution in lockdown phases, but as a general and permanent educational task. As we can currently observe everywhere, the common use of digital tools in work life and in personal interaction is becoming totally normal; a large part of cultural knowledge is now available in digital form, and specific formats and practices of communication and public discourse have emerged that need to be acquired and practiced systematically in order to be applied in a reflected, meaningful and qualitatively satisfying way. This educational task includes seemingly banal tasks such as writing an electronic text, which is tied to the use of a keyboard and the familiarity with word processing programs – skills that can by no means be taken for granted in the smartphone age with two-thumb typing techniques. However, this may also include the production of an online application video (possibly in a foreign language) as well as working with databases in the natural sciences or with archives and digital artefacts in the social sciences and the humanities. Such a normality of digital working and learning, also in face-to-face teaching, is at the same time the prerequisite for a rapid switch to distance learning – and its simulation before the real thing happens. The forthcoming presence phase must therefore also be used for the simulation and practice of digital learning at a distance.
Plan D, part 3: organised distance learning
As the experiences with irregular digital school days have shown, the specification of a clear time structure for the school day and school week is urgently needed. The organisation of a working and school week is by far too demanding for pupils, their parents and the teachers. Even the individual free organization of a single school day is only exceptionally possible and only for very strong students with parents with an affinity for education. The weaker ones fall by the wayside. For this reason, a timetable for digital distance learning, a compulsory Plan D based on the normal timetable (slimmed down) is urgently needed. It is also helpful as a clear guideline for teachers’ presence and organized teaching in distance phases. It avoids time-consuming coordination in class teams as to who teaches which pupils and when, and reliably regulates the phases of synchronous communication between learners and their teachers. If, for example, video teaching is increasingly taking place in a distance phase, it cannot be left to individual teachers to find out when a video lesson or some other type of synchronous teaching and presence can take place. In this way it is also possible to integrate sports, art or music in addition to the so-called core subjects. Why shouldn’t sports teachers instruct their students via video how to keep fit at home or outside the home during lockdown periods? A Plan D for the school week that is binding for all solves the problems that were articulated as a clear critique of distance learning. However, it does not dump this criticism on the individual teacher, but defines digital distance learning as an institutional task.