classroom, n. — shared space to communicate and exchange, meet face to face, present to each other, and study together.

Initial Situation

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the outbreak and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus as a pandemic; an epidemic that now officially has worldwide implications – including the operation of schools.

On this day, exactly three weeks before the beginning of the summer semester 2020, many teachers, pupils, students, parents and politicians were suddenly made aware of how precarious the situation is with regard to the now indispensable digitization at German schools and how we are by no means prepared for one or more potential "digital semesters".

Problem Identification

Teaching and learning in the liberal arts thrives on applied and self-determined practice-oriented work as well as on interdisciplinary and interpersonal exchange. The individual areas of the arts and creative disciplines differ and must be treated individually, which is why one cannot simply fall back on a generalized digital tool for the digital study of the arts; not to mention all the details and questions surrounding data protection, privacy, security, and ultimately any licensing and operating costs.

Through Zoom, Webex, et cetera, we use an interface to other people the way the Companies have predefined it; and not the way the context to be used should actually demand it. — Norbert Palz, President of the Berlin University of the Arts

At the Berlin University of the Arts, we were faced with this unexpectedly problematic situation in March 2020 as well. Working, experimenting, researching, and studying could by no means take place in the established ateliers, classrooms, studios and workshops in the coming summer semester; henceforth, an unrestricted intuitive verbal exchange between teachers and students was no longer conceivable in the conventional way.

The big question was: How can we transfer the physical individual work processes that predominate in the arts and design disciplines into digital space; or to what extent can we extend our physical work with adequate digital tools?

How can we also make hybrid forms of artistic-scientific teaching structurally more effective through such digital tools and innovatively combine them with established digital forms of communication?

Problem Solving

For a sustainable and independent digitization strategy of educational institutions, adequate digital tools of this kind should necessarily be 'privacy compliant', 'license free', 'intuitively understandable', 'scalable', 'traceable', 'verifiably secure', 'timely' and 'future oriented'.

There are a number of free digital tools that meet all of the unconditional requirements; however, there is not yet an established approach to embed such tools together as part of a modular, integrated, and extensible platform. A "digital toolbox" in which you can find all the tools you need for digital teaching, learning and collaboration.

A small interdisciplinary development team of students and teachers within the Berlin University of the Arts has been working on this concept for ten months now; an individually configurable platform for digital teaching, learning and collaboration, which interested institutions can install, modify and expand independently, building on the special experience of the arts in the field of self-organized work and design processes.

We developed medienhaus/ — not replacing but extending the physical space.

Our medienhaus/ project focuses on interdisciplinary and interpersonal exchange in the service of emergent, non-pre-determined formative processes; the linchpin of our conceptual approach is an asynchronous communication hub called /classroom, which is based on physical space – but not visually skeuomorphic – and functions as a self-organizing meeting and gathering point for classes, courses, seminars, and project forms of any kind in individual digital /classroom channels that, unlike conventional chat rooms, also allow asynchronous discussion threads and make persistently long communicative project processes viewable, comment-able, and archivable.

Individual rooms of such diverse project organization forms can be expanded in a modular fashion – depending on individual requirements and demands. The extension possibilities are virtually endless; some initial extensions provided by us are, for example, scalable audio/video conferencing, collaborative writing and editing, collaborative whiteboard for layouting and sketching, live streaming and stream watching – all accessible and mappable in the same browser window. All these extensions (and many more, in principle any web application) can be integrated into individual /classroom channels and are available context-sensitively for all participants without switching to other, proprietary applications. Even linking with well-known and established (rather statically structured) LMS solutions like Moodle is possible and could trigger a synthesis of these two paradigms and bring out the best of both worlds in the service of a new digital learning approach for generations that have already grown up with social media and self-determined digital communication.

Federated Communication

Our medienhaus/ platform intuitively introduces all participants to the paradigm of federated communication through the modern technology foundation used here; this functionality enables our /classroom channels to be externally networked and thus exchanged beyond the boundaries of our Berlin University of the Arts and institutional organizational forms.

