“Individualized learning environments are still a long way off”

sandra_schoen, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
sandra_schoen, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Armin Rubner, head of the eUniversity at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich (LMU), talks about intelligent learning management systems of the future and the potential of digital learning models, such as MOOCs.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Today’s students are increasingly diverse in terms of their needs and backgrounds. There have also been dramatic changes in the demands of the labor market. How can learning environments respond to these changes and provide optimal support for every student?

Armin Rubner: Unfortunately, learning environments are not doing this as well as they should. Today, e-learning is largely modeled after traditional courses that take the form of lectures; subject matter is presented, questions are asked, and students have the opportunity to participate in an online forum. This is clearly an improvement compared with traditional classroom instruction alone, since it allows for flexibility in terms of time and place. However, an individualized learning environment also needs to take into account students’ existing knowledge, and then choose from numerous options the most appropriate learning materials. In the future, this may also involve artificial intelligence and deep learning programs.

“An individualized learning environment also needs to take into account students’ existing knowledge, and then choose from numerous options the most appropriate learning materials.”

Another issue is what is required of instructors. Today’s learning platforms are technologically advanced, but there is also a need for content – and that is where we encounter difficulties. Instructors lack the time to create content designed specifically for e-learning, as they still need to fulfill their regular teaching responsibilities and conduct research, give lectures and attend conferences.

Creating content is an involved process. You can’t simply take a textbook, perhaps in digital form, and load it into a learning management system, bit by bit. The material needs to be organized by degree of difficulty and learning objectives. It has to be grouped into modules and tagged to identify the information that is intended for experts, the material students are expected to learn, and the material that is primarily meant to provoke thought.

I want to take the learning management system used by the eUniversity at Munich’s LMU to the next level: Students need to be able to rate content and view others’ ratings and reviews. This will enable them to decide whether the material is something they need to know for a test or whether it is designed to facilitate the acquisition of more in-depth knowledge. This gradually produces what might be called a “learning tag cloud.” If students are likely to find certain material useful, they will be sent a notice similar to those sent out by Amazon and social media.

“Creating content is an involved process. You can’t simply take a textbook, perhaps in digital form, and load it into a learning management system.”

CSG: That brings us to the topic of big data. Is information on students engaged in e-learning already being gathered systematically?

AR: To a very limited extent – and unfortunately not enough to support individualized learning. Learning management systems have a long way to go before they realize their full potential. There are a number of models that might be quite interesting: For example, the system might determine early on that a given student will find it difficult to pass a test. It could then offer materials to enhance that student’s understanding.

But privacy regulations are an obstacle. At present, collecting or analyzing even anonymized data is prohibited, at least in Germany. Other European countries are starting to take the next steps. Technically, we are able to ensure that data remain truly anonymous. But there is immediately talk of Orwell, and of Google and other companies that collect and exploit data.

CSG: Coming back to the requirements of universities and the job market: There is an increasing demand for the ability to collaborate with others to solve problems.

AR: That’s right. People also need to be able to grow and develop in a way that suits their interests, strengths and weaknesses, during their studies and beyond. I’m therefore interested in tests that require groups of students to work together on a task and produce an “artifact,” which is then evaluated based on certain defined criteria. How well the team works together is also assessed. Most teams are made up of diverse types: the strategic planner, the communicator, and so on. Using a grid, we can show how challenges can be designed or results can be tested in an environment that is similar to the real world – and ultimately the job world as well.

CSG: Massive Open Online Courses, in short MOOCs, have experienced a particular boom in recent years. Universities have grown to like them as well. Why?

AR: A MOOC draws on the dynamic nature of a large group. If I’m teaching a small online course, say 100 students, and I divide it into groups of five, then I will probably need to work with online tutors. That is time- and labor-intensive. But if I have upwards of 5,000 students, a certain dynamism is created. Suddenly I have 100 or 200 people in the “first row of the lecture hall” who are very active and serve to motivate the rest of the group. It’s fascinating to see how that works in the online environment.

“Suddenly I have 100 or 200 people in the “first row of the lecture hall” who are very active and serve to motivate the rest of the group.”

CSG: MOOCs and similar models have been playing an increasingly important role in recent years in efforts to integrate refugees into German society and the German educational system, and also in helping them gain access to higher education. How successfully are the traditional educational system and these new models working together?

AR: Let me give you one example: A little over two years ago, a large consortium – including colleagues from LMU, Leuphana University of Lüneburg and the University of St. Gallen – launched a MOOC called “Ready for Study.” It was intended for refugees, as a way of assessing their language skills and determining whether they were prepared to enter the German university system – and if they were not, it helped to identify what they still needed to learn. The pilot project was quite successful.

“In the context of the refugee situation, it was crucial to consider how a MOOC is structured and whether it adequately targets the intended group.”

Like every online program, a MOOC is first and foremost a vehicle for conveying information. In the context of the refugee situation, it was crucial to consider how a MOOC is structured and whether it adequately targets the intended group. There was little experience to draw on, and time was of the essence. We developed the “Ready for Study” MOOC in the autumn and it went live in January. It was a very turbulent and dynamic period. Taking into account these very unusual circumstances – in 2015, large numbers of refugees were arriving in Germany all at once – cooperation among the various players (universities, government authorities and agencies) functioned quite well. Things went smoothly. But it is difficult to say in general how well universities and other institutions are cooperating in this area.

There is room for improvement, of course. If, for example, a MOOC for refugees is to provide guidance for the educational system as a whole, it should probably be expanded to include alternatives to a university education, and it should also identify the requirements for such an alternative, such as a career in a trade. It would also be a good idea to include more language training than our MOOC did.

Armin Rubner is head of the unit eUniversity Concept Development and Services at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich (LMU). At the university, he provides advice to all interested groups and committees regarding the design, production and distribution of digital content, as well as ways to optimize the use of digital tools. He and his team are responsible for “LMU on iTunes U,” the learning management system “Moodle,” the video management system “LMUcast” and the production of LMU’s MOOCs on Coursera, among other things.