Schooling during COVID-19 crisis: Germany

1 – Most school systems in the world have organized emergency assemblages to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. What role have digital platforms played in these arrangements?
Schooling in Germany is organized on federal state level, policies often vary between the 16 federal states. With the beginning of COVID-19 crisis in Germany, schools closed from March 13 onwards in all federal states with emergency care for children whose parents are “essential workers”. From mid-April on, examination-classes in certain federal states returned to school and most schools wereopen between June and December 2020. With more and more classes in quarantine and schools closed because of COVID-cases, in some regions schools switched to a system of alternating lessons from November on. From mid-December 2020 until mid-March 2021 schools closed again, with exceptions for younger students and/or final year classes differing from federal state to federal state.

Schools and teachers throughout Germany have been organizing distance education differently, with some teachers designing lessons via video conferencing, some keeping in touch by phone, email or even by mail, some using school clouds and learning platforms, and others combining asynchronous and synchronous learning, uploading and communicating through platforms and regular video conferencing. Learning platforms did exist in various federal states before the pandemic, often based on the open-source platforms Moodle or ILIAS. Since COVID-19 however, more and more states also provide for commercial platforms, as their own platforms were facing problems with the sudden increase in users. Berlin, for example, recently acquired a license for the digital platform “itslearning” in order to enable schools to switch from the state-owned “Learning space Berlin” to the commercial platform, due to problems with the latter. The digital platforms used vary widely across the states (and also within, as Berlin is not the only state with more than one platform) as does school enrollment in learning platforms.

2 – Has the Covid-19 crisis changed the data policies in education in your country?
Asa European Union member, Germany – like Sweden – has relatively strong data privacy protection regulations. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic however, some schools startedusing platforms whose conformity with the requirements of the GDPR and thus also with the requirements of the state education authorities is not clear. This sudden relaxation of data privacy concerns has been challenged by various actors including students. Schools in some states, for instance, started to use the cloud software Microsoft 365, often against the recommendations of the state data protection officers. In October 2020, the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs approved the use of Microsoft 365 for a trial period. The aim is to get insights for a data protection-compliant solution even though several schools are already using this product.The plans to make MS 365 available for use in schools in Baden-Württemberg haveled to protest and a joint statement by students, teachers, parents, teachers’ unions and different associations. At a meeting of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs at the Chancellor’s Office on 21 September 2020, the “gradual development of an education platform by the federal government” was established. The federal states set themselves the goal to develop country-specific cloud solutions. COVID-related policies in 2020 led to agreements on supplementary financial cooperation between the federal and state governments in three areas: hardware, administration and teacher training.

3 – How have remote emergency education provisions (e.g. emergency technological infrastructures, hardware, software, home visits, other new practices) affected teachers and students from marginalized populations in your country? Which technological infrastructure do they have access to?
We are increasingly observing that it is precisely those schools, where the parents can co-finance the necessary hardware that are geared towards the use of more technology. We consider this development problematic because it remains limited to schools that can assume a certain socioeconomic income among parents. High schools and many private schools use digital devices ahead of other types of schools. A survey of 22,000 parents in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia suggests that the school types with the greatest educational challenges are at the greatest disadvantage when it comes to technical equipment for homeschooling: While around 60 percent of “Gymnasium”(more elite, university preparation high schools) students in this federal state are provided with digital devices such as tablets, only 30 percent of students at other types of school have access to them. Since the survey took place online, it can be assumed that families without digital equipment are underrepresented. According to the KIM study, 97 percent of children in Germany have a cell phone or smartphone in the home, but not all of them have sufficient data volume or Wi-Fi at home. There are many students who can currently only do their learning tasks on their parents’ smartphone. Thus emergency remote education exacerbates already existing educational inequalities.

Some schools lend out laptops, for example, but there are also charity projects that distribute laptops as donations. There have often been complaints that state money for digital devices has not been spent so far, but perhaps that is a good thing. Before COVID 19, for example, the purchase of 3D printers at schools was discussed, but now it is clearer to many what the money is really needed for. A new emergency program with 500 million euros for mobile devices at schools is an important step. However, a teachers’ union has criticized that inequality is not taken into consideration when distributing these funds to schools. And not only hardware should be funded. The social component is also important: For many things, you don’t need complicated hardware or even the latest, but above all good ideas. Good ideas, in turn, require time and personnel, for example to develop low-barrier services for affected children in youth centers or now also during emergency care.

4 – Would you speak of a “pandemics pedagogy” (Williamson et al, 2020) in your country? If there is one, which features does it have?
Thinking of pedagogic practices that have emerged or intensified since the pandemic, three aspects come to mind. First, many more teachers have now experimented with digital educational media. This will shape everyday life. Second, it has become clear to many for which tasks digital technologies are well suited and for which they are less well suited. In Germany, the focus has always been on “digitization”, which has steered the discussion in the wrong direction. In the narrower sense, it means converting analog things into the digital – in other words, the digital textbook instead of the printed one, or the smartboard instead of the chalkboard. But now teachers are experimenting with the affordances of digital tech. For example, students create explanatory videos and upload them to the school cloud. Tech is being used to reach out to students, to maintain social contact, rather than to fulfil the curriculum. So, it’s not a matter of transferring analog things into the digital realm, but rather of conceptually incorporating digital educational media into the classroom. A third aspect is the raised awareness of the different technical prerequisites of the students. Socio-economic inequality exists fundamentally in the education system, but in the last months it has become clearer to some schools how digital media exclude some students from learning and how (low barrier) media can be used to make learning accessible for all. This may lead to the development of new digital educational media in the future that are better suited than the current ones to help shape a just and inclusive society.

Photos by Sergey Kolomiyets (top) and Adrian Swancar (below) on Unsplash