It may look olde worlde, but Tallinn is at the heart of a strategy which already has seven-year-olds coding (pic Wikimedia)

Should England be more outward looking for its ICT? Bob Harrison is impressed by policy in Estonia
Reform of the former ICT national curriculum in England was overdue, and the difficulties and challenges have been well documented with the resulting issues being worked through by schools. 

However, we're not the first country to reform the ICT curriculum, and during a visit to Estonia – following an invitation to speak at their annual ICT teachers' conference – I recent had the opportunity to share our experiences and learn from some of theirs.

The Michael Gove 2012 BETT speech and the decision to “disapply” our existing national curriculum programme of study for ICT was predicated on him being told “the teaching of ICT in our schools is dull and boring”. Many educators were surprised by this as the most recent inspection evidence suggested that “the teaching of ICT in more than two thirds of schools was good to outstanding”, especially in primary schools.

Nevertheless the reform juggernaut, driven by the British Computer Society, and supported by schools minister Elizabeth Truss MP, gathered pace and ICT became "Computing", but, in reality, with programmes of study which are essentially computer science. There is still a strong feeling among many ICT teachers and IT Industry representatives that the new national curriculum, stripped of the essential components of information technology and digital literacy, neither meets the needs of all pupils nor those of employers.

Exploring 'how technology can be used to enhance learning in all subjects'

This has led to claims by politicians that England is the first country to put computer programming and coding “at the heart” of the new curriculum. During my trip, however, I discovered that the Estonians have not only beaten us to it but are also now turning their attention to a more important issue of how technology can be used to enhance learning in all subjects. The Estonian Information Technology Foundation for Education describes this, and their conference, as “The Turning Point”.

President Toomas IlvesPresident Toomas IlvesEstonia is the most northern of the three Baltic States. Until 1991 it was part of the Soviet Union, and is now one of the most digitally visionary and internet-dependent countries where computing is seen by young people as “fun, simple and cool”.

Of course, Estonia is the birthplace of the internet communication and video-conferencing service Skype, bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion in 2011, and it still employs 450 people at its HQ on the outskirts of the capital, Tallinn.

Estonia has become E-Estonia. The government's programme for schools was co-ordinated by the Tiger Leap Foundation – and all Estonian schools were online with superfast broadband by the late 1990s. Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, educated in the US-educated and a former ambassador to the United States, takes some of the credit for this. He is quoted as saying, “We needed to computerise in every possible way so we can increase our functional size.”

Estonian children already being taught coding from age seven

So nearly two years before English children start to learn computing, Estonian children were being taught programming at the age of seven. In fact the youngest generation of E-stonians encounter ICT as soon as they enter school through the e-Kool (e-school) system, and parents can access pupil progress, assessments, exam marks, and attendance with a simple touch on a screen.

The Estonian Government's commitment to support schools in the use of ICT seems to be paying off. According to the Eurydice key data on Learning and Innovation through ICT at schools in Europe, “There are national strategies covering teacher training measures, ICT for learning research, e-learning/digital media literacy strategies and central steering documents for ICT learning objectives at primary and secondary levels including the use of mobile devices for learning.”

And the official steering documents reveal that both students and teachers are expected to use ICT in all subjects both in class and in complementary activities. There are recommendations on the use of ICT for assessments and “strong encouragement for the creation of public/private partnerships for the promotion and use of ICT”.

According to the European Commission's survey of ICT use in schools, which benchmarks European countries' performance in terms of access, use and attitudes to ICT, Estonia is near the top of virtually every measure especially on measures of staff and pupil confidence using ICT and particularly on measures such as “digitally supportive schools”, “digitally equipped schools” and “digitally supportive students”.

Estonian 'BYOD' way above EU average

Another interesting fact to note from the survey is that Estonia pupils' use of their own laptops/mobile devices (BYOD) is way above the EU average.

Sadly English schools cannot be benchmarked in the study, and are not included, as the response rate from England was so low it made the data unreliable!

Ene KoitlaEne KoitlaThe picture emerging from Estonia is one of a visionary group of digitally savvy politicians, a well-equipped technological infrastructure, a passionate commitment from the schools and teachers to make computing fun and cool and, most important, to embed the use of technology across the curriculum.

However, talking to some of the teachers and teacher educators, it seems they face the same problems as we do. And they are not necessarily due to the technology. Ene Koitla, from HITSA, the education foundation involved with the conference and which promotes the effective use of ICT in education, is a regular visitor to England and the annual BETT show in February. She believes that attitude and behaviours are the main challenge.

“It is not a technological issue, we have the technology, it is about the hearts and minds of leaders and teachers... we need to convince them that technology will make learning better.”

'All our teachers have a masters degree in their own subject specialism'

Piret Luik, associate professor of education at Tartu University, the leading university in Estonia for the education and training of teachers, said, “All our teachers have to have a masters degree in their own subject specialism, but making sure they have up-to-date digital skills is still a challenge”.

Third Millennium Digital Literacy QuizEstonian teachers try the ‘Third Millennium Digital Literacy Quiz’While my Third Millennium Digital Literacy Quiz (designed and updated by digital leaders on my website) is not a scientific measure, it was noticeable that the Estonia, teachers scored significantly higher than those at the English teacher conferences where I usually present.

Recently the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) has been formed by Michael Gove MP, Matthew Hancock MP and David Willetts MP with a remit to report to Ministers how Learning Technology can be used more effectively across primary, secondary, further and higher education and has just begun work.

Estonia is only 85 miles across the water from Finland, a country identified as “successful” according to the PISA tables and of course home to the once mobile technology leader Nokia.

Perhaps the DfE/BIS civil servants planning the next visit to the Nordic countries by Messrs Gove, Hancock and Willets should consider the 20-minute flight from Helsinki to Tallinn as a worthwhile investment of their time.

More information 

Turning Point- The Estonia ICT Teachers conference 
Eurydice data on ICT in schools 
European Schoolnet Survey of Schools 
How Estonia became E-stonia (BBC) 
Google VP Vint Cerf to participate in the Estonian ICT Week 2014 

See also: 
"Why the 'computing' umbrella is letting in water"
"'Computing' is getting close - is your school ready?" 
"Another £1m goes to BCS for computing skills gap"
"Who’s afraid of computing? Not Islington's schools"

Picture, above, of "Old Town of Tallinn from Patkuli viewing platform" courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Ivar Leidus (Ifar)
Photo of President Ilves courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Carl-Johan Sveningsson
Other photos courtesy of Bob Harrison

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is chair of the DfE ICT/Computing Expert Group and education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems. He runs Support for Education and Training 

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