The “Digital Education Initiative”: Boost or Barrier to Adult Learning?

This article was first published on EPALE in German:

On February 22, 2021, the “Initiative Digital Education” was presented. The pandemic has shown that there is still a lot of room for improvement in the design and development of digital education, which is why the initiative wants to give digital education a boost. To this end, a national education platform and a digital education space are to be created as an “open overall architecture for digital learning,” according to Federal Education Minister Anja Karliczek 1.

The national education platform is to create secure access to a digital education space that contains a wide range of learning opportunities 2. Much remained unclear, but the platform and education space are to be combined:

  • include existing and new learning platforms and offerings
  • Provide learners with a single point of access to these offerings and platforms
  • Provide learners with individual learning paths
  • Make educational materials available
  • Store certificates centrally
  • Provide networking opportunities
  • Ensure quality of learning offerings through seals of approval and standardization
  • Regulating data security for all areas of education

Digital education: adult education also addressed

Right at the start, Minister Karliczek spoke of “learning in all phases of education,” and Chancellor Merkel, patron of the initiative, also made it clear “that digital education is not just for schools, not just for universities, but that we also want to address people of all ages.” So adult learning is explicitly addresses, and that’s very gratifying, because it’s not always part of education discussions. But was adult learning thought of, was it meant to be included?

Adult education is more low-threshold offerings and continuing education or VET

Unfortunately, the event reduced adult learning to low-threshold offers, like the app of the German Adult Education Association ‘Stadt | Land | Datenfluss‘, and to vocational – formal, institutional – continuing education. Only the project ‘KI-Campus ‘ seems to pursue the goal of combining non-formal and formal learning and thus reflecting the current state of education for adults.

Diverse education providers and learning opportunities

Julia von Westerholt, director of the German Adult Education Association- Volkshochschule (VHS) (DVV), was invited to participate in the expert roundtable as an example of adult education. It may seem a pity that Ms. von Westerholt spoke exclusively about adult education centers and that adult education was thus reduced to the DVV/VHS label. But it is also the task of an association director to speak for the association members. But one might have expected that at least Education Minister Karliczek would have kept in mind the multifaceted nature of this field of education. Unfortunately, neither other non-commercial nor commercial sponsors were mentioned; foundations, church sponsors, associations, trade unions, cultural institutions, sponsors of social work, professional associations, etc. are obviously completely unknown as an active part of the educational landscape in the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. This shows how sorely an adult education association is missed in Germany that represents this diverse sector. Also completely unconsidered was corporate education, which can be seen at least in part as a driver of digital education, as the Corporate Learning Community shows.
This diversity of offerings makes sense, because it meets a wide variety of learning needs and desires.

Diversity of learning paths and learning desires

A church organization will probably approach a topic such as “Ethics in the digital space” differently and set a different focus than the education center of a trade union, which organizes a seminar on the same topic. This range accommodates individual learning wishes and thus opens up individual learning paths – whether analog or digital.
A volunteer who manages the social media presence of an association may take advantage of open learning opportunities specifically for volunteering, perhaps she books a social media course lasting several days, perhaps she deepens her knowledge with a certificate course ‘Social Media Manager’ and thus initiates a professional reorientation phase. Or she finds help and inspiration in exchanges with others in social networks (Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, etc.).

This is just one example of what adult education – like adult learning – is today. The fictional volunteer shows that vocational and general continuing education are already difficult to separate. And non-formal and informal learning often open up access to formal continuing education. Shouldn’t the national education platform and education space take this change in learning into account? And is that possible with all the envisioned standards, cachet, etc.? Can this give digital adult education a boost?

Digital education is not an end in itself: Fundamental change in adult learning due to the digital transformation.

Possibly the most important question of the event came from Katharina Schüller, CEO and founder of STAT-UP: “What do we actually mean by digital education. Often I get the impression that it’s about digital education infrastructure, learning with digital tools, or it’s about learning about digitalization.” Here Ms. Schüller put her finger in the wound, because digital education is not digitization of education. Digitization just means taking an analog product or offering and putting it into a digital form. As the Chancellor described it, “We mustn’t think it’s a one-to-one transformation of what we’ve had so far to PDF.” Comparable points were made repeatedly throughout the event by nearly all participants.

