The recent history of Estonia is a powerful case study of how a country can succeed by investing in a high-skills orientated education system designed to support a high technology economy. Estonia has used such a strategy to transform itself from a poor ex-Soviet country to a leading European economy and a hub of information technology (IT) communications. Internet technology permeates Estonian society with e-elections, e-taxes, e-police, e-healthcare, e-banking, so much so that the country has gained the moniker of “E-stonia”. Estonia is also home to the creators of the IT giant Skype and the NATO cybersecurity center and is one of a few countries to independently send satellites into space. The country’s advanced technology power is impressive, given its small population of 1.3 million, its location on the geographical periphery of Europe and its limited economic development when Estonia was part of the USSR.
Estonia’s education performance rising rapidly
In the last decade, Estonia has ranked in the top twenty in the world in the domains of reading, mathematics and science as determined by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA results show Estonia has been a consistent top-performing country, particularly in science and cracked the top-ten when averaging all three subjects on PISA 2012.
More impressively, Estonia has the lowest proportion of low-achievers of PISA participating countries.
Furthermore, socioeconomic background has limited influence on learning outcomes in Estonia, relative to the other nations participating in PISA. More than a third of Estonian students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are among the best performers on PISA. These top ranked students demonstrate the capacity to extrapolate information from the evidence, to apply that knowledge in order to solve unfamiliar problems and to communicate clearly how they arrived at a solution. Students who can consistently understand complex concepts and solve complicated problems are likely to become motivated and dedicated learners and are able to overcome various unforeseen challenges in their work career. A significant number of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds having these skills boost the level of social mobility and is a powerful asset to the Estonian economy.
Of particular interest in Estonia is the performance of Russian minority students, traditionally a low-performing group in Estonia. Russian-language schools, which make up 13 percent of all schools in Estonia, have improved significantly. Between PISA 2006 and 2012, the achievement gap between Estonian and Russian language schools had decreased in reading from 66 points to 36; in math from 40 points to 31; and in science from 43 points to 36.
A notable aspect of Estonian PISA results is the level of technology used by Estonian students. Estonians are a leading country in terms of using school web and e-school platforms; fewer than two percent of Estonian students go through a typical school day without using the Internet. The remarkable level of IT school usage is due to a number of key educational initiatives, such as Tiger Leap Foundation, the eKool system, and a program called ProgeTiger, which aims to teach all students computer programming from an early age. These initiatives are described below.
Tiger Leap Foundation
The Tiger Leap Foundation was initially launched as a public-private partnership program in 1996 to teach computer technology to Estonian students. The foundation is a partnership among the Estonian Government, ten private companies, an association of Estonian computer companies and 26 individual experts. The objectives of the foundation are to:
1. Train teachers in pedagogical methodologies using ICT during their lessons;
2. Make e-learning a key element of daily work, curricula and teacher development training;
3. Provide digital educational materials;
4. Distribute innovative e-Learning services;
5. Organize web-based educational projects and competitions between schools; and
6. Foster and support teachers’ virtual practice communities.
The main tools of this educational initiative are computer language teaching programs, special application software, project work, presentations, forums and virtual learning environments. These computer tools can significantly assist teachers and other educators in developing students’ skills in both ICT subjects and non-ICT subjects. Through this work, all Estonian schools were online by the late 1990s, a significant achievement given the low rates of Internet access across schools in most OECD countries, even to this day. Considering that it has been less than 10 years since the fall of communism in Estonia, when the economy’s performance was very poor, this is remarkable.
eKool (e-school) system
The eKool system, established in 2002, is an information portal connecting parents, students, teachers and school administrators. The objectives of the system are to make coursework and assignments easily available to students, facilitate the work of teachers and school management, and to engage parents in the educational process. The system provides different real-time information to the users – students, parents, teachers, school management and administrators. For example, students who are absent from class can still access that day’s lessons and assigned homework.
The e-school system also includes a discussion forum for school leaders, teachers, parents and students of each participating school. This discussion forum provides an easy-to-use channel of communication between the respective users to discuss schooling issues, which is particularly handy for time-pressed parents. The e-school system produces a study book where parents and students can view all grades each quarter, enabling parents to monitor their children’s progress in school.
Building on the Tiger Leap Foundation and the e-school system, Estonia has recently launched a pilot program to teach students to do computer programming to further link their education system to skills required in future jobs. The pilot program provides course material and specialized teacher training in computer coding for 20 schools (out of a total of 550 schools in Estonia). The objectives of ProgeTiger are to:
- Help students develop the thinking, creativity and mathematical skills they need to do computer programming;
- Demonstrate that programming can be interesting and accessible to any student;
- Teach the basics of programming through a ‘learning by doing’ approach and practical activities; and
- Teach students to use different, age-appropriate programming languages.
The thinking behind this educational initiative is that in the future, coding skills will be required for a wider range of jobs, not just restricted to IT fields. Whereas in the past, the non-tech sectors relied on a limited use of technological skills, the organizers of the pilot project believe that future workers in a growing range of industries will greatly increase their productivity if they are proficient in computer technology, including how to write code.
The ProgeTiger initiative teaches simple programming languages, web applications and website creation during classes or in hobby clubs to students from grades 1 through 12 with a specific focus on teaching basic programming to primary school children. As is the case of teaching foreign languages to children at an early age, basic computer programming can be learned rapidly as young children are open to grasping new concepts and vocabulary. The project is still in the pilot-phase with only 60 teachers trained at this point. There are plans to scale the project up over the next few years so that more students will develop experience with information technology applications.
Lessons from E-stonia
Estonia, a small country whose economy was not thriving in the 1990s, was determined to move to a high-skill, high-wage economy and invested in school-based information technology as part of a much larger economic development strategy based on an aggressive use of information technology. For more details on the policy that started this off in Estonia see the 1998 “Estonian Education Scenarios” strategy of an information society by 2015 document.
As Estonia’s computing initiatives continue to take effect, it will be interesting to see how the country’s integration of education strategy and economic development strategy continues to play out. So far, it looks as though Estonia is a good example of the kind of country Andreas Schleicher, Acting Director for the OECD Directorate of Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General, had in mind when he said that, “success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change.”