Studying the digital transformation

In the new study program “DSI Minor Digital Skills”, students from all disciplines deal with the opportunities and risks of digital transformation. With interdisciplinary and team-oriented learning settings, it offers a reflective approach to a topic that poses massive challenges to the world of education and work.

Kübra Parmaksiz is relieved: her team's presentation on "Artificial Digital Imaginations and the Human Body" went well. She stands in front of the astonished faces of an audience that ranges from high school graduates to professors of theoretical physics. Making a scientific lecture understandable for such a broad audience was still one of the smaller hurdles for Kübra and her colleagues.

Kübra and her team took part in a learning program that is currently being tested at the University of Zurich (UZH) and will be a fixed part of the curriculum from fall 2024. Students work in a problem-oriented and cooperative manner on interdisciplinary issues related to the digital transformation. Under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Janna Hastings, Kübra's team looked, for example, at how anatomical errors in images generated with generative artificial intelligence (AI) can be evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively. The team's result was a "score" that can be used to objectively compare different algorithms. The team has also tested an algorithm that is designed to improve the results of AI image generation with targeted training. For example, to prevent mistakes such as an unwanted sixth finger or an incorrectly crooked leg.

A minor subject for everyone

Projects like this combine elements of a traditional academic thesis with problem-oriented approaches that arise in professional practice. Students use digital skills that they can acquire in other courses - such as machine learning, open source intelligence or blockchain technologies. The teamwork setting described and the courses mentioned are part of a new study program "DSI Minor Digital Skills", which is open to Master's students at the University of Zurich in addition to their major.

The "DSI Minor Digital Skills" study program is part of UZH's response to the digital transformation, which poses challenges for traditional educational institutions at all levels. On the one hand, technical possibilities are changing so rapidly that curricula need to be much more flexible and adaptable. Furthermore, not all disciplines and not all students at a comprehensive university are equally tech-savvy. And finally, there are resources on the Internet for many learning contents that are up-to-date and of high quality. Inevitably, the question arises as to what the core task of a face-to-face university is in this environment, and what teaching formats can be used to teach content that the Internet does not already cover.

Internalize the change of perspective

This certainly includes learning the ability to think abstractly, problem-solving skills, inter- and transdisciplinarity and the ability to work in a team. In addition, we want to enable our students to critically analyze developments and change their perspective: the computational linguist should develop a basic understanding of the ethical and legal framework of AI, the epidemiologist should understand algorithms well enough to interpret their results correctly. All of this is possible with individual learning paths that students can put together according to their previous education and interests. The "DSI Minor Digital Skills" program is therefore not an abbreviated computer science course, but provides students with comprehensive skills that enable them to classify and make positive use of future changes instead of being unsettled or overwhelmed by them. This equips students for their future working and living environment.

Structurally well positioned

Integrating the cross-sectional "DSI Minor Digital Skills" offering into a discipline-oriented university was a challenge for us. Fortunately, UZH has two structural prerequisites for this: On the one hand, the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) is an interfaculty teaching and research unit whose interdisciplinary community teaches the majority of digital skills courses. On the other hand, the offer is organizationally supported by the School for Transdisciplinary Studies (STS), which was founded precisely for such purposes. All this made it possible for Kübra and her colleagues to be among the first to successfully complete their teamwork. We hope that many students will follow them and are also open to projects with external partners.

Author: Titus Neupert, Professor of Theoretical Physics

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