The importance of digital education can only be seen in the context of digital transformation. Digital transformation is a process of change that we are at the beginning of. It will fundamentally change the way we live: Not only will professions and work processes emerge that we cannot yet imagine today, but our private lives (how we communicate, shop, are mobile …) will also increasingly change. And of course, this will also have a massive impact on (adult) education: How we learn, what we learn, from whom we learn and with whom we learn; all this will not remain as it is. The digital transformation will significantly change life courses and thus also learning biographies. They will become more diverse or, if you want to put it negatively, more unsteady. As a result, learning will become different: non-formal and, above all, informal and networked learning in digital spaces will gain in importance.

And digital education must do justice to this change. It can succeed if it places changed learning at the center of its activities and transforms itself as a result. This also applies to adult education: It can accompany the coming changes in life if it becomes more dynamic, changes its structures, but retains its diversity.

The education space is conceived from formal education – not from changing life and learning

One missing conceptual component of the initiative, in my view, is: changing individual life and learning over the course of the transformation. The education space seems to be primarily thought of from formal education, for example, educational programs are to be “adapted to the standards of vocational and academic education” 3. That networked learning is a core of the learning transformation and that education should be rethought was addressed by Prof. Dr. Michael Kerres 4 and Prof. Dr. Ada Pellert 5. But even with these valuable inputs, the connecting points were formal learning settings in schools and universities.
I also missed the connection of the educational space with already existing developments of the digital space and the answers that are already given in European adult education to the learning change. But one after the other.

File cabinet, quality seal and standards as an answer the challenges of the digital change?

I would like to address here only those aspects of the educational space where it seems that opportunities are being missed because what is already there has been overlooked and changes have not been thought through.

A digital file cabinet (wallet app) for credentials and certificates that accompanies citizens throughout their lives.

A place where all learning achievements can be stored makes perfect sense: On the one hand, because it can be motivating to see what one has already achieved. On the other hand, because it is a prerequisite for the recognition of non-formal and informal learning achievements. In Portugal, for example, “Qualifica centers” use such central documentation for the validation and recognition process 6. Although the service there is aimed more at the low-skilled, it can serve as a model for any kind of learning outside traditional paths. Changed educational biographies are thus made visible and, integrated into a validation concept, such learning achievement memories can open up differentiated learning paths. However, the digital filing cabinet for this must not be reduced to credentials and certificates. Since there were no indications that non-formal, informal learning and learning acquired in small units would be included, an opportunity seems to have been missed here.
Moreover, it is precisely learning in small units that reflects changing habits: Learning on the way to work, waiting for the suburban train … are first effects of a transformation of our learning life. To leave this unconsidered in the educational space raises doubts about its future orientation.

A label of quality for educational offers

A Quality Label was mentioned several times in the course of the discussion. It remained completely open which criteria would be used to measure the quality, who would award the seal, and whether it would be awarded to educational institutions, platforms, or individual learning offerings. To leave alone that open is already questionable.
This seal will probably not be awarded arbitrarily. It will cause additional effort to get it, at worst it will be a kind of new certification process. The big question is: Who can afford this effort? Large educational institutions or associations that provide quality-certified offerings to their members may be able to do it. But will, for example, a small adult education center apply for a quality seal for a specifically regional offering? Or will a commercial education provider that wants to respond quickly to new needs wait for the seal of approval application form to be processed before its offering can be part of the education space? No, neither is likely to happen. And so many educational offerings will be missing from the education space and inaccessible to learners. Individual learning paths, whether professional or private, will thus be blocked rather than opened. Individual learning, which was mentioned several times during the event, does not only mean that learners are better supported within a curriculum. It also means finding and following self-determined learning paths.

I do not want to be misunderstood: Educational offerings that contradict the Basic Law do not belong in any educational space; a simple review for this is certainly useful.

Common standards

This is probably the most worrisome part of the education space. “Continuing education tools are … aligned with standards of vocational and academic education and provided across platforms” 7. Making formal education the holy grail of (lifelong) learning is fine; thinking from rapid transformative processes is disastrous. Setting formal education standards takes time for good reasons: a three-year vocational training program that claims to lay the foundations for a working life is never designed quickly, and no matter how swift the adaptation of training curricula to developments in the professional world may be: non-formal education – because the offerings are shorter – will always be faster and able to respond more flexibly to change.
It also remained unclear which standards should be adapted to. Should the online course “Photography with a Digital SLR Camera” be adapted to the standards of an art college? And if so, how long does the adaptation take and who adapts the course? Or do such learning opportunities not fit into the national education space? Is this not education? In addition, informal learning opportunities simply cannot be adapted. It seems to me that educational opportunities are being obstructed here rather than expanded.

