A forward-looking digital architecture as a key component of a successful foundation for digital schools

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic led to increased public discussion of the topic of digitalization in schools. During the discussions, it quickly became clear that the school closures implemented within the framework of several lockdowns meant that without digitalization, schools would not be able to carry out their primary task of imparting knowledge to students. The need to take action in terms of digitalization in schools became very apparent not just to the students, parents, and teachers directly affected by the closures, but also to the public at large. The situation also revealed that several schools were already making extensive use of the opportunities offered by digitalization for remote learning, and for making students and teaches more familiar with the digital systems themselves. The problem is that most schools have failed to sufficiently exploit the value created by such digitalization measures. The digitalization landscape is also quite heterogeneous, whereby this is due to the fact that the issue of digitalization is not being addressed in the same way by all schools or government authorities, nor has any common strategy been developed and implemented.

Position of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs in Germany (KMK 2017) on “Education in the Digital World”

This problem has been recognized however, as is demonstrated by the publication of the KMK’s “Education in the Digital World” strategy1. The strategy identifies “the following fields of action that need to be functionally linked

  • Education plans and the development of teaching; curricular developments
  • Initial, further, and continuing education of educators and teachers
  • Infrastructure and equipment
  • Educational media and content
  • E-government, school administration programs, education and campus management systems
  • Legal and functional framework” (KMK 2017, p. 9)

Participation of society as a whole

The KMK understands that the educational mandate of schools must be quickly further developed in the digital world, and made sustainable as well. In the view of the KMK, this endeavor can “only succeed with the participation of society as a whole and with the support of all relevant stakeholders” (KMK 2017, p. 10). Professional associations like Cross-Business-Architecture Lab e. V. (CBA Lab) that address the issue of the digital transformation in organizations are therefore now called upon to contribute their knowledge and experience to the process for further developing the educational mandate in the digital world.

Incorporation of societal stakeholders with priority placed on educational aspects

Education in the digital world is a challenge that needs to be addressed by society as a whole, which means that effective and coordinated action by all societal stakeholders is required. The KMK is aware of the fact that the educational mandate can only be successfully carried out in the digital world if a relevant agenda is set in terms of “educational, didactic, and technical-infrastructural aspects” (KMK 2017, p. 59). This agenda also needs to be set now. The technical-infrastructural aspect expressly emphasized by the KMK requires the incorporation of the knowledge and expertise of certain societal stakeholders. CBA Lab’s goal in this connection is to use a method that has proved its worth in organizations to demonstrate how suitable technical-infrastructural conditions can be established for the achievement of educational and didactic objectives. However, given the priority placed on educational aspects, educational objectives must be clearly formulated and corresponding implementation concepts need to be developed as well.

The KMK sums up the situation as follows: “Because digitalization is a dynamic process that will continue to accelerate in the future, the proposed strategy needs to be continuously further developed in terms of the fields of action and the conclusions drawn. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs will help formulate and manage current and future measures in a dialog with all other stakeholders – i.e. the German federal government, municipalities, business and industry, the scientific community, and society at large – and will also consult with the same on further implementation steps after the results of the initial measures are evaluated” (KMK 2017, p. 61). As the KNK points out, business and industry and the scientific community need to be involved in these processes.

  • Education systems can only be effective in the digital world if the issue of digitalization in education is “addressed by society as a whole.” This was the conclusion reached by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs in 2017. As societal stakeholders, business and industry also need to be involved in the associated processes.
  • The Cross-Business-Architecture Lab (CBA Lab) is using its professional expertise to present a method for establishing the required technical-infrastructural conditions for digitalization that has proved its worth in organizations and can thus lead to the achievement of the formulated educational objectives

The issue at hand – the need to create a digitally supported education architecture

While the necessity of seizing the opportunities offered by digitalization for the benefit of the educational mandate has been recognized by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, and has also been made a subject of public discussion, it’s just as important to address the technical-infrastructural conditions needed to establish a digital environment in schools. Unfortunately, not enough thought has been given up until now to the question as to what form a forward-looking digital education architecture might take, what such an architecture would be able to do, and which areas need to be addressed in detail. Ultimately, a forward-looking digital education architecture should highlight the required interconnections and enable an understanding to be achieved regarding how individual digital elements, areas, and requirements interact in the school education environment. If we are to create digital schools, it’s crucial that we ask the right questions in order to enable us to adopt the right approaches that will ultimately lead to a digital education architecture that includes all the technical-infrastructural components needed to ensure that specific digital education requirements are met in an optimal manner.

For example, how can schools make use of structures that already exist? How can schools be assisted with technical-infrastructural implementation measures? The effective and efficient use of IT has been playing a key role in the success of business organizations for quite sometime now. Ensuring such effective and efficient use requires the establishment of certain business capabilities, which are understood to be those capabilities and skills that organizations need in order to be able to successfully implement their business models. Similar questions need to be asked with regard to school operations. For instance, which specific capabilities are needed in the digital realm in order to ensure a school can successfully carry out its educational mandate? Which digital functions specifically support the mandate? Here, the capabilities first need to be defined before the technical-infrastructural aspects of their implementation can be considered. Such capabilities include, among others, digital capabilities for imparting knowledge, teaching skills, and managing school administrations. These capabilities stand out through the fact that they are permanent in nature and don’t have to be modified in any way unless or until the aims of the educational mandate are changed. With regard to a digital education architecture in schools, the focus has to be placed on the three areas presented below.

