When my roommate stepped out of the bathroom one April morning with soaking wet hair, she announced that she had finally got something positive out of Corona: "You can now get out of the shower at ten past ten and still be in the seminar at a quarter past ten on the dot." was in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the semesters were still given names that sounded like new beginnings and adventure: “Creative semester” or “experimental semester”. The following winter semester was supposed to be a “hybrid semester”, but then came the lockdown light and again a “digital semester”. For the third pandemic semester, which is now beginning, the naming has been saved. Normality doesn't need a name of its own.
When digital study was not yet normal, but suddenly became a state of emergency, my friend Rino from Japan and I sat confused over a list for the requirements of a literary studies seminar at the Free University of Berlin. Because of seminars with wet hair on the couch. Instead, it was a question of getting things done, and not too little. Writing more essays, only that we could hardly get the material for them in the libraries. Simulate discussions online in writing (doesn't really work). Writing loads of comments on texts, in writing, which was previously done orally; and react to the comments of fellow students. In writing, of course.
And yet everything worked, somehow. This has a lot to do with the pre-existing digital infrastructure. More than 90 percent of universities in Germany have long been using so-called learning management systems (LMS), platforms on which lecturers and students can upload material and their own work or comment and discuss them together in writing. The grading process has been online for a long time, as has course bookings. VPN access to research literature catalogs from home was also available before the pandemic. Own e-mail programs and clouds are standard.
Rino and I were rather astonished to see how many options these LMS had that had simply never been used before. I am writing to Rino and I because I don't know how the others at our institute experienced digitization. We haven't met her again. We only saw them in video conferences, in the new course format.
A fifth falls out
The German Center for University and Science Research (DZHW) found in a large-scale survey that digitization was not only working well for us: all courses took place for three quarters of the students, albeit differently than originally planned. For Rino, the online format had at least one clear advantage: "I find the climate more pleasant," she told me, "I don't attract attention there as a foreigner and I feel that I don't have to explain myself as much."
It was a forced real experiment that is only now slowly being evaluated. And as it turns out, Rino and I are by no means alone with our experiences. This has been confirmed by internal surveys at our university as well as the aforementioned study by the DZHW, for which almost 25.000 students from various fields across Germany were surveyed. More than half of the respondents stated that their studies had become more difficult in all areas, but especially in social exchange.
In addition, it has been shown that digitization is of no use for fairer participation if the necessary technical equipment is not available. Every fifth student stated in the DZHW survey that the living situation is not suitable for studying at home. For these 20 percent, i.e. a significant proportion of the students, participation was made more difficult by digitization. The restrictions that continue to apply to the universities do not allow these students to use the technically equipped workstations on campus. Although better hygienic conditions could be granted here than in some open-plan offices.
And then a webinar is just not the same as a seminar in the university rooms. When I log into the conference via a link, I can see my fellow students - at least those who turn on their cameras. We could of course greet each other. We could talk about the weather or discuss politics, vaccination schedules and parenting visits until the course really starts, but we don't. At most we wave briefly to each other and then we remain silent. Five minutes. Or ten minutes. After the seminar everyone clicks away, hanging up the laundry, making dinner, washing dishes. Or even during the seminar. The lecture can also be followed easily in the shower. Or while cooking. Or cleaning up. How efficient.
It's a strange social space that arises. While on the one hand the personal distance increases, you somehow let your lecturers into your own apartment, university and private space become one. Due to the blurred boundaries, lecturers sometimes comment not only on academic, but also private behavior. In front of the camera, a professor announces to my fellow student: “Your nicotine consumption makes me think.” It is uncomfortable when over 20 people are listening.
And while the universities have expanded their digital infrastructure, the Internet connection in Germany is lagging behind in some places. For half a session I was able to watch my course instructor typing in the chat because her picture was transmitted, but the sound was cut off. Mime show: a figure lifts its head expectantly and looks into the camera, eight pairs of eyes immediately fly to the lower right corner, thumbs held up appear on the screen shortly afterwards.
Conversations only in pairs or in smaller groups, as you are used to before the seminar, during the seminar or after, have not existed since Corona. No coffee together between the events to review the meeting, to address things for which there was no time to develop criticism. No exchange about difficulties in understanding, open questions. I haven't really met anyone since the pandemic. Over 80 percent of students feel that something is missing here.
The student councils are now trying to counteract this and are holding "pub evenings" online. As soon as there are more than five people in the virtual room, this can also be difficult.
The lecturers are no different from their students: "I have not imagined starting my career in such a way that I hardly know anyone and hardly see anyone at the institute," says Thore Walch, who has been a researcher in theater studies at the since April 2020 FU. Actually, he would have given his first seminar in the first semester of the pandemic, but then: Lockdown.
Eleven hours of zoom
Walch also notes that under these conditions no real community can be formed among the students. The discussion works via the webcam and the students are quite active, “but everything runs much more through me. There are hardly any discussions between the students. To react briefly to a statement, to justify yourself with arguments, is not possible in digital space if you are not prompted beforehand. ”In the coming semester, in the first semester without a pandemic name, he would like to weave a social element into his seminar. More time for group work, for example, more space for small talk, for reports on theater experiences.
Meanwhile our eyes are getting so funny, Rinos and mine, and maybe the others too. When we meet in front of our screens in the shared kitchen after hours of block sessions, our exhausted, tired faces define what is meant by the neologism "overzoomed". My roommate Eva’s longest zoom day so far was eleven hours. Concentration and motivation disappear quickly, but after two hours at the latest. After five hours the head is actually tight.
Eva has different experiences than Rino and I: She studies sound at the Babelsberg Film School. As a student on a practice-oriented course, she is one of the hardest hit by the restrictions at universities. The studio in Babelsberg may only be used for final projects in exceptional cases. The theory continues to be taught to the students, but the practical exercises, which are inevitably part of the “Sound” training, are almost entirely neglected. There are only nine people in their course of study, Eva finds these restrictions “ridiculous”.
And what's next after you graduate? After the third online semester, half of a Bachelor's degree is usually up. Without practical experience. So how do you go on? Eva does not feel adequately prepared for the master’s course. Internships and networking are not possible during the pandemic and the jobs that “are still left after the pandemic”, as she says, are more likely to go to those who have already had a permanent job. "My concern is that the situation can be very difficult for newcomers." And that is another concern that not only affects students in practice-oriented departments.
In the DZHW study, 40 percent of the students state that they are satisfied with the knowledge they have acquired, but almost a third have the impression that too little was taught. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, almost 80 percent of students rated their knowledge acquisition positively in surveys.
The digital university no longer feels like an exceptional situation. From the politicians' point of view, it seems that the successful digital move has convinced them that we will be fine, somehow. A simple instruction abolishes the social space of the university: with a few exceptions, continue to discontinue classroom teaching.