In recent years Estonia has established itself as a powerful national force in education, outperforming the rest of Europe in the 2018 international PISA tests. As part of an advanced, online-first society, Estonian education has prioritised the efficient and effective use of digital tools to transform learning and has focused on improving the digital skills of the entire nation.
It was great for me to have the opportunity to talk to Annely Tank, CEO of EdTech Estonia for this latest Nordic EdTech News interview. In addition to discussing those PISA results, our conversation also focused on the role of user testing, learning lessons from unicorns as well as the importance of trusting teachers and prioritising wellbeing.
As previously, the transcript of our conversation (edited to bring you all of the very best bits) follows below.
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Many thanks, Jonathan
Jonathan Viner (JV): Hi Annely! Many thanks for agreeing to talk to me today. Let’s start with the basics - could you please explain what EdTech Estonia does?
Annely Tank (AT): EdTech Estonia was founded in December 2020 and is an NGO focused on bringing together and supporting Estonian EdTech companies. We currently have 30 members from across the country and across the EdTech spectrum.
Estonia has obviously been looking at EdTech topics for much longer than that, but previously it was covered by a specialist branch of Startup Estonia. However, at the end of last year, the Estonian EdTech companies wanted to have a separate organisation, although we still have great collaboration with Startup Estonia.
All of our members are motivated by the same ambition - to give every learner access to the very best possible education, regardless of their age, location, technical skills or language. I truly believe that education is the best investment any government can make in its people, enabling anybody to make a difference in the world.
JV: What’s the total number of EdTech companies in Estonia and how is EdTech Estonia funded?
AT: Last year when Startup Estonia published their annual EdTech Review, there were 43 companies who described themselves as focusing on EdTech. We’re obviously talking to all of these companies to get them to join EdTech Estonia!
All of our members currently pay an annual membership fee of €150 and we also receive financial support from the Ministry of Education and Research as well as the Ministry of Economics and International Trade. Their support is hugely valuable and we have a really close partnership with both ministers, which is great.
JV: Does that make it difficult for the organisation if you ever disagree with government policy?
AT: That’s one of the things I love about working with the Estonian government. Even though we are funded by them, we can certainly disagree with them - it's totally fine!
On most occasions, we do share the same views. Of course, we all agree that learners, students and society need access to the best possible education. But we do sometimes see things differently - particularly around the work that the government should do and what the private sector should do. But I think that’s an ongoing challenge in democratic countries across the world.
JV: And what are the key strategic goals that EdTech Estonia is currently working towards? How will you know if your work has been a success?
AT: We share the same ultimate goal of creating the very best possible learning solutions for students and which also help and support teachers. We both also want to see clear routes for our members to easily export their products globally as Estonia is not a big enough market to really sustain most educational technologies.
We’re also focused on empowering innovation in Estonian schools. As an innovation-driven nation with autonomous schools and teachers, this is a really important area for us. We want Estonia to be a leading country for EdTech and to be seen as a role model for collaboration with researchers and scientists. We’re going to be developing collaboration programmes with universities and researchers in Estonia, but also in the Nordics and hopefully, eventually, globally.
The very best EdTech solutions, I believe, come out of research and user testing. So every time we welcome a new member company, I ask them three questions: Who are you building this for? How are you going to test it and why are you building it? If they know the answers to those three questions, then that’s a good base to start from.
JV: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on your members and on Estonian education more broadly?
AT: I think that the most important thing that we’ve learnt is that we really need to focus much more on the mental health and wellbeing of everyone in education. That includes students, parents, teachers and all administration and support staff.
It’s been a really tough time for everyone and I’m really happy that the Minister for Education has launched a hotline for teachers to call and talk with a mental health expert. We’ve also created solutions with some of our members to support all school staff.
JV: Obviously the 2018 PISA results really brought Estonian education to international attention. But you don’t get the best results in Europe without some serious planning. What were the steps that Estonia took to get to the top?
AT: I think that there are really two core things to focus on.
Firstly, Estonians have always loved learning. Educating ourselves and prioritising education has always been a very big part of our culture. Education is almost always the number one topic in every election - it’s really important for people in Estonia.
The second element, of course, is that we have really, really good teachers. And as a country, we have to applaud them for the results they have delivered. Our teachers are passionate about their job and inspire their students with their love of every subject. The government also trusts the teachers to do the right things for / with their students and they’re supported by a very well organised school system.
JV: Of course, the next challenge will be staying at the top! How sustainable is that position and how will Estonia ensure that it remains number 1?!
AT: I don't want to sound arrogant but I think that it’s definitely possible for us to stay on top! We just need to continue to help and support our teachers and to keep developing our ecosystem. Teachers are trying to make every single lesson count for their children and that’s absolutely the right approach.
But I would also like to see PISA change its focus to better reflect student happiness and wellbeing. It’s much more important for me that our students are mentally well than getting straight As or top grades.
JV: What is it about your members that makes Estonian EdTech so unique?
