“We need to rethink higher education” – An interview with Professor Meinel, CEO of the Hasso Plattner Institute
Dr. Christoph Meinel is CEO of Hasso Plattner Institute, and an internationally recognized scientist and professor in Internet technologies and systems. E-learning & tele-teaching is one of his many research domains.
As part of our “Future of Education” initiative at SAP, John Mayerhofer and I had the honor to speak with Prof. Dr. Meinel about the thinking behind the new openHPI platform, and get his personal perspective on how the education industry is being transformed by the smart use of new technologies.
The following is a summary of our interview.
Question: Could you provide a brief introduction about HPI?
Professor Meinel: Hasso Plattner Institute is a university institute for IT Systems Engineering. It’s located in Potsdam, the capital of German state Brandenburg. In HPI we offer courses on bachelor level, master level, and also PhD level. We have around 450 bachelor and master students and about 100 PhD students, most of them are teached in our HPI research school. The mission is to teach students to understand, design and run complex IT systems. With this in mind, we created 9 chairs in the institute, including Computer Graphics, Internet Technology & Systems, Information Systems, etc. One of these chairs is led by Prof. Hasso Plattner himself, one of the founders of SAP, for enterprise systems and integration. Here Prof. Hasso Plattner supervises a number of PhD students, and also bachelor and master students. HPI is the place where they first start to think about in-memory technologies. Prof. Hasso Plattner gives a lecture each semester in HPI on latest industry trends and technological trends such as in-memory data management.
Question: What’s unique about HPI?
Professor Meinel: What makes HPI unique in the German university landscape is that we were founded and funded by private foundation, the Hasso Plattner foundation. Typically in Germany, all the university institutes are state-funded. Due to this funding model, we can act much more flexible than those state-funded universities. Here are a few examples of what that freedom means:
- HPI operates in close partnership with University of Potsdam. Our steering committee consists of members from science ministry, university government, as well as from business world. With this mixed background, we have good coverage of both academic research and industry-oriented work. Normally in university environment one can only have a restricted view of the real world, for example, really large and complex systems are never inside the university. But in HPI things are different. All the professors in HPI run beside of their research and teaching a lot of practical projects in collaboration with various companies, institutions and administration, so researchers and students can get access to real IT systems and solve real-world problems.
- In HPI we have a Future SOC Lab (SOC – service oriented computation) equipped with very powerful computer systems, such as a thousands-core computer, and we invite also colleagues from academic community to make experimental research in that environment, e.g. in topics like in-memory and multi-core computing.
- Aside from the technological topics, we also have a school of Design Thinking where we teach our students – any year about 120 – creativity techniques, and empower them to become successful innovators and entrepreneurs.
- The latest initiative we are starting now is this openHPI. We are very excited about it and hope we can really make a big impact. Today we can only accept a limited number of students due to the limited capacity of our physical campus. OpenHPI is designed to overcome this restriction, by taking a very open approach using the channel of the World Wide Web. With tele-teaching, internet and social network technologies, we want to widely open the doors of HPI to anyone in the world who is interested in IT systems engineering, computer science and informatics, to provide them opportunities to learn and understand the techniques behind the digital world and what’s coming up there, like future enterprise computing, emerging database storage technologies, semantic web technology, etc. The first course will be “In-memory Data Management” taught by Prof. Hasso Plattner himself, starting on Sep 3rd. If you have ever listened to Hasso Plattner lecture, you know that this will be entertaining as well as informational, and somewhat mind bending. The next course is about “Internetworking”, for people who are interested to know how Internet protocols are functioning.
Question: Many of my colleagues in SAP are very excited about openHPI and have already signed up for Prof. Hasso’s first online course. We are curious about how the learning experience would be like. Could you give us a glimpse here?
Professor Meinel: First, everyone can register himself. Each course lasts about 2 months. Learners will be able to watch the recorded videos online, but not only the lecturer him/herself but also what he/she is doing on the smart board. Learners can progress at their own pace, take self-tests and homework, take final exams and get a certificate upon completion. Social interaction will be a very important component in the openHPI learning experience – learners can use social media and communicational tools, such as discussion forums, to interact with each other and raise questions about the course contents or homework. The faculty members will monitor these discussions and post video-based answers to those questions from time to time.
