Working on a Side Project - Problems, Ideas, Goals
Written by Jan Beck on in Berlin, Germany.
I believe not enough people benefit from the web and as one of my new years resolutions I decided to use my skills voluntarily. A friend who teaches at a local school gave me insight into to German education system.
When I moved to Berlin in March a friend named Andreas was kind enough to let me stay at his home until I found permanent place. Andreas is just about to finish his 10 year long education as a teacher and already teaches a few classes with kids between age 14 and 18.
The reality of using modern technologies in schools today
During my 10 week stay we both worked from home and often met in the kitchen during our short breaks. That sparked new ideas and enthusiastic conversations. I remember being furious when I heard that smartphones were banned at his school because students would only use them to get distracted or distract others from lesson.
To me, my smartphone is an extension of my brain and not being allowed to use it in a place where I am supposed to learn seemed silly to me. It is like a bicycle for my mind.
When I had my first computer I only used it for playing though. It wasn’t until I saw what others were able to do with them that I started to use it creatively.
Young kids need role models to develop a sense of the potential of these new technologies they hold in their hands.
Teachers and parents are usually not the first to get into new technologies. It’s the kids that playfully discover them first. Yet when adults see them playing it takes imaginative power to see what else social networks, web services and games could be used for.
Not to mention that when German newspapers mention facebook it is in context of cyber bullying, privacy issues and “facebook parties” 1. How would a teacher come up with the idea that there is any good use for that new tech stuff?
Numbers and politics
A study by BITKOM from 2011 shows that teachers in Germany are actually even more open towards new technologies than the average German people2.
The study concludes:
It turns out that teachers are more technophile than the average German citizen. The acceptance of digital media and its use in the classroom is very high among teachers. However, the use of it in practice is still much lower. Electronic media is generally only used for simple tasks. The technical equipment in schools is lagging behind. Many teachers also lack technical expertise. Only half of the surveyed teachers attended an IT training in the last three years.
Studie Schule 2.0
In July 2013 the ministry of education and cultural affairs of Baden-Württemberg published a paper on the usage of social networks in schools recommending to its teachers to abstain from using networks like Facebook, Google+, Twitter as well as chats, direct messaging, online calendar tools for time management and online Cloud storage for work sheets. Instead “conventional correspondence” and encrypted e-mail should be used.
The reason for the “banning” were data privacy issues. I can understand that we don’t want private information of our kids to be stored on server overseas. If I had two competing equally good services I’d choose the one that respects my privacy of course.
A teacher cited in an article by Spiegel Online that covered the issue says:
“The use of commercial internet services is a blessing for many schools because ‘official’ non-commercial services for students are often unattractive or even too complex to use.”
That is the most frustrating part of the whole issue to me: That there are no attractive alternatives to commercial social networks yet on the other hand banning them from public education sends a fatal signal to every developer and startup here in Germany who would like to build alternatives.
At the point of writing this article I am 23 years old which means right between the current generation of students and teachers. I want things to change and believe that the web has the capability to make todays schooling better, easier and more productive for both teachers and students.
Andreas presented his music lessons as use case that could benefit from digital distribution: exercise sheets suffer from their inability to contain media files and are reduced to text and static graphics on paper. Web-based homework might allow for more interesting exercises that feature songs, videos and interactive graphics.
Another idea was to use Dropbox which is already wide-spread to not only distribute exercise sheets but also collect them back for correction. A student would automatically get messaged when a new exercise sheet is available in an “Inbox” folder and after completion move the file to a “back to teacher” folder.
How things should be
Andreas and I sat together and collected ideas and expectations for a modern web based solution to improve education:
- Things should get easier and faster than they are now.
- Don’t invent yet another new social sharing service or app that nobody is going to use. Use the technology that is already in use by students and teachers.
- Whatever we are going to create should not replace the current way of teaching but only extend it.
- Avoid discrimination and exclusion of students that are less tech savvy.
- Reach students even when they are not at school. Lesson material must not longer be prepared days in advance and distributed during the lesson (which takes time). Instead they can be created in response to the lesson that already took place delivered even days afterwards.
- Students start seeing their teachers as a service provider. Paid from our taxes they are there for the students. Students learn for their own goals, not the one of the teacher.
- Be agile - we want to put things out fast and learn from actual user behavior instead of over-thinking the process.
- OpenSource - our solution should be available to everyone at any school.
- Students start to see the web as a media for collaboration, communication and productivity. In the best case students will try to help with the development of the project or even create their own tools.
Problems we might face
We also talked about upcoming problems we might face with our project to bring more digital technology to education:
- Might encourage copy & paste behavior when work can be shared.
- Might be misused as an excuse for not doing work. “I didn’t get the exercise sheet!” / “I sent it to you yesterday - check your mailbox!”
- Not everyone might be able to use the new solution (no internet capable devices available, not enough technological expertise)
- Students might want things to stay how they are.
I will write more about this topic as the project progresses.