Robots, Linguistics, and the Future of EdTech: An Interview with Jürgen Handke

On November 23rd-25th this year, the OEB Conference welcomes a wide range of speakers to its leading educational showcase. Among these speakers is Jürgen Handke, a German professor of English linguistics and a pioneer of robotic teaching assistants in the world of EdTech. Jürgen will be hosting an OEB Cast webinar in October, as well as a workshop at the main OEB Conference.


On May 11th, we had the privilege of interviewing Jürgen to discover more about him, his work, and his contribution to the upcoming OEB Conference at InterContinental Berlin later this year. The following interview was held virtually via Microsoft Teams at 10:00 CEST on May 11th, 2022.


Good morning, Jürgen, it’s nice to meet you. Thank you for meeting with me today. So first, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your career and your history with OEB?

Jürgen: Originally, I wanted to become a teacher of English and Physical Education, and then it all changed in the 1980s when I was offered a job at university. Relatively early, I came into contact with computers – in 1983 that was. At that time, I found out that there are content components that can be simply be presented in a much more adequate way using digital devices rather than traditional devices. That’s when it all started.


In the 1990s, I was a producer of educational CD Roms in my subject linguistics. Commercially, these were very successful and so I thought, and from today’s point of view it’s a silly idea, that I could replace teachers with CD Roms. That was, of course, a complete failure. In around 2000, in my team of research assistants, we transformed the CD Roms content onto our own platform: the Virtual Linguistics Campus on the web. Then we starting producing online courses in the first decade, online courses which again, worked without teachers. The materials became better and better, and the technologies on the web became better. All that improved and we managed to produce videos, we set up a YouTube channel.


Since 2012, we had a new concept of teaching and learning, but we didn’t have a label for it at that time – it was simply: digital content in phase one, in-class meeting in phase two. It was a very simple concept and we had no idea what it was, and then we found there were articles in around 2000 in the United States, talking about “inverting the classroom” and “flipping the classroom”. These were terms that were around a long time ago, 10 years before we used them, but no one had actually shown examples. So, we managed to be the first and all our courses we used at university were then shaped in this format. Digital content beforehand, teaching in-class second. There was one problem though, and that made us set up our own system, which we called ‘The Inverted Classroom Mastery Model’. The problem was: how could we rely on the students to have mastered the digital content before the in-class meeting?


So, we set up this system of mastery tests, digital tests, between these two phases and that really raised the whole effect of the system. This is because now students knew in-class cultures, we don’t call ourselves teachers anymore, we are learning cultures, and we have a picture of the students before they come into class. And that is The Inverted Classroom Mastery Model, we have been using this model for 10 years , we’ve been awarded prizes and so on. The digital component of that part of the model has to be as excellent as possible. It doesn’t suffice to simply give students a video, it doesn’t suffice to show them an image, or tell them ‘read the following text’. That doesn’t work. You have to be very professional and very careful about the design of digital content. There is too little digital content ready for self-paced learning.


So that’s our position, our field of Linguistics and Language Studies. Our platform is the Virtual Linguistics Campus, our YouTube channel has the same name, and this works hand-in-hand, the whole thing. Now on YouTube, we have more than 100,000 subscribers, and on our platform, we have about 7,000 users who permanently use the material in an online fashion, without in-class teaching. So, they do it on their own, and per day we generate five certificates or so – all these are complete classes, that can be used in any curriculum of linguistics in the whole world. They are not just a short online course that you can do in four hours, our courses have something like 120 hours workload. So, they’re regular courses and used all over the world, and we generate course clones for teachers who are interested all over the world for their students.


That all sounds really interesting, thank you! I can see you have a lot of experience in teaching, so I’m curious what or who you found was your best teacher?

Jürgen: Well, there is one simple name: David Crystal. He is a representative for the English language in the United Kingdom, he worked for the BBC, he was a professor at Reading University where I studied and where I met him. He also rebuilt the Globe Theatre in London. He is such a fantastic teacher because he has charisma, that’s really what I think is the most important thing; to be charismatic. Whether you’re a football coach, a Latin teacher, or a Maths teacher, it’s the charisma that decides at the end. David Crystal is a person who never would have needed digital materials, no materials at all. He just stood there, talked for 60 minutes, we listened and then we were excited and couldn’t wait for the next Tuesday or Thursday to arrive to do the same thing. I think we have to produce fantastic and charismatic materials, so teachers can use them and apply their standard teaching capabilities to the material to make teaching exciting. At least to some extent.