A storage space for educational content with a pay barrier that hides further educational materials

This can also make sense, but unfortunately Open Educational Resources (OER) were missed in this context. They, too, are not an end in themselves, but rather educational materials that use existing digital possibilities, such as modifying (remixing), using them in an uncomplicated way and making them available. To overlook them on the national education platform is to overlook digital opportunities and developments (or at worst not to have understood them).
Explanations as to who is allowed to cavort behind the payment barrier were unfortunately also missing: all publishers, only educational publishers, only selected providers?

What does adult education need to give adult digital learning a boost?

Structural development

For education providers, digital transformation means they have to change themselves. And that goes beyond supplementing existing offerings or designing new ones. A new app is thus initially “only” an addition to the offering and does not in itself necessarily have anything to do with digital education as part of a transformation process. As a new offering, it can be part of a transformation process, if such a process is taking place.
The transformation process is about, among other things, personnel and organizational development, educational formats and media didactic concepts 8.

Support for the internal design of the change process would be of help. At the event, Thomas Schmidt, Managing Director of Helliwood media & education, presented the project “SchulTransform – Platform for digital school transformation“. A comparable offer for adult education would be desired from the “Initiative Digitale Bildung”. It would also be conceivable to have a pool of transformation consultants or special training courses in the area of organizational and personnel development that would be appropriate for the various types of institutions.

Media didactics instead of tools and methods – for all participants

“Digital education … also gives completely different possibilities and it also needs completely different pedagogical approaches” said the chancellor, addressing the issue of pedagogical training. At the moment, most offerings are limited to tools and teaching methods in the digital space. This will not be enough, just as it will not be enough to familiarize only teachers with media didactics. Planners, organizers and teachers need digital and media-didactic competencies in order to design digital learning processes that are appropriate for adults. Here, too, one can imagine support for continuing education series through the initiative.

Networking, cooperation and lifelong learning

The networking of all actors at all levels of the education system is a goal of the Education Space. It can become the most positive and effective outcome of the education initiative: to accompany and help shape change together and learning from each other. Ms. von Westerholt addressed this aspect: “We need to work together – federal, state and across all resources – to find solutions.” This togetherness is important, but should not be limited to state levels, but should also lead to joint action between educational institutions – even with those that are currently seen as competitors. Such cooperation is part of a culture of lifelong learning, as described and called for by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong (UIL) Learning in its report “Embracing a culture of lifelong learning“.

It was mentioned several times that the planned educational space should include lifelong learning and that this is a perspective of education as a whole. In my view, public libraries in Germany are taking on the pioneering role as centers of lifelong learning: the range of media they offer, which is aimed at all age and population groups, and their often good, open media education programs play a major role in this. But the libraries are also characterized by long-term cooperation with museums, theaters, schools, senior citizens’ facilities, associations and initiatives. Not a word was mentioned about these established educational spaces, from which one can conclude that lifelong learning in Germany means only vocational education for life. And that will give neither lifelong learning nor digital adult education a boost.

Fearing the worst or hoping for the best?

It is to be feared, for example, that the national platform and its education space will be places that hardly reflect or support the process of digital transformation. And the intended open overall architecture of the national education space will only be open to formal education and a few education providers.
But that is my impression, one can look with more confidence to the ‘Initiative digitale Bildung’, as Peter Brandt did here on EPALE. Heike Kölln-Prisner also takes a differentiated look at it. (Both articles are in German).


  1. for all citations see the recording of the event:
  2. There was not always a sharp distinction of terms in the event, so this summary is based on the explanatory video for
  3. video Digital Education Space of the BMBF, 02:21,
  4. professor for media didactics and knowledge management, University of Duisburg-Essen,
  5. rector FernUniversität Hagen and member of the digital council of the Federal Chancellor,
  6. for validation and recognition in Austria, see:
  7. video Digitaler Bildungsraum des BMBF, 02:21,
  8. on the levels of action of adult education in the digital transformation see: Kerres, Michael and Buntins, Katja, 2020. adult education in the digital world: action levels of digital transformation. Hessische Blätter für Volksbildung, (3), pp.11-23. DOI:

The “Digital Education Initiative”: Boost or Barrier for Adult Learning? by Dörte Stahl is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The linked works and the accompanying photos have their own licences. Please check before using.

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