The first part of this essay about university didactics draws cautious conclusions about the digital and distant arrangements enforced upon teaching and learning by the corona pandemic during the first half of 2020. The authors look across the border, from Switzerland to Germany, to compare experiences and perspectives in the respective higher education systems and to review their responses to the crisis. The authors first offer conceptual, historical and institutional reflections and explore the concept of “presence.” This forms the basis for Part 2, which will discuss teaching problems typical of digital distance.
Closeness and Distance. On Learning
Learning needs closeness. Many people, like Bill Gates, are taking this view amid the current challenge of moving schools, colleges and universities to digital learning. While learning in front of a screen is, of course, possible, social interaction is irreplaceable, explains Gates. “We want to get back to the point where children are together and learn social behaviour, and spend time with friends.”  Gates is thinking of schools. Many of our colleagues, with the humanities in mind, are arguing similarly, highlighting the importance of face-to-face discussion and argumentative debate, which no technical aids can replace. Poring over texts in the company of others is the ideal way to learn.
As plausible as these and similar arguments seem at first glance, they merit closer scrutiny. A historical view soon reveals that especially in higher education, distance learning has always been part and parcel of the history of education. Immanuel Kant, for instance, never met many of his correspondents, such as the mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert. Nevertheless, they both learned from and with each other, and across great distances. Thus, learning obviously does not always require closeness. Modern mathematics would probably not have advanced quite so swiftly had publicising key problems across Europe, and debating the solutions via letters, sometimes even crypticised, not been a centuries-old tradition.
When, in 1690, the Basel mathematician Jacob Bernoulli publicly called upon his colleagues to solve the problem of the catenary, he could not meet his brother Johann Bernoulli, even less Leibniz, who was travelling a lot between Clausthal, Hanover and London at that time, nor Huygens, who was living in The Hague . And yet, they all learned from each other without any physical proximity. Distance learning was the rule. In the Journal des Sçavant, the res publica litteraria pored over the wonders of the world despite spatial distance and time delay. The Philosophical Transactions or the Göttinger Gelehrten Anzeigen also bear witness to learning at a distance. More such and similar examples could easily be provided. They all illustrate how widespread learning and teaching at a distance and with delay has always been. Reducing learning to spatial proximity and discursive simultaneity therefore crudely abbreviates the history of education.
This is true not only of the history of learning, but also of its present state. When the first episode of Sesame Street was broadcast in 1969, many education experts were sure that children would be unable to learn from a television series. But the opposite was true, as we know today. Especially children from disadvantaged families learned a lot from the series. Television-based distance learning benefitted children’s writing and arithmetic, knowledge about the world, about health and social knowledge about how to behave with others, especially people who look different or come from different families than oneself . Even if television rarely functions as an educational medium, the argumentum a contrario, that television and other distance media teach us nothing of substance, is not correct.
Behind the emphasis on learning requiring closeness, which seems so obvious at first glance, lies what Katrin Passig’s Standardsituation der Technologiekritik critiques in detail. She reveals that cultural criticism harbours suspicions about digital technology and anything related to it. Once more, cultural criticism is not particularly helpful in more precisely understanding the benefits and disadvantages of distance learning. Rather, the standard situations of technology criticism are guided by the ideological opposition between German Kultur and French civilisation, by the contrast between a warming spirit and cold rationality, as Georg Bollenbeck’s history of this too German pattern of interpretation impressively demonstrates. Taken together, these arguments remind us not to fall for the jargon of analog authenticity. We instead need to re-examine matters before judging when humanities teaching and learning is promoted by distance, when by proximity.
Unlike in Germany, teaching and learning are taken for granted in many academic systems around the world — not only in Silicon Valley, but from Singapore to Beijing. Neither Lehrerschmidt, an online tool enjoying proverbial status among many German schoolchildren, nor initiatives like MyScore, developed by universities such as RWTH Aachen, have waited for the coronavirus to prove how digital curricula and transnational teaching can be intelligently designed in the 21st century. The internationalisation of teaching and student mobility, as well as opportunities to learn from the leading lights in a field, have long been driving the self-evident blending of proximity and distance, and of book, pencil and digital learning platforms.
