breithaupt_fritz_onlineInterview with Prof. Dr Fritz Breithaupt, Department of Germanic Studies at Indiana University Bloomington (USA) & St. Gallen (Switzerland)

Prof. Dr Fritz Breithaupt, Professor and Chair of the Department of Germanic Studies at Indiana University Bloomington (USA), recently published a provocative thesis in the newspaper “DIE ZEIT”: individually tailored computer programs are being developed to become personal teachers – and this will be a reality in the near future. In twenty years from now at the latest, conventional teaching will be replaced by conversations with a virtual teacher. He didn’t have to wait long for the protests. Learning experts such as Prof. Ralf Lankau from Offenburg University warned of manipulative systems and the raising of individuals with social deficits and autistic tendencies. An article in the newspaper FAZ forecast the immediate end of data protection and incapacitation as an educational goal: such offers cultivate “learning hamsters” who are lacking in nothing but the happiness gained by knowledge and insight. Prof. Breithaupt will be explaining the “Talking Method” at the exhibition Zukunft Personal in October. We spoke to him personally about the advantages and disadvantages of such “further training bots”.

Prof. Breithaupt, you say the computer will be our personal teacher in the future. How will that work then?

We learn by talking. We can think of Apple’s Siri: A voice that is always near us to respond and guide us. Obviously, some improvements are needed to generate a true and life-long learning dialogue. To make the teaching voice a true personal trainer, it needs to remember our past dialogues and it needs to understand our unique learning behaviour. A famous adaptor of the learning-by-talking approach is Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, who learnt many languages or is supposed to have done so. Schliemann spoke foreign languages so fluently that locals believed he was a native speaker. To do this, he simply spoke to native speakers – without any prior knowledge of the language. After about only six weeks of constant interaction in the language, he spoke the language fluently. The new, digital learning adopts this approach too. You learn by speaking, by dialogues, by making mistakes and not by swotting up on grammar. People who only listen construct their vocabulary much more slowly than those who use it critically straightaway – and are corrected as well of course.  This not only applies to the learning of languages but works with other subjects too, such as sciences or complicated management knowledge.

But there won’t just be a digital teacher as the only form of learning to replace all other forms entirely. It will be a gradual transition and many different training and further training options will exist at the same time.

What other advantages does such a system of digital learning offer?

This digital teacher can be our constant companion throughout life. That means we won’t just go to school for a certain length of time but can continue to grow with this voice. We may face a tricky situation in our job at the age of 50 without knowing how to proceed, but by talking to the voice we may remember what to do in an ideal case. The digital teacher remembers, that is, saves what we have already learnt in our lives or what we have talked about. It knows the precise state of knowledge of a person and can refer to this with examples.

The computer will presumably never be completely perfect, sometimes you will probably get a load of rubbish. But as soon as the system starts to perfect itself, learning will become absolutely tailored to the individual. At the moment, we have the classic situation in schools, universities and other further education establishments where one person talks – the teacher, professor, trainer – and a large number of people listen. Either the learners know most of it already or the learning pace is too fast for them. With digital learning, everyone gets exactly what he needs at the time simply by doing the talking himself.

The #digital #teacher can be our constant companion throughout life. We can continue to grow with this voice. Click To Tweet

So you will no longer be bored sitting in further training courses because the subject matter is not relevant to your own needs?

If it works, yes that’s right. In the 17th and 18th century, kings and princes had a private tutor and later on there was someone similar who helped to train the upper middle class, a sort of house tutor or governess. Education was geared to the individual then. If you had a teacher that was good at listening and understood what educational level you were at, you could have the best further education you could wish for.

So we can look forward to a rosy learning future when we activate this digital tutor”?

It depends how we handle these new systems. I am not propagating this development but simply regard it as a consequent and inevitable development. Just look at the current hype around Pokémon Go where everyone is only concerned with their smartphones. You cannot stop certain developments. It will be more efficient to learn with a digital teacher and we will be able to achieve many things that we cannot achieve at the moment. There are many bright sides, but also some dark sides. Currently, university teaching is still failing many groups and individuals. Even if we are fortunate and only have 20 students in a university course, that is still too many if we want to allow everyone to have their say. Even group work only partially compensates for this.

So we just need to feed this digital teacher with a lot of data, knowledge and language to gain experience and get to know its counterpart  – then it is ready for use?

