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DigitALMA Mater – virtuality as the learning environment of the future

An exposé on teaching and learning in the digital space

What do people need to enjoy success with digital education? We’re so preoccupied with new technology, virtual platforms, and virtual environments – but also digital teaching and instruction – that we lose sight of the real goal: education. Tilo Staudenrausch, freelance project manager at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Management Moves, Brand & Innovation, who is also a professor at DIPLOMA University, presents one possible solution to the digital dilemma at universities: the DigitALMA Mater.

When Tilo Staudenrausch walks through the university where he teaches, he realizes the importance of his alma mater – not only to himself, but also for the educational establishment: “For generations, people with similar goals have brought science to life here. So one can speak of a spiritual home.” Home – a place or at least an environment that, in the broadest sense, also includes the things we’re familiar with, the language, culture, or people. The pandemic suddenly shifted that home onto a virtual plane, with cameras, microphones, and multiple screens becoming standard features of work desks. It also spelled new challenges when it comes to knowledge-sharing: People still met one another, but they weren’t “really” there (in physical terms). The technology left people feeling insecure; there were difficulties communicating. “I sometimes felt like a film director: I had to understand the technology and work with different platforms. The focus shifted away from the content to the situation,” says Staudenrausch, looking back at the early days of his virtual teaching (experience).

The interplay between education and location

Education is closely linked to the location, because people socialize with others in spatial environments. They go to kindergarten, school, university, or work. They enter a space that’s familiar to them, a place in which they have social relationships and emotions, a place they also shape, which thus becomes their home.

But how do you create a virtual home, and can a success be made of virtual education? What’s key is the attitude of those involved. If people are against virtual environments, this rubs off on other participants. This became very clear during the first round of school closures during Covid-19, highlighted by the term “distance learning,” which already signals reluctance in the word itself and implies that it’s not possible to replace a “real” learning space. Staudenrausch disagrees: “Well-socialized, virtual learning groups have closer bonds than real ones. The participants make more intensive use of their time together and even link up outside official hours.”

Changes in teaching and learning

Conventional knowledge-sharing in the form of lectures or talks is becoming obsolete as a model. This is based on a construct revolving around processes, in which teachers provide coaching on the learning process of those learning.[1] This also changes the role of teachers within learning groups – from knowledge mediators to moderators.

“If virtuality is understood as an opportunity to get closer to the audience, you scarcely sense any resistance,” says Staudenrausch with conviction. The virtual space opens the door to inclusion: People who are unable to attend an event in person, for whatever reason, are still offered an opportunity to participate.

How to make a success of the DigitALMA Mater

Education is always tinged with uncertainty and there is no guarantee it will succeed, but people can create circumstances that help ensure teaching is a fruitful exercise. This is not primarily about teaching practices or pedagogics, but about feeling at home and elements associated with that feeling: the location, familiarity, distinctiveness, social relationships, emotions, and active influence.[2] The central aspect of this is the location. Different digital platforms offer different ways to design the location – as in the real world, where there are lectures, Sharing circle, or laboratories. All such situations are unique and require participants to personalize the location as best suits them. Familiarity is created by the interplay of three factors: Customs are created by rituals, for example when events start with a certain melody, after which the participants still have time for small talk or a microphone test. Changes occur in content, but also in terms of responsibilities: The further participants progress with lectures, the more responsibility they are given for technical and content design. The third aspect – suspense – is created in a similar way to TV series, using cliffhangers that stimulate anticipation and attention.

All Zoom meetings look similar and there is very little one can do to influence the design of the location. Despite this, some form of distinctiveness should be added, for example by using visual elements, music, other sounds, or even haptic elements. This means that physical features should be included in learning methods, especially in virtual learning environments, for example in the form of serious games or rock, paper, scissors. Participants in online events often turn off their cameras and microphones, making it difficult to develop social relationships, yet it is these interactions that make such an important contribution to successful learning. Learning is not just about acquiring knowledge – when you learn, links are made between different forms of information and ultimately, that’s what results in knowledge. Connecting to learning events on an emotional level fosters individual experiences and that creates a stronger affiliation to learning content.

This can be supported by methods such as flipped classroom or eduScrum. Actively shaping events requires the active involvement of participants.

The attitude of educational institutions

Institutions should clearly communicate their opinion of virtual teaching, different methodological concepts, and didactic modules. This is because the framework of a DigitALMA Mater stands and falls by the underlying attitude of the teachers – they are its representatives and are more readily accepted by groups of learners. Few analog learning techniques or exercises can be transferred to the virtual space without adaptation. “But our experience has been that such adaptations work across all specialist fields, no matter how theoretical or practical,” reports Staudenrausch.

To derive benefit from teaching and learning, it’s important to also involve learners and allow them to participate in the development of new formats. And finally, it’s fairly easy to transfer most of these virtual concepts the other way around: back to real events.

Staudenrausch currently designs his events in his office, where everything is set up for virtual lectures – reliable internet access, large monitors, two cameras, strong lighting, and a clear microphone. He’s pleased with this development: “The first generation of academics already has the social skills it needs for science and creativity to come alive in the virtual space. This is our spiritual home.”


Prof. Tilo Staudenrausch (author)
Freelance project manager
Steinbeis Consulting Center Management Moves, Brand & Innovation (Bönnigheim)

[1] WILDT, J: A University Education Assessment of Teaching and Learning [German]. Neues Handbuch Hochschullehre (NHHL) 2001, A 1.1.
[2] https://ome-lexikon.uni-oldenburg.de/begriffe/heimat