27-Nov-2019

How Digitalization Changes the Way We Learn

Interview with the digital entrepreneur and futurist Christian Baudis

On 28 January 2020, Christian Baudis, digital entrepreneur, futurist and former head of Google Germany, will give a keynote speech at LEARNTEC on “How digitalization changes the way we learn”. In this interview, Baudis talks about the content of his keynote and explains how learning will change in the future.

On 28 January 2020, Christian Baudis, digital entrepreneur, futurist and former head of Google Germany, will give a keynote speech at LEARNTEC on “How digitalization changes the way we learn”.
On 28 January 2020, Christian Baudis, digital entrepreneur, futurist and former head of Google Germany, will give a keynote speech at LEARNTEC on “How digitalization changes the way we learn”. (Credits: Cristian Hermann-Isacu, nullnull3 Photographie)

Mr. Baudis, imagine it is the year 2030 and I am taking an advanced training course to promote my career. What does my learning environment look like?

The decisive difference to today will be that you will no longer need to search for an appropriate training course. A speaking assistant will support you. And where you choose to learn will usually be your personal decision. Like language assistance, the learning program too will be based on artificial intelligence. The input will be accomplished by voice commands. And if you need to visualize something, you will simply link the learning application to a screen, a laptop or your household robot. In about fifteen years, home robots will be as ubiquitous as smartphones are today.

That sounds like a lonesome situation.

Increasing mechanization has led to progressive individualization in society ever since the industrial revolution. Ten years from now, 80 to 90 percent of us will learn individually. The remaining 20 percent will either get together with an expert or share ideas in groups. But this sharing too will take place digitally. The focus on individual learning naturally reduces social interaction. That’s why it is all the more important not to lose sight of this issue when we develop digital content. Education and training will still need face-to-face sharing and genuine experts. Both are indispensable so that can knowledge be creatively linked.

According to the Index for the Digital Economy and Society (DESI) of the European Commission, only six percent of German Internet users* took online courses in 2017. This puts Germany in sixteenth place in the European Union, despite the fact that Germans are known to have good basic digital skills. What is the problem here?

First of all, I want to fundamentally question whether Germans really do have good digital skills. We have a lot of catching up to do. Digitality does not yet play a role in schools, universities or education. We are very sluggish in this and, unfortunately, we are also somewhat arrogant.

Why is that?

We have a well-functioning economic system. And as far as our infrastructure is concerned, we are in a very good position. That’s why we believe that what has gone well for us in the past thirty or fifty years will continue to work well in the future. Unfortunately, we are on the wrong track here. We must abandon our self-satisfied attitude. To achieve this reorientation, we need strong role models who make it painfully clear to us that we are complacently napping when we ought to be seizing advantages.

Don’t these role models already exist?

Yes, but our backwardness is simply too great right now. Perhaps we will need to get a real kick before we become more agile. The opportunities offered by digitalization are much better recognized in the Scandinavian countries. Acceptance is high there. Training has long since been digitized in Asia too. And here in Germany? The German automotive industry continues to build combustion engines and is sluggishly missing out on the two most important technologies in its industry: electric drive and autonomous driving. The situation is similar in many other fields, unfortunately also in the educational system.

What do you specifically have in mind for the educational system?

Universities in Switzerland and the USA are allowed to establish start-up companies. We would need to permit that here in Germany. American universities charge costly tuition fees, but now they are earning more money from their start-ups. Applying this to German universities would mean that they not only have an educational mission, but also an entrepreneurial mission. They could create jobs and keep know-how in the country by offering graduates business premises, research opportunities and investors. That would be a relatively easy way to transform Germany into a centre of excellence again. But as long as we don’t offer this, our experts will continue to migrate to Google or Alibaba.

Whether or not they have an affinity for digital technologies, many people still harbour reservations about AI. What can companies do to counteract this prejudice among their employees?

I have the feeling that everybody is talking about AI, but nobody knows what it really means. On the job, AI is above all a high-speed statistic that is very valid and helps me to make better decisions. It enables me to be more effective when I guide processes, invent products or maintain machinery. Companies need to convey this understanding of AI’s role as the source of a knowledgeable second opinion.

But AI, Big Data, Deep Learning or the Internet of Things cannot survive without our data. Divulging that data seems like a high price to pay in return for statistics at the touch of a button or a few personalized learning units.

Of course, legislators must create appropriate framework conditions and protect our confidential data. Compared with the USA or China, the European Union is already pursuing a very good path in terms of data protection. And which personal data I choose to release is ultimately my own responsibility. I do not necessarily have to personalize my learning units. But if I choose not to, then I cannot reap the full advantages of personalized learning.

And what are those advantages?

The learning process becomes much more efficient if the programme knows my learning status and can adapt to my level. This not only speeds my progress, but also minimizes my frustration and keeps me more strongly motivated.

In the context of digitization, we often hear talk of a “democratization of education”. Will everyone have equal access to education in the future?

Not necessarily, but access to education will become much easier, also in the developing countries. We are already experiencing this democratization, but we are not yet making enough use of it. For example, I taught myself about Deep Learning as an autodidact. I simply logged into American universities for this purpose. In some cases, this is even possible free of charge. In comparison to studying onsite, continuing one’s education via digital access is already possible today – and the cost is incredibly low.

In the long run, how will digitalization influence our understanding of work and continuing education?

The field is changing rapidly, so we will need to be much more flexible. People in my generation are accustomed to the fact that acquired expertise lasts for three decades because the barriers to entry into industries have lasted equally long. Now these barriers are suddenly falling and this makes forecasting much more difficult. Amazon also sells insurance nowadays. That would have been unthinkable 25 years ago. There is simply no way to know if a particular product will still be relevant at all twenty years from now. As a result, the need for knowledge increases exponentially. In addition, the best AI is useless if its second opinion means nothing to us. We need to become experts in our chosen fields. We will have a difficult time without plenty of specialized knowledge. We need to be commensurately flexible in our work and in our continuing education. Knowledge must be continually adjusted and adapted. People who can accomplish that will probably also be satisfied with their jobs and can look forward to good pay.

According to the ZukunftsMonitor (2017) of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, 90% of the surveyed citizens are well aware of this challenge. Looking ahead toward 2003, the respondents say that continuing education will be the key to a successful career. With these prospects in mind, what questions would you ask an applicant if you were conducting a job interview in the year 2030?

The first thing I would like to know is where the applicant’s strengths are and where he or she still needs additional training. That would enable me to immediately find out whether the applicant has consciously considered their own personal learning habits. A person who has a clear idea about this will be on a very auspicious path later in their career.

Thank you very much for this interview.

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