Digital Teaching at the Max Planck Schools of Photonics; ©Christian Kuttke

Digital Learning and Teaching at the Max Planck Schools

The Future is now

May 10, 2021

From the classroom to the screen, from piles of books to educational games, from passive knowledge consumption to proactive knowledge acquisition: At the Max Planck Schools, Students and Fellows are interconnected by virtual campuses that provide ideal conditions to exchange ideas, to acquire and share knowledge or to stay in touch.

E-learning, digital teaching, asynchronous learning: Learning and teaching is significantly changing, also in higher education. This fundamental change has been proclaimed for many years, but the pandemic and the necessity for universities to offer alternatives to conventional teaching accelerated the need for action.

The three Max Planck Schools Cognition, Matter to Life and Photonics have been successfully piloting interdisciplinary, decentralized and cross-institutional digital learning and teaching since their launch in 2018. With their exceptional scientific networks, currently consisting of scientists from 23 universities and over 30 research institutes, learning and teaching via digital means is in fact inherent. Students and Fellows are interconnected by virtual campuses that provide ideal conditions to exchange ideas, to acquire and share knowledge or to stay in touch e.g. via informal coffee breaks – regardless of their location in or outside Germany.

Benefits of digital learning for PhD students: wide networks, personal freedom and profound knowledge

But how has the shift to the digital world concretely advanced learning and teaching in a doctoral program like the Max Planck Schools? In their day-to-day routines, the students can choose when and where to study according to their personal needs and may access learning material from anywhere and at any time. For example, during their lab rotations, online learning gives the students the necessary flexibility, freedom and accessibility of learning materials. Additionally, the virtual campus, the Max Planck Schools’ digital learning and virtual environment, gives both students and Fellows the chance to connect in or outside classes. Students in particular benefit from low-threshold access to a wide network of excellent scientists. They are able to use digital tools to exchange ideas and potential research approaches with leading experts from a variety of scientific backgrounds and gather diverse perspectives on their research questions.

Shifting learning formats to the digital sphere may in particular advance PhD studies if this shift is aligned with implementing alternative modes of knowledge acquisition. A combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning has been proven to be a successful approach. These so-called “inverted classroom” or “flipped classroom” models demand more proactive and autonomous learning efforts than conventional lectures: students go through the learning materials before classes, in their own pace and time. The class then meets once a week with tutors and discusses open questions, building upon the knowledge every participant has acquired independently in advance in order to deepen their understanding alongside fellow students and teachers. Inverted classroom methods therefore do not only increase the level of discussion and allow for more in-depth scientific debates, but they also promote the use of important soft skills on a personal level.

E-Learning at the Max Planck Schools

Each Max Planck School has implemented an individual approach to digital learning in order to optimize learning experiences for their respective research areas, study programs and faculties. For this purpose, all three Schools have employed digital learning experts, providing pedagogical experience and hands-on support to the faculty members when setting up and conducting online classes.

“Since we only have a small group of students, and they already have quite a good relationship with each other, it is always very engaging during the synchronous online sessions. The online learning tools help facilitate the activities and make them more fun and relatable “, says Tomoko Koda, E-learning Designer at the Max Planck School of Cognition. She works with each tutor to design e-learning courses and provides specific advice on how to shape courses from a pedagogical point of view. At the School, Tomoko has a full schedule: The Max Planck Schools of Cognition offers a number of e-learning courses in the first year of the program, the so-called orientation year, which is meant to build the foundation of all cognition-related disciplines.

At the Max Planck School of Cognition, special emphasis is placed on the relationship between tutors and students in order to create a positive learning environment. This is supported by the innovative instruments e-learning has to offer: ”For example, we use many gamification tools for formative assessments so that students can have fun while answering questions. Both the students and the tutors can learn about their comprehension level on the spot, which makes it easier for the tutors to give immediate feedback so that no one is left behind before moving on to next topics“, says Tomoko.

The Max Planck School Matter to Life offers shared lectures between three different sites for students in the program’s first phase: “For example our students at University of Göttingen and University of Heidelberg are participating in a course taught by a lecturer at the Technical University Munich. The Max Planck School Matter to Life has a strong focus on interactive teaching, and courses have a hybrid model with online lectures and – in normal times – in-person tutorials“, explains Anne Pawsey, E-learning Coordinator at the School based at the University of Göttingen. To enable the recording and broadcasting of lectures, all physical classrooms are equipped with high-end technology. This way, students can interact directly with their tutors and professors and do not have to follow the sessions passively in front of their screens. Small cohort sizes also enable close teacher-student-relationships, reduce barriers for asking questions and facilitate discussions about ongoing research topics.

To prepare students for the interdisciplinary environment at the School, self-paced online preparatory courses are available to students prior to the start of the first phase. In the second program phase, the virtual campus of the Max Planck School Matter to Life further offers key skills, lab work related courses and career planning. “This is indispensable since our second phase participants are scattered across Germany and we want to ensure that they form a dispersed but closely connected community”, states Julia Ricken, E-learning Coordinator for the School based at the University of Heidelberg. Connecting the community is also paramount when it comes to the supervising Fellows: “Our Fellows can contribute to courses regardless of their physical location. This enables experts to contribute to the core courses, by adding additional context from their current research and increasing the relevance of the core material.“

The Max Planck School of Photonics does not only offer learning-by-doing in a completely virtual 3D world, but also other digital teaching experiences: gamification prizes and a complete gaming environment designed to trigger students’ learning behaviors, segmented instructional videos based on multimedia learning principles, and interactive, self-paced learning materials. After two years, the concept have proved to be successful: “Based on these elements, digital teaching motivates our students to engage with the course materials and improves their learning outcomes”, says the School’s Learning Designer Tzu-Huan Lin. He supports both Fellows and trainers in transforming their learning materials into learner-friendly digital formats and using technologies to better trigger student engagement with the course contents. Self-tests at the end of each learning unit enable the PhD candidates to reflect on their own learning progress and, within the framework of learning analytics, allows learning paths to be more individualized and adapted to the respective abilities of the PhD candidates. Fellows can see this learning progress and intervene to provide targeted and tailored support. “Compared to the commonly used learning success control through final examinations, this much more subtle form enables the continuous development of individual learning modules as well as their progressive adaptation and individualization with regard to the knowledge level and learning goals of our students”, says Tzu-Huan Lin. To further develop digital teaching Max Planck School of Photonics is even running a whole Digital Teaching Lab to experiment with completely new learning scenarios including augmented and virtual reality.

Piloting also means experimenting and implementing lessons learned. As a pilot project, the Max Planck Schools demonstrate that a broad e-learning program is a useful and beneficial asset for doctoral education. It also shows that new modes of learning and teaching promote excellent research through enhanced interaction across distances, institutions and disciplines. As an ultimate goal, the Max Planck Schools aim to share their experiences in e-learning and teaching with other academic institutions in Germany, thus setting important impulses for graduate education in the 21st century. This asset will undoubtedly outlive the pandemic, which is restricting academic education in an unprecedented way. However, our e-learning experts all agree, digital learning is not a replacement for personal, face-to-face interaction, but a very valuable and powerful addition.

Helena Schwarzenbeck

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