Erik Haberzeth speaks about learning spaces and the value of science for the practice of continuing education.
At the January 2019 event of the Think Tank TRANSIT you ran a workshop on learning and experience spaces. To what extent are spaces a topic for the future of continuing education?
ERIK HABERZETH: The use of many different kinds of spaces as learning spaces has always been a central theme of adult education. Unlike school, adult education has never been concentrated on a building with classrooms. There has always been a variety of learning spaces: companies, libraries, learning while travelling, planetariums and zoos, associations, etc. That has been the case and will remain so. This is what makes adult education so diverse and fascinating. For some time now there have also been “virtual spaces”. With the internet, for example, “web-based training” developed at the beginning of the 2000s, and around 2005 “Web 2.0” applications appeared, which were characterised by possibilities of co-design. Today possibilities of “mobile learning” or of “massive open online courses (MOOCs)” or “webinars” are being discussed and tested.
But there must be a common denominator for all of these spaces.
Of course. We must examine the spaces from very specific perspectives. We have to ask ourselves what thematic learning opportunities are offered by different locations in our living and working environments, what kind of learning is made possible and how learning is supported there, how learning opportunities are designed and what role is played by the possibility of experiencing things with the senses, which is particularly characteristic of “alternative”, non-seminar learning locations.
Interestingly, the participants in the workshop mainly developed scenarios for analogue spaces in the discussion. Did that surprise you?
Yes and no. Yes, because people everywhere are talking about virtual spaces and how important they are or could soon become. Learning is becoming really easy – anytime and anywhere. That’s the idea, at least. But this is also where I start with my criticism. What are we talking about: webinars, e-learning, videos, maybe virtual reality? I find these forms of teaching really exciting, and of course also the possibilities that the internet offers, including social media. But in the end it’s not all that interesting. It is more interesting to think about good learning opportunities, and in many cases these are not virtual. The possibility of a direct experience with the senses remains essential for many learning subjects and many people.
“If learning can take place anywhere and at any time, the institutions are no longer needed.”
And yet, theoretically, it is possible to learn everywhere today, detached from this possibility of experience with the senses.
I see specific dangers associated with this: if learning can take place anywhere and at any time, the institutions are no longer needed – and this therefore basically applies to the teachers, too. We know from research, however, that self-regulated learning is highly susceptible to interference. The educational institutions and their services therefore remain absolutely vital. And knowledge as information on the internet is far from being everything. It needs contextualisation, application and exchange with others.
Virtual spaces have the potential to convey completely new experiences that cannot be conveyed in analogue form. Would that not be an asset?
Certainly. This is also what happens in technical areas or in medicine. In adult education, as far as I can see, the experiences are largely missing, although adult education centres, for example, already offer courses in which, instead of going to a museum, participants take a virtual tour. But I don’t know if this is really a substitute for the real experience. In any case, it would be desirable to make pedagogical rather than economic considerations, for instance, when it comes to the decision between analogue and virtual. Moreover, in the end it all comes down to finding sensible combinations anyway.
So you are rather a sceptic regarding the possibilities of virtual spaces.
Learning is still learning. Just because something takes place in a virtual space, it does not happen by itself. Googling a term on Wikipedia is often referred to as learning. But human learning in a more sophisticated sense means more than that. Experiences must be acquired, they must be processed and understood. This is not yet ensured by an internet connection alone.
How would you describe the continuing education space of the future?
Let me answer it this way: in the continuing education space of the future, there are appropriate legal, financial and institutional conditions that allow everyone to learn what is needed at any time. Policy makers in particular are called upon here, but certainly not alone: public responsibility is also required.
And we are still a long way from achieving this?
The term public responsibility of course encompasses not only the state but also all key social players such as companies and individuals. I think that continuing education should be thought of in the context of such public responsibility, as a concern of the whole of society. And it is not only in Switzerland that we are actually still a long way from achieving this.
“No area of the education system reaches so many people for so long as continuing education.”
Is the importance attached to adult education as a research discipline also an expression of this?
There are only two professorships in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.
Things are happening. At the same time there is far too little research. No area of the education system reaches so many people for so long as continuing education. When people see this relevance, it is astonishing that they do not want to know more about continuing education.
But it does mean that the continuing education market works.
I wonder how this is determined, though. Only by sales? This is not enough. We lack a whole lot of data. We know little about the staff, the available offers, the institutions, participation in detail, etc. And when we do know something, deficits definitely become apparent. Imagine if other areas of education were treated like this. Yes, more research and, overall, more system knowledge are needed to be able to design continuing education in a sensible way.
This autumn you are again offering a continuing education programme with which you would like to address people from practice. What does it consist of?
We want to make our research knowledge available and discuss it at the same time. The offer is aimed at people who are interested in dealing with the scientific knowledge of adult education. For example, there will be a course on “Adult Learning”. But we are not looking at psychological learning theories, which everyone already knows, but at adult education theories, which – in my view – are more appropriate.
You offer a reading course. Do you think people want to read?
I could also give a lecture. But people would get less from that than from discussing texts together. It is also about losing the inhibition to deal with such texts. That would be a nice effect.
Do you expect something from the participants?
Interest. And of course they have to know what they are getting into.
What could practitioners do better if they had scientific knowledge?
In most cases, “practitioners” do very good and committed work. I don’t want to tell them how to do things differently either. This would not be possible, the practice and the situations occurring there are too diverse. Instead we need flexible, in part also systematic knowledge, and that is scientific knowledge. The adult educator Hans Tietgens described professionalism as the ability to apply broad, in-depth scientific and thus diverse abstract knowledge in an appropriate manner in concrete situations. I am convinced of the usefulness of scientific knowledge, not in a simple way but rather reflected on.
Should the training of trainers generally have a stronger scientific basis?
Scientific knowledge makes people “see”. In a sense, science provides different “glasses” in the form of theories. Without such theories or concepts, there are many things I do not recognise at all.