FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany is a public distance education university using quality-assured distance teaching to offer bachelor, master’s and doctoral degree programs, as well as numerous certificates and open access studies. Five faculties offer a wide range of subjects, from humanities and social sciences, psychology, business administration and economics, mathematics and computer science, and legal studies. More than 20 German-language degree programs lead to internationally recognized degrees.
The teaching concept developed at FernUniversität in Hagen combines print study materials with multimedia and Internet-assisted forms of teaching and learning as well as optional face-to-face seminars. The university maintains more than 30 study and research centres in Germany and throughout Europe.
About 80% of the more than 75,000 students are working.
Dr. Theo Bastiaens was Vice President for Digitization and Internationalization and Professor of Educational Technology at FernUniversität until December 2018 (starting January 2019, he is Rector of The Open University of the Netherlands). He wanted to improve teaching competencies of faculty in the digital era, so they could better respond to changes in teaching and learning practices, advances in technology and software, and new expectations on the part of learners. University faculty learn how to research through their education, but not how to coach, instruct, innovate for learning enhancement, and assess. Students are looking for interactive and engaging learning, while faculty, especially when faced with large classes, tend to maintain the traditional approach of recorded lectures and print materials.
To address this need, FernUniversität designed and implemented an eTeaching Certificate.
Professor Bastiaens sees that: “the solution to problems in education is education”. With this in mind, he outlines several purposes for the eTeaching Certificate:
- Emphasize the importance of teaching skills;
- Develop digital teaching skills and practices;
- Enhance the university’s digital profile as an approach to attracting more students;
- Support and reinforce shift to competency-based education;
- Equip students with digital skills for their transfer from university to the workplace; and
- Link content acquisition by students with development of skills and competencies, rather than continue with content as the ultimate purpose of education.
The Certificate is designed to train professors, researchers and post-doctoral researchers, all of whom have teaching responsibility. In German universities, the term ‘professor’ is used to designate those who run departments with research staff and doctoral students involved with teaching. Professors also teach up to nine hours a week, at undergraduate and graduate levels, depending on their category.
eTeaching Certificate content includes use of technology and new pedagogical practices matched to the University’s strategic goal of blended learning enhancement. The approach is practical, offering information and practice of skills that can be applied, such as:
- Running virtual classrooms;
- Strategies for interactive engagement;
- Using puzzles, quizzes and other apps;
- Online coaching;
- Dealing with issues of privacy and laws;
- E-assessments and e-portfolios; and
- Moderating online discussions.
The content, software and apps are aligned with the university’s practices, policies and tools. Every six months, the tools are reviewed and updated.
The eTeaching Certificate involves 100 hours of time. It is self-paced in terms of choice of courses and when to take them, with the program spread over two years or completed much more quickly depending on faculty choice. Each course has a defined time frame, with the participants meeting every two weeks of the course and doing individual research and assignments between sessions. Assignments are commented on by peers and teaching staff. Registration in the program is voluntary. Time spent participating in courses is recognized as official hours of work.
Benefits and Outcomes
The response of participants to the program is positive, with reports of changes in attitudes as well as skills, confidence and abilities.
Challenges and Enhancements
The voluntary nature of participation is linked to the biggest challenge – not one faculty member of professor status participated, only research staff and doctoral students. As the professors are the department heads, this creates some dissonance as some professors do not actively support the new approaches brought back by their teaching staff. It is not possible to make the program compulsory.
One of the goals of the initiative is to foster a bottom-up cultural change, with new ways of teaching and thinking developed and championed by those involved in teaching. But many professors have difficulties embracing changes.
Students are increasingly prepared for and open to the use of technology for learning at a distance and in face-to-face classes. They articulate their expectations, and the university must be able to comprehensively address them.
The program continues to be offered and Professor Bastiaens hopes that with more time, continued positive responses from participants and better communication with professors, the registration pattern can be changed to include professors.
Some universities in the region, as well as the Ministry of Higher Education, are interested in having the eTeaching Certificate program made more widely available so their staff can participate, perhaps on a commercial basis. This is being explored.
As Dr. Bastiaens is now Rector of The Open University of the Netherlands, he appreciates the different model for professional development in that country. Faculty are obliged to collect points for professional development focused on competencies in teaching and learning and this is part of their annual review interview. As he expresses it: “investment in faculty training is essential for a good university; it is always for the benefit of the students”.
Professor Dr. Theo Bastiaens
Open University of the Netherlands