We are also evaluating possibility to provide real-time communication channels. For student-to-student interaction, they will be able to start discussion in real time while lecturer is presenting. But for professors it might be difficult to assure real-time presence because of the physics of time, and the potentially massive participant base. What we will probably do is to introduce “virtual office hours”, so students have certain time windows to approach professors online.
With these, we want to somewhat simulate the experience in real-world classroom, where professors can discuss with students, and students can discuss with their peers.
Question: Could you talk a bit about how this approach is differed from your previous experiments in e-learning?
Professor Meinel: In HPI especially my group had a lot of experience from the past in e-learning and tele-teaching. Many years ago we have designed a system named Tele-TASK, which enables us to synchronously record the lecturers as well as the handwriting and illustrations they are presenting on a smart board. With this mobile system, we have produced a lot of recordings and posted them for free on our Tele-TASK portal where everyone can access for free. Now there are more than 4000 recordings, not only from HPI lecturers but also from conferences and political meetings that took place in HPI, and around 30 million people have been using our portal to access these educational contents. Meanwhile many of these contents are also available on iTunes U.
But openHPI we strive to take a different approach:
- Instead of exposing the complete course materials and let people watch them whenever they like, we break down the course into small units, post each week a new sequence of units together with self test and homework exercises, and have deadlines defined. In this way, learners of the same course are “synchronized” and share the same timeline. They follow the same topics in the same sequence, think about the same problems, and this really makes it possible and happen to interact with other learners like “Did you understand this?” or “I have this view and what’s your understanding?” .
- On top of the online course materials, we want to create a community of learners, and use social interaction to engage and motivate learners. One lesson from the earlier e-learning experiments is, there is really vast drop-out rate in contrast to the high enrollment. But if you are discussing with your friends about the course both of you have attended last week, it’s less likely that you will drop out from the course. Additionally the learning experiences is much more positive and in consequence the individual learning curve is better. We believe this is the new level of e-learning practice and will make online learning more attractive and usable.
- In addition to these “digital-based” social interactions, after analyzing the first massive online courses offered e.g. from Stanford or MIT our idea is perhaps we can facilitate real-world communication by offering students living in the same place the opportunity to meet in physical life and discuss things face to face.
Question: That sounds exciting. To deliver this holistic learning experience, looks like many aspects need to be addressed, such as curriculum design and production, community facilitating, learning management software, etc. Will these all be done by HPI, or partially through partnership?
Professor Meinel: At this moment we see this as a platform of HPI. We are developing platform capabilities that allow learners to register themselves, take self-tests and get evaluated automatically. Also, when students leave the course at any point and come back, they immediately see what’s the position they have reached in the course – which units they have already visited and which are untouched up to now.
To create this platform, we started with an existing open-source Learning Management System (LMS) named “Canvas”, a Ruby-on-rail based software, and we’ve made a lot of improvements to make it truly a technical platform for the new type of online courses, since originally it was not designed for that purpose.
Concerning the contents of the courses, at this moment we think we already have a lot of interesting content within HPI to offer as online courses. Later it may be possible that we invite professors from other universities to provide courses on our platform, but this is too early to discuss now.
Question: For the improvements you made on the open-source platform, will they be open-source as well? Can other people use it as infrastructure if they choose to operate for similar purposes?
Professor Meinel: We are still in the design stage of this platform. My guess is that when the first course starts, the platform will not be a “finished system”. We will continue to evolve it over time and learn from the feedback of the participants. This will be an iterative process. If you look into the history, it’s interesting that so many computer science and IT professors are so much interested in tele-teaching and e-learning, not only from didactic point of view, but also because they are passionate in designing the kind of IT-systems that enable delivery.
Question: The idea of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is not new, but in recent 2 years we have witnessed unprecedented adoption. In United States, many universities have rolled out their own online platforms. Also, aggregators like Coursera have attracted millions of online students as well as many universities as content partners. Some people even predict that this model will eventually disrupt the higher education industry. As educator and also thought leader in e-learning domain, could you share your personal view on this?
Professor Meinel: Please do not say MOOC has been in place for a long time. It was relative recent when Stanford pioneered this and received really great interests from students. Later other universities learned and started to provide their own contents in this way.
