Germans expect to keep some teaching online this autumn

‘Extremely careful’ attitude reflects scepticism over vaccine roll-out, but also unexpected success of forced switch to online learning

April 2, 2021
Woman takes notes in online lecture
Source: iStock

Most German universities expect to be teaching at least partly online even into autumn this year because they fear the pandemic will still not be over, but also because they see advantages in keeping some learning digital.

According to a survey of 171 universities carried out by the German Academic Exchange Service (Daad), 53 per cent still expect to be using a mixture of face-to-face and virtual teaching in the winter semester of 2021-22.

Just 3 per cent said they were anticipating a full return to physical teaching, while another 44 per cent remained unsure of their plans.

“They are being extremely careful,” said Frank Ziegele, the executive director of Germany’s Centre for Higher Education (CHE). “For the winter semester [2021-22], many are planning more or less as we did for last winter semester, going for this hybrid model.”

In part, this reflects scepticism that vaccine roll-outs will have covered German students in time. The government has repeatedly promised full coverage by the end of the summer, but polls suggest only a fifth of Germans now believe they will be successful.

“Nobody can say with absolute certainty whether the pandemic will be contained by October and moreover, whether all students in Germany have the possibility to be vaccinated,” a spokesman for Daad said.

“It might be German angst, or a more realistic view,” said Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference.

Too sudden a switch from online to face-to-face teaching might be disruptive to students and universities, Professor Alt added, meaning that institutions will phase in a return to the lecture hall gradually.

In addition, universities have had plans to open up scuppered before by fresh waves of the pandemic, said Professor Ziegele, and so may be playing it safe. “There is the strong feeling: we don’t want to be disappointed again,” he said.

But there is also a more positive story to tell: German universities, often to their own surprise, feel they have adapted well to the switch online despite fears of being digitally unprepared and want to hold on to the online teaching innovations forced on them by the pandemic.

“The newly boosted digital teaching tools, methods and practices are here to stay,” said the Daad spokesman.

Just 18 per cent of German professors want a return to “purely physical teaching”, according to a CHE survey of close to 700 academics, released in March.

The vast majority want either a “blended learning” model or physical teaching augmented with “digital elements”.

Professor Alt predicted that even next winter, large lectures would still take place online, perhaps with a few physical attendees. “Many colleagues prefer to speak in front of an audience,” he explained.

Universities wanted to keep certain digital innovations, such as online multiple-choice tests to check that students were paying attention to lectures, added Professor Ziegele. This “new normal” of mixed physical and digital teaching had been discussed for at least half a decade, he said, but “now they see it works. This is the game-changer.”

According to the Daad survey, German universities are also confident that international students will come roaring back once travel restrictions are lifted.

Seventy per cent predict that there will be a “rapid recovery of (physical) international student mobility to pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels”. Almost no institutions predict that student mobility will fail to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

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