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“We have a responsibility to future generations!”

An interview with Steinbeis Entrepreneur Professor Dr. Bernd Jörs

Education will be even more important in the working world of the future, not only when it comes to initial training, but above all in terms of continuing education and lifelong learning. This poses unprecedented challenges for schools and universities alike. But are they ready for it? Bernd Jörs is a professor of information economy at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences and a Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Online Marketing Engineering & Business Analytics. In an interview with TRANSFER, Jörs makes a critical assessment of the current situation in higher education, calling for a different understanding of the task and role of university teaching staff.

Hello Professor Jörs. You’ve been teaching for 35 years now. How has university teaching changed during this time?

Lecturing at university has undergone huge changes over the past few decades. This is mainly due to the growing number of possibilities offered by technology, be that presenting or providing teaching materials, or hardware- and software-based tools, or the improved technological standard of the equipment in lecture rooms, such as whiteboards, or being able to offer courses online and run live sessions, but also providing learning videos that can be accessed anywhere, anytime. But there’s also the recording of lectures, Moodle platforms, open-book exam options, hybrid teaching and learning formats, and online supervision meetings – it’s completely changed everyday life for university staff.

We now live and work in a world that feels like it’s changing more and more rapidly, placing new demands on us every day. What does this mean for university teaching and anybody involved in teaching?

I believe the future of university teaching will be driven by an all-important question: Who has the right stance, the teaching know-how, a “burning desire” for subjects – and understands how to apply that properly to teaching, whether that’s teaching offline or online? We should still heed the results of the international education research conducted by John Hattie, and his search for the key success factors of teaching: The key determinant of successful learning remains the actual teacher, despite all the endeavors to introduce digital technology or use gamification elements in teaching.

You have to remain conscious of this responsibility to train the generations to come. It should always be clear to you that you chose this profession in order to be there for the students, not the other way around. You’re primarily teaching people, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and only after that come the topics themselves.

Above all, university teaching must connect with young students on an affective level, because without emotional appeal, teaching doesn’t work. You can see that a lot of university lecturers find teaching tedious – apparently the students are less and less capable, less committed, less hard-working, and lazy, and then there are the customary references to the old days. They’re not enjoying what they’re doing. More than anything, they don’t appeal to young people with their authoritarian understanding of teaching, claiming to be on a higher level of knowledge; they’re not interested in making things comprehensible, and they still think their lectures and exams, and the high failure rates, are a reflection of their particularly high scientific standards. It’s not their thing to make knowledge productive or share it. But having an intellectual responsibility for something is about expressing things so clearly that if someone says something that’s wrong or unclear or ambiguous, it can be proved that that’s the way it is. Too many German-speaking university lecturers have rejected or still reject this approach to comprehensible knowledge-sharing. According to Peter Drucker, the management professor, if knowledge is to be made productive, we can’t abide this arrogant approach to teaching and science. This is something that’s been known for decades. Softly-softly, usually ineffective didactic attempts to change this and finally make teaching comprehensible have tended to be unsuccessful. Apparently, nobody wants to do anything about this. The fact that things have gone wrong, which everyone finds regrettable, is usually attributed to the students.

The most important ability of a university lecturer will be their capacity to share content in an understandable way and enjoy seeing the failure rates go down. Fostering understanding is then the most important task of lecturing for knowledge to become more productive. If anyone thinks that’s not what’s needed they should switch professions. We can no longer allow inadequate teaching to happen at university, or knowledge to be imparted without regard for the specific target group, because failings in university teaching are unacceptable and irresponsible in economic terms. We’re already seeing clear efforts to move more and more to online teaching – not just because of coronavirus – with standard, on-demand packages of learning videos. University administrators and chancellors are halting the construction of new lecture halls, because some university teaching will probably be offered at home using digital technology. This will exacerbate the sense of alienation between lecturers and students, in a world of on-screen teaching. There are plenty of lecturers who’ll say good, then I won’t need to teach so much and I’ve got more time for what I prefer doing – research, without being interrupted, and writing papers, which in more than 90% of cases never get read or cited. Also, remote professors save themselves long and expensive journeys to work. Indifference will take on a new dimension. Teaching assessments are unlikely to result in improvements, and lots of university lecturers won’t want to see them either. They often have a fixed and unshakable opinion of students and rarely budge from that opinion. Any critical self-reflection regarding the quality of their own lecturing is usually brushed over. Lecturers who think students are lazy and lethargic, or not interested, see no need to actively address their own shortcomings or reluctance to teach.

Basically, a professional commitment as a lecturer requires constant interest in the profession, plus contacts with other scientists, companies, and institutions. Acquiring know-how through training, that’s relevant to the labor market, early and with forethought, and also being able to impart that know-how early, with the future in mind, is one of the obligations of university lecturers. After all, the world of vocations and the labor market are changing radically and getting faster and faster. Continuing education will become much more important than the phase of training and study. Some academic qualifications that are extremely sound – and traditionally highly recognized – are more than threatened by automation trends and AI developments, and in many cases they’re being made redundant. According to the forecasts, this will impact more than 25% of existing academic qualifications.

