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German universities juggle health and learning in coronavirus pandemic

  • September 07, 2020

In March, the students of the 18,000-odd academic programs in Germany could suddenly no longer physically attend lectures or go to their university libraries. Everything went online. Though there was little enthusiasm for the abrupt digital switch, “nobody refused outright,” said Bernhard Kempen, the president of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers. He said academics who had struggled with the technology had been offered support. 

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Kempen said the priority became ensuring that all students would be able to continue their studies successfully. Initial proposals to “cancel” the semester were promptly dismissed, as that could also have delayed the beginning of careers for many students. 

Not all students adjusted well. “I don’t have good internet reception” was one complaint compiled by the Federal Union of International Students and the Free Federation of Student Unions (FZS). “I don’t have a decent computer,” “The accommodation center isn’t calm enough” and “I can’t do everything alone — I need contact with other students,” were others.

‘The biggest problem’ 

Although many universities lent laptops to students to assist with the transition to digital learning, the bigger problem is money, FZS board member Amanda Steinmaus said. Only about 12 % of students in Germany receive state grants to fund their education — meaning that most have to work while they are in school. “The biggest problem is that many students lost their jobs in restaurants and cafes or at trade fairs,” said Steinmaus, who is studying English and history at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Furthermore, not all students have access to the €500 ($590) per month that the government has offered to tide students  over during the pandemic. “It is sometimes really complicated,” Steinmaus said, for students to prove that they need the funds. 

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Some students have wondered whether it even makes sense to try to complete their studies during the pandemic. Exams, for one, have become very complicated. For doctoral students, they often take place via video link. Others are in-person, with a big amount of space between the examinee and the examiner. Some students have taken written tests at home — leading some lecturers to speculate that they might cheat.  

Kempen rejected this. “The students are not being lazy,” he said. “They’re studying seriously. They are astonishingly disciplined — which we can see from the amount of people applying to attend lectures online.” He said the universities had been able to carry out exams in a fair and sensible manner because state-level education ministries had reacted appropriately to the special circumstances.  

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New initiatives 

Though the transition to digital has been particularly difficult for students in their early semesters — who may have been acclimating new towns and often living away from their families for the first time — older students also said they had struggled with the lack of contact with their peers and lecturers. The University of Bonn launched the “Signs of Life” project to confront such issues and to maintain dialogue. Professors and students were called upon to write about their concerns. Most indicated that they would prefer for study not to be online permanently — and the decision was made to open labs to small groups of students studying hard sciences such as physics and chemistry starting in the winter semester. 

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In-person teaching will remain the exception. “As long as there is no vaccine,” one professor said, “university will be mainly online.” 

“Universities cannot afford to become COVID-19 hotspots,” another said.  

More than 5,900 German college and university teachers have signed an open letter calling for a return to in-person instruction — arguing that universities are places of “encounter” and university life is a “collective phase” for students, during which important friendships and networks are forged. The signatories wrote that university teaching is founded on “critical, cooperative and trustworthy exchange between mature people” and added that this requires a physical presence. They wrote that the “digital leap forward” precipitated by the pandemic has threatened these aspects of university life.  

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Some academics have raised their fears that politicians want to save on teaching costs by ushering in more digital technology. “This is nonsense,” Kempen said. “We will not stick to concepts that are centuries old,” he added. “In-person teaching will be supplemented — but never replaced — by digital courses.” 

Translated from German by ACT.

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