Closing in on Distance Learning


Educom Review table of contents

 February 1999


This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 1 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE.

An EDUCAUSE publication



Closing in on Distance Learning

German institutions start to embrace wired teaching

by Gerd Meissner

Until recently, German academics and politicians have snubbed the digital campus as just another version of "McUniversität." That's how they dubbed the higher education system in the U.S. But the booming information economy and growing competition from more service-oriented learning institutions abroad has changed that perception. As one way out of their crisis, German colleges and universities are beginning to embrace new ways of wired teaching and learning.

Ask Peter Deussen from University of Karlsruhe in Germany about the legacy that the government of former chancellor Helmut Kohl has left, and you'll see a German professor lose his academic countenance. "The federal government," snaps Deussen, who speaks for the International Tele-University, a joint venture of four universities in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, "has totally overlooked the world market for education. Now we have to fix it, with our modest means of a federal state."

Ask Marco von Müller, who studies history at Freie Universität (FU) Berlin. Does he consider FU fit for the digital future? He will tell you about poor PC pools (at German universities, 39 students have to share a computer) and about dial-in nodes that are too frequently overloaded (one node per 172 students). "In the computer rooms," complains von Müller, "you have to wait at least one hour to get a slot."

Or ask Jens-Egon Mosch from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in Bonn, the central public funding organization for academic research in Germany. He'll paint the larger picture -- in black. "The universities are overcrowded," explains Mosch, citing one of the many problems. "They often don't even have room for a computer pool." Just recently, DFG warned that the number of university workstations has to be tripled in order for the German higher education system not to lose its competitive edge.

The Kohl government, led by the Christian Democratic Party, was voted out of office in September. Too late for students like Marco von Müller: He has left Berlin to study in the U.S.: "There the university has all I need," says the young German. His teacher Arthur Imhof, the only professor in Berlin who utilizes the Internet for history courses, wishes him well: "Here," says Imhof, "it will take 10 years until change really has arrived."

" -- hard to access," headlined the Hamburg-based digerati magazine konr@d recently (referring to the Internet domain ending .de for "Deutschland"). The publication compared digital services of the 100 largest universities and colleges in the country. Among the findings: Just some "brave souls," according to konr@d, use the Internet for serious teaching. Often even the most open-minded teachers are handicapped by the lack of hardware.

Quoting a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think tank close to the German media giant, the article warned that Germany's mostly state-financed universities could "lose the competition with the Anglo-American universities." The underlying problem: The once famous German "Hochschulsystem," underfunded and overcrowded, is out of sync with an increasingly service-oriented global education industry. One result, according to the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau: "Indian, Indonesian and Japanese students, but the English and French as well, turn to the U.S.A., warned by pictures of crammed lecture halls, the hurdles of the German language and of non-compatible degrees."

In Germany, the federal budget share for science and education was cut from 4.5 percent to 3.3 percent during the Kohl era. But politicians didn't dare to compensate for the loss by introducing tuition fees for students, as has happened in France, the U.K. and Portugal. They shied away from breaking up old structures to allow for more market and service orientation in German universities. There, students are traditionally considered a nuisance by many teachers who are shielded from the real (and virtual) world by a comforting bureaucracy. One reason for the media malaise at German universities, pointed out by konr@d: "The technophobia of many teachers."

But that's just one of many symptoms. The main question asked by German education professionals nowadays: Does the new government, dominated by the Social Democrats, have the means to redefine higher education in Germany for the 21st century? Their new chancellor Gerhard Schröder will have to make good on the promise "to double future-related investments in education and science within the next five years."

But it's not just about funding. As the news magazine Der Spiegel recently reminded its readers: "The teachers will have to accept being measured by performance, and the universities will have to compete for students and for money." A utopian wish, given the German academia's fear of change? Not so, according to August-Wilhelm Scheer, director of the Institute for Information Systems at the University of Saarland.

Scheer's institute, in a cooperative with universities in Kassel, Leipzig, Göttingen and Dortmund called Winfo-Line, has created business information systems graduate courses for the Internet. The professor, who founded his own successful software company (IDS Prof. Scheer) to participate in the booming market for enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications that today is dominated by German software giant SAP, has frequently been criticized in the past by colleagues for promoting entrepreneurial spirit and service orientation on German campuses.

"Courses are products," says Scheer, warning his fellow professors. "At least that's how the competition sees it. Teaching is a service business." To be able to serve the needs of the global information economy better, this service has to be provided partly in a digital format. This point is not lost on more and more "brave souls" in the German higher education system. Winfo-Line is not the only example. It's not even the first example.

A survey by HIS (Hochschul-Informations-System GmbH), a privately organized think tank of German universities based in Hannover, found 715 university projects involving "new media"-supported learning. The study included faculty home pages as well as complete "virtual studies" programs. Ironically, the field was pioneered by an institution in the former communist East Germany.

Since 1995, the Technical University (TU) of Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt, offers post-graduate Internet classes for computer scientists in a program called "Information and Communication Systems." Starting with a fresh slate, with the rotten post-war phone lines torn out and a modern fiber-optics-based communications infrastructure in place, has proved to be rewarding.

