Entrepreneur Verena Pausder welcomes us into her home in Berlin. She speaks passionately about digital education and believes that implementation is a particular issue in this area. She also explains how Germany can overcome its digital shortcomings.

The traffic light government “dares” to make more progress, but where in particular is progress needed?

In digitalization and education. Climate protection and other areas are, of course, extremely important too. I must say though that the idea of “daring to make progress” in digitalization sounds like a euphemism. It’s not about “daring” to make progress, but about taking a massive step forwards! About finally doing the things that were announced years or even decades ago.

The FDP pushed for the establishment of a digital ministry. In your opinion, what aspects of progress do the other parties stand for?

The Greens primarily support climate protection and a turnaround in climate policy, so it is a good sign that they are now part of the government and are leading the relevant ministries. It is not so clear where the other parties stand in this regard. That’s why expectations are high. The FDP supports digitalization and education, but now they must turn words into action. As the Minister of Education, Bettina Stark-Watzinger is keen to make changes in this area – and changes are needed. As for the SPD, I don’t yet have a clear idea of what specifically they want to achieve – partly because, quite rightly, Chancellor Scholz is currently in crisis mode. And, of course, after eight years as the junior partner in the grand coalition, it’s not easy for them.

Education and children – what have you learned in this area over the past two years of the pandemic?

We don’t have a problem with knowledge, we have a problem with implementation. As the last two years have shown us: We need fast Internet in schools, teaching equipment, e-mail addresses for teachers, ways to communicate with students who are not in the classroom. We need to be prepared to break free from our formal, bureaucratic structures and change, in other words simplify, processes. The release mechanism for the digital pact fund is a good example of where this change is needed, because if only around half of the money has been used years later, that’s a sign that the current application process is too complicated. We also need an education system where all the elements work together instead of against each other – where cooperation is encouraged rather than prohibited. At the moment, our education system is mediocre, outdated and doesn’t offer equal opportunities.

Where do you see the biggest deficits?

Responsibilities. As a headteacher, I can’t choose my teachers myself, I can’t order equipment myself, I can’t decide where the most urgent needs are. Why do headteachers not have more autonomy and freedom? After all, they know their teachers and their students best. They know where the sticking points are.

What needs to happen for there to be sustainable progress in education?

First and foremost, we need transparency: Where do we want to go? At our “Wir für Schule” (We are for school) hackathon in 2021, we said: We are developing a target vision. Ideally, this vision will be on the wall in every staffroom and classroom in the country. Do we want self-determined learning, i.e. to give more responsibility to children? Do we want more freedom for school management? Do we want digital lessons, or should they be provided only in an emergency? We need to agree on what we want, then define the measures that will get us there – and stick to them. And we must not change these measures as soon as a new government comes into power. Education is a long-term issue, so we need a kind of “societal pact”.

You can’t update teachers like you would a computer.

When it comes to the topic of digital education, how much knowledge is there among politicians?

Below average. I don’t mean that in an arrogant or condescending way. If there isn’t even Wi-Fi in the ministries, if they’re not digital, if everything is still printed out in hardcopy in the Bundestag, then the political world itself has not yet got to grips with digital working. So then how motivated will politicians be to think about digital education? There is so much to do and to clarify: We ought to define which tablets, laptops and software can be used in schools and certify them. Then we can set up a kind of “school app store” that everyone can use.

During the pandemic, you said that it was an historic opportunity for education. You spoke of a complete overhaul. Has this opportunity been seized?

It is now clear to everyone: The foundation for digital education is fast Internet in schools. That is a “benefit” of the coronavirus. The same applies to system administration on site: That’s something that we need urgently, and we see that now. We must not be in a situation where equipment in schools breaks and there is no one there to maintain and manage it. We need IT managers. But that’s not all. My worry is that after the coronavirus people will say: “We have done digital education for two years, now we can return to normal lessons.”

You are a mother yourself. How have you found the school closures, and how did you cope with them?

