|Programme Title||VHS Lernportal|
|Implementing Organization||DVV International|
|Language of Instruction||Host country’s dominant language (German), combination of first and second languages|
|Date of Inception||2018|
|Programme Partners||Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), vocational training centres, welfare organizations, counselling centres, private educational institutions|
|Funding||The German Government|
|Annual Programme Costs||USD 2.3 million|
|Annual Programme Cost per Learner||USD 15|
|Annual cost of the digital tool||approx. USD 1.1 million|
|Digital tool(s) used||Google Play, YouTube, VHS Lernportal, mobile devices|
|Target population||Migrants, refugees, women and girls|
|Learner age||Youth and adults|
|Learner to instructor ratio||30:1|
|Target skill(s)||Literacy, digital skills, economic self-sufficiency, vocational education and training|
|Impact||Over 26,000 facilitators and 500,000 learners|
As of 2019, the World Bank estimates Germany’s GDP to be USD 3.846 trillion and the population over 83 million (World Bank, 2020a). About 26 per cent of the population has a migrant background, meaning that they did not acquire German citizenship at birth (BAMF, 2019, p. 14), and there are an estimated 1.77 million refugees living in the country (Deutsche Welle, 2020). Germany was the largest European recipient of asylum applications from the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq and Afghanistan during the refugee crisis in 2016 (Unangst, 2017) – its welcoming refugee policy making it a safe haven for many people fleeing violence and persecution around the globe.
Yet there are an estimated 6 million adults with low literacy skills living in the country, around half of whom do not speak German as a native language (Grotlüschen et al., 2019). This poses a significant challenge for refugees and migrants hoping to integrate into German society, pursue an education and find employment. Despite having one of the largest ICT markets in the world – according to 2017 data, 92 per cent of households in Germany had access to a computer (World Bank, 2020b) and an internet connection (World Bank, 2020c) – Germany is afflicted by a digital divide, with users of other languages largely underrepresented online (Wiggers, 2017). Refugees in Germany rely on ICT as a path to social inclusion and community-building, financial well-being (via access to mobile banking), labour markets, education, and healthcare data (Patil, 2019). Refugees typically work in lower-paid jobs, which have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a large increase in unemployment and higher demand for German language learning (Keita and Dempster, 2020).
In 2018, The German Adult Education Association (DVV International) created a learning portal, the VHS Lernportal, to serve Germany’s 900+ adult education centres. The VHS Lernportal provides free online German as a second language, literacy and basic skills courses for migrants. The curriculum is designed to be used either by facilitators in classrooms as a teaching tool or for self-study by individuals on a mobile device. The portal has even been made available on Facebook and social media platforms. It is optimized for a blended learning approach and can be used offline. It is also available in 18 languages to help learners manage their own language learning process independently through the use of digital media.
Overview of the programme
The VHS Lernportal enables learners to acquire literacy skills (basic, digital, family and health literacy) in a multilingual and lifelong learning context. It has a particular focus on refugees, migrants, and women and girls. Successful completion of VHS Lernportal courses can be documented, meaning that learners can show evidence of their achievements to potential employers and/or educational institutions. DVV International plans to create its own examinations in the near future.
The platform is designed to be easy to navigate and compatible with smartphones or other mobile devices. Units comprise 12 lessons, each containing up to 80 individual exercises. Learners earn ‘badges’ as they progress through the materials. The VHS Lernportal supports learners on a continuous basis and incorporates real-life scenarios into the programme units. Learners are guided through German language skills including reading, writing, speaking and listening.
The programme provides units tailored to various levels of German language proficiency, from A to C, based on the levels laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), as illustrated in Figure 1. It also provides units designed to boost learner’s professional German skills and prepare them for the job market.
Figure 1. Choice of German language learning options according to proficiency. Source: VHS Lernportal
The objectives of the programme are to:
- reach a large number of learners;
- enable learners to study and practise German independently and in a self-directed manner;
- introduce learners to studying via technology;
- convince educational institutions of the value of digital learning.