You’re right – I remember there was a professor at my university, I used to actively look forward to his sessions each week because he didn’t need anything. He could just stand there and it wouldn’t feel like he was talking at us, it was a conversation we wanted to be in, so I agree charisma is very important.

rgen: Unfortunately, it’s only a small percentage of teachers who have this sort of charisma, who could teach by using anecdotes, by going back to their experience.



So, in terms of Edtech, what have you seen in the industry recently that points to a brighter future?


Jürgen: The learning management systems (LMS) have been improved to a large extent. We are now in a position the motto is, finally, ‘didactics drive technology’, and not the other way around. In the past, we had learning management systems that were so bad, you had to ask ‘why can’t it do this, why can’t it do that?’ and you had to change your material and adapt them to the learning management system. In other words, ‘technology drove deductives’. But now, I think now we are in a position where the modern systems are approaching the phase where didactics drive technology. They can do everything, and I tell people to demand things even when you think they are possible. They are possible, they have to be programmed – and we can programme anything and the learning management system can host anything.


I’m a programmer myself and we have to program a lot, in order to make our didactic demands to be realised on that platform. But it is possible. That’s where I think we are now in a good position and where we can satisfy this motto ‘didactics drive technology’.


Thank you, it’s great to hear so many positive ideas. But of course, there is a need for change in some EdTech solutions. So what, in your experience, would be the best way to tackle these challenges?


Jürgen: It’s very simple – stop talking and start doing. We have to move from research to development, that’s the most important thing. This is why I’m giving a workshop at the OEB Conference – we have to show people and do it with them. People have to sit at their laptops and actually implement a text page on the profits of the Theory of Relativity, or whatever subject they are involved in.


You once said in an interview with the Phillips University Marburg, ‘Knowledge is no longer found in the textbooks. It is on the internet and it stays there’. Is this still your view, and if so, are you concerned about the idea that not all knowledge on the internet is credible or reliable?


Jürgen: Yes, this quotation is originally not mine, it comes from Aaron Sams, one of the ‘flipped classroom’ people in the United States, who was part of our inverted classroom conference. And he started his talk with ‘Ladies and gentlemen, knowledge is on the web’, something like that. That really triggered a development for me too, and that was 2012, so now we are 10 years later. If you consider the fact that on YouTube, for example, 510 hours of videos are uploaded per minute. Then, the chances that you have a video on statistics at the end of the month are not too low.


So, there will be something on chemistry, astronomy, on whatever. It might not be too useful, there is at least something. And so, today, if you search for something on YouTube, just YouTube and not the whole web, I’m sure you find an educational video on the subject you’re interested in. Maybe the video doesn’t satisfy all the criteria, but there is definitely something. And now the thing is, how can I make use of this? There are techniques to make such a material usable, and the same applies to textual information. If you want to know something, the web has the answer. That means that it is today no longer an option for people to stand in front of students and tell them anything about chemistry – the basic knowledge of chemistry, or theology, or physical education, biomechanics, linguistics – all subjects have basic knowledge. This basic knowledge, I’m not talking about the whole subject, the basic knowledge can be made available digitally in an asynchronous format that you can study at any time, at your own pace, from any place. But it has to be supported by an in-classroom meeting where this knowledge is deepened. There you are with this asynchronous digital teaching and learning, and that’s the first phase, and then the second phase is an in-classroom meeting. The main point is that the knowledge is available digitally, we only have to grasp it and have to put it into units that are more accessible to our students, then they are just on the web.


Definitely. I would just like to say congratulations on your creation of Germany’s first robot lecturing assistant! It’s an incredible achievement. Do you think robotics are going to play a big role in the future of EdTech?


Jürgen: I think so, yes. But I can’t give you any date. I can’t if it’s in 2030, or 2040 or something. What we have tried is simply, and this was in 2016, asking ourselves when our inverted classrooms were working very well – ‘what will be the next step?’ The next step of course is Artificial Intelligence. So, we asked the question: what sort of solutions can Artificial Intelligence provide for us that involves a benefit in comparison with what we’ve already got. One benefit could be to have an assistant in these classroom meetings, which are highly collaborative, where many questions can be asked and answered, where the students are talking, and I’m not standing in front of them, are moving from table to table talking to them, and students tell me to ‘shut up, because we’re working’. So, it’s a mixture of collaboration, question answering, and working on materials.

