Interview with German e-learning researcher Carsten ULLRICH

Carsten, could you briefly introduce yourself and tell us what you are doing in China?

I'm a researcher in technology-supported learning (e-learning) and I'm interested in exploiting today's incredible advances in technology in order to create useful and usable applications for learners. This includes Web 2.0 technology, the next generation of the Web called the Semantic Web, and Artificial Intelligence techniques in general. Before I came to Shanghai, I was a researcher in the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI GmbH), one of the world largest and most renowned AI research centers. My work as a researcher at Shanghai Jiao Tong University focuses on supporting adult learners who have only limited time at disposal. I'm also a consultant for Totuba, an innovative start-up that develops a range of tools that support research and active learning. Although my works involves cutting edge research results, I'm not so much interested in ivory-tower research. Both my work at SJTU and Totuba aims at creating practical tools which make learning easier right now.


What is your China story? Why did you choose to work and research in China and not in your home country Germany? Is the environment here more beneficial and supportive?

My China story started in 2005, when I served as the German co-organizer of a joint exchange program between German & Chinese universities. On my first visit to Shanghai, I was immediately fascinated by the vibrant life in the city, the willingness to take changes and to grasp opportunities. Quite a difference to Germany. In 2007, me and my wife moved to Shanghai, she as a teacher at the distant university of SJTU, and I as a researcher at the SJTU e-learning lab. The Chinese education system faces intriguing challenges: huge amounts of users, the transition from the traditional teaching practices to more innovative ones, etc. This is an excellent opportunity for applied research. The close cooperation between research and teaching practice creates test-beds which cannot be found in Germany. Here, it is not a problem to test research results with hundreds of learners.


According to your experience in China, what is the main difference between Chinese users and European ones? How does European e-learning differ from Chinese e-learning? Are there major differences in the design of the platform and the user interface?

The main difference I experience every day is the low initiative of students to do things on their own. Hierarchies are still dominant, unless the teacher tells them, few students will try things on their own incentive. But that is of course an interesting challenge: how to teach students to become self-guided, independent learners - skills they will need in their daily lives. Another main difference is of course the numbers of learners. Distant classes with 400 students are frequent, with students being at quite different levels. A teacher will not be able to address all students' problems individually. But usage of AI techniques can be used for personalization of learning materials, which relieves the teacher of quite some burden. Finally, the wide-spread usage of mobile Internet allows innovative research on mobile learning, in a much more realistic way than possible in Europe, where mobile applications are still hampered by prohibitive costs.

You are collaborating with the team of TOTUBA, a startup in the field of e-learning and knowledge management - how do you assess the Chinese market and the potential for e-learning?

In China, education is traditionally seen as a prerequisite for success, and thus, the market opportunities are huge. Currently, the Chinese educational system is in the transition form the traditional knowledge transfer model, where information is passed from teacher to students, to constructivist models that emphasize the active participation and knowledge construction by students. This type of learning requires new tools and of those will be developed by Totuba. What we see today, the so-called Web.2.0, is still in its infancy. My work at Totuba consists of exploring how to exploit the full potential of the Web and to make it useful and helpful to anyone who is learning, not just an information technology elite. Such tools will have a significant potential, as exemplified by another Shanghainese company, Praxis Language and its highly successful learning environments for language learning (e.g., ChinesePod).

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