This is why I plead for a radical change in the understanding of university teaching – we have a responsibility to future generations! In an age of continuous academic learning, university degrees with shortening half-lives, and an urgent need to introduce changes to the world of higher education, we need to raise our relationships to students to a new level. Which is why I find it so important to do away with this tendency for students to feel alienated from university lecturers. The working world in the generations to come will be characterized by freelancing, project work, a reduction in the number of salaried employees, and constant pressure to undergo more training. There’ll soon be even stronger emphasis on “next qualification = next job” thinking. We can’t afford to wait much longer. Teaching behind a screen and this primitive and naive concept of establishing a passive “understanding of a learning coach” as the ideal type of university lecturer comes across as backward in this context and, above all, it’s not focused on the future or expedient. University teaching must go hand in hand with professional university supervision for students. There should be even more contact between students, especially alumni, obviously not less. It’s no longer enough to arrange simple, occasional alumni meetings. University officials and the labor market need to form much stronger links in this area.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate: Is university teaching still important at a time when it feels like knowledge is just a couple of clicks away?

One thing that’s clear from the most recent insights from teaching and learning research, which is well founded and underpinned by neuroscience – as well as insights into educational psychology, general and specialist teaching, and scientific discussion on different forms of analog and digital knowledge-sharing – is that without teaching, or intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and especially without prior knowledge, you get nowhere; even googling is pointless without prior knowledge. This outdated concept that simply clicking away in Google will be enough to acquire all kinds of knowledge has always been an utterly stupid, naive, and illusionary notion. As John Hattie notes, learning is very often hard work.

The much-cited notion of information or media competence, especially when discovering or discussing fake news, is an illusion. It’s non-competence. Without the right prior knowledge, you can’t have – or much less “possess” – “any kind of competence.” Learning takes motivation and the will. As mentioned earlier, it’s that leading role in successful learning, played by teachers, and the associated role model they play, that should fuel the will and willingness of students to learn, that ignites their interest in a certain topic, especially if we want to combat that well-known concept of just doing enough – with the minimum amount of effort, the so-called copy-and-paste culture – for the sake of personal or intrinsic motivation. After all, lifelong learning should become a goal in life. In energy terms, that can’t always be possible through continual, intrinsic motivation, or encouragement and discipline; teachers always play an important role in this. As we all know, students usually remember the teachers that inspired them the most and encouraged them. That just about says it all.

If we go one step further, from studying to work, what role does continuing education play in this area, and how do you think it will develop in the future?

As I already said, in terms of importance, the phase of continuing education will radically overtake the training or study phase. You have to think about the motto of Anja C. Wagner: Training is never over. This viewpoint has to go hand in hand with the half-life of knowledge, which should make continuing professional development a must-have, even more so than in the past. Accordingly, universities, businesses, and other organizations must put anticipatory infrastructures in place. They need to offer a much broader range of training options, based on much more varied time frames – from four weeks to as much as three years. After all, in industry AI-based automation is knocking on everyone’s doors. A lot of things have to be learned and taught more quickly. Add to this the fact that Germany is being thrown out of kilter in demographic terms, which is devastating. So the courses at universities have to consider everybody, from the baby-boom generation to Gen Z and Alpha. Offering staff the option to continue their education, or obligating them to do so for five or ten hours per week, for their personal development, as is required and supported by the workforce at AT&T America, must become the norm. Steinbeis can and must take on a pioneering role in this area, otherwise other large companies from California will do it. On average, employees in Germany presently receive 17 hours of training per year! The decline is virtually hot-wired. Also, most continuing education programs are not actually pertinent to the work or job market, except that they’re kept short. It’s usually not real or efficient training – it’s more like occupational therapy. What we need is qualifications from training – and for once please without the continual German thirst for certificates – something that engenders new opportunity in the vocational world of the future. We need something that offers new prospects!

Your Steinbeis company offers your customers “training and workshop programs of excellence” in online marketing engineering and business analytics. What’s special about the programs?

There’s little willingness among German companies to organize staff training, especially in the online marketing engineering and business intelligence sector. As a result, there’s little continuing education investment in two areas that are important for the future. More importance is given to retirement schemes than this or that training – especially the demographically arduous “disposal” of employees, by promoting early or premature retirement programs, which are a burden on the following generations, who play no part in this but have high pension contributions. Continuing education for retirees – why? It’s dismissed as a waste of money. But especially for startup projects, qualifications in online marketing engineering and the field of data science and business intelligence would be positively helpful, also for older workers. In the United States, 25% of people over 55 start their own business. Of course that’s not always voluntarily. Many have pension payments which are verging on the edge of old-age poverty. A number of years ago, I tried to launch a continuing education program at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences in the field of online marketing engineering/business intelligence. The concept was in place, based on many years of teaching experience in these areas, also with input from a large number of lecturers with the right qualifications. But the university saw no need for such continuing education concepts. People are guided by their own interests and prefer to work on new bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The result can be seen all around us. More than 20,100 bachelor’s and master’s programs have been launched now. How are you supposed to wrap your head around that? For young people, selecting a degree is like some sort of decision-making jungle. Everything’s broken down into so much detail and in the end, companies have no idea what professional or social training is actually available. If something’s not done soon to address the situation in continuing education, we’ll miss the boat.

In many areas, the often-cited and bemoaned shortage of skilled workers is of our own making. It would have helped to provide early training in the important areas where future qualifications are needed, and this would have helped mitigate the situation. But the will and the money to make such investments in education weren’t there, and they’re still not there today. The example with cybersecurity issues, and the fact that there are over 100,000 unfilled openings in IT, go to show these failings are detrimental to everyone. Universities bear a fair share of the responsibility for this. But responsibility, or continuing education within university teaching, or permanently staying in touch with alumni: They’re not the issue when there’s this tendentious reluctance to teach in this country – or indiscriminately produced educational videos that will be stored on servers for the next ten years. Maybe that will change one day.


Prof. Dr. Bernd Jörs (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Science Technology Education (Rodgau)