Rethinking Education: Interview with Hannes Klöpper

Interestingly, the whole concept of an open-course platform in some way stands in stark contrast to the idea of seminar teaching at ECLA of Bard.  From your experience, what are the advantages and drawbacks of these respective ways of teaching, and is there a way to reconcile their differences?

There are two, I believe, complementary ways in which you can use online courses and seminars. The kind of higher education that you find at ECLA – which is very personal and interactive – is not what higher education is like at most institutions.

So, what I think online courses can do is to make teaching more efficient and effective, and thus free up faculty time. That time can be used to work on formats that make teaching a large number of students feel more like the kind of higher education that is practiced at ECLA. As I said, there’s not enough of that happening in most places. Faculty-to-student ratios do not allow for such close interaction. That’s one thing technology can do: save time so faculty can focus on higher-order, epistemological questions.

The other thing that I believe online courses can do is making education experiences that students make in small well-funded settings, such as ECLA, available to more students. At ECLA you have this great diversity, typical of the top-notch liberal arts colleges in the U.S. And that’s typically what graduates of these kinds of institutions talk about as being one the defining factors of their educational experience. There are people from all walks of life, as well as corners of the globe. Online courses can be a similar “melting pot” and there is not enough of that happening at your average institution of higher education. In a MOOC you have this kind of diversity. There are students with all sorts of disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, from all age groups, and with various kinds of work experience. All these different factors make for a very diverse “online classroom”. A diversity that you do not necessarily get at a typical mass university.

Is the communication between students on an online platform open then, in the sense that students can contact their peers from all over the world?

There are different formats of instruction, but in principle: yes, absolutely. There are discussion forums, where you can ask questions and other students can provide answers. Communication also happens in the context of peer-to-peer graded assessments, if you have to deal with qualitative work, for example. In those cases, ‘peer-review’ is used to give individual, qualitative feedback.

In addition to working as Chief Academic Officer at iversity, what are your personal and professional interests?

I’m interested in Berlin history and urban history in general. It is something I had been interested in even before coming to ECLA. But I still vividly remember that we had a great tour of the city during our first week at ECLA. That was a great experience and inspired me to read “Berlin” by David Clay.

I keep track of the construction sites in the city. If there is a construction site, I can most likely tell you what’s happening there, what is being built, who’s building it and why. That’s one of my hobbies, if you will.

For example, I’ve been following the debate about the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace. That would actually be a nice topic for ECLA, too. They’re reconstructing the Palace right next to Museum Island. It was initially built beginning in the mid-fifteenth century in various stages and later was turned into a baroque palace by Andreas Schlüter. As everything else, it was bombed during the war and while it was heavily damaged, it was in better condition than some of the other buildings that suffered severe bombing. However, the GDR wanted to make room for a marching square and decided to tear it down. They thought about either tearing down the Dome, which is right next to it, or the Palace, and then decided they could not tear down the Dome for fear of being called ‘godless.’ So they blew up the Palace, and, 24 years later, they built their own “Palace of the Republic” in that very place.

Obviously there is also an interesting discussion here about the idea of reconstruction and what it says about German identity. Why is it that Germany in this very prominent spot in the center of Berlin does not build something contemporary, but instead decided to rebuild a building from the past?

But what about other contemporary parts of Berlin, such as Potsdamer Platz?

Potsdamer Platz was developed by large corporations and the result is rather “artificial.” Maybe a different approach would have yielded a better result. But still I think that it shows that contemporary architecture is no guarantee for innovative urban development. Regarding the palace they actually had an open call, an idea competition if you will, but all the ideas that came out if it were not very convincing. You can still check them out online. Nevertheless most people in Berlin oppose the reconstruction of the Palace. I bet if you ask the ECLA faculty, over 90% of them would say it’s a horrible idea. But I actually think that the palace and the Museum Island would make for a good ensemble. It’s one of the few spots where there is some of the old Berlin left. Plus, there are still many open spaces, such as Tempelhof and Tegel, where contemporary architecture can do whatever it wants. In this case I would rather err on the side of caution. I’m pretty sure that once this thing has been built, everyone will think it’s actually pretty nice.
So, yes, when it comes to Berlin urban history, I have a story or two to tell.

Do you have any long-term plans for the future? What do you think will you do in 10, 20 years? What would you like to do?

…you mean becoming rich and famous, and all that. *laughter*

I’m happy to continue my work in the sphere of education and technology. I think it’s an exciting space. It’s developing very quickly, and it’s going to become more important. That’s almost for certain: it is for certain, in my opinion, because there’s just no way around it. We’re going to see some very interesting innovative ideas that are going to come out of this, and I think my children are going to learn very differently from the way I have. I mean, they already would because of the Internet, but I think there’s going to be a lot more to it.

Do you have children?

No, not yet. But I will. That’s the other part of the plan. I’m happy I get to contribute to the invention of new ways of teaching and learning that my children will experience. Now I just have to find someone to have those children with, I guess.

With a smile on his face and the enthusiasm to move forward in both professional and private life, Hannes Klöpper went back to his daily duties as the Managing Director and Chief Academic Officer at “iversity” after our lunch conversation. The sparkle in his eyes, while passionately talking about his work and the path that led him to his current position, left me heartened for all of us – current, but also future ECLA of Bard students. There is something life-transformative in the education ECLA of Bard offers that transcends the academic. As Hannes suggested earlier, the education we receive here bridges our academic studies with real life by inspiring individual minds to find their passions and calls. With best wishes for my interviewee in his future callings, I left Bernau with the feeling of pride and privilege for being part of an institution that educates such remarkably individual and innovative minds, who, from day to day, help build a more sustainable and exciting future not just for the younger generations, but also for those that are yet to come.  

Read a feature on online universities in the New York Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.