TU even has managed to lure students from western Germany not only onto its course pages, but also into its shabby postcommunist quarters in the crisis-ridden East. "Here you have a dorm room guaranteed," says student Frank Schöniger. "Nearly every room has an Internet connection." Compare this with Nürnberg, in the former West. There, students have to attend classes for three years before they are allowed to dial into the university network from their home PC.

Today, "universities in the East are far better equipped than the ones in the West," konr@d magazine found in its survey of Germany's academic digisphere. Online participants of the Chemnitz computer science postgraduate program, for example, were charged 3,000 Deutsche Marks (about $2,000) -- an anomaly in a country where a university education is still largely free of tuition charges (an environment that doesn't exactly help in motivating students, as critics point out). On the other hand, TU Chemnitz made Net news in paper-fixated Germany by helping its students meet their tight budgets. It became known as the first German university to allow its postgraduates to publish Web versions of their Ph.D. theses rather than the previously mandatory print copies. A rare exception, still.

Within the next five years, the federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology will spend 100 million Deutsche Marks (about $69 million) to fund the five winning projects of a contest on the "Use of Worldwide Available Knowledge," which were announced this summer. Among the winners: The "Virtual Technology and Business University," founded in the northern German city of Lübeck, which is designed as a joint effort of several German universities to develop and offer multimedia curricula for the international market.

As more colleges and universities all over Germany begin to model their digital campuses of the future, experts like Dietmar Waudig of Akademische Software Kooperation (ASK) in Karlsruhe have warned against the tendency to merely develop virtual replicas of administrative processes, in order to cut costs, while neglecting the need for creating content for the curriculum. ASK was spun off from University of Karlsruhe to develop, license and distribute software for higher education. "The effort you have to put into creating multimedia courseware is simply incredibly high," said Waudig, who pointed out "the respective deficits in higher education."

The University of Karlsruhe, located on the east bank of the Rhine river in the wealthy federal state of Baden-Württemberg, plays a crucial role in one of the most ambitious distant learning projects currently underway in Germany -- the International Tele-University Germany (INTUG). The state government, dominated by the Christian Democrats, has announced that over the next five years it will fund multimedia and distant learning projects in higher education with about 50 million Deutsche Marks, a large share of which will go to INTUG to develop new educational methods by employing multimedia solutions.

Inspired by institutions like the virtual Western Governors University in the U.S., the neighboring universities in Karlsruhe, Freiburg, Heidelberg and Mannheim have formed INTUG as a joint venture to deploy the Internet and other communication technologies in an effort to present programs on an international level and to revive the appeal of German universities for foreign students. Starting next year and based on distance learning projects that all of the four universities have been running since 1995, the International Tele-University will offer for-credit online programs in medical science, international management, environmental sciences, chemistry, engineering and computer sciences, among others, which will be followed by a more practically oriented phase-in of courses on campus.

The working language will be English, and the program includes internationally recognized master degrees. In order to become a self-sufficient institution, INTUG plans to rely on cost-effective contributions by the students or grant-awarding bodies: "It's a typical German misconception that such a program has to be free," says spokesman Peter Deussen. Another essential -- close cooperation with private enterprises. Companies that have announced their support for the Tele-University or are in dialogue include Apple Computer, SEL-Alcatel, debis AG, IBM, Microsoft, NEC and SAP, as well as German publishers dpunkt, Hüthig, Ernst Klett and Spektrum.

"INTUG intends to become a global player in the international market for distance learning," says Peter Deussen, "and to make 'Know-how Made in Germany' become a brand mark again."

While the INTUG programs will require students from abroad to participate in on-campus courses, in the federal state of North Rhine-Wesphalia the FernUniversität/Gesamthochschule in Hagen ("University of Hagen") is ready to compete on a "purely digital" basis with international cyber-institutions like the U.S., British, Dutch or Spanish Open Universities or the California Virtual University. Germany's only distance teaching university, founded in 1974, opened the country's first "Virtual University," a pilot, in 1996. It began by offering programs in electrical engineering and computer sciences.

Within its new media branch, FernUniversität Hagen (enrollee headcount: 55,000) has replaced traditional paper-based printed course texts (the so-called Studienbriefe) with Web pages, e-mail and Internet-based phone or video conferences. Hagen's "Virtual University" (VU) Web site features teaching materials and events, and administrative support services as well as social spheres, like a "Caféteria" chatroom. So far, each semester about 500 students, most of them from Germany, have paid an average course fee of $100 to participate in the PC-based programs. "When we send out papers to a student by traditional mail," says VU's co-founder and dean, Professor Firoz Kaderali, "it costs 15 Marks" (roughly $10). "Using the Internet, we achieve the same while paying half."

Hagen's VU chief also is determined to claim a share of what he thinks will become "a huge industry." The future in the field, says Kaderali, will be dominated by "globally operating education providers. By introducing English as the working language and offering compatible degrees, FernUniversität Hagen will be one of these players." At home, VU mainly targets the rapidly growing group of Germans who feel the pressure for continuing education in their professional life. "It's obvious now," says Kaderali, "that the concept of lifelong learning has arrived in Germany."

Gerd Meissner is a business reporter, columnist and best-selling book author from Germany now based in Mountain View, California. He started "Spiegel Online" and "Stern Online," two of the largest Internet operations in Europe. His new book, an in-depth background story of the German software powerhouse SAP AG, will be published by McGraw-Hill in June.



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