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WA Interview: Berlin’s Free University Professor Talks About Online Learning In Germany

 

Dr. Klaus Segbers, head of the Center for Global Politics at Frei Universitat in Berlin

BERLIN – Dr. Klaus Segbers is a rare techie in the world of Deutschland academia. At the prestigious Freie Universitat (Free University) in leafy West Berlin, Dr. Segbers roams the halls of The Center for Global Politics at a fast stride between meetings and wearing a bluetooth headset at all times to transition neatly between phone calls and in-person meetings. He has built a mini-Empire of online learning in Europe with two well-regarded online degree programs: M.A. in International Relations, M.A. in East European Studies. He met with WiredAcademic editor Paul Glader recently to talk about these programs and trends in online degree programs.

WA – You started in 2006. So tell me, at that time, how unusual was it to start an online college in Germany? And how difficult was it?

KS – It was quite unusual, I think, because in Germany we don’t have the tradition like in the United States to get into this online education. It’s slowly changing. But we belonged, I think, to the first movers here.

WA – What forces drove you to open one and then two online programs in this changing German market?

KS – We are certainly now finding ourselves in a situation where, if you have one degree or two degrees – like a bachelors or masters – That’s not enough for the rest of your professional lives. You have to learn all the time. Life long learning. At the same time, people quite often have a job. They are aware of the fact they have to relearn something or recharge but they are also are working on a job. And they don’t want to get off that. So they have to find models where they can combine it.

WA – So you offer them a model that mixes in-person and online learning, right?

KS – I prefer to call it blended learning rather than e-learning. Blended means we have a mixture of online and on-site components. In our case, it is about 90% to 10%. So 90% is online and 10% is in person classes per year for each of the programs. That is extremely important because then people have face to face contact with each other. That’s very important for network building, capacity building and, later, for joining the alumni network. It also helps them get back in contact with their tutors and professors.

 WA – A blended learning model takes more time and effort. How does it benefit the students as well as the institution?

KS – From the student side, I think they have now three advantages. One is, obviously, they learn something new. So that’s the content side. The second side is the value of the currency of the degree. Freie Universitat has a good reputation internationally. So that helps. Third, increasingly, the students are aware of the fact that they get familiar with many other students from different situations. Like an American Air Force fighter pilot meets peacekeepers from the Lebanon border. NGO people meet corporate people. Media people meet other people. So it’s quite an interesting fusion of very different characters, jobs and functions. I think they appreciate that.

WA – Since you started this, how has the landscape changed in Europe for these kinds of programs? Is there more competition in Germany or throughout Europe?

KS – Not that much. Not as much as I expected some time ago. The East European Studies program, I think, is still the first of its kind Europe-wide. We don’t have competitors, I think, online. For International Relations online, there are not so many competitors online either. At this moment, there is not strong competition, at least not in Europe.

 WA – Within Germany, are more universities offering niche online programs in different fields? Is this idea catching on here?

KS – There are some online MBA programs and different stuff. At the same time, we still have skepticism, which obviously is not distributed evenly across the globe. You find some regions where you have to cope with a rather bad interpretation of online learning programs. Some people think that’s something I give money to and then I get the degree. That’s definitely not what we want. Some universities like in the U.S. – The University of Phoenix – they necessarily have an inflation of programs. There are also some online sites that are not very serious from our point of view. But if you have this perspective that life trajectories of people are changing and job plans are changing as well, it is realistic to think that in the future, the online programs will change as well.

WA – You have small groups of between 15 and 30 students in your East Europe masters program, right? And more in the International Relations program. What are your students like?

KS – We have very good groups and it’s fun to work with them. They are motivated. If you have a job and a family, you have to make a sound calculation. It’s time consuming. It’s a full-fledged masters program.

WA – What’s the drop out rate?

A – It’s 10 to 20% (in the East Europe Studies program). For International Relations, it’s about 30%.

WA – How does that compare to drop out rates at Freie Universitat as a whole?

A – That’s hard to say because as you know we are right now in the middle of a basic shift from German diplomas to a bachelors and masters (like the UK and US models). We introduced full-fledged bachelors and masters programs at German universities two years ago. We don’t have much experience here. What we can say is after the first years as bachelors and master’s programs, there were significant drop out rates. In some departments up to 50%, which sometimes was due to the fact that some departments didn’t take this too seriously and squeezed their programs into bachelors and masters programs, which didn’t work. We are rebranding all of our bachelors and masters programs in about two years. So definitely the drop out rates (at Frei) are higher than in our programs.

