Jakob Huber on the state of digitalization in the German education sector

Digital educational opportunities have an enormous part to play in lifelong learning. We talk to Jakob Huber, Education Marketing Lead at Microsoft Germany, about how far digitalization has now progressed in the education sector.

Jakob Huber discusses education and digitalization in an interview with us.

For English subtitles please watch the video directly on youtube.

Hello Jakob, let’s start with a short introduction for our readers: Who are you and what is your relation to the education sector in Germany?

Jakob Huber: I’m the Education Marketing Lead at Microsoft in Germany, responsible for education and research. This means I’m responsible for all marketing activities, our go-to-market strategy, and also the operational implementation in the area of schools, universities, research institutions, libraries, and museums.

In recent years, the education sector has been faced with particularly big challenges. How do you assess the reaction of those responsible in the education sector to the changed requirements of educational work in times of widespread closures of educational institutions?

Jakob Huber: The first nationwide school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic were announced on March 13, 2020, a date that was also significant for me personally. And what particularly surprised and also impressed me at the time was the incredible speed and professionalism with which many schools reacted. And if you think back to the severity and drama of the situation back then in 2020, many schools and an unbelievable number of teachers implemented incredibly agile, fast, problem-solving approaches, some of which also became professional very quickly. That was really a very substantial change.

On the other hand, not quite so surprisingly, but different from what we had hoped, we then experienced an incredibly strong pushback after this initial euphoria – in other contexts often referred to as “back to normal”. There was a massive attempt from many social strata and areas to reverse these quite positive developments that had accompanied the school closures – such as the greater independence with which students had to and were then able to work. It was back to learning only takes place in person and in school buildings. This narrative that had then developed there and that we still see today severely curbed many positive developments, including the willingness of teachers to undergo further training. And ultimately, this “rolling back” has created a lot of potential for frustration, especially among the people who were committed to this development. So the euphoria was followed by disappointment and frustration. And we’re seeing a lot of this.

Education is also playing an increasingly important role for adults, the keyword being “lifelong education.” At the same time, the social and professional landscape is changing rapidly. Which skills will be essential in the future in your opinion?

Jakob Huber: Employees must be able to deal well with change. They have to be curious, open to new things, and willing to learn. These are particularly important skills you absolutely have to bring with you in order to be adaptable. One of the most important skills here is also the ability to learn independently, i.e. to learn new things on your own.

And what role does digitalization play in this context?

Jakob Huber: Educationalist Jöran Muuß-Merholz quite precisely refers to technology and digitalization as an amplifier. With technology, I can amplify what I like to do anyway and what I’m good at. So I can lounge on the couch with Netflix or something better than I could before digitalization. But, thanks to social media, I can better network with people, if that’s important to me. And I believe that this amplifying role of digitalization is the decisive factor that we must adapt to. And it is absolutely essential that we return to our core human competencies.

What do you mean by human competencies?

Jakob Huber: A colleague of mine always calls this “humanizing education” in the field of education. This means getting out of the mechanical and machine-based understandings of educational processes – the keyword is substance – and focus more on human factors such as empathy, intuition, openness, willingness to learn.

Is the education system ready for the demands that come with lifelong learning in the age of digitization?

Jakob Huber: Yes and no. My overall impression from personal experience, from conversations with professors, school administrators, and also with decision-makers in the education system, is that, in some cases, there is an enormous amount of innovative power there to change the education sector.

I’m thinking of the International University, for example. This is now Germany’s largest university with over 100,000 students, and they are developing very interesting and completely new concepts for studying. However, these are still rather exceptional cases, at least at present. It often depends on the personal commitment of individual school administrators, individual presidents, and individual subject teachers.

But what we lack in Germany is a larger vision for education policy and a strategy for how we can achieve this goal.

What’s needed for this larger vision for education policy?

Jakob Huber: Innovation can only come about if there’s time, too. Nobody can think about fundamental issues, work on them, come up with concepts, try out new things if there’s not enough time in the working day. And we simply have a massive problem with time resources in the school sector, in particular because we simply don’t have enough teachers. If you’re always just putting out fires, you can’t ever take a step back and look at the big picture.

What opportunities does digitalization offer in the field of adult education?

Jakob Huber: As an employee, digitalization has enabled me to take part in almost all of the educational opportunities in the world, even while I’m at work and in addition to my personal life. And I think that’s actually one of the biggest winners of digitalization for learning, even after school.

And then – this is maybe more the employer’s side – the digitization of learning opportunities naturally also allows us another form of measurability.

When I see that I’ve trained my employees and that they subsequently achieve better results, for example. That’s something that makes the digitalization of educational opportunities much easier and much more comprehensive. Of course, you then have to consider certain aspects of data protection, employee protection, but if you use this as aggregated, anonymized data, then such learning data can be extremely valuable in professional learning. You can also much more easily determine which learning opportunities are being used at all, what progress you can see in the employees who have taken advantage of these learning opportunities, and what’s in demand.

Speaking of “data-driven education”: Where does Germany stand in an international comparison?

Jakob Huber: All the way at the back. That’s something that hardly happens here in Germany. It comes up every now and then in buzzwords; in Germany we call them “intelligent tutorial systems.” In reality, however, it actually tends to be pushed aside and perceived as a threat and a risk. That certainly has something to do with our high level of sensitivity to data protection in Germany.

How does this affect Germany as a destination for (continuing) education?

Jakob Huber: Given how quickly the world is changing, and therefore how quickly educational priorities may have to change, learning analytics are hugely valuable. In this respect, we in Germany are completely on the sidelines right now. And I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future. In my opinion, this attitude of refusal toward data collection and measurability is one of the greatest risk factors not only for our education system, but for Germany as a location as a whole.

Thank you for these interesting insights into the digitalization of the education sector in Germany, Jakob.