Eight students are standing high up in the Scottish Highlands, a clear sky, a few snow-capped hills and a deep blue mountain lake before them. Kilian O’Brien, a science teacher at the International School on the Rhine (ISR) has brought his 11th grade class here to show them how a hydroelectric power plant works. “If you could all please turn around now and come to the handrail,” Mr. O’Brien says. “Woah, that’s deep!” one of the students shouts. Mr. O’Brien has achieved his aim. “You can take your glasses off again,” he says.
The class wasn’t really in the Highlands, which would have stretched the budget even for a private school. Their trip was made possible by virtual reality (VR). The ISR, in the western German city of Neuss, has been using VR glasses in lessons for about a year, and has also purchased e-book readers and a 3D printer.
Education policymakers are vigorously debating how to prepare students for the digital age, after the global ICILS 2013 study on the media literacy of eighth-grade students (age 13 to 14) showed Germany ranking around the middle of the pack. Private schools, which are less tightly bound by state curricula and often have more funds available, have been making more progress.
However, there are still huge disparities between schools. A report on digital education by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that although most teachers believe the use of digital media has a motivating effect on students, only 5 percent are convinced that it actually improves their results.
Emil Cete, business director at the ISR, believes the new technology offers advantages, but not in every situation. “Using digital media in lessons isn’t an end in itself for us,” he said. “For each measure, we consider very carefully what value it adds.” Students in Mr. O’Brien’s class seem enthusiastic about the VR glasses. Lena said they made lessons “interesting and varied,” while Johannes added: “We’ve looked at the universe and electromagnetic waves. The glasses make these kinds of abstract things much easier to understand.”
The school is also experimenting with tablets and e-book readers, which are generally similar to normal school books but with added functions. A copy of “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, allows children to watch short videos and have the English text read out loud so they can check their own pronunciation. Other schools are conducting similar experiments. The Freie Schule Anne-Sophie in Berlin introduced learning apps for individual subjects five years ago. Certain websites such as Facebook are blocked on the devices, and only older students are allowed to take tablets home.
Reactions from parents have been mixed. Wolfgang Ludwig, who has three children at the ISR, finds the innovations positive and pointed out they also made bookbags lighter. However, Mr. Cete said some parents were concerned that having their own tablet could make students more inclined to play around instead of doing their homework.
Rudolf Kammerl, a professor of education at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg, said it was important for schools to ensure that children don’t just passively consume digital content but also actively create it. On one hand, he said, teachers need to get children to practice using digital devices and to use them creatively, but “it’s almost more important that children and young people learn to reflect on the way they use them.”
Mr. Kammerl said this could be done by stipulating clear time limits for use, but highlighted that the most important thing was to explain the structures and problems of the digital world using everyday examples. “What business models are Google, Netflix or Amazon pursuing? Why might it be problematic if I post pictures of my friends?” Such issues are relatively rarely addressed in schools, he said, adding that teacher training needs to be updated.
The ISR has spent €50,000 (about $58,000) on VR goggles and e-book readers. This isn’t just an investment in its students’ future; for private schools, digital media are also a means of attracting new students. The biggest difficulty to date has been obtaining suitable learning materials, Mr. Cete said. As educational publishers have very little to offer, teachers are using materials found via Google in their classes.
The ISR initially wants to test e-book readers and VR glasses for a year before deciding whether to buy more devices. “It’s a constant learning process for us too, with a lot of ideas that we’ll try out and reject if necessary,” Mr. Cete explained.
Katja Scherer is a freelance journalist. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org