Germany is renowned for its economic prowess and its resilient Mittelstand amidst the instability of post-recession Europe. But while the country has a relatively low overall unemployment rate at 5.5%, the number goes up to 7.7% for those under the age of 25.
If the country wants to keep its competitive and economic advantage, it will require a smarter workforce that can understand the latest technologies so it can keep innovating and producing.
In contrast to the attention surrounding education technology reform efforts underway in the U.S. and U.K., little has been written about such changes in the world’s fourth largest economy. Perhaps this may be attributed to the German “Merkel-ish” tendency to downplay and understate accomplishments.
But changes are indeed underway. The government’s ministry of education and research (BMBF) has invested €6bn into education and research between 2010-2013 and is currently sponsoring the development, testing and application of new digital media, Web 2.0 and mobile technologies in vocational education with €60m. It is also supporting IT initiatives such as digitalizing and updating libraries and other information centers. In schools and universities the use of tablets and an increased focus on IT in the curriculum has also started to make the rounds.
But it may take a while for government-led initiatives to have an impact. The most notable aspect of the German education system is that there is no German education system. Germany consists of sixteen federal states (Bundesländer) and each state has its own laws and regulations for schooling and higher education. The states are attempting to collaborate through the Kultusministerkonferenz (KMK- conference of education and culture ministers), but this process can prove rather difficult as all decisions have to be made unanimously and their lawfulness requires additional approval by the parliaments of the individual states.
But entrepreneurs in the private sector aren’t content to wait for the government’s cautious advance. They are stepping up, as they have always done for other industries. In recent years, German edtech startups have launched to help students learn in and out of the school environment, enhance school curricula, simplify teachers' preparation and advance adult and vocational education:
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Iversity
Technology skills: CareerFoundry
A quick survey on Crunchbase show these companies have so far raised an amount north of €30m, with Babbel (€10m) leading the way. These numbers may seem paltry compared to those in the U.S but it is clear that these edtech startups are beginning to make an impact.
The industry is still in its infancy. German startups are subject to strict regulatory scrutiny (think consumer protection laws), and operating in a decentralized education system makes the process of selling new solutions to schools even more difficult. Add the absence of a high-profile supporter for edtech--such as what Barack Obama has done for edtech in the U.S.--and you'll understand why entrepreneurs have some pretty big challenges ahead.
But even with these challenges, Germany’s strong education infrastructure--with free primary schooling and a low-cost higher education system--makes it well-positioned to take advantage of the digital revolution. With the right combination of government support, investor interest and a growing edtech community, the country will maintain its ability to create learners whose ideas and entrepreneurial spirit contribute not just to Germany, but to the world as well.