We first explore the various approaches to digital teaching, the diverse transformations of academic teaching, and the nostalgia about a form of teaching that has never existed, yet which debates keep referring to. Next, we we describe our own experiences with digital distance learning. In doing so, we critically review the categories of Hattie’s and Dehaene’s empirically based learning theories, to show that the humanities have yet to develop their teaching potential. We conclude by more systematically evaluating our experiences.
Moving online: This semester’s radical proposition
Unlike in Germany, the Swiss university semester begins as early as mid-February. As in other years, it is a spring semester, yet one that has taken an utterly unexpected turn. Thus, our courses at the University of Basel and the School of Education FHNW were already in week 3 when the local authorities cancelled Fasnacht (Basel carnival), which just about to begin, at short notice. By then, at the latest, those involved in education in northwestern Switzerland realised just how drastic the crisis to engulf secondary and tertiary education in the region would be. After carnival week, from 9 March 2020, we began rethinking our semester plans from scratch and abolished compulsory on-campus attendance. One week later, the universities issued the corresponding directives. No one found these measures easy: they not only challenged but eroded long-standing certainties and habits, for many of us over the weekend.
Thus, Swiss higher education teachers could not fret for weeks over an old-established teaching tradition being interrupted, forcefully, by the pandemic and by government countermeasures. The interruption came, the students were in the middle of assignments and paying their tuition fees. This cultural interruption impacted everyone: teaching staff, students and their families. Not to mention that (unlike in many German states) the carnival processions, which jesters from all walks of life had been preparing for months, seriously, meticulously and so many different ways, were cancelled. The situation was especially difficult for students: not only did the arrival of the pandemic cast doubt over their coursework. They also faced family concerns, with childcare facilities now shut, bills still needing to be paid and part-time jobs helping to make ends meet gone.
The sense of responsibility towards these (our!) students prevailed across tertiary education in northwestern Switzerland (as it did in schools). It immediately led us to search for solutions, pragmatically and literally day and night, to reinvent the unfolding semester — and thus also our self-concepts as university teachers. Forced to more or less radically rethink and then reconceptualise lectures, seminars and work placements led us nolens volens to rethink our self-image as university teachers. Decades-long professional biographies and traditions, as well as intuitive courses of action, no longer counted for much. A considerable number of teaching staff now began working more or less afresh with students.
Of course, this challenge was shaped differently from one discipline, institution and subject to another. Both of us, long committed to researching and shaping the digital transformation, were well prepared for this exceptional situation compared to others. However, comparing Germany’s and Switzerland’s secondary and tertiary education systems shows that the Swiss cantons are half a professional generation ahead of the German states when it comes to the digital transformation of education. This advantage has facilitated moving teaching and learning online in Switzerland. In a different educational system, such a switch would probably have been more complex and risky in terms of infrastructure and conceptual preparation, moreover having to perform this transition within a single week.
Using diverse didactic tools and concepts — from blended learning  or even flipped classrooms  to doing product-oriented work with students in closed or public online collaborations  or integrating all kinds of social media  into tertiary education — has a long tradition at both our universities (University of Basel and the School of Education FHNW). We are also very open to the digital and didactic insights and experiences of colleagues teaching in secondary education , because the individual and psychological structure of subject-specific learning at humanities faculties is not unlike that of a Matura course. Students’ learning situations only differ in terms of the required level of performance and other specifications. In humanities subjects, university and Matura students alike develop their knowledge and power of judgement along the same lines; good and poor judgement is rewarded (or sanctioned) at the different levels according to the same lay and expert standards.
“Presence”: The Magic Word
In a recent interview, television presenter Johannes Kerner was asked how he “felt about” the necessary and urgent need for experimentation, especially in the early days of the so-called corona crisis. Like many others shaping social processes, Kerner replied that he did “not feel that digital technology can replace personal contact.”
