“The ideal 
complement”

Professor Christoph Meinel, Director of the Hasso Plattner Institute, Potsdam, and initiator of the openHPI education platform, talks about digital learning.

Professor Meinel, the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam is internationally regarded as a digital learning pioneer. You launched the openHPI.de 
social education network in 2012. How has the project developed so far?

The platform has been developing extremely well. We have around 125,000 users from 180 countries, and many of them take several of our courses at once. Recently, we celebrated our 300,000th course enrolment. Courses aimed at a broad audience, such as 
Internet Security or Java for Beginners, attract more than 10,000 participants – that would exceed the 
capacity of even the largest lecture theatre.

You once said the “community” factor was part of this success. What role does the social component play in digital learning?

The social component is very important. Although there may be a few autodidacts among us, all the studies prove that people prefer learning and learn better in groups. It is therefore all the more import­ant that participants can exchange ideas as part of a course. This interaction, which largely takes place on social media, is an important element of a successful course. Any questions that arise during study can be immediately answered in the forum by other participants or the teaching team – our experience shows that this kind of rapid feedback is very well received. It creates a kind of virtual learning community that encourages people to carry on. The drop-out rates are relatively low.

Will digital learning become the ultimate form of study in the future? What are the greatest differences compared to conventional learning and what opportunities does it offer to complement conventional learning?

I regard digital educational formats as an ideal 
complement and enrichment of our traditional training systems. They will certainly not lead to the disappearance of universities, but they offer a whole range of advantages that traditional universities cannot provide. They are not tied to a specific time or place and are also scalable – the scope of educational 
programmes becomes global as a result. Ideally, 
professors can reach interested individuals all over the world and not just “their” students.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) organised by universities and companies are mainly aimed at people who have already left school. How could digital learning in younger age groups be improved? And what would be a good age to start?

One project I have been trying to advance for a number of years is the so-called school cloud. The idea behind it is to banish computers from schools and make multidisciplinary course content available centrally in a cloud – existing computer centres would be able to do this. The students would then only need display devices – for example, simple tablet computers – and could access this digital content at any time in all their lessons or from home. The advantage for schools: they wouldn’t need to constantly procure and support new computers and also wouldn’t have to concern themselves with licence conditions or installation requirements. Digital learning programmes could already be used in elementary schools.

The Internet seems to offer an infinite number of training courses, study programmes and tutoring services for all age groups. How can you find out which best suits your needs and delivers quality?

Within the framework of the National IT Summit, I chair a workgroup on precisely this topic. The focus is on making the available offerings accessible to every­one with an education cloud and describing their content in detail for users. I would also like to see an evaluation system – participants who have completed courses can and should assess them. Evalu­ations of this kind by the community have already proven themselves in many places as a good method of quality control. And, of course, algorithms could also provide additional help in the field of educational courses – you can imagine this as similar to online dating. On the basis of your current level of knowledge and other factors, a “matching” algorithm could suggest ideal educational courses from the cloud.

Sebastian Thrun, a German former Google man­ager, wanted to make real universities redundant with Udacity, his online university. For the time 
being that has failed. Now he is focusing on so-called nanodegrees that enable participants to quickly acquire skills to find a job in Silicon Valley. What are the trends of the future in digital learning?

I don’t see it as a case of one or the other in this sector. For me it is not about superseding existing institutions, but above all about enriching the range of courses, about inventing and establishing new courses and forms of courses. Numerous studies regularly show 
us the deficits of our traditional education systems. The fascinating question for me is the extent to which we can overcome them using technology. Here, for example, I am thinking about the increased personalisation of digital education courses, which can take into account an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Hasso Plattner was the co-founder of SAP who founded and gave his name to your institute. What role does he still play at the HPI today?

He still regularly holds lectures and seminars. Only a few weeks ago, Professor Plattner announced that he has a plan to again significantly expand the HPI and open additional departments – of course, I am very pleased about that. ▪