There the idea was that a robot could assist me in assisting the students, where we have a second sort-of assistant. That was the point, and we solved that issue by creating the so-called classroom application packages on robots, where the robot performed a series of tasks, for example question-answering tasks, by controlling the students’ smartphones, or a simple research task where the robot told the students ‘now you do that’. I didn’t have to take care, the robot did it autonomously. I could remain seated where I was and maintain the group, which I supported.


That was the main idea – a completely different is what you call ‘learning analytics’, where you use student data in order to advise students on what to do next, to support them or even to warn them to invest more work. The idea was that we do that by using a robot, where the student contacted the robot and said ‘hello, here I am, my name is blank’ and then the robot said ‘showed me the QR code’, in order to authorise your identity and then the robot said ‘I can see you’ve done this and that in that course, but I advise you to go into phenomenology a bit more, because there you seem to have trouble’. These are two applications I can see for the future.

But of course, at the moment we have a number of problems. The problems are on behalf of the robots; they’re not enough in terms of their sensors, they cannot react freely to student responses, all of this has to be programmed, and recognition is pretty slow at the moment. The second problem is the same one we had in the 1990s, for example, with data projectors. Very huge projectors – 30kg, we had to darken the rooms, they were loud, they took half an hour to build them up. It’s the same with robots today. It’s a logistic problem, but I’m not afraid of this problem because we had it once with the projectors, then the internet! Today, all these issues have been solved, so I’m pretty sure that the issues with robots will be solved, I’m not sure when.

You’re right; it’s just a matter of time – it’s just another hurdle, as you say. It’s really fascinating and exciting. I hope one day I get to see one for myself! I think I read your robot’s name is Yuki?


Jürgen: Yes! You see that’s another thing where linguistics comes in: the names of robots. The names of robots need to satisfy three central criteria: they should not signal female or male gender, they have to be pronounced identically across languages, by looking at the autograph, and the third thing is language universals. All languages have open syllables ending on a vowel, but no all languages have syllables ending on constants like ‘strength’, so don’t call a robot Strength! That’s why my robot is called ‘Yu-ki’.



Thank you, Jürgen. So I’m just going to ask you a couple more questions about OEB this year. What was your first thought on the main theme ‘Re-imagining our Vision for Learning’?


Jürgen: That’s better! Visions should be the case – visions on the one hand, but realisations on the other. It’s so important to show people how to actually do it, using a platform and do it!


In October, youre running an OEB Cast webinar, and then after that you’ll be facilitating a pre-conference workshop the following month. What do you hope people will get out of it and what do you hope people will take away from this workshop?

Jürgen: The first thing is, it’s this combination I was talking about earlier on. The combination of experiencing yourselves what it means to learn online, asynchronous online. The participants I will feed them into one of our courses, ‘Teaching and learning in the 21st century’, I will give them specific tasks in this course, and then they have to do the mastery tests and they can earn a certificate. That’s the first step.

Then, the expectation is when they go into the actual workshop in Berlin – they have done the course, they know the content, I know what they know because they’ve done the tests, and that frees me of talking a lot of what they already know. So, I can then dispense with the number of topics because they’ve done it in the course. I’m applying an inverted classroom concept to a workshop. And the workshop will then be purely practical.



That sounds brilliant, thank you! And what do you hope to get out of the OEB Conference this year?


Jürgen: Meeting people who, this is what I always offer afterwards, stay in contact and help, give them ideas. I’m administering several platforms at the moment, there’s a secondary school in Germany who will turn all their classrooms into an inverted classroom format by August, from 5th until 13th grade, which is a lot. It involves 80 teachers and the whole institution platform. On this platform I’m administering together with the technology department of that school, we’re permanently giving ideas of what you could do, what’s possible on the web. .



Thank you. Now, do you have a final message or thoughts for the OEB community?


Jürgen: From my behalf, what I can recommend people is to learn from my mistakes. Because I made a few. But I had no one who could warn me prior to that, and I can issue so many warnings on what you should not do. What this involves especially is the in-class meetings of inverted classroom scenarios. My main motto is ‘don’t talk, just do it’.





This interview was conducted for OEB 2022 by Chloë Sibley.

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