Educational technology in higher education
Whilst the development of ICT skills has been recognised as vital to students’ full and active societal participation in the future (OECD, 2015b, 2015a), using digital media in teaching and learning does not automatically guarantee active student engagement (Kirkwood, 2009) or high achievement (Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami, & Schmid, 2011). The pedagogical competence of teachers in using educational technology is crucial (Englund et al., 2017; Kirkwood, 2009; Kirkwood & Price, 2005; Ng, 2012; OECD, 2018a), alongside modelling good digital citizenship (Choi, Cristol, & Gimbert, 2018; Redecker, 2017), as “change does not take place by simply placing [teachers] in contact with technology” (Marcelo-García, Yot-Domínguez, & Mayor-Ruiz, 2015, p. 122). Indeed, novice teachers have been found to be more adept at rapid change and development than more experienced teachers (Englund et al., 2017), who also cite a lack of digital skills as inhibitors to using more educational technology in the classroom, as well as systemic problems, such as access to technology and workload, (Jääskelä, Häkkinen, & Rasku-Puttonen, 2017; Marcelo & Yot-Domínguez, 2018; Margaryan, Littlejohn, & Vojt, 2011).
A recent report from the UK digital education organisation Jisc, surveyed over 22,000 students from 74 UK and 10 international organisations, finding that “the full benefits of technology to support learning are yet to be realised, with technology more commonly used for convenience rather [than supporting] more effective pedagogy” (Newman & Beetham, 2017, p. 5). In a study of 941 university teachers in Spain (Marcelo-García et al., 2015), 44.4% were found to seldom use technology, which was generally limited to multimedia presentations, email and Learning Management Systems (LMS). A higher frequency of more teacher-centered uses of technology was also found in another study in Spain (Marcelo & Yot-Domínguez, 2018), with three of the most used being presentations, selecting text documents and facilitating videos for students. The study of 291 academics found that those in the Social Sciences were more likely to implement assimilative technologies, teachers in English and Architecture used a greater number of experiential learning activities, and those in the Health Sciences used more communicate learning activities. This cautious attitude towards the use of tools was reflected in a longitudinal study in Finland (Jääskelä et al., 2017), where concerns about using technology often related to beliefs about students’ digital competencies or their own ability, which was also found in the UK (Margaryan et al., 2011).
There has been a range of international research investigating student use of technology for learning, undertaken in Australia (e.g. Henderson et al., 2017; Ng, 2012; Parkes, Stein, & Reading, 2015; Selwyn, 2016b), Israel (e.g. Barak, 2018), New Zealand (e.g. Lai & Hong, 2015), the United States (e.g. Bowe & Wohn, 2015; Thompson, 2013, 2015), the UK (e.g. Margaryan et al., 2011; Newman & Beetham, 2017), Canada (e.g. Bullen, Morgan, & Qayyum, 2011) and Turkey (e.g. Sumuer, 2018). Whilst research has found that students who are ICT proficient, as well as collaborative learners, are more likely to be less resistant to change and more flexible thinkers (Barak, 2018) - considered to be crucial graduate attributes now and into the future (Claro & Ananiadou, 2009; Hajkowicz et al., 2016; OECD, 2018b; Oliver & Jorre de St Jorre, 2018) - these studies all report the same findings; student use of technology in HE is mostly limited to basic tasks (Henderson et al., 2017; Margaryan et al., 2011; Parkes et al., 2015; Thompson, 2013), students need more explicit help in understanding why technology is important (Kirkwood & Price, 2005; Margaryan et al., 2011; Thompson, 2013), and they require increased scaffolding to be able to use it effectively (Ng, 2012; Sumuer, 2018; Thompson, 2013).
In an Australian study of 1658 students (Henderson et al., 2017), students identified the LMS as the most useful technology related to their studies. However, in a study on student preparedness for eLearning environments (Parkes et al., 2015), students were rated ‘Poorly Prepared’ for demonstrating knowledge of the LMS. This indicates that, whilst students appreciate its use as a content repository (Margaryan et al., 2011), they do not necessarily know how to use more advanced features, with five out of eight students interviewed either not knowing what a blog was, or never having read or written a blog entry (p. 436). Likewise, collaborative technologies such as Google Docs, simulations, live polling and creating content using Web 2.0 tools, have also been found to be rarely used (Henderson et al., 2017; Newman & Beetham, 2017; Ng, 2012; Thompson, 2013). In their study of 880 students, Lai and Hong (2015) found that almost 40% of students spent only 10 h or less per week using digital technologies for university purposes, which could help explain the narrow use of technologies used by university students.