Almost. The most important components that we need are already available: good language recognition and an amazing amount of digitally available knowledge, as on Wikipedia. What is still missing is a lot of recorded learning dialogues that the system can use to improve itself. As soon as Google, Coursera or another of these MOOC companies start saving student-teacher dialogues on a grand scale, the digital teacher could become a reality. We need someone to invest and do some preparatory work but compared to investments that are made for some MOOCs or that Google spends on other things, it seems feasible enough.

When it comes to data protection, it is important who decides to invest in this concept…

That’s right. That is why it would be better if the government or the E.U. recognizes its educational mandate for the future of learning to make the initial investment. That is where I think it would be least likely that data would be misused. Otherwise there is indeed a  great risk. There could be a positive development if a platform such as Wikipedia works on the concept. Then everyone who takes part has a pretty good idea of where their data will end up. Also it would benefit the general public without commercial interest.

Further training bots: governments or the E.U. should recognize its educational mandate Click To Tweet

You said you could not only learn languages but other things as well with this system. Are there any limits to learning in this way?

The learning dialogue only works when we already have a large amount of data about a subject. It helps to learn, but not to explore and pursue new research. The computer cannot really interpret texts or historic constellations in the same way as we humans. It can at most help to consolidate the interpretation someone has already started to develop and provide evidence. Philosophical matters will tend to remain superficial but I could imagine that a computer could ask questions to determine if someone has understood a text. That would undoubtedly work well for bestsellers such as Harry Potter that many people have and for which the computer can collect a great deal of comparative data. But it would fail in rarer constellations.

In the USA, similar programmes are used for entrance tests to universities for example where students have to submit an essay. The system automatically awards points for things such as interesting vocabulary, grammar or a good flow of ideas. Computers can already provide a good initial assessment.

You said that the teacher would be our constant companion. We have already seen this in other areas such as the Quantified Self movement where people constantly check their health status. Is there a threat of lifelong learning here  – and round the clock too?

Yes, this cannot be entirely dismissed. We find it harder and harder to switch off and this can have problematic consequences  – such as loss of empathy. We are increasingly experiencing a trend that people don’t find other people that important. A colleague of mine, Sara Konrath has established the decreasing rates of empathy by looking at data from personality tests over the last 30 years. Sara Konrath and her colleagues suggest that the new social media and the “selfie” culture lead to narcissism. I am quite concerned about this trend.

My hope is that this trend can be offset to some extent by introducing social learning into these digital learning systems where several people network with each other when learning together and learn from each other. But social learning and responsibility for groups is not necessarily the same as empathy. That is why schools and other further education establishments will have the important function of placing a greater focus on social skills in the future. Schools will not become superfluous but will be geared towards a really attractive task, namely social learning instead of swotting up facts.

However, for all the warnings about losing empathy, we should not always believe that empathy is always good. Too much empathy for example can lead in extreme cases to loss of self or sadism. My new book that will be coming out this winter, is concerned with these dark sides of empathy.

Empathy loss by #digitization and #selfie culture - we need more social #learning in schools Click To Tweet

Empathy is promoted by a visual counterpart and eye contact. To what extent could technology maybe imitate a human face?

The question is whether technology should appear human-like. I have discussed this issue with colleagues too and deliberated back and forth. There is no problem technically imagining this system with a face  – and indeed with a human-like face in high resolution. But I think this exaggerated humanisation is rather spooky because it blurs the boundary between man and machine. I think a voice is safer as a line of demarcation.

Robots can already integrate emotional structures and say “what you just said was really mean” or “that really hurts me”. Learning always has something to do with emotion. The learner wants to be praised or needs to feel the frustration that he is not going to pull through. The digital teacher could be like a human in that he could have eyes that go up and down  – but more diagrammatic like an icon. It shouldn’t go so far that we perceive the system as a genuine person – that is an ethical boundary for me. But if the market determines the development, it could be that people decide differently.

What consequences will the new learning systems have for professional education and further education?

Further education is currently very expensive for companies. If an employee has to do some sort of training module, he will need to be released from work during this period. There are highly specialised coaches that cost a lot of money – particularly when the further education is tailored to the individual and does not take place in groups.  Think of the travel costs too. It can be much cheaper if you use digital training provided by the personal tutor.

The pressure on the employee to undertake further training in her free time will grow and she will try to find an hour for it here or there. It will actually be more time spent on further training at work. The learning pressure will generally increase because everyone will be taking part to a certain extent. Obviously, we need to protect ourselves from these new pressures. We also know that people who work from their home and connect digitally with their colleagues in average work more hours than their colleagues in the office. Someone, we do not regard time spent alone at the computer adequately as work. My friend and colleague Hartmut Rosa has been warning about the effects of acceleration for years.

