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“We want to show what Berlin can do when it comes to teaching in higher education”

The Berlin University Alliance and Berlin Center for Higher Education are hosting the German Association for Educational and Academic Staff Development in Higher Education annual conference in March 2020. Lecture/workshop proposals due September 15.

Jun 17, 2019

Digitalization opens up new kinds of learning and puts an even greater emphasis on students as independent learners.

Digitalization opens up new kinds of learning and puts an even greater emphasis on students as independent learners.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher 

Teaching is sometimes overshadowed by research, but it plays a key role in the profile of a university. From March 11 to 13, 2020, the 49th annual conference of the German Association for Educational and Academic Staff Development in Higher Education (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Hochschuldidaktik, DGHD) will take place in Berlin. Over three days, discussions will be held on creative ideas and the latest research findings on how to improve teaching and learning in seminar rooms, laboratories, and lecture halls. Educational developers, teaching faculty and students are invited to submit proposals by September 15, 2019. Professor Hauke Heekeren, Vice President for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Development at Freie Universität Berlin, explains why we need to pay more attention to teaching. 

Professor Heekeren, the three major Berlin universities and Charité are hosting the next annual conference of the Association for Educational and Academic Staff Development in Higher Education. Why is the Berlin University Alliance working together on this?

An important part of the mission of the Berlin University Alliance is to put a stronger emphasis on teaching across our institutions. In our joint proposal as part of the German government’s Excellence Strategy, we emphasized research-oriented teaching as our common approach to teaching. This is important to us because the unity of research and teaching is a fundamental principle in the modern understanding of the university. 

As the Vice Presidents for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Development at the three major Berlin universities and the Vice Dean for Teaching and Learning at Charité, we were looking forward to bringing the annual DGHD conference to Berlin when the opportunity arose. The Berlin Center for Higher Education, which includes 13 Berlin institutions, is also involved. All together, we want to show that Berlin is not only an important worldwide hub for excellent research, but also has much to offer when it comes to teaching. 

What potential does Berlin have to offer as the conference location?

Berlin offers a rich variety of teaching activities and programs thanks to several public and private universities, universities of applied sciences and art colleges. Higher education teaching in Berlin is therefore a joint responsibility: more than 30,000 professors and lecturers and over 180,000 students work and study here. As the universities in the Berlin University Alliance, we are particularly interested in the connection between top-level research and teaching, since research-oriented teaching is part of the profile of Freie Universität, and Humboldt-Universität and Technische Universität Berlin have a distinguished history in this field. In addition, we want to enhance the joint programs and degrees, which would allow students to benefit even more from the different areas of expertise at each university. Finally, there are projects founded within the “Quality Pact for Teaching” at all three universities, which share the goal of further improving studying conditions and the quality of teaching at our institutions.

Hauke Heekeren, Vice President for Learning and Teaching at Freie Universität Berlin.

Hauke Heekeren, Vice President for Learning and Teaching at Freie Universität Berlin.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher 

Why do you believe it is so important to pay more attention to teaching, to exchange ideas and to work together in this area? 

Teaching and education are core missions of every university and have a significant influence on the everyday life of students and faculty. Accordingly, teaching should receive more attention, become more visible and valued alongside research – for example, in public communications of our universities or in the development of academic careers. Besides that, there have been many influential developments in recent years: digitalization has made new teaching formats possible, and teaching as a whole is more focused on the independent learning by students. A good example is the format of the “flipped classroom,” in which students acquire subject-specific content in advance (sometimes with the help of digital learning opportunities) and then the face-to-face interaction is used to deepen their knowledge. Another important aspect is to develop an outward perspective. Research thrives on international networking, and I believe that international exchange is a key factor for teaching development. There are several institutions around the world pioneering in this regards and we can learn a lot from them. On the other hand, teaching at all four institutions is becoming increasingly international, with a growing number of English-language degree programs. When it comes to teaching, we want to broaden our perspective and be inspired by the exchange of ideas and experiences of important players in the field. The annual conference will therefore also include presentations by international experts. 

What are the key topics of the conference? 

There are three thematic fields: In the first one, the focus is on the connection between research in the field of higher education theory, and practice. How can new teaching approaches be validated? Which research questions arise from practice? The use of new formats in teaching should be evidence-based. 

The second topic area is the relationship between higher education development and the academic disciplines. In this area, the discussion will explore which principles of good teaching are valid for all disciplines and when subject-specific approaches are required. The formats used in the teaching of physics can often be different from those used in language and literature courses because the content of these subject areas can vary dramatically. Nevertheless, the representatives of the individual subjects can learn from each other, as is the case with interdisciplinary research. 

The third topic area focuses on the framework conditions that universities can create to improve teaching. How can we understand teaching not only as an individual challenge but also as a joint responsibility? How can we improve the conditions for good teaching? The introduction of new formats can make a difference. We as university leadership must consider how we can create the structural prerequisites for making these new formats more widely available. Another important question for us is how we can also use ideas from higher education development and practice in a dialogue of our universities with the wider society. 

What is the target group of the conference?

In addition to experts in higher education theory and practice, we also aim to address faculty and students. We owe a lot of inspiration for teaching to the students, in particular – this has been my experience at Freie Universität Berlin – who are active in teaching committees, tutorials, and mentoring programs. We have just launched a call for submissions, which is open to everyone who is involved in teaching and learning. For example, participants will have an opportunity to present outstanding teaching projects.

We feel that it is important for the annual conference next March to offer three inspiring and insightful days for all the participants, so we have also planned an extensive program, so that it becomes clear that Berlin shines not only in research but also in teaching.

Nina Diezemann conducted the interview.

Further Information

The 49th annual conference of the German Association for Educational and Academic Staff Development in Higher Education 

The annual conference titled “University Teaching as a Joint Responsibility: Collaborative – Cooperative – Integrative” will take place from March 11 to 13, 2020, at Freie Universität Berlin. It is being organized by the Berlin University Alliance, the network of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, in cooperation with the Berlin Center for Higher Education. Everyone in the fields of higher education theory and practice, quality development, and quality assurance of teaching and learning, all researchers from related disciplines and subject-specific teaching theory and practice, all professors and lecturers, students, and all interested parties are cordially invited to participate in the event. Proposals can be submitted until September 15, 2019. The call for submissions and more details on the conference can be found here.