How the tech-savvy Estonians dealt with Covid

As others struggled, the small Baltic nation quickly adapted its education system


When Covid struck last year, schools across the world were thrown into disarray – but there is always an exception to the rule, and in this case it’s Estonia. Te European tech powerhouse,

renowned for its digital economy, successfully made the move to remote teaching in “basically a week”. “On a national level, we were

very quick to provide the services in a new situation. It was basically one week, during which we were able to set up services,” says Heli Aru-Chabilan, the director for the internationalisation department at the Estonian education and youth board – a government agency of the ministry of education and research that deals with the imple- mentation of Estonian education and youth policy. Tis should come as no surprise.

Estonia’s education system, which has been at the forefront of digital innovation since the country gained independence from the So- viet Union in 1991, outperforms all other European economies in the Pisa international student assess- ment rankings – coming out top in the three key areas of reading, mathematics and science. Te Organisation for Economic

Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) global tests measure the ability of 15-year-olds to apply their skills and knowledge to real- life problem-solving. So, what is Estonia’s secret? Aru-

Chabilan, who has led a team of 60 people that provided e-services

and practical support to schools across Estonia so that teaching and learning could continue during the pandemic, says, “It’s a mixture of many different aspects” and that integrating technology into educa- tion has been “a long process”. “We started really ahead of

everybody else in the mid 1990s, trying to equip schools with com- puters and improve the internet connection... But it never has been only about the infrastructure, only about the internet connection or devices – we have also always paid a lot of attention to skills develop- ment so that teachers would be able to use technology.” Enter “educational technolo-

gists”. About 10 years ago the nation started deploying digital pedagogy gurus to schools to bridge the gap between “the learn- ing world and the technological world”. “If you really want to use those

technological opportunities wisely, you need to have an interpreter or translator between those two worlds,” Aru-Chabilan says, “and you need to have the right people to facilitate these discussions.”

And it is not just diving into digital that has made Estonia’s education system world-class. Aru-Chabilan says: “As a rela-

tively... poor country, by historical standards, education has been very, very highly valued by our society because it was the only means for a better life. “Our education system values

equity, so there are different mea- sures put in place by government, that actually reduce the socio-eco- nomic effects [felt by] the families of students.” Estonia provides free school

meals and transport, as well as “all kinds of a study support” for students. Te country also “had the

luxury” of being a neighbour of Finland, which it viewed as a role

Heli Aru-Chabilan has helped drive digital transformation in Estonian education

model and source of inspiration since gaining independence. It worked. In the early 1990s,

Estonia was so poor, supermarket shelves often stood empty. But since then, the economy’s gross domestic product per capita has increased more than six-fold.

And according to the 2020 United Nations e-government survey, it is one of the three most digitally advanced countries in the world, alongside Korea and Denmark. Aru-Chabilan, who has helped

drive digital transformation in Estonian education at a policy level over the past two decades, says: “It’s just something that we couldn’t

imagine about 15 or 20 years ago.” Nonetheless, she stresses the

importance of considering the “big picture” and says the education system still faces challenges. Estonian schools are struggling

to recruit new teachers as much of their current workforce nears retire- ment age, and there is “a substantial mismatch of skills” between what is offered by the education system and what the labour market needs. But Aru-Chabilan says the

pandemic has been an “enormous learning opportunity” for the ministry of education and research, which hopes to tackle those issues in its upcoming national learning path strategy. l


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