Working on a Side Project - Problems, Ideas, Goals

Written by 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:

Problems we might face

We also talked about upcoming problems we might face with our project to bring more digital technology to education:

I will write more about this topic as the project progresses.

  1. See the German Wikipedia article Kritik an Facebook

  2. Study Schule 2.0 by BITKOM based on interviewing 500 teachers. PDF Download