In the SKILL.de project, an interdisciplinary team are working on innovative ideas and methods for teacher training. Digital teaching formats and new didactic concepts are designed to support teachers and lecturers while responding more accurately to the needs of individual students.
When the door opens to room NK211, it looks quite different to all the other seminar rooms at the University of Passau. Between the old walls of the former Nikola monastery, with its large casement windows and stuccoed ceilings, are furniture and equipment which hardly anyone would expect to find. Small triangular tables are spread around, some of them pushed together to create a large, circular conference table, while others are standing alone, depending on whether they are to be used for large discussion groups or for small groups. Flat screens line the walls with flexible partitions, which function as both room dividers and pin-boards. Digital whiteboards, as well as tablets, smartphones and cameras are, meanwhile, stowed away in built-in cabinets.
Next door in NK212, a similar picture emerges, with small tables, this time circular, each with a small notch, arranged in various table combinations. In one corner, there is a study niche surrounded by a turquoise partition, which students can use for small group work. In addition, there is a small adjoining room with media workstations for editing films, pictures, or sound recordings. Then, there is the "Cube," a meeting room separated by glass walls which can be transformed into a virtual reality room thanks to technology, with frosted glass windows also available at the touch of a button.
The classrooms and staff rooms of the future should look something like this, according Professor Jutta Mägdefau, Chair of Educational Science at the University of Passau, and her team. The learning and instruction researcher, together with her colleague Professor Jan-Oliver Decker, the incumbent Professor of Modern German Literature & Media Semiotics, head the Project SKILL.de at the University of Passau.
The project’s objectives are, firstly, to develop teaching formats which link the teaching of digital and subject-related skills, and, secondly, to develop teaching modules for schools and universities for digitally-supported teaching and learning. The project also aims to ensure the transfer of this knowledge to schools.
"We want to familiarize prospective teachers with digital technologies as early as possible so that teacher inhibitions about using digital media in the classroom are minimized," explains Mägdefrau. In order to test the developed concepts in practice, there is an accompanying school collaboration project alongside numerous partner schools, in which various regional primary, middle, and secondary schools, as well as grammar schools, take part. In this way, the SKILL.de staff can test the results of the university’s work together with the teachers on-site, and then provide feedback.
Teachers also have the opportunity to visit the University of Passau’s so-called DiLabs, didactic innovation laboratories, for further training.
Room NK211 is one such DiLab. It is a DiLab classroom, while NK212 is a DiLab staff room. Both DiLabs support the digitalization strategy of the University of Passau and are working towards expanding and promoting digitalization in teacher education. The classroom was created as part of the SKILL.de project, the DiLab staff room as part of the DigiLLab project. In addition, there is a miniDiLab for small groups, a so-called OER (Open Educational Resources) lab for working on OER products and processes, and a small studio for video recordings in the University of Passau’s institute building. In these new rooms, new formats and concepts are researched, elaborated, tested, and further developed with student teachers. "Each DiLab room therefore has a specific focus, but all the rooms have one thing in common: They are designed to provide state of the art learning and instruction opportunities so that individual learners can learn in the best possible way," explains Dr Christian Müller, one of the people responsible for the DiLabs at SKILL.de.
On the one hand, this means mastering the use of digital media, but also teaching differently than has hitherto been the case. "Digitally-supported teaching requires different concepts to analog teaching. We cannot convert classical teaching one-to-one into digital teaching." According to Mägdefrau, this conversion of digital possibilities into real didactic concepts is at the core of that to be developed in SKILL.de.
The SKILL.de project started at the University of Passau in 2016 and was extended in 2019. It forms part of the second funded phase of the Quality Offensive in Teacher Training (Qualitätsoffensive Lehrerbildung (QLB)) and unites a large number of participants under the umbrella of the Teacher Education Centre & Subject Didactics (teaching methodology) (Zentrum für Lehrerbildung und Fachdidaktik (ZLF)). Currently, the team consists of about 20 university lecturers and around 25 academic staff from various faculties and institutions of the university. In addition to national co-operation with schools and universities, the project is internationally connected and collaborates with researchers from Chile, Austria, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Passau team invites interested parties from Germany and abroad to contact them and join the project.
Together with student teachers, the SKILL.de team is not only researching how digital media can be effectively used in the classroom, but also how students can learn to deal critically with digital media. "We see time after time how important it is for young people to be adequately equipped with the skills to critically reflect on digital media. Technically they know everything and can explain why this or that app on their mobile phone is not working, but they do not understand the algorithms which so fundamentally influence their digital lives. They need to learn to reflect on these impacts," warns Mägdefrau.
Digitally-supported teaching requires different concepts to analog teaching. We cannot convert classical teaching one-to-one to digital teaching.Prof. Jutta Mägdefrau, Chair of Educational Science, University of Passau
Due to the current restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, students rarely push the flexible furniture together in the DiLabs for a meeting, and even the small work niches remain empty. Collaborative work at local schools is also hardly possible at the moment. "Like so many others, we have had to turn to digital channels," explains Mägdefrau.
"The situation did, of course, give the topic a boost. Suddenly everyone had to deal with the digital possibilities of imparting knowledge. The flip side, however, is that many teachers in schools were so busy ensuring that at the very least the lessons could continue that further training and education had to take a back seat at the time." However, the SKILL.de team reacted and, at short notice, developed low-threshold digital offers for teachers, such as a teachers’ café for mutual exchange, as well as various self-learning offers for the use of digital media in the classroom.
In addition, numerous project staff supported schools and universities as multipliers in order to not only quickly pass on knowledge about didactic concepts, but also to provide tools in times of online teaching. However, the joint work on-site is to start again as soon as possible.
The coronavirus crisis has not only influenced working methods, but also the project’s research content. The topic of individualization in the classroom has come into focus even more than before. "The pandemic has made social inequality even more apparent," says Mägdefrau. She is convinced that digital media could help to counteract this imbalance and thus better meet the individual needs of children and young people. "Learning processes need to be thought of more from the individual child or young person’s perspective, i.e., from the perspective of the learner," Mägdefrau emphasizes. "We see the use of digital media in lessons as a way of supporting individualized teaching. This is why we are also testing teaching modules with different levels of difficulty, for example."
Both Mägdefrau and Müller say that the role of teachers also has to change. "They are moving from being information transmitters to communicators," says Müller. "Due to the fact that information and knowledge are available everywhere, teachers will no longer just pass on knowledge; their job will be, above all, to help young people understand and to teach them how to deal critically with the information available."
There is something else which needs to change in teaching. "We need to get away from the thought that teachers are individual campaigners, with more co-operation, collaboration, and interdisciplinary projects needed," says Müller. In the DiLab staff room at the University of Passau, aspiring teachers can try this out once corona allows it: pushing tables together, working together on a subject, dedicating themselves to detailed questions in small groups, connecting with external colleagues in the "Cube," or trying out virtual reality and putting themselves in the shoes of a teacher in the classroom.
Finally, in order for new teaching formats with digital media currently being developed in SKILL.de to be properly implemented in the classrooms and seminar rooms of the future, good digital equipment is needed. Every school and university needs a media technician, says Mägdefrau, with media technology support for didactic innovations incredibly important.