We don’t see this as replacement of traditional university teaching and learning, but rather an disruptive extension – to offer education opportunities to students worldwide, to people who are either not qualified to attend universities, or cannot afford universities, or are already working in the professional world but want to learn new things for continuing education.
To serve the markets that universities could not efficiently serve traditionally, we need to tailor our education programs to meet their specific needs. For example, the length of our online courses is designed to be 6~8 weeks, compared to the typical 12-weeks in-campus pattern. For our first course “In-memory data management”, in the first 6 weeks lectures are delivered and in the 7th week we have the final exams. With a shorter time period like this, we believe it will be more easier for distance learners to stay active in the course, especially for those professionals. This is a timeframe into which most people have visibility and can really say “yes I can commit to this. I can take the courses, do the homework, take the exam, and get the final certificate”. For this reason, we expect retention and completion rates to be higher compared to the pioneering MOOCs.
Another interesting question about MOOC is about the business model. This is really an open field and I believe we will see many different models in the future. Some will build a business model around headhunting, by recommending top-performing students to employers. Some others will offer the courses for free, but monetize by providing examination, certificates and credentials.
In HPI, at the beginning we want to start without thinking about business models. We are eager to open our knowledge to everyone who is interested, and hope to establish a community of learners that are interested in this IT technology domain. As I mentioned earlier, another idea we want to explore is, to initiate the creation of real-world interactions out of the virtual learners community that are missing in earlier MOOC explorations. At the end of the day, people like to turn the virtual community into a real-world interaction experience. That is the reason why we ask people who register openHPI about the places they live and also the companies they work for. Based on this information we can help to make physical meetings happen. For example, for people living in San Francisco who had signed up for our in-memory course, we can reach out to them and ask if they are interested in meeting up locally in San Francisco and attend the course together in coffee shops, company conference rooms or any local places. Learners have to organize this by themselves, but we can help them, facilitate, and we really think about new ideas to enrich their experience.
Question: What are other trends you see in higher education space? How will higher education be like in 10 years?
Professor Meinel: Perhaps we have to rethink the word “higher education”. The word “higher” connotes a specific path. This may be a restrictive mindset for the future.
I am pretty sure that we will continue to observe a diversification of paths within and outside the formal education system, especially among adults. In the future people will take different paths to be educated – either by spending a few years in traditional colleagues/universities, or instead by starting with vocationally training and later become experts by continuing to learn new knowledge whenever needed. In this way I can imagine people can get educated on “higher” level without having to go through the “higher education” as per today’s definition.
For young people, the time in universities or other schools is not only about studying, but is also their first phase in life outside home without being sheltered by parents. They learn how to live independently, how to organize their lives, and how to interact with people around them. This phase will still be very important in the future, and won’t be replaced by any means of e-learning.
But to learn special topics and become experts in certain areas, then e-learning will definitely provide many advantages. In the university setup, you have to design courses that fit the common needs for most students. But with e-learning, it will be easier to design very special programs without restrictions in physical locations, time, or even age group. For example you can combine a German language program (delivered by a teacher in Germany) and American history program (delivered by a teacher in USA). This will become much easier than in the past.
The next thing I believe will become even much more important is continuing education. Particularly in our area of IT technology, the knowledge required is changing constantly and becoming old-fashioned after a very short time. In your professional time span, say 40 years, you will probably experience several massive changes of technologies. In the schools you can learn and get prepared for the recent and perhaps the next technology waves, but you have to get prepared for the third and fourth waves only when they come up. For example, in-memory technologies. To invent and reveal this, a special development level in hardware was necessary such that computer memory is available to large extent very cheaply. then you can rethink about the design of database. Similarly when there is new development like multi-core computing, you can rethink about how to program. And techniques that fit the single-core approach probably are not advantageous any more for the multi-core approach. With e-learning, people will have much better opportunities to learn such new developments, and maintain high competency throughout the entire career.
About Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI)
Founded in 1998 by Hasso Plattner foundation, today Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) is a top-notch university in Germany specialized in IT systems engineering, with strong focus on technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. Since its inception, HPI has played an important role in many new technological innovations such as in-memory computing.
HPI is also known as innovator in new forms of education, and has long history of experimenting e-learning solutions. Recently it has announced the launch ofopenHPI (http://openhpi.de), its new global online education network and learning platform, to provide online interactive courses for free.