“I have to feel good in my office,” Martin Ebner outlines his guiding principle. “No-one in my team should have the feeling of ‘having to be here again’,” he explains. And a glimpse of his rooms in Münzgrabenstrasse reveals that he takes this literally: there is a broad range of seating furniture, colourful pictures, plants and relaxing room dividers. In this colourful creative office at Graz University of Technology, he first worked meticulously in the Networked Learning department of the IT Services and since January he’s been working on new technologies in and for the teaching and learning process in the Educational Technology organisational unit. Starting out as a civil engineer at the Institute of Structural Concrete, the 40-year-old turned his attention to the – at the time – very new topic of e-learning. The technology fan and pioneer in interview.
News+Stories: What was so interesting about e-learning that made you move from the Institute of Structural Concrete?
Martin Ebner: I came to it at a very young age and was full of enthusiasm. Quite a lot had to be done very quickly. Today, I think I’m one of the representatives in Austria who is trying to anchor media in the overall education system. As a university we aspire to providing our beginner students with the best education. The way education is carried out today, though, I find in part grossly negligent because pupils are confronted with a completely new reality after graduation. And it is exactly here that we started to work. That is, working with the idea of anchoring media at school at an early stage and showing the potential of it to prepare today’s young people for tomorrow’s world of work. In the future, the labour market will need creative people who can operate technologies as a matter of course.
What about your work at Graz University of Technology?
Martin Ebner: Here I have a double role. As a scientific assistant and lecturer at the Institute of Information Systems and Computer Media and as administrative manager of the new organisational unit. There are hardly any other people who are at one and the same time researchers and manage a learning platform with 15,000 students, such as our TeachCenter. When I started work, it was both a necessity and a personal aspiration for me to do both because I don’t like theorising about something which I haven’t experienced in practice.
What is communication for you?
Martin Ebner: Without communication there is no learning; only through speaking is the subject matter imparted – by means of questions and feedback. What characterises a university is the form of discourse it has. But it’s not about just one tool. Each medium has its own style of communication and is suited to certain situations for better or worse. For example, I’m available through many channels, observe new tools and have accounts almost everywhere. My mobile phone and Apple watch show me the latest notifications. What’s important is that you actually make use of those communication channels which you open. I share this with all the teaching staff.
How much of your communication takes place virtually?
Martin Ebner: For me there is only one community. You can’t separate real and virtual any more. I’ve also published things with other academics without having seen them. The collaboration took place on a purely virtual level. Meanwhile I’ve also found out who I can work together with under time pressure in big projects. For instance, I once worked together with a team of 300 people on a 600-page book in real time! We gave ourselves exactly one week. The first articles arrived in dribs and drabs on the Monday and Tuesday and were appraised and proofread in parallel. The book was created between one Wednesday and the next, and could be bought online on the final day. It was an exciting experience. There were daily editorial meetings with those involved, who were distributed throughout Austria and Germany in seven locations. Today the book is available as a free educational resource.
Free educational resource?
Martin Ebner: One of the big problems in the teaching and learning sector is copyright. Teachers create teaching material for their courses, but students don’t get them in digital form or are not allowed to alter them as necessary for the learning process. If we talk about an education society, we then have to allow that teaching and learning material is accessible and thus may be edited. That is the free resources approach. In my view this is also interesting for marketing the University. What could be better than when a lecturer at Vienna University of Technology teaches using my teaching material? It’s a win-win situation – especially for my reputation. What I think is important and what one should always keep at the back of one’s mind is that students don’t come to us because they know we have the best teaching material. They come to us because they know that we offer excellent teaching.
A look into the future. What do you want to achieve with the new organisational unit?
Martin Ebner: What changes for us is the fact that we will obtain a new status through being directly allocated to the Vice Rectorate for Academic Affairs. That will help us and the entire subject area. It’s an important signal that Graz University of Technology is sending throughout Austria. You can also say that e-learning in itself is dead because teaching without technology no longer exists or is only possible with difficulty. To see it singly and separately doesn’t work any more; it’s an integral element of modern, high-quality teaching. Keeping pace with the times, we’re trying to work, to explore what works and the direction it’s going in. In the medium term we’ll have to go more deeply into the online world. The questions which will concern us include: how much more classroom teaching do we need? Are there other, alternative forms? I’m sure that tomorrow’s university studies will differ dramatically from today’s. We’ll experience a high level of virtuality and a transition to higher flexibility. The big American universities are experimenting a lot in this area and we’re learning from them.