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Digital education firms speed up innovation

It was surprising even by Estonian standards. In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantine, the entire country moved to remote learning almost overnight, and companies that develop digital e-education platforms repositioned their products to help new users. Not only did the pandemic transform Estonian education from top to bottom, but it also gave these same firms new innovative ideas about how to improve their digital education solutions, and how to best be prepared for the future.

A sea change in learning

In the middle of March, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the entire nation went into quarantine for a period set to end in May. An emergency situation was announced by the government, borders were locked down, flights were cancelled, and ferry transport to some of the country’s largest islands was halted for some time.

At first, parents of schoolchildren like myself were told that our sons and daughters might be able to return to school within a matter of weeks. But that two weeks then stretched out into a month, then two, and even after the lifting of the emergency situation in May, schools grappled with how to best reintroduce in-person schooling or how to hold end-of-year parties.

In the case of my daughter’s sixth grade class, they decided to separate the children into A and B groups, with the weekdays divided evenly between them, but still, parents were apprehensive about allowing their kids to return and some opted to continue digital learning. In fact, it had become the new norm. Within the span of weeks, students transitioned to remote online learning so easily that there was no need to meet face-to-face. Instead, my daughter dutifully downloaded her work via Google Drive, attended the weekly Zoom meetings with her teacher, and photographed her English and Russian language assignments to send them to the right teachers.

It was a sea change in learning in Estonia, and even some e-education firms were left impressed by the way the country managed to pull it off.

“I was surprised by the quickness of the response,” says Kadri Tuisk, CEO of Clanbeat, a Tallinn-based software company that offers an online space for teachers and school leaders to interact. She especially credits government-supported organizations like the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA) and Foundation Innove with helping educators make the transition to remote learning.

“Right away, when it happened, they undertook almost superhuman efforts to get information out there, creating support materials on how to use technology solutions, how to support teachers, school leaders, students and parents,” says Tuisk.

Clanbeat also did its part, quickly repositioning its flagship platform into a Virtual Teacher’s Lounge and offering to onboard new users for free.

“We picked up that the communication of teachers would be vital for surviving this period,” Tuisk says. “On Friday, we heard there was a problem, and by the next day, Saturday morning, we were already offering Virtual Teachers’ Lounge to Estonian schools for free, as well as to international schools.”

The four-year-old company also was prompted into a new round of product development because of the crisis, and recently introduced a new product, Clanbeat Students, to help students set and achieve their own goals.

“Some students got stuck,” Tuisk acknowledges. “The assignments from school piled up, they got lost in prioritizing them, and they lost their ability to get things done,” she says. “In this new reality, they had to develop their own learning rhythm, and some struggled to say the least.”

She notes though that these issues of moving to remote learning had to be dealt with sooner or later. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic only forced educators to make adjustments that some believe would happen in five or ten years’ time.

The benefits of digital infrastructure

Other companies in the e-education services market had similar experiences. While teachers and students were mulling over the best ways to stay on track for the rest of the school year, companies were pulling all-nighters to make sure their products were best positioned to assist.

“We reacted extremely quickly,” says Tõnis Kusmin, CEO of 99math, another Tallinn-based software firm that develops online math games. “When the news came out about the lockdown, I immediately called in my team and we went to work,” he says. “We spent a night in the office preparing for the next day and because of our quick reaction, things went well and we saw an increase in user numbers, not just for 99math, but other firms that are necessary in this new distance-learning situation.”

Kusmin notes that Estonians were able to transition quickly because of a familiarity with doing business online. In the digital society, where banking has been online for decades, and voting and filing ones taxes is now just a click or two away, moving to digital remote learning wasn’t so unusual for Estonian educators or pupils.

“A lot of it comes down to the digital infrastructure that we have in Estonia,” says Kusmin. “Fortunately, the situation in Estonia is pretty good.” He noted that nonprofits also worked to make laptops and devices available to families in need too. But mostly the success of the transition depended on schools and individual teachers, especially. Here, he credits the tech savvy of younger teachers with assisting older teachers to adjust to using e-education services.

“They had colleagues who were already proficient, and from whom they could ask advice,” says Kusmin.

For 99math, the quarantine hit just as the company was introducing its debut product, which aims to teach math via an interactive, video game-like user experience. While it encouraged rapid uptake of its platform, it also built out the firm’s experience which helps it as it sells its product into other markets, not only in Europe or the US, but elsewhere. “In Latin America, it is going quite well,” notes Kusmin. “All kinds of e-tech tools are growing in Latin America.”

Reaching 2030 … in one day

Tanel Keres, the CEO of eKool, an 18-year-old firm that offers a school management tool for administrators, teachers, parents, and pupils, eKool’s experience was quite similar to other firms.

“In one day, everything changed completely,” Keres says of the experience. “We saw that our user account in peak times increased from 3,000 to 12,000 people online. Engagement increased by 120 percent,” he says. “It all created a complete change in usage.”

But something else changed this year. Teachers lost their apprehension of transitioning to digital courses or meetings. “I’ve held many discussions with school administrators and one remarked that we accomplished our 2030 education strategy in one day,” notes Keres. For eKool it also provided the company with a wealth of user experience information to help refine its offering.

“Over the summer, we made a lot of development in our back end,” says Keres. “The pandemic definitely gave us some guidelines on what schools want, what they need, and how they want it.”

While the pandemic has brought e-education solutions to the fore in Estonia, it has also created new issues that have to be dealt with too. Clanbeat’s Tuisk noted that students started to suffer from “digital fatigue” during the online learning period and this presents challenges in the future.

“There were lost kids out there, they got tired of the digital world, and this is a problem to solve in the next epidemic,” Tuisk says. “We need to help those who are less open to digital learning.”

Tuisk (Clanbeat), Keres (eKool), and Kusmin (99math) will all take part in an upcoming digital discussion on 10 September concerning e-solutions and the Estonian experience. Digital transformation adviser Anett Numa will provide an overview of Estonian e-education and Florian Marcus, e-Estonia’s transformation adviser, will lead the session. Participants will be able to ask questions during moderated breakout sessions as well as a general Q&A session.

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