Behind this and similar assessments lies a positive evaluation of presence. Those unwilling to be discouraged a priori about higher education teaching methods need not take this for granted. Still, it is hard not to see just how dominant the “personal” or even “presence” is in the current debates over the challenges of moving university operations online. Searching social media quickly provides a preliminary sense of matters. The loss of presence has become a topos of resigned dithering and fundamental scepticism towards the digital transformation of tertiary learning and teaching — not that this has prevented a great many of our colleagues from dedicating themselves very responsibly and highly committedly to the digital switchover during the crisis.
At the same time, however, the topos implies that this conversion is only a temporary stopgap — and that the end of the corona crisis, when normal service resumes, will lead the standard university system to perform, with normative verve, a major reactionary turnaround. As a rule, pandemics, insofar as they have entered wider public consciousness, have seldom sparked a surge of joyful and free experimentation — despite spreading fear, causing huge losses of life, and thus questioning all of life’s certainties. In most cases, contextual innovations stood under the defensive sign of collectively learned danger prevention, requiring the certainty lost during the horror to be re-imagined and laboriously re-established. Put more cautiously for once, coping with pandemics and experimentally questioning familiar traditions and somehow proven habits by no means necessarily belong together.
Yet another problematic factor deserves mention, one that those with longer academic biographies observed about 15 years ago. At the time, German universities began creating electronic course directories, which, as many will recall, initially and for a long time involved considerable technical weaknesses and additional costs. The resulting digital frustration shaped the experiences of an entire academic community, impacting its general willingness to engage constructively (and with positive expectations) with the digital transformation of universities. This problem has been exacerbated by being forced to use digital tools in daily professional practice. To compound matters, university managers are largely reluctant to make further concessions to the required implementation of online teaching (see, for example the Open Letter by Andrea Geier and Paula-Irene Villa ). This crisis is likely to establish a new 2020s community, whose primary experience will not be joyfully seizing digital opportunities, but being compelled to find stopgap solutions.
This, of course, poses the danger that the enforced digital transformation enforced in academic self-management, research, though above all in teaching, will be dismissed as an unpopular provisional situation, just like perhaps all of life under lockdown — only to once again return to “real,” “genuine,” and “personal” and conventional tertiary teaching. And that would mean nothing less than doing things as we did in the apparently good old, pre-corona days.
But who will want to deny that the situation of university teaching in Germany is by no means as positive as the current nostalgia suggests? In its 2017 position paper on university teaching, the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat), fully employing the art of diplomatic wording, reached a telling conclusion:
“This central position of teaching stands in striking contrast to its visibility and weight when it comes to a university’s reputation or that of its individual members.” .
Students’ opinions on teaching obviously vary, depending on institution and type. Nevertheless, typical assessment patterns are evident, most recently in the “Student Survey at Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences” commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2015/16 . Students assessed teaching just as soberly:
“The structure of degree courses and course delivery (didactics), are rated as rather good to very good by 67% and 66% of respondents, although somewhat less frequently. The weakest ratings were given to the support and supervision provided by teaching staff and infrastructure: 58% and 61% of students, respectively, considered these aspects to be good,” according to the BMBF .
Thus, even in this survey, 40% of students (across all subjects) rated the quality of university teaching as “not good”; a survey among humanities students would certainly not lower this percentage.
Recently, the German Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK)  also addressed the issue of teaching quality in the context of digital transformation, yet provided little beyond general recommendations such as:
“The digital transformation of society shows that universities must also understand digitisation as an ongoing task.” .
For almost twenty years, official education policy has arrived at similar assessments, without much having changed. As a result, many colleagues at German universities and colleges were forced to start from scratch in March and April 2020 as regards distance (i.e. online) teaching. Nevertheless, the KMK recommendations represent a step forward compared to the 2017 recommendations of the German Council of Science and Humanities. By solely addressing the goals of digital transformation , the Council only put on record that a proactive approach to digitally reflected teaching and learning methods was desirable. Not more, and not less.
