01 Oct 2021

Limits of digital learning

Discussion with representatives from Frankfurt research institutions illustrates positive and negative consequences for education in the Corona pandemic

The Corona pandemic has shown that digital infrastructures particularly outside of universities need to be expanded urgently. On this aspect, there was a consensus at the online discussion " Frankfurt Interdisciplinary Live Debate " on 21 September 2021, in which Jan Pieter Krahnen (Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE), Nicole Deitelhoff (Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) ), Stefanie Dimmeler (Cardio Pulmonary Institute, CPI), and Klaus Günther (Research Centre of Goethe University Frankfurt “Normative Orders”) on the topic of "Studying, Researching, Teaching Despite the Corona Pandemic" shared personal teaching and learning experiences during the Corona pandemic and showed the limits and possibilities of digitization in education. Finding the right or necessary balance between face-to-face and digital teaching, however, depends on many factors, as became clear in the discussion moderated by radio journalist Doris Renck. 

It is not an option to return to teaching without digital support, SAFE Director Krahnen opened the panel. He said the Corona crisis had shown that the German education system was not resilient to times of crisis. Education must be brought into the 21st century, he added. Therefore, teachers would have to adapt their working techniques: "Teachers need to go to school," he demanded. Digitization is the key qualification par excellence, he said, and teachers need targeted support in this regard. The reverse teaching model practiced in some universities and schools could be one way of enabling teachers to benefit from the sometimes more advanced digital skills of their students. 

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It is important, he said, to convert the currently "transformation-resistant" education system to a hybrid system so that in future crises, school students in particular can continue learning. In schools, the ongoing Corona crisis has not resulted in a significant, general push for innovation, Krahnen said.

"In a crisis like this, you have to try to survive, not to do especially well," argued legal scholar Klaus Günther. He called for more unbureaucratic political support beyond election periods to improve the digital infrastructure – educational institutes could not do it on their own. For example, he said, schools need a level playing field to take advantage of the private market's offerings of learning platforms and digital teaching services. This is a prerequisite for more educational equity.

Stefanie Dimmeler and Nicole Deitelhoff, on the other hand, cannot imagine a generally digital educational system, as became clear in the debate. To learn not only knowledge, but also skills, interaction with teachers and peers in the classroom is important, and not just for younger students, the two researchers argued.

Boundaries between the learning and private sphere are important

More flexibility of the education system, as demanded by Krahnen, is not generally positive, Deitelhoff said. "We should not increase on digital services," she warned. The boundaries between the learning and private spheres would blur as a result. This would overwhelm elementary school children as well as students, she said. The political scientist pointed out that it is only possible to see how students are doing when they are physically present: "We are also carers," she said. 

Krahnen added that although it would be easier to connect globally through digital means, there would be a lack of trust as in on-site meetings in a more personal setting. "We should not abandon the university as a meeting place," Günther agreed. At the latest when it comes to teaching practical skills, digitization would have its limits: "Here, learning by doing is the keyword," Dimmeler said. For example, the biochemist cannot offer laboratory courses to students. They should get vaccinated, if possible. That would allow her to plan better and protect other lab staff.


In May 2021, the first "Frankfurt Interdisciplinary Live Debate" on the topic "Future of Solidarity" took place. The series of events on the central theme "Future Post-Covid" is conducted by the Leibniz Institute SAFE, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, the Cluster of Excellence "Normative Orders" of the Goethe University Frankfurt and the Cluster of Excellence "Cardio-Pulmonary Institute" of the Universities of Frankfurt and Gießen together with the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research. The discussion is moderated by Doris Renck, a journalist from Hessischer Rundfunk. The panel discussions are based on the institutes' blog, which was founded in 2020.

More information on the "Frankfurt interdisciplinary debate" (only in German)

Laura Thomale

Officer for Public Relations