The German context
In Germany, despite young people (aged 14–29) being the biggest consumers and users of the internet and digital tools, they place less importance on the teaching of digital media in schools than other age groups (Initiative D21, 2015). Whilst 99.4% of German school students have a computer at home and spend 114 min on average weekdays using technology, only 14 min is spent using technology at school per day, which is lower than the OECD average (OECD, 2015b). So too in German HE; more than 99% of students have internet access at home and are well equipped with digital devices (Zawacki-Richter, Dolch & Müskens, 2017). The same study showed that German HE students own five different digital devices on average, whilst one third own more than six devices. Within a period of 3 years (2012 to 2015) the possession of smart phones increased from 56 to 91%, which clearly highlights the trend towards using mobile digital devices. Furthermore, students were asked how important the use of digital teaching and learning tools are for their studies (demand) and how often those tools are actually used (supply). The only occasion where supply was meeting demand, was providing course materials on the LMS (Zawacki-Richter, Dolch & Müskens, 2017). The study found a consistently higher demand than supply, which indicates that there is scope to expand digital teaching and learning within German HE.
In terms of university teachers’ perspectives, it is often said that they are the driving forces for implementing and developing digital teaching and learning, and for this reason, technical as well as pedagogical guidance, is recommended (Pensel & Hofhues, 2017, p. 28–29). In a systematic review of media use in HE, Riplinger and Schiefner-Rohs (2017) found that the media use and competence of university teachers are rarely discussed in German empirical studies (p. 36). Given the prevalence of content creation and communication in the European Union DigCompEdu framework (Redecker, 2017), as well as the increasing importance of HE institutional use of digital technologies in Germany (e.g. Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, Referat Digitaler Wandel in der Bildung, 2016; Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, 2016), it is therefore timely to further consider how German university students and teachers are using educational technology, and how useful they find it for teaching and learning.
Digital higher education in Germany
When looking at the process of digitalization within the context of German HE, three complementing axes are noteworthy; the federal digital agenda, the think tank ‘Hochschulforum Digitalisierung’, and calls for research proposals by the federal government, which foster research on digitalization in HE through funding by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). In order to realise major societal, political and economic transformation, the German government devised a national digital agenda from 2014 to 2017, addressing all education levels (Die Bundesregierung, 2014). The federal government sees digitalization as a way to enable knowledge transfer and innovation in science, however it also expects its citizens to be digitally literate, in order to be able to fully participate in education and society (pp. 27–28).
In order to focus on a broad range of digitalization aspects within the HE context, such as internationalization, organizational change, and the transformation of teaching and learning, an expert forum was established, called the Hochschulforum DigitalisierungFootnote 1 [The German Forum for Higher Education in the Digital Age, HFD, 2018]. This think tank generated and disseminated working papers and policy statements between 2014 and 2016, including 20 central theses on digitalization and HE (Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, 2016). Of these theses, several address the context of teaching and learning, stating for example:
“Innovations in digital teaching are not just technical innovations but rather academic, curricular, organisational and structural innovations”
“The use of digital media contributes to the improvement of higher education teaching”
“Technological change not only creates new virtual learning environments but also alters existing physical learning environments”.
“There is no shortage of digital teaching and learning innovations at universities but their structural and strategic advancement is deficient”
“The integration of digital media in teaching and learning is a complex process of negotiation between different stakeholders within the universities”
(Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, 2016, n.p.)
This expert forum will continue until 2020, including peer to peer coachingFootnote 2 for HE institutions wanting to develop digitalization strategies.
The prominence of digitalization also features in project calls by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, targeting research proposals to further analyze the state of digitalization within education, including conducting systematic reviews. Following a first call in 2016, 20 projects are now being funded that revolve around the three main topics of ‘Adaptive Learning and Assessment environments’, ‘Interactivity and multimediality of digital learning environments’ and ‘Researching theory and practice in digital learning environments’ (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, Referat Digitaler Wandel in der Bildung, 2018). A second call followed in 2017, in which the innovative potential of digitalization for HE, including technological, organizational and pedagogical aspects, are being investigated, using interdisciplinary approaches (ibid.).
However, whilst public discussion and funding advance, individual HE institutions are still only now embarking on their journey into the digital age. For example, a preliminary screening of digitalization strategies of doctoral degree granting universities in Germany (n = 155) reveals that only four have publicly available digitalization strategies in place, with another six currently (2017/18) engaged in a peer to peer coaching process, in order to develop their respective strategies (Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, n.d.). Whilst it could be assumed that strategies and plans are being developed due to current government digital policy initiatives, this planning process is still very much in its early stages. Thus, investigating deeper into the status of individual institution progress within Germany is needed.