The German Government provides free, in-person courses for all migrants wishing to learn German as a second language. However, waiting lists are long and services are not always immediately available to learners. The VHS Lernportal can serve as a stopgap measure while learners wait for these services to become available. Moreover, when learning went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, learners and facilitators were able to use the VHS Lernportal to schedule face-to-face interactions. As of September 2020, around 500,000 learners and 26,000 facilitators were using the VHS Lernportal to study German.
Enrolment of learners
Anyone can enrol in the programme from an internet-enabled device. The enrolment process is simple and user-friendly. For example, if learners prefer a language of instruction other than German, they can choose from a further 18 languages to view the website and navigate it more easily. Most of the texts on the website also come with an audio version. Learners can register free of charge for the programme using the VHS Lernportal registration page. They can then choose which level of German they would like to study, from beginners’ to B2 level. The VHS Lernportal’s YouTube channel provides a subtitled instructional video that can be automatically translated to many languages showing learners how to register correctly.
If new learners prefer to study independently, they can simply register on the website by providing their name and email address, and creating a user name. Those who wish to attend an adult education centre in-person and participate in a state-funded course must first meet the requirements of the respective VHS.
Assessment of learners
Learners who successfully complete a self-study task are awarded a badge or other virtual reward, thus enabling them to track their individual learning progress. Learners can attain an unofficial certificate of completion that can be used in other contexts. They can print out this certificate as proof of the time they have spent studying and the number of tests they have passed. They can also use the VHS Lernportal to prepare for state exams, as its language courses are officially accredited.
Learners who complete a set task online receive immediate automatic feedback and are shown the correct answer. In addition, all online learners are accompanied by a personal tutor provided by DVV International, who corrects texts, gives feedback, provides advice and maintains learners’ motivation. In presence-based or blended learning courses, the teacher can also act as a virtual tutor by supervising activities, assigning exercises, assessing learners’ progress and providing feedback online. This approach, which combines technology with the ‘human factor’, has been proven to increase users’ commitment to learning (see the testimonials at the end of this case study). An appropriate combination of online and face-to-face learning must be established for each individual learning group. As a rule, the proportion of online teaching offered to learners is higher for those who are more proficient in German and/or possess better digital skills.
Teaching and learning approaches
The VHS Lernportal comprises 12 lessons and offers German courses at levels A1, A2, B1 and B2. Each course starts with a specific scenario based on a short sequence of animated illustrations in which different characters successfully master everyday challenges. These characters accompany the learners throughout the lessons and across all of the courses.
Each scenario provides a snapshot of the subject matter and learning goals that will be covered in the subsequent lesson. Offering a variety of animated/gamified incentives, each lesson comprises approximately 80 different exercises. These exercises repeat the content presented in the introductory scenario in a meaningful way and include about 20 different types of task designed to develop reading and listening comprehension, writing, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary in the target language.
When developing the course content and exercises, developers ensure that the activities are intuitive and easy to follow. Some of the courses also contain supplementary materials, such as films and tests, to enhance the learner experience and course effectiveness. Facilitators are free to use the VHS Lernportal in their classrooms in whichever way they choose, and to adapt materials to their learners’ specific needs and contexts.
Recruitment and training of facilitators
In general, course instructors (known as ‘Kursleiterinnen’ or ‘Kursleiter’ in German) are introduced to the VHS Lernportal through working for adult education centres throughout the country. They must be qualified to teach German and have language teaching experience. They also are required to be proficient in German at C1 level. The VHS Lernportal also uses online tutors (known as ‘Lernbegleiterinnen’ or ‘Lernbegleiter’) who must fulfil similar skill requirements.
DVV International reports that many instructors themselves require training to use the VHS Lernportal in a constructive way. It therefore provides them with appropriate training and support, including instructional courses, teaching materials and an online platform in which instructors can network and share ideas. An eight-week introductory training course (lasting a total of approx. 270 minutes) is provided so that instructors can learn how to use blended learning in the classroom. Instructor guides, worksheet handouts, videos, posters and games are provided for instructional use. A mentoring system is also available. Tutors, meanwhile, can take part in a four-week training course (180 minutes) that covers similar content. Both types of training course are scheduled provided that more than eight instructors or tutors register to attend each course. A maximum of 12 participants can attend each course. In addition to these face-to-face training courses, instructors and tutors can undertake intensive online training through the VHS Cloud, which features eight modules, each of which requires three to five learning hours.
