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Possibilities for Change – Higher Education and Digitalisation

13 August 2021| doi: 10.5281/zenodo.5113453

Bronwen Deacon and Moritz Timm highlight the institutional challenges posed to Higher Education Institutions by the pandemic and outline how these can be viewed as a window of opportunity.

Texts on COVID-19 responses in education are plentiful: in particular, Germany’s school system and its lack of readiness for a pandemic, has been discussed frequently, also here at the institute. Our research interest and the focus of this blog post, however, lies in the tertiary part of the education system and possible answers to the challenges it faces. The abrupt closing of higher education institutions (HEIs) has left the German higher education sector largely overwhelmed and staggering, which seems partly due to their lack of expertise in online learning and their slow and sluggish moves towards digitalisation. This stagnant digitisation manifests itself, among other factors, mainly through inadequate infrastructure (Gillmann, 2017) and a lacking culture of digital innovation in HEIs (Bils et al., 2019).

An old and proven system is forced to change

German universities have a rather good reputation: Out of the best 200 universities in the world, a significant number are located in Germany (, n.d.;, n.d.;, n.d.). Universitary education in Germany is inexpensive, largely due to the fact that out of around 400 universities three quarters are state-run, and studying there means paying only very little administrative costs, usually ranging around a few hundred Euros per semester. 

This system was subjected to a massive shock brought about by the pandemic. Even though digital teaching is not a new topic in German higher education, higher education institutions, especially the state-run variety, have done little, it seems, to promote a culture of digital teaching and learning. Pre-Covid, there was a lack of educational opportunities to teach the necessary digital skills and expertise. In addition, there is a need for digital applications such as forums, online exams and assessment options that could challenge traditional understandings of education by focusing more on the user-oriented perspective (Bils et al., 2019). This is despite the promising potentials of digital teaching promoted not least by educational technology (EdTech) providers. Potentials which, as we all know, include first and foremost flexible access to education – which has now become crucial since the closure of universities. 

The scholarly debates on the subject were more controversial, but the fact remains: EdTech was prominent and visible for years prior to the pandemic (Laufer et al., 2021). Brick-and-mortar universities however did not engage with these possibilities, therefore not adapting EdTech on a wider scale. A 2018 strategy paper by Hochschulforum Digitalisierung, a think tank concerned with digitalisation strategies for HEIs, stated that it take time to set up a clear strategy as well as committed people on all levels of HEIs: “German HEIs largely design their digital teaching with internal motivation. There is almost no external pressure to redesign teaching in the Digital Age” (Schünemann & Budde, 2018, p. 11). Coming from this almost prophetic angle, one thing surely changed: COVID-19 is probably the biggest external pressure German HEIs have felt in decades.

Online Learning vs. Emergency Remote Teaching: A question of preparation

What appeared to be an old but robust system pre-COVID now all of a sudden seemed problematic: HEIs needed a response to the closure of their institutions – a quick way into digital teaching. As we pointed out in a previous blog post, HEIs mostly tackled the situation with crisis management approaches – those are by nature quick, ad-hoc and tailored to a specific case. Crisis management does not aim at changing the status-quo; it aims at maintaining it in times of sudden changes. It seems that what German HEIs did then is best described as Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), a concept usually found in areas of armed conflict, or where nature has struck with a catastrophe or in times of political insecurity (Schlesselmann, 2018). Here, without the possibility to set aside resources and time, teaching is quickly migrated to the digital realm. This can make the continuation of teaching possible while neglecting learners’ needs, largely because proper online learning usually is not just a digital mirror of regular, analog teaching. 

German HEIs struggled with their crisis responses to a point where a large group of acclaimed professors called for a “non-semester” in an open letter last year, which was backed by the free union of student bodies. The initiative demanded not counting the summer semester of 2020 towards study progression, basically crossing it out of regular education planning. The reasoning behind it was rather simple: The authors were of the opinion that e-learning was just not enough of a thing in Germany. “Most  learners and teachers are not sufficiently used to the methods of online teaching” was a core point in their argument for striking the semester. This did not come as a surprise, considering how little German universities had been dabbling in EdTech and digitalisation. 

The counter-concept to ERT would be Online Learning, a method which is, just like regular face-to-face teaching, centered on a sustained transmission of knowledge. Here, as mentioned above, digital curricula are carefully crafted, making the most of EdTech’s features while also assessing learning goals and measuring student success. This indeed requires professional training, a detailed planning phase and, of course, evaluation. Such a system requires a long design period and is nearly impossible to set up ad-hoc. Online Learning therefore focuses on the learning rather than the teaching part of the student-teacher exchange and aims for high quality of learning outcomes (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 2005) rather than just getting the teaching over with in a digital manner. 