At the same time, there are advantages for professional advancement because everyone can acquire some sort of certificate when he has reached a certain level of learning. That means that it will no longer be the boss that decides who goes on a training programme. It is a sort of democratisation of learning. Even lateral entrants will then have a better chance in many professions. We will have fewer and fewer constraints.

So these systems can help decide on careers and professional paths. What could people miss out on if they reject these systems and don’t get involved?

The people that don’t participate may have a disadvantage in that they will not be able to update their skills quite so quickly. These systems can record new data relatively quickly and spread them. However, some of the people who don’t have any digital teachers are probably those for whom education is very important. They want to show that they can do things differently and may learn even more quickly than others to overcompensate. They may take a book off the shelf and learn the old way. That’s great too. So it can have positive effects for both sides.

But maybe that thinking is too idealistic. As soon as the bosses have access to the data, they can act like Big Brother and select the people that have the necessary qualifications. That would increase the pressure on everyone to participate. One of the touchy questions is whether companies who pay employees the time to learn with a digital tutor own the data.

To what extent is it good or maybe bad that we ourselves decide what we learn?

In principle, freedom of choice is good, of course. However, it is still important that state institutions and schools specify the content of education and training for children. There must be a certain degree of control or recognition for crossing learning barriers. Basic knowledge will not be eliminated. Only the ways of acquiring this basic knowledge will become more varied.

#digital #teacher Basic knowledge will not be eliminated, only the ways of acquiring it will become more varied Click To Tweet

So you don’t see the danger of unilateral specialisation?

There will be tensions of course. But we already have these – in schools for example. It is all about what we really need for life. Does everyone really need to know Goethe’s Faust, yes or no? The fact that the school authorities decide this question strikes me as correct. However, it would also be good if we could have a greater say in learning. In most schools, we haven’t had much of a choice up until now.

What motivates you to explore the theme of digitalisation of learning?

Three different interests overlap for me here. First, as a university lecturer, I am in a Think Tank at our university where we continuously reflect on what we can improve in teaching and what will change in the future. We meet regularly and discuss this.

Second, as an empathy researcher I study the ways human can use, but also loose empathy in the modern world.

Third, as a cultural historian, I am concerned with the changes of the inner voice. It looks like the inner voice may have disappeared sometime after 1800. Goethe’s Faust still quarrels with his Mephistopheles, but there are few examples of inner voices or even conscience afterwards. For me, the digital trainer is a dialogue figure such as Mephistopheles: a counterpart with whom you can constantly converse and that in itself is highly diabolic. You cannot trust Mephistopheles. He is not just the teacher but also the spooky machine that confronts you – and virtually combines the good and evil of technology.  This figure has disappeared from our lives in the great cultural scheme of things. Maybe it will return in a similar form with the digital teacher.

Interview: Stefanie Hornung


Event tips:

Speech by Prof. Dr Fritz Breithaupt at the exhibition Zukunft Personal:
The Talking Method. The Future of Learning in the Digital World (in English)
Wednesday, 19 October 2016, 12 noon to 12.45 p.m., Trend Forum Corporate Learning & Working
Koelnmesse, Hall 2.2

Afterwards: Reply to the speech by Prof. Dr. phil. Ralf Lankau, Offenburg University
Digital Learning. Dot.com fantasies vs. Education
Wednesday, 19 October 2016, 13 noon to 13.30 p.m., Trend Forum Corporate Learning & Working
About Prof. Dr Fritz Breithaupt:

Fritz Breithaupt is Professor of the Department of Germanic Studies at Indiana University Bloomington (USA) and guest professor in St. Gallen (Switzerland). He writes regularly for Die Zeit and Philosophie Magazin. He has been writing the column “Professors and their neuroses” for Zeit Campus from 2006-2015. In his research and teaching, he has been concerned with triggers and blockades of empathy (see for example his books “Cultures of Empathy” and “The Culture of Excuses,” both for Suhrkamp Verlag. His next book, “The Dark Sides of Empathy”, forthcoming in January 2017, examines the negative effects of empathy – such as empathetic sadism where someone tortures someone else in order to participate in his or her feelings. Other key features of his work are the connection between narrative thinking and cultural practices as well as literature and philosophy of the Goethe period. He has received many awards for his work including an Alexander-von-Humboldt research fellowship. He has been interim dean, chair and director of 5 different units at Indiana University, including the founding director of an EU Center of Excellence.

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