All of these courses are conducted by DVV-qualified professional trainers. In addition, the VHS Lernportal includes a dedicated webpage for facilitators, providing them with written instructions, video tutorials, examples of best practice and other resources, such as links to webinars.
Experience has taught DVV International that simply providing the VHS Lernportal and releasing it for use is not enough. It cites its extensive training and outreach programme for instructors as crucial to the programme’s success. Continuous improvements to the VHS Lernportal that assure the quality of the programme and feed into teacher training provision are also key. DVV reports that it gathers regular feedback from instructors and has conducted a survey of around 950 instructors who use the portal to document their experiences. Furthermore, it has scheduled regular classroom visits and discussions with VHS instructors and online tutors centring on the following questions:
- What specific benefits do the German courses in the VHS Lernportal provide for language acquisition among learners?
- Which combination of face-to-face and online teaching makes sense for which groups of participants?
- What obstacles do learners and instructors face?
- Which real-life scenarios and approaches have proven successful in practice with different learner groups?
Findings are continuously used to further develop the portal and courses in terms of technology and content. They are also used to supplement resources for teachers: successful scenarios and strategies for dealing with digital learning challenges have been incorporated into teacher handbooks and training courses.
Technology: Infrastructure, management and use
The VHS Lernportal is a learning management system (LMS) that provides a virtual learning space for learners. DVV International has been using ICT since 2004 and considers the VHS Lernportal to be an upgrade on its prior offerings. The learning portal supports multiple learning formats, such as audio, video and text, and is designed to ensure that technology can be used as much or as little as a facilitator or learner wants.
After being introduced to the programme, learners can study independently. Each learner has a personal account that charts his or her individual learning progress; as a result, learners always know which lesson they should select to continue their studies (see Figure 2). Meanwhile, facilitators can check learners’ progress on a regular basis and assign them additional exercises if and as needed. Some exercises are corrected automatically, which provides learners with instant feedback. Others, such as free-writing exercises, are sent to the facilitator and corrected manually.
Figure 2. Individual user interface for an A1-level course on the VHS Lernportal. Source: VHS Lernportal
As shown in Figure 2, once learners have logged in to the portal they can click on a button marked ‘Learn here’ to access lessons and tests. Figure 3 shows a sample lesson for an A2-level course.
Figure 3. A level A2 listening comprehension exercise on the VHS Lernportal. Source: VHS Lernportal
The interface (Figure 2) is simple to navigate and provides links for learners to access practice exercises and tests, view their messages, contact their tutor, learn vocabulary, and practise phrases. Facilitators can monitor their students’ learning activities and assign exercises, either individually or in groups. A messenger tool allows tutors to communicate directly with learners. Furthermore, a noticeboard and group chat are provided for each course.
Data collected by DVV International suggests that most learners use a smartphone to access the VHS Lernportal. The instructional design of the course ensures that learners lacking digital skills receive adequate support so that they can improve those skills before using the portal. The VHS Lernportal is inclusive and features embedded audio functionality for learners who experience difficulty reading. VHS apps for the various proficiency levels can be downloaded for online and offline use. They are available from the Google Play store (for Android devices) and the Apple App store (for iOS devices). Further information and links to the apps are provided on the VHS Lernportal website (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Screenshot of information on and links to apps, from the VHS Lernportal website. Source
In addition, the programme has its own YouTube channel featuring video materials ranging from tutorials to help learners register and use the programme, to short cartoons in German for various levels of proficiency. Most of the videos serve as supplementary resources for instructors.
Programme impact and challenges
Impact and achievements
As of September 2020, approximately 26,000 teachers and 500,000 learners were using the VHS Lernportal . The curriculum can be accessed by around 900 adult education centres across Germany, as well as a number of other educational providers. In 2019 alone, 1,100 instructors attended training sessions on how to use the portal and adapt it to their own contexts. The more familiar instructors became with the technology, the more likely they were to use it in their classrooms.