In contrast to what we have described in public HEIs, the private tertiary education sector seems less affected or respectively better prepared. Roughly three quarters of private HEI leaders state that the pandemic has not negatively affected their institutions, according to Stifterverband (2021). 97,6 percent of them were of the opinion that switching to Online Learning was going smoothly. Private HEIs had more often adapted concepts like Online Learning before the crisis. Most of them had been offering asynchronous learning opportunities for years, developing an approach to teaching which seems largely foreign to state-run universities (Sperlich, 2008, p. 132). Moreover it is rather obvious that, due to the market-driven nature of the private education sector, their need to adapt was more intense – after all, students are paying significant amounts, forcing their HEIs to provide modern teaching methods quicker than public sector institutions – again, external pressure proves to drive change processes.

Waking up: COVID-19 and organised freedom as an opportunity

As discussed above, reactions to the pandemic varied between different types of HEIs. But this is only one of many factors influencing the adaptivity of HEIs. Also, for example, different disciplines respond differently: Fields like medicine, the arts or some natural sciences might need face-to-face lessons or access to laboratories and equipment which can make Online Learning more difficult. All in all, we can see two patterns evolving of how stakeholders at HEIs look at the future of (digital) teaching: There are those, and from our experience these are rather few, who are merely bridging the time until HEIs reopen to return to the old familiar – this resistance to change at HEIs is well known (Anderson, 2008; Krücken, 2003). The majority though seem to see opportunities to adapt their teaching – for example by expanding the design and use of hybrid courses and flipped classroom models, thereby changing their established routines. To make his work, organisational changes in HEIs have to enable the expansion of Online Learning.

In a previous study conducted within our Organisational Adaptivity in Higher Education Context (OrA) research project, we formulated a concept called organised freedom based on the individual needs of teachers in HEIs and the relevant organisational change processes (Elsholz et al., 2021). HEIs need to provide a necessary framework, consisting of infrastructure, resources and a supportive culture – additionally, time and freedom to redesign teaching needs to be allocated. Organised freedom can be viewed as one out of many as yet under-researched success factors necessary to achieve long-term organisational flexibility, thereby possibly paving the way for digital development within the higher education sector, in Germany and elsewhere.



Anderson, G. (2008). Mapping academic resistance in the managerial university. Organization, 15(2), 251-270.

Bils, A., Brand, H, Pellert, A. (2019). Hochschule(n) im digitalen Wandel. Bedarf uns Strategien. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 27-28(2019).

Elsholz, U., Fecher, B., Deacon, B., Schäfer, L. O., Laufer, M. (In press). Organisierte Freiheit!? Implikationen der COVID-19-Pandemie für digitale Lehre: Organisierte Freiheit als Veränderungsparadigma. MedienPädagogik.

Fenstermacher, G., Richardson, V. (2000). On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching. Teachers College Record 107(2005). 186–213.

Gillmann, B. (2017). Der digitale Nachzügler. Handelsblatt.

Krücken, G. (2003). Learning the ‘ New, New Thing’: On the role of path dependency in university structures. Higher Education, 46(3), 315-339.

Laufer, M., Leiser, A., Deacon, B., Perrin de Brichambaut, P., Fecher, B., Kobsoda, C., Hesse, F. (In press). Digital Higher Education: A Divider or Bridge Builder? Leadership perspectives on EdTech in a COVID-19 reality. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1186/s41239-021-00287-6

Marczuk, A., Lörz, M. (2021). Studieren unter Corona-Bedingungen: Studierende bewerten das erste Digitalsemester. DZHW-Brief, 05(2020). 1–7.

Schlesselmann, S. (2020). Perspective from a Teaching and Learning Center During Emergency Remote Teaching. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 84(8). 1042–1044.

Schünemann, I., Budde, J. (2018). Hochschulstrategien für die Lehre im digitalen Zeitalter. (Hochschulforum Digitalisierung Arbeitspapier Nr. 38).

Sperlich, A. (2008). Private Hochschulen in der deutschen Hochschulforschung. Oder: “Noch nicht mal ignorieren”. Die Hochschule: Journal für Wissenschaft und Bildung 17(2008). 126–139.

Stifterverband (2021). Der private Hochschulsektor in der Pandemie. Derzeitige Auswirkungen und Perspektiven. Stifterverband Policy Paper 02(2021). 1–9.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Moritz Timm

Researcher: Knowledge & Society

Project coordinator: Wahlkompass Digitales 2021

Bronwen Deacon

Researcher and project manager: Knowledge & Society

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