WA – Why are the drop out rates so high at the regular campus and lower for the online?

KS – One aspect we shouldn’t underestimate is that these online programs are fee-based, which isn’t the rule in Germany at this moment. So, obviously, you consider it carefully if you want to enter or leave the program. When you go for free for a bachelors or masters, you just say, “goodbye.” You have lost an investment of maybe administrative fees of something like 300 Euros. So it’s easy to go away from that. From our case, once you decide to pay money, it is an additional incentive to stay.

WA – Is it self-sustaining financially?

KS – Yes. We don’t get payments from the university, which I’m happy about.

 WA – In the past six years, how has it grown in terms of staff, budget?

KS – With staff, for each program, we have one coordinator, one student advisor and one IT guy who looks into implementation of the programs on Blackboard. When something breaks down, the students know how to address it. We have a couple of TAs and others. With 12 modules, we have up to 15 instructors. International Relations is similar faculty staffing.

WA – Are these professors adjuncts? Part time? Full time?

KS – They are free-lance professors. They are not from Freie University. We collect them from all over the world. We have to make sure we find people who are not just good experts in their respective field but who are also able to do some interactive work. You also have to make sure they do the teaching properly. So that’s why we are looking around. We offer them contracts, like free-lance contracts. They work on that basis.

WA – Many online schools in the U.S. are rather inflexible with their curriculum planning. Is that true for your programs as well?

KS – We started with a minimum program with around 12 modules. By now, we also have electives. Students have a choice between 2-3 modules. Quite recently, we added a module for the East European Studies Masters on European Energy Policy. It deals with what is going to happen with Russia and the rest of Europe with oil and gas and imports and exports. What about Nuclear energy after Fukushima? We think it is interesting and timely to do that. Social Media is a new elective module. We also are designing right now a very interesting module which could be called, “the end of politics” or something, which tries to make the point of why we see the failure of governments to solve problems. When you see the fusion of life science and neuroscience and biology. There are very interesting findings about that.

WA – You have roughly 15 to 30 students in the East Europe Studies program and triple that in the International Relations program? Are you trying to grow those programs?

KS – We had a little downturn for EES online last year. This has to be seen in perspective if you look to the American Ivy League departments that have on-site departments for European Studies programs. They have, basically with one exception, single digit numbers of students. We take up to 20 or so.

WA – In the United States, for-profit colleges were booming. During the recession, those stock prices were still going up. Now, the government is trying to clamp down on them more with better regulation. What do you think about it from across the Atlantic? Is the U.S. Leading in some ways or not? Where will these For-Profit schools end up?

KS – I think it’s certainly leading in terms of technology development. The very platform we are using – Blackboard – is also an American thing. I think they are also leading in terms of how to market ideas. The openness of our existing (German) public universities to try new ideas, inventing stuff and marketing stuff is not very well-developed I would say. So sometimes, you can get into all sorts of troubles if you want to do that sort of thing. You have to be quite enduring when you want to do that. That’s one of the reasons we are exploring right now to externalize or outsource some parts of the Center for Global Politics.

WA – What’s your future growth and strategy? What’s new and what’s next for you guys?

KS – We could need a better ratio. Four students to one teacher would be a good number. It would be good if we could be more present in the American market. Right now, it’s not possible. You have these rankings in the U.S. News and World report. But they only take in American universities. 2) We certainly could add some more electives. 3) We are keen to realize new technologies for the students. Some time ago, we added Read Speaker so people can take an MP3 player and while they are brushing their teeth, they can listen to the content. We are thinking about a notepad on the side of the units with texts and videos. People can make their notes, put them together and share the information with others. That’s one thing we are thinking about.

WA – iPads and iPods are popular for many things – news and other things. How much will online learning go toward these?

KS –On iPads, students can use Blackboard and work on it. Regarding smart phones, at least as far as I’m aware, they haven’t approached us. Some students download pdf versions of the units we supply on Blackboard. They read it on their phones or Blackboard. One recent tech invention we have tried to set up is a Wiki. We tried to set up wiki and the tutor is going to work with the students together.

 

An IT team keeps the Center for Global Politics online programs running

WA – Who do you see as real leaders when you look around at online programs?

KS – I wouldn’t be able to tell you. As far as I can say, it varies greatly – not only between universities but also between departments. I don’t see a clear strategy coming close to a business plan as to how to develop this field. Universities are still geared to normal students – coming here and staying 2-3 years on a campus. Also, I think the idea you can make real money with these kinds of programs didn’t sink in so far into the heads of German universities.

