“Technology for teaching content is only one aspect of digitalization”

Peter Pulkowski
Peter Pulkowski

In the second part of our interview, Daniel Schunk, professor of public and behavioral economics, talks about important and often forgotten aspects of digitalization and the changing role of teachers.

Sabine Gysi: In the first part of our conversation we talked about digital tools and learning environments. Are there other aspects of digitalization that are going to have a profound effect on day-to-day school life?

Daniel Schunk: Yes. Digital technology for teaching content is only one aspect of digitalization. Two other aspects deserve equal attention.

First, teaching media skills – the responsible use of digital media. You need to understand several things when you’re on the internet: What commercial and/or political interests are hidden behind online content? What kinds of media are best suited to a given purpose? How can I protect myself from information overload? What role do different kinds of media play in a democratic society?

And you have to handle your personal data responsibly, understand what data privacy is all about, and be familiar with the principles of ethics in the digital sphere. All of this can be an integral and natural part of everyday learning, and it can be facilitated by the digital tools and learning environments we have previously mentioned. A number of steps have already been taken in this regard. More information about this topic as it relates to Germany can be found in a policy paper issued by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of Germany’s states.

“There is already some evidence that computer science instruction stimulates creativity and teaches skills that can be used in many different areas.”

Second, it is important to teach children about the mechanisms behind digital content. This means that they should learn the basic principles of computer science, which will be important for many occupations in the future. But the learning process should be fun and practice-oriented, too – children might learn to program robots, for example.

SG: Is programming one of the 21st-century skills that every child should learn?

DS: No. But every child needs a basic understanding of computational thinking, algorithmic thinking and so on, as this will be useful in a wide variety of contexts. There is already a study suggesting that computer science instruction stimulates creativity and teaches skills that can be used in many different areas.

SG: It is clear that we can expect to see significant changes, not only in how children learn at school, but also in the role played by teachers.

DS: I have the impression that teachers’ assumptions and concerns about their changing role are somewhat exaggerated. I don’t believe that their role is going to change all that much. Robots are not going to replace teachers. It’s all about enriching the content that children learn, and giving teachers more time to coach and mentor students who need additional attention.

“A digital learning environment is a tool, just like a textbook or any other materials that are used in the classroom. The difference is that it offers a variety of interactive options.”

I have spoken on this topic to a variety of groups, including teachers and parents. The first few times there were misunderstandings. Some audience members thought that I wanted to eliminate teachers altogether – but that is by no means my intention. We want to use digital tools to help teachers. I now begin my talks by stressing that I have no interest in replacing teachers.

A digital learning environment is a tool, just like a textbook or any other materials that are used in the classroom. The difference is that it offers a variety of interactive options. The tools that teachers have at their disposal have always undergone changes and improvements. When the overhead projector was introduced, many people were convinced that it would be bad for children and have a devastating effect on classroom culture!

In the first part of our interview, Daniel Schunk talks about what schools should consider when creating a digital learning environment. He describes the characteristics of high-quality learning software that educators will be eager to work with.

Daniel Schunk is a professor of Behavioral and Public Economics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Germany. His work examines how preferences, skills and personality develop over the life cycle and what this means for the design of educational systems and for public spending. He is a founder of the research priority program “Interdisciplinary Public Policy” at JGU. His work in economics and education regularly incorporates perspectives from neuroscience and genetics.

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