The digital solutions became a lifeline, which helped Estonia continue learning and teaching in the corona spring. And Estonia did well. The survey showed that in comparison with neighbouring countries, students in Estonia were more satisfied with distance learning. (Telia Survey, Spring, 2020). However, in the new school year, Estonia has avoided full distance learning.
The spring made it clear that we must pay more attention to the quality of learning and teaching and to mental health: supporting networking and collaboration. Despite the corona wave that hit Estonia much more painfully in autumn 2020, the general view is that contact teaching should be provided for as long as possible for younger school levels (students in grades 1-6) and for students in need of support. At the beginning of the school year, the Ministry of Education emphasized that full distance learning could only be a last resort.
On the Estonian Ministry of Education recommendation, precautionary measures such as dispersal and reduction of close contacts must be implemented in all Estonian schools. For example, teachers use hybrid learning with fewer students at school at the same time. Many Estonian schools have been organizing both regular teaching and distance learning at the same time throughout the autumn in case some students, teachers, or classes are at home due to an illness or contact with a patient.
Learning had to be designed differently
Schools were advised to think about possible risks and to be ready to conduct distance learning if necessary. “We also need to design all learning differently so that learners are ready to learn in a new way even if the outbreak does not threaten us,” says Mare Räis, Järveküla school principal. “That’s why we’ve organized independent study weeks for students to get used to setting goals, planning their learning, and taking responsibility for it.”
- A thing or two facilitating the organization of distance learning had already been done in Järveküla school before the crisis. All school documentation and teaching have been in the “cloud since the establishment of the school five years ago, Google Suite for Education is in use starting from the 5th grade and the elementary school uses the Estonian own solution Stuudium.
- Before the autumn, the school also checked the readiness of classes to use smart devices and environments and conducted teacher training. Parents are assisted by virtual help in the Meet environment. Hangouts are used for teacher and management meetings and Google Meet for teamwork. It is possible to communicate more freely, “have coffee” together, and relieve tension in the school’s virtual teachers’ room.
- An arrangement was made for making a weekly plan so that all the week’s studies would reach each class on Monday morning. As half of the lessons are video lessons, also a netiquette and video lesson rules come of assistance.
- The school bought computers and set up a computer rental for homes. The content of school food packages (school food is free in Estonia) and their distribution procedure was planned.
- It is also essential to think about those for whom distance learning is difficult. “Already in the spring, the support team did an excellent job,” says the school principal. “Student support and virtual learning opportunities were also discussed.”
Everyone – teachers, learners, and parents – have felt the pain of the rapid changes. So it is vital to take everything possible from the lessons learned. All the schools in the world met the autumn already by being wiser by experience. It seems that the changes have come to stay. So it is vital to take everything possible from the lessons learned because the way we teach and learn has changed permanently.
5 things that helped Estonia cope with distance learning
COVID19 did not stop studying in Estonia in the spring of 2020. Schools went on distance learning practically overnight, as if they had practised it. Estonia has contributed to the digital field since the 1990s. Of course, not every country has the magic mix that made reforms possible, as Forbes calls it: as a young country that had just liberated itself from occupation Estonia had the opportunity to start from scratch.
1. Estonia already had a good digital infrastructure before the crisis. Already in 2001, all Estonian schools were connected to the Internet, and computer purchases of schools were supported.
2. In 2015, Estonia set a goal to digitize all study materials, and in 2018, the state made digital textbooks available to basic schools free of charge. During the spring emergency of 2020, the state also made upper secondary school textbooks available free of charge.
3. Free digital training for teachers has been offered to teachers in Estonia for more than twenty years. In retrospect, the best educator has been the crisis itself. It was not until 2020 that teachers’ digital competencies improved by leaps and bounds.
4. However, there are people behind it all: Estonia has strong teacher networks. The time of crisis showed their value. Right from the first days of the crisis, the most active of them organized quick pop-up online training on the most burning topics. 12 different thematic groups supporting distance learning were born in a few days, where teachers and parents received advice and shared advice on very different issues.
5. Successful cooperation between the public and private sectors is one of the hallmarks of Estonian education. Even before the corona crisis, Estonian schools used e-diaries provided by private companies to share information with students and parents. Estonian EdTech companies also offered their e-learning solutions to the world free of charge right at the beginning of the crisis. The Estonian unicorn Wise organized technology webinars for schools, EdTech company Clanbeat webinars supporting independent learning, to name but a few.