WA – Is that a false notion though?

KS – I think they don’t understand it can be something not only useful for quite a lot of students on their first or second degree and want to learn more, but also money wise. In Germany, we have great discrepency between universities. If you are at a university in the north or eastern states, it’s tough luck. If you are around a good university in the southern states like Baden Wurttemberg or Bavaria, which are the rich states, they have much more comparative advantages. In terms of salaries for professors, infrastructure etc. the other universities have to look to generate more income. Some universities here might want to create a small task force to look into the opportunities. That’s something you will find on a lot of American campuses but not so often here. In Germany, 85% to 90% of our universities are public universities. They get some money – not enough, but some – granted from the state.

WA – Your sense of 10 years from now in Europe, how much more progressive will online learning be?

KS – I expect quite a lot of progress in terms of numbers, both in terms of programs and students. We really stand to move. We are trying to be careful with our expertise to develop our programs and make them more successful. When the waves start rolling, we want to be one of the first movers to profit from that.

WA– When you say the wave starts rolling, what do you think that wave will look like?

KS –I think that we probably will see expansion of the blended programs we are talking about right now. We suspect people will – like in the U.S. today – look for cable and broadband options. Not only for downloading movies and music but also for downloading educational modules. Can you imagine subjects like European integration or conflict resolution on demand? Because we have a huge amount of content and modules, that is something we could do. Not only the way we do it right now. We also could use more technologies like broadband. That’s something our marketing department is looking into right now.

 WA - Are you following the Khan Academy in the U.S.? And Mike Feerick in Ireland with Alison.com, where people can take free courses though not for a full degree. Have you been watching them at all?

KS – At this moment, I don’t see open source as a real competitor. I guess most of the students are still more interested in a degree than in certificates. That could change. We would have to respond to that. Many more students applying are interested in the currency of the degrees we are offering. As long as that is the case, we will keep offering this kind of program. We have to be sustainable. As long as Bill Gates doesn’t give me a phone call and offer me something similar (to Khan Academy’s $1.5 million grant from Gates), we have to make sure we create our programs and find a market. If you don’t have an independent funder or sponsors, it’s quite difficult to get into this open source thing.

WA – In the U.S., students can often get government loans to attend online colleges. Can your students get government loans? Or only bank loans and personal savings to pay for it.

KS – This is the biggest issue to address this year. If you talk about German students, they can get different sources of funding… but the majority of our students are transnational. They are not entitled to bank loans in Germany. Some of the programs exclude specifically distance learning programs from grants and scholarships, unfortunately. They say the students have to be on the ground. But they don’t offer grants and loans for this blended learning program. This is certainly a problem. We are working this next year to solve it.

WA – Can you tell us a bit about your background? Have you always been a tech guy, interested in gadgets?

KS – When I was a student, I had to use a typewriter on exams. But I switched quite early to this kind of thing. I also like gadgets like smart phones. I also feel we are approaching a limit in a certain way. There is an internal discussion we are having here. When I talk to people – surgeons or people in the Bundestag or something – they have the same impression that the limit for technology of information is here right now. We get so many emails, texts messages and phone calls per day. Things like Twitter, we just don’t do anymore… We are approaching our limit which I think the markets should be aware of.

WA – Where do you see coming opportunities in this space? 

KS – I travel a lot and go to a lot of educational fairs in the Middle East, Dubai and Hong Kong. I talk to a lot of people to get an impression of what they are looking for. In one place, you can get a lot of fresh ideas…

WA – What hopes did you have that are still to be realized?

KS – There are some parts of the world where people cannot move freely – like parts of the Middle East. They are interested in education but some of them are not able to go for two years abroad. We thought that a specific type of international relations online education would apply. For some reason, this has not materialized. In the Middle East, we have had some men but no female students. Sometimes, you get some idea and you try. When you find out it’s not working, you change routes. But, generally, I’m quite happy with the program.

WA – What is your biggest piece of advice for other online programs within other public universities?

KS – I always thought it is good to have your own financial base in a public university so you are not completely dependent on university funding.

WA – What would you most like to see happen within Europe or the EU? What needs to happen for your program and others to make advancement.

KS – We would like to see better ways to compare our program with other transnational programs. Right now, there is no list or ranking of international relations programs globally. That is not only for us a problem. … For our students that’s also a problem I’d like to see changed.

 

The Frei Universitat building in West Berlin houses the Center for Global Politics online programs

 

 



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