  • Business capabilities refer to capabilities needed to ensure the successful implementation of a business model. Such capabilities also need to be defined for school operations.
  • Only after this has been done can a forward-looking digital education architecture that highlights the required interconnections be developed on the basis of the capabilities.

The three architecture areas for digital schools

Organizations that are highly dependent on information technology often utilize an enterprise architecture management approach. This approach uses identified digital capabilities as a basis for designing a corresponding application landscape with all the required functions. The technical-infrastructural conditions needed are then defined in line with the application landscape. Each of the following three architecture areas has a central question that needs to be answered by those responsible for the architecture:

1 | Digital capabilities – the question of “what?”

The specific capabilities that will be needed in each school (based on the digitalization requirements) have to be determined in order to ensure the successful implementation of a digital school. This targeted clarification of the required digital capabilities at each school must be performed if the digitalization project is to be successful. The specific capability needs must be defined, whereby the focus can vary from school to school. The defined capabilities close the gaps between schools on the one hand and the technical systems on the other – e.g. “digital imparting of knowledge” (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Example of digital capabilities

2 | Application area and functional scope – the question of “why?”

The exact reason why the identified digital capabilities are needed has to be defined – i.e. what functions should they perform in school operations. The focus here should be on how and where the identified capabilities are to be utilized in a school. Only after the specific application area for the capabilities and the functional scope have been clarified can operational implementation in the technical-infrastructural realm begin – for example “virtual instruction” in the form of remote learning via video platforms or a type of homeschooling (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Example of an application area

3 | Technical-infrastructural area – the question of “with what?”

After identifying the required digital capabilities for a school and the associated application area(s) and functional scope, various technical-infrastructure options for meeting the requirements need to be examined. A technical infrastructure must then be chosen and also modified or further developed if necessary. In other words, only after the digital purpose of a technical infrastructure has been defined can a technical infrastructure actually be selected. A decision also needs to be made regarding the hardware and software systems and IT services that need to be procured in order to incorporate the digital capabilities into school operations. The technical infrastructure chosen in each case will vary depending on the needs of the particular school – for example a “web conferencing platform” for digital instruction might be an option in one case but not in another (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Example of a technical-infrastructural area

Starting point and objective of education architecture

The goal of this step-by step approach is to use education architecture to initially identify the requirements and application areas for a school or group of schools and then use the resulting information as basis for selecting the right technologies and products. The starting point here is thus the identification of requirements and the associated clarification of the required digital capabilities for each school. The important thing is to focus on the specific application areas that are needed. The objective is to define suitable technical-infrastructural conditions in such a manner as to ensure that the digital requirements are met in the most effective manner possible and that students, teachers, and parents can make optimal use of the opportunities offered by the digital school for their own particular needs. A targeted education architecture helps schools expand digitalization in line with their specific needs by implementing suitable technical-infrastructural measures for the benefit of everyone involved. Such an architecture also enables the performance of the primary tasks of the educational mandate – for example imparting knowledge to students.

Standardized integrative education architecture as a foundation

It is important to utilize a standardized and integrative education architecture approach for all schools in order to ensure an effective and efficient architecture design. A basic principle of such an approach is that while all schools should be equipped with similar technical infrastructure, each school or school type should also be able to make adjustments based on aspects specific to the school or its location. In other words, not all schools need to actually design the three architecture areas described above but should instead be able to make use of a common digital educational landscape in order to achieve the digital capabilities that they have defined for themselves. The use of such an integrative approach avoids additional organizational complexity and financial expense and ensures that there will be no operational redundancies. Such an approach also makes it possible to gradually integrate other school requirements and newly identified digital capabilities into the architecture at a later point in time. This type of digital integrative architecture needs to be designed by “digital education architects” with a very high degree of IT expertise. Such architects can combine similar requirements and problems that different schools have and then implement measures to meet/eliminate these, whereby the solutions here can be used by other schools as needed.

For schools, this means that school administrators need to think about what they want their digital architecture to be able to do. More specifically, they need to determine how many people should use which capabilities, as well as how they should use them and in which context. Answers need to be provided here in order to be able to define and implement technical-infrastructural measures in accordance with actual requirements. A standardized integrative education architecture thus forms the foundation for exploiting the possibilities offered by digitalization on a broad scale across all school operations.

  • Schools need to define the number of people digital capabilities are to be used for and in which context. 
  • A standardized integrative education architecture is effective and efficient. It provides a large number of schools with a common foundation
  • A high degree of IT expertise is needed to design the architecture.

In practice

Digital application areas, such as remote learning, digital communication and the digital exchange of information, digital homework, and digital teacher training, are fundamental technical-infrastructural components of a forward-looking approach for ensuring the continued implementation of the educational mandate despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these measures are crucial for maintaining the key capability of imparting knowledge to students in a modern society at all times. The aforementioned application areas also form the basis for the further successful implementation of digital capabilities in schools. They were selected because they represent fundamental elements of a digitally supported education architecture. Further work on this topic focuses on the technical-infrastructural systems to be used for the introduction of the application areas to normal school operations – i.e. the answer to the question of “with what?” (as described above).

1 See Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (2017): der-digitalen-welt.html (viewed on : 2/28/2021).