I found it very stressful. For me personally, because I can’t put my job “on hold” and because the digital infrastructure couldn’t cope. It was also incredibly stressful for my husband and the kids, because sitting in front of the laptop for six hours and having one-way lessons is not a digital education. It’s an analogue lesson via digital channels. And when I say that we found it stressful, we must remember that we are talking about a very privileged household here. Statistics have shown that these digital lessons didn’t even reach over 2 million children. These children also had fewer opportunities for exercise and were less likely to have parents who were able to dedicate time to them. This leaves its mark in families.

What is the best way to train teachers?

You can’t update teachers like you would a computer. It’s a long process. Fortunately, online webinars have made huge progress during the coronavirus pandemic. There are now private platforms that you can use as well. Fundamentally, what we need is this: We need to learn how to transform education so that it doesn’t get worse, but rather is more in keeping with the times – and so that it relieves the burden on teachers. Then they can get back to doing what they do best: teaching.

Everyone has a smartphone, and they collect the most data. A robot vacuum cleaner is harmless compared to that.

In your book “Das Neue Land” (The New Country), you have developed lots of ideas for education policy. Why is it so difficult to implement them?

Because it takes a lot of work. You have to really get stuck in. At the moment, we are creating education policy from an ivory tower: We sit at round tables, take minutes and then come back and do the same again. Education policy is missing people who want to achieve something, who want to make something happen.

You say that implementing digitalization takes a lot of work. Can our country do it?

After being in a pandemic for two years, no country is at full strength. Before the pandemic, we had all the ingredients but not the pressure for change. With the climate, scientists say there is a tipping point. If there were a tipping point in education or digitalization policy, the pressure would be there to act.

Let’s talk about the limits of digitalization and applications like satnavs and robot vacuum cleaners.

I’m an early adopter, I’m not really afraid. Everyone has a smartphone, and they collect the most data. A robot vacuum cleaner is harmless compared to that. Digital sovereignty means: We can decide not to buy a smartphone. But if we want to be part of progress, but the devices we use come from countries outside of Europe where there is little to no data protection, then we can give up any hope of being part of the future. The alternative is to develop things ourselves that are based on our data protection, our values and our principles. I would prefer that to a retro society that doesn’t allow the future, progress or the opportunity to preserve prosperity into its life.

We don’t have a problem with knowledge, we have a problem with implementation.

European sovereignty: Looking at Europe’s role before the pandemic, in fighting the pandemic and in solving geostrategic conflicts, the general view is that Europe does not play a very big role. Is it the same with digitalization?

We shouldn’t give up, but we do need to go faster. Not copy others and create a German or European Facebook or cloud, but get ahead of the curve. If you think about the fact that the IoT (editor’s note: Internet of Things) will connect lots of things that were not previously smart, that’s where we should start. But to do that, we need interfaces and investment in AI in Europe.

You are just coming out of a digital detox. This is something that you have done for years. Why is that?

Firstly, to see whether I can still live without e-mails, WhatsApp and social media. Secondly, because then I get a bit of peace and quiet, and I can read twelve books uninterrupted. I am still working during this detox time, but I focus on the question: Which Verena do I want to be? This time, three “selves” emerged. Ambassador for education, publicist with an opinion and position, and founder.

You have just announced a range of new investments. What are your projects? And where do you think you will progress on a personal level over the coming years?

I am still extremely interested in seeing how things progress politically, even if I am not actively involved at the moment. The European elections in 2024 will be a good opportunity for me to think about what my contribution could be. I’m also looking for a start-up idea, one where I get the feeling I want to go all in.

The interview was conducted by Cara Seeberg and Cornelius Winter.

Verena Pausder is an entrepreneur, expert in digital education and founder of “Fox & Sheep”, one of the largest developers of children’s apps in Germany (among other things). She now advocates for equal access to digital education for children and launched Germany’s largest educational hackathon during the coronavirus pandemic. She is also the best-selling author of “Das Neue Land” (The New Country).