"In Germany, students learn how to use computers... in spite of schools," says Professor Wilfried Bos, Director of the Institute for School Development Research at TU Dortmund University. That is a provocative statement but he knows what he is talking about. Bos is the head of the "Computer Pisa" study in Germany, the International Computer and Information Literacy Study, ICILS for short, an international study comparing eighth grade students. Published in late 2014, it revealed that German students stood only mid-table. Europe's largest education fair, Didacta, is also emphasizing digital education as a priority right now But is it all hype or a real predicament – we spoke about it with education expert Bos:
Mr Bos, your studies have concluded that, compared to other countries, Germany is not doing very well in the use of digital media in schools. What is going wrong in Germany? What can we learn from Europe's leading nations the Czech Republic and Norway?
Professor Wilfried Bos: Many other European countries have been teaching and learning using digital media for far longer than Germany. This can be seen, for example, in how digital media form an integral part of the curriculum. Germany is also lagging behind in teacher training as media teaching skills are still not a mandatory part of teacher training in all parts of the country.
Education is a matter regulated by the federal states in Germany. Which of the country's states are doing best and worst?
Bos: The results of the Länderindikator 2015 (federal state barometer 2015), prepared by the Deutsche Telekom Stiftung last year for the first time, show that: Bremen, Hamburg and Rhineland-Palatinate have, according to the teachers in those states, come quite far. That applies to equipping schools with digital media, the use of digital media in lessons, attitudes towards media use in lessons and promotion of IT-related skills among students. On the other hand, there is a comparatively urgent need for action in six other states. Still, the international comparison shows that almost all states are in the middle to lower end of the league table in these aspects.
Is digital expertise absolutely necessary?
Bos: Digital expertise is one of a total of eight key competencies for lifelong learning defined by the European Commission in 2006 and should be seen as one element of modern basic education. In the end, there is almost no area of daily or professional life in the 21st century where you can do without the corresponding skills in dealing with digital media.
Are you automatically smarter if you surf for longer? Critics say there is no proof that learning outcomes improve through the use of computers. Is the drive for more digital skills in schools just pure and simple salesmanship on the part of computer manufacturers and network operators?
Bos: The ICILS 2013 study revealed that young people who regularly use a computer at home, i.e. at least once per week, have significantly better computer and information related skills than their peers who use computers less often. The analysis made clear that many computer and information related skills are acquired outside of school. In Germany, the link with regular computer use by students could not be proven but could for other education systems, like Australia, Denmark and Norway.
Nevertheless, there were inconsistent findings regarding the link between the frequency of use of digital media and students' performance in other competencies, such as reading or mathematics. Further research is needed in this area.
Does that mean that smartphones and tablets should be allowed at school, or do such digital "toys" just disrupt learning?
Bos: Using digital media at school can underpin specific and interdisciplinary learning. However, to that end, we must first reflect on suitable pedagogical principles and starting points in terms of content to ensure that such devices are used in a sensible and beneficial way. They can also increase students' interest and motivation.
Mr Bos, what would be your "ideal scenario" at school to prepare students properly for the future?
Bos: Schools need media concepts that are properly adapted to the pedagogical challenges of our time. They must also be equipped with the digital media they need to meet these challenges. Furthermore, it is important for there to be cooperation among school stakeholders, particularly given how fast technology evolves as this will continue to influence education in the future.