The VHS Lernportal proved particularly valuable when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Educational providers were able to use the curriculum as instruction turned to online delivery.
Benefits to participants
Benefits to facilitators
Benefits to community
• Improved German language skills.
• Improved digital skills.
• Increased digitization in education;
• Major progress towards state-of-the-art teaching practices ;
• Free, quality-assured online learning materials.
• Improved digital skills.
• Introduction to a tool and strategies for self-directed learning.
• Free content that is accessible to all.
• Introduction to a tool and methods for digitally supported teaching.
• Differentiation between learners is facilitated.
• Large pool of exercises to draw on.
• Networking and sharing of best practice.
• Training that diversifies individual teachers’ portfolio of teaching methods.
• Free qualifications that boost course quality.
Table 1. Benefits of the VHS Lernportal. Source: DVV
The DVV recognizes that the VHS Lernportal’s overall success can be attributed to the combination of different forms of support that it provides. In addition to a functional technical infrastructure and good learning content, it prioritizes high-quality teacher training and close cooperation between all of the stakeholders involved (software developers, learning content authors and teaching staff). This has resulted in a quality educational product that can expect long-term success (see Table 1).
Course feedback is primarily positive. One of the strengths of the VHS Lernportal is its ability to support learners individually by varying the difficulty of the tasks set, thus allowing them to learn at their own pace. In addition, learners note that it is very useful to have courses that can be accessed at any time using a smartphone and/or from home.
I always have my smartphone with me wherever I go. In the train, in the car – whenever I have a little time, I can learn and repeat. I think that's very good.
Kateryna Reshetnova, integration course participant
In the beginning it was new to learn with the smartphone, but now I think it's very good that I can learn anywhere and anytime, for example when I'm on the bus or waiting for the bus.
Catrin Abu Shama, participant in a language course for professionals
I think blended learning is good because I can learn at home. I don't have much time to come to school, and if I can study at home comfortably, that's great.
Diego Calle Giraldo, participant in a blended learning course
The VHS language app has also received generally good reviews on Google Play (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Screenshot of reviews for the B1 German app on Google Play. Source: Google Play Store
Course instructors, meanwhile, praised the VHS Lernportal for allowing them to support their learners individually, for example by assigning easier tasks to weaker learners and supplementary exercises to faster learners. They particularly appreciated the fact learners can study independently, receive individual support and use the app offline:
Learners become more autonomous and can control their learning process. They are able to say, ‘The exercise didn't work out so well, I'll do it again’, and then, because it's an online programme, get the appropriate feedback.
Irene Janzon-Störmer, integration course instructor
In one course we have different learners and different learning speeds, some need many more exercises than others. With the learning portal I can offer participants much more individual support.
Sotiria Tsakiri, instructor at an adult education centre in Karlsruhe
The good thing about the VHS Lernportal is that the courses are also available as apps that run offline. If there is no WLAN at the place of teaching, you can take the participants for a little excursion, for example to the city library or to another hotspot. Then they download the content to their phones and can work offline. As soon as they are online the next time, the system synchronizes automatically.
Ulrike Eichenauer, instructor at an adult education centre in Dortmund
DVV International has identified and addressed three main challenges in designing and implementing the VHS Lernportal: the first concerns the lack of technology available at adult education centres. This has been addressed using the ‘bring-your-own-device’ approach. If instructors have access to technology, they can use it in the classroom; if it is lacking, learners can bring their own devices to class and instructors can integrate their use into their lesson planning. Additionally, instructors have the option of using a blended approach whereby learners access VHS Lernportal courses outside the classroom, and in-person lessons build on this learning.
The second challenge involves the self-paced nature of learning on VHS Lernportal, where progress depends largely on learner motivation. While badges and other virtual rewards are built into the programme design, DVV International recognizes that additional motivators would benefit users who are studying independently. DVV International therefore provides these learners with access to live tutors who help them with their studies and provide feedback.
The third challenge concerns learners’ lack of digital skills. Programme designers have addressed this issue by including instruction for users who need to improve their learning skills using a device such as a smartphone or tablet.