AT: I think that all startup founders have a spark in their eyes. But EdTech founders are even more special - the sensation is a bit like being with a child in a sweet shop. There’s just a special kind of vibration that runs through these people, particularly in Estonia.
Our members are also incredibly hard-working and proactive. I think that they are focused on getting things done - there’s no obstacle that cannot be overcome. They’re also really socially active - they responded during Covid to provide their resources free to schools and ran an award-winning ‘Computer For Every School Child’ campaign to make sure all students had a computer to work on at home.
JV: You talked about the high quality of Estonian teachers earlier. But what’s their perspective on using EdTech in the classroom?
AT: EdTech is widely used by Estonian teachers and that was certainly also the case even before the pandemic. Most teachers are using some kind of EdTech solution on a daily basis. For example, Opiq is used by about 80% of all teachers in Estonia every day. Overall, feedback from teachers is really positive, but there are some things for us to work on together.
Firstly, some teachers do see startups as a risk. They don’t want to start using something and put all of their learning materials onto it, only for the company to then close after 1 or 2 years. So we need to work with schools and teachers to make sure that new solutions are evidence-based and as bullet-proof as possible.
It’s also clear that teachers have grown tired of doing everything online. After nearly 500 days, they’re tired of being in front of a computer screen and not seeing their students face to face. It’s great that technology ensured that teachers and students weren't left behind during the pandemic, but teachers are looking forward to returning to hybrid ways of working. That combination of digital and face-to-face teaching worked well in Estonia before Covid struck.
JV: You’ve already highlighted some of them, but are there other big challenges that your members are currently facing?
AT: That depends on whether you’re an established business or a startup, but there are certainly some common problems that we’re working with members to address.
I’ve already mentioned the slightly blurred lines between what is seen as the government’s responsibility and what is seen as the private sector’s job to do. Members are also working hard to address and understand all of the implications of the GDPR regulations.
But the other big topic is around awareness and visibility. Members want to know how they can let people know what they are doing even if they are small or operating in local markets. It’s also even harder for startups where the CEO is also often playing the role of the CFO and the communications manager.
JV: Estonia is home to some super successful technology businesses like Bolt, Skype and Wise. What lessons can Estonian EdTech businesses learn from these unicorns?
AT: We were actually just discussing this topic yesterday!
I think that the answer is to dream big! We’re able to benefit from the same conditions that they do and all Estonian founders are proactive, hard-working and focused on delivery. It’s all about the mindset - businesses don't have to stick to their local or neighbouring markets. Our unicorns have gone global from the start - they just dream bigger! And that’s the big lesson for us to take forward, I think.
I believe in dreaming big, as you have understood (laughs). I have a dream that in the future, we’ll see new game-changing business rising from small Estonian towns. New EdTechs founded by Kalle, a grandfather who has been a teacher over 40 years, and his granddaughter Maria, who is an IT specialist. Startups like this can be great regional development accelerators - we just haven’t fully discovered their full potential yet.
JV: I’m fascinated by the new Jõhvi Coding School that’s opening in 2023. As you know, it’s a coding school that’s being created for adults looking for self-development or retraining opportunities. To what extent do you think that this represents a new model for teaching tech skills?
AT: Like you, I cannot wait for the school to open. I think that there are three things that I love about the school which demonstrate it’s new approach.
The first is that the initiative came from the private sector. I know from previous jobs the pain that they feel, trying to find the people and the skills that they need. The school will graduate 200 new IT specialists every year, helping to reduce the lack of software engineers in Estonia. This is a real problem for Estonia’s position as a startup hub.
Secondly, the choice of location is very deliberate and fits with the Estonian regional development plan. The school will be based in Jõhvi in Ida-Virumaa - that’s where my parents and roots are, so it’s special for me. But the school will make a big contribution to the whole region by boosting skills and creating new opportunities for local people.
Finally, the school is responding to new ways of learning and is shaking up the status quo. It will be residential with students living on site and working at their own pace from a cloud-based learning platform. There’s no teachers at Jõhvi school, so students work through projects and tasks set by the system. And importantly those tasks are all linked to real-world challenges. Of course, the university model will continue, but it’s also right that we offer learners a variety of routes to gain the skills that they want and need.
JV: One final question, how can we dream bigger and develop an even stronger regional EdTech ecosystem across the Nordic and Baltic states? What needs to happen to move that forward?
AT: I think, again, that collaboration on levels is absolutely key. It’s great that I and the other national association CEOs across N8 are now meeting regularly. But I also want to see policy makers and Ministers working more closely together. That’s all possible but we also need to see better and more frequent communication between all stakeholders.
I’d love to see companies, schools, teachers and students from across all 8 countries working together. There’s so much that we could learn from each other by doing that. We don’t need to wait for Ministers to lead the way. We all have two hands and a brain - let’s all use them and start to get things moving!
JV: Thanks very much for your time Annely. That’s a really inspiring message for us to finish on!
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