Philipp Schmidt


Director of Digital Learning and Collaboration at the MIT Media Lab.

Philipp Schmidt Copyright: © Diana Levin, CC-BY-SA

Crisis and Opportunity: a New Structure for the University Environment

The COVID-19 pandemic was and still is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which has particularly presented institutions of learning with great challenges. At the same time, the crisis has also offered us an opportunity to emerge from the shadows of tradition, engage in digital teaching and research, and restructure the university environment.

In March 2020, digitalizing the university experience became necessary, and it also became possible for the first time. Technology budgets were bolstered quickly and the necessary freedom was created for a new kind of teaching and learning. At MIT, the grading of student performance was suddenly suspended, which allowed the students to breathe a sigh of relief but stirred the teaching staff to experiment with pedagogical concepts. What came out of all this were numerous examples of how digitalization can be implemented in universities in a creative and sustainable manner.

However, concerns remain regarding the data colonialism of international technology companies. Social disparities have become more visible, and it is still not easy for universities to get from successful experiments to strategic prioritization. The fact that university education was able to be carried out online in many OECD countries cannot be solely attributed to an effective strategy, but rather often to the individual creativity, flexibility, and the high level of effort that many teachers and students put in. Universities can utilize this energy to develop new models for a type of education infrastructure that is accountable to both the public and society.

A further piece of knowledge resulting from the pandemic is that teaching can be carried out virtually more easily than research. Scientists tend to miss access to laboratories on the one hand but more importantly, they miss the spontaneous contact with other people that can often generate new ideas. It is impossible to reduce the complicated innovation system that makes up a university to a digital format.

Despite all this, the future will be hybrid in nature, as only a small number of people want to return to face-to-face working; this is the case both in the world of work and the education sector. The question of what will remain after the pandemic is over could be seen as somewhat premature, given the uncertain fall that we are facing. Now really is the time to set the course for a creative, responsible, and sustainable digital innovation culture at German universities.