We could easily extend the number of similar prononcements on the state of university teaching that have appeared in recent years. They highlight why merely returning to the status quo ante is undesirable despite all the understandable and nostalgically tainted yearning for re-normalisation. In other words, we now have the opportunity to question the routines of tertiary education itself, which have been questioned externally and unintentionally. Doing so will help improve teaching in the foreseeable future, which has also learned to utilise the technological potential of digitisation.
Turning around practice and reflection requires examining the common concepts of university learning and teaching, which, of course, include presence. This, moreover, seems like an Archimedean point of habitualised scepticism towards the digital transformation of the academic world. Presence — beyond the ubiquitous lamenting of its loss amid the corona crisis and of enforced online teaching — means nothing other than physical presence. It means that teaching staff and students meet in the same material space. This, however, can merely claim certain sensory specificities for itself, including smell and the possibility of capturing the situation visually and acoustically.
Etymologically, presence derives from Latin praesentia, i.e “present,” chiefly in a temporal meaning, which has survived in the names given to the verb tenses. The Deutsche Wörterbuch (1838–1961) refers  to the Middle High German uses of the word in the sense of “presence” (or “attendance”) as physical presence: namely, where power and rule are to be exercised, in meeting payment obligations, in military conflicts, in church services, etc. This semantic dimension of power and domination, which manifests itself in language and is still crucial for the semantic dimension of power and domination in German today, is even evident in recent debates on whether and to what extent employees and civil servants should be granted a “home office” (i.e. be allowed to work from home). Saying that, scepticism is always accompanied by the fear of losing control , losing what essentially is built around the word “presence” in the German language tradition: availability.
This also tends to be the case in tertiary education, if one considers the discussion about compulsory attendance and attendance checklists . Absence regulations and their interpretation are legion, as if students’ physical presence somehow guaranteed their mental presence, their willingness to learn and the quality of their preparation. Similar discussions exist on the attendance requirements of academic staff. The following guidelines, issued by the office of one university’s president, are a classic example:
“Attendance requirements: The University’s research staff are obliged to perform their duties and responsibilities on the University’s premises within the regular hours of duty.” .
Thus, a whole culture of presence overshadows concepts of and for work that, at least technologically, are no longer new.
Attempting to understand “presence” in a more Latin way, so to speak, and thus essentially as a temporal definition of the present, would enable shedding the cultural frames, connotations and dead weight described above, or at least to bracket them and more clearly behold the only factor relevant to the psychology of learning: does a university class involve a meeting of minds or not? Phrased thus, the question of presence is no longer about bodies, but about whether a classroom enables or promotes intellectual presence, and how this might be shaped into a practice of learning and what is learned that everyone can see.
John Hattie has called the principle behind this idea “visible learning” . He means the reciprocal visualisation of the learning process, i.e. the learning of learners and the teaching done by teachers within one and the same process, so-called learning. This applies to learning in the humanities, yet by no means only there, especially to the silent preconditions of learning and teaching, so-called implicit theories. In essence, these predetermine, channel, promote or inhibit every subject’s capacity to cognitively process all kinds of information . Learning as a subjective gain in quality only begins if we become awareness of our structural or content-related assumptions. Or in terms of Gadamer’s hermeneutics: the circularity of understanding can be suspended by observing oneself with a trained eye.
Making visible or creating presence is relevant for higher education didactics: not only with regard to the respective professional requirements, but also with regard to the meta-level media-related reciprocal learning of digital literacy  amid the distant-digital semester currently enforced upon us. Digital transformation heightens the need to reflect on the reciprocal structure of qualitative learning processes, but does not create a new one; just as tertiary learning does not change fundamentally in the digital world, but only becomes recognisable anew, by becoming unchartered territory through a shift in perspective .
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© Patrick Tschudin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Demantowsky, Mark0 / Lauer, Gerhard: Presence of Teaching Between the Pre- and Postcoronacene (1). In: Public History Weekly 8 (2020) 4, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2020-16117.
Translated by Mark Kyburz (http://www.englishprojects.ch/about)
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