Stakeholders and partnerships
The VHS Lernportal aims to improve the reading and writing skills of adults in Germany as part of the country’s National Decade for Literacy and Basic Education 2016–2026, and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). DVV International is one of a group of 17 organizations involved in the National Decade initiative, and is in regular dialogue with its partner organizations.
DVV International comprises more than 900 adult education centres in locations across Germany. BMBF will fund the project until 2025. Due to the fact that the VHS Lernportal is based on the curriculum for state-funded language courses, a number of other major government stakeholders are involved, including the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS).
DVV International plans to expand the VHS Lernportal by developing an English-language programme focusing on professional and/or technical language. It also intends to introduce a course on digital skills. It acknowledges the need to continue providing training for the instructors and tutors who use the VHS Lernportal programme. DVV International has secured four additional years of funding from BMBF, which will allow it to develop and operate a follow-up project until 2025.
BAMF (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge/Federal Office of Migration and Refugees). 2019. 2019 migration report: Key results. [pdf] Available at: https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/EN/Forschung/Migrationsberichte/migrationsbericht-2019-zentrale-ergebnisse.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=4 [Accessed 16 March 2021].
Deutsche Welle. 2020. Germany's refugee population falls for the first time in nine years. [online] Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-refugee-population-falls-for-the-first-time-in-nine-years/a-55160344 [Accessed 2 November 2020].
Grotlüschen, A., Buddeberg, K., Dutz, G., Heilmann, L. and Stammer, C. 2019. LEO 2018 – Living with low literacy. [pdf] Hamburg, University of Hamburg. Available at: https://leo.blogs.uni-hamburg.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/LEO_2018_Living_with_Low_Literacy.pdf [Accessed 29 October 2021].
Keita, S. and Dempster, H. 2020. Five years later, one million refugees are thriving in Germany. [online] Center for Global Development. Available at: https://www.cgdev.org/blog/five-years-later-one-million-refugees-are-thriving-germany [Accessed 11 February 2021].
Patil, A. 2019. The role of ICTs in refugee lives. ICTD ’19: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, Article No. 48, pp. 1–6. [e-journal] Available through: https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3287098.3287144 [Accessed 11 February 2021].
Unangst, L. 2017. Germany’s innovative strategies to enrol refugees. [online] Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/world-view/germanys-innovative-strategies-enroll-refugees [Accessed 11 Feburary 2021].
Wiggers, H. 2017. Digital divide: Low German and other minority languages. Advances in Language and Literary Studies, 8 (2), pp. 130–143. Available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1143919.pdf [Accessed 11 Feb 2021].
World Bank. 2020a. Data: Germany. [online] Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/country/germany?view=chart [Accessed 15 November 2020].
World Bank. 2020b. Access to computers from home (% households). [online] Available at: https://tcdata360.worldbank.org/indicators/acc.cpu.home?country=DEU&indicator=30&viz=line_chart&years=2005,2017 [Accessed 11 February 2021].
World Bank. 2020c. Internet access (% households). [online] Available at: https://tcdata360.worldbank.org/indicators/inet.acc?country=DEU&indicator=31&countries=BRA&viz=line_chart&years=2005,2017&indicators=944 [Accessed 11 February 2021].
 The VHS Lernportal homepage can be accessed at: https://www.vhs-lernportal.de.
 The VHS Lernportal is currently available in Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, English, Farsi, French, Greek, Italian, Kurmancî, Pashto, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Tigrinya and Turkish, as well as in German.
 See https://abc.vhs-lernportal.de/wws/9.php#/wws/registrierung-lernende.php.
 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9mQ8IuYDkk.
 See https://www.vhs-lernportal.de/wws/9.php#/wws/erste-schritte-kursleitende.php.
 The B1 German (B1-Deutsch) app, for example, is available from the Google Play store at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=de.digionline.webweaverb1&hl=en_US&gl=US and the Apple App store at https://apps.apple.com/us/app/b1-deutsch/id1485254913.
 See https://www.vhs-lernportal.de/wws/9.php#/wws/apps.php.
 See https://www.youtube.com/c/vhslernportal.
 See https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=de.digionline.webweaverb1&hl=en_US&gl=US&showAllReviews=true.