Various educational institutions provide their teachers, students and staff with their own medienhaus/ instance – physically located in the network of this educational institution, for example; but this can also be any other platform with the same technical basis, see below. With the help of the federation function, and can now communicate with each other in a comparable format across collaboration channels that were previously isolated from each other by different technical and licensing solutions (such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex Teams, Mattermost, WhatsApp, Facebook, et cetera); likewise, students of the Berlin University of the Arts can view and enter the various publicly federated spaces of courses at the Berlin University of Technology – and vice versa, of course. Schools could easily network internationally without any additional technical or organizational effort, as the Berlin University of the Arts was able to test in a pilot project in the summer of 2020 with the "digital sandpits" collaboration with the University of Oxford.

Our medienhaus/ platform is based on the Matrix protocol; an open networking standard which enables secure, decentralized communication with other Matrix-based platforms; there are a variety of different Matrix clients for a wide range of systems, which means you don't necessarily have to use the medienhaus/ platform to communicate via the Matrix protocol. You can think of it a bit like email; different vendors, different clients on different systems, completely independent of each other, and yet they can all communicate with each other using the protocol underlying emailing.

Valuable collaborations can occur within this inter-institutional network.

Decentralized Infrastructure

The decentralized, modular and scalable approach of the free and open-source platform we have designed, combined with the principle of edge computing, would enable not only large educational institutions to participate in this federated network, but also other forms of organization up to, for example, small associations or individuals.

Person-related digital tools can be installed on own resource-saving low-tech hardware; via this instance, the essential participation in the federated network via Matrix takes place in the first place; furthermore, collaborative writing and editing as well as a collaborative whiteboard for layout and sketching, for example, can be made available on such resource-saving low-tech hardware.

Non-personal digital tools can be operated by larger institutions and made available for shared use when not currently busy; for example, audio/video phone calls, audio/video conferencing, live streaming and stream-watching, et cetera.

Climate & Sustainability

This decentralized and federated approach, combined with the principles of edge computing and idle resource sharing, brings two immense benefits:

First, the number of hardware resources running in parallel, but largely unused at certain times, is reduced; this results in more power-efficient and cost-effective operation, as well as a reduction in CO2 emissions associated with operation.

Second, underutilized and unused hardware resources are made available to other members of the network in solidarity; this enables inter-institutional balancing of the hardware load and allows especially smaller groups, associations and individuals without their own hardware resources to use the non-personal digital tools that are otherwise resource-hungry in redundant operation.

The climate crisis is the greatest challenge of the present and coming times, so we believe that any project must be examined in this light in order to counteract the worsening of this global crisis. We cannot assure absolute CO2 neutrality for the operation of the medienhaus/ platform; the previously described low-tech hardware for person-related digital tools could be operated CO2 neutrally; resource-hungry non-person-related digital tools would have to be located in hardware clusters or small data centers, respectively, which can be optimized for CO2 emissions, such as the data center of the Freie Universität Berlin.

To achieve the best possible carbon footprint, a specific balance between decentralized and centralized hardware resources for digital tools is recommended, where appropriate.


The medienhaus/ concept is based on various technological principles:

Hacker ethics of the Chaos Computer Club e. V. – Excerpt of the relevant points.

The big commercial platform companies apparently offer the use of their platform without asking for a fee; and still record exorbitant profits. However, this business model represents the fundamental problem anchored in the system:

Primarily profit-oriented companies cannot act in the sense of protecting personal user data, because it is only with the processing of this personal data that the actual profits of the companies are generated.

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

More than ever, designers and programmers have a growing responsibility to be aware of these interrelationships and to act according to the principles mentioned above, because the products they design and develop are used by a large number of people and, in the age of digital platforms, have a collectively formative influence.

Hardware and software projects financed by government and non-profit funds must then be made available as free and open-source, because this is the only way to ensure some form of return to the community for the money spent.

Decentralization and federation are options for an alternative future; at the current time, we can still conceptually counter the prevailing paradigm of unrestrained data capitalism at its root. With approaches such as /medienhaus we attempt to proactively shape this paradigm change together.



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