In spring, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put students, teachers, and parents to test. Estonian schools managed to adapt to new situations quickly and therefore handled the crisis well. Although there is no one right formula for a successful distance learning programme, there is still a lot to learn from an Estonian example.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic caught us by surprise, Estonian schools were able to switch to online teaching methods quickly, as digital competence and setting up IT-infrastructure has been a national priority for many years already. For instance, in 1997 project called Tiigirihüpe (The Tiger Leap) was launched, to provide computers, internet access and relevant training for schools. Besides that, teachers training has been consistent. Director for Internationalization at Estonian Education and Youth Board, Heli Aru-Chabilan, said that the situation in spring showed that long-lasting focus on integrating technology into learning has paid off.
Already before the pandemic, most of the Estonian schools were daily using many digital study materials (e.g. platform called Opiq) and electronic school management systems (eKool). “Estonian teachers have high levels of digital competence,” said the Chairman of the Board of Tartu Private School Urmo Uiboleht. He added that this was one of the main reasons why the Estonian educational system handled the corona crisis that well. However, the level of digital competence is not something you can conveniently learn long-distance during the crisis. These skills need to be consistently improved, confirmed by both Aru-Chabilan and Uiboleht.
During a crisis, students, parents, teachers, and headmasters need help, and support systems and networks must be in place. “In our school, we have a digital teachers’ lounge, where people regularly discussed their joys and sorrows,” told Uiboleht. “During difficult times, cooperation is important, and this kind of meetings helped to create a strong inter-team bond. It also provided emotional support.” The digital teachers’ lounge was popular in many Estonian schools.
National support networks are also necessary. For instance, during the crisis, HITSA (Information Technology Foundation of Education, HITSA activities were transferred to the Education and Youth Board in August) closely cooperated with the Estonian Union of Educational Technologists. Together they mapped out the needs of schools and quickly developed close to 80 different courses and web-based events based on the needs of teachers. “After the first week of the COVID-19 crisis, there was a discussion led by President Kersti Kaljulaid. It helped to boost morale during difficult times and showed that the whole society supported schools and students. This was emotionally very necessary,” recalls Aru-Chabilan.
To help them adapt to the new situation, the Innove Foundation (the activities of Foundation Innove were transferred to the Education and Youth Board in August) transformed face-to-face study counselling services into online and offered psychological counselling, speech therapy, and the services of special pedagogues and social pedagogues via e-channels.
„The biggest challenge for students was coping with the changed situation. Self-study is particularly challenging in primary school,“ said Birgit Lao, the CEO of Foundation Innove, now the diplomatic representative for education. For this reason, Innove Foundation and the Ministry of Education and Research of the Republic of Estonia put together recommendations and guidelines for teaching, learning, and studying for teachers, school leaders, parents, and students alike. For example, no numerical grading was suggested, and emphases were on giving feedback in various forms. on giving feedback in various forms. Particular attention was given to parents of students with special educational needs (SEN) and education support professionals working at schools.
Developing and gathering information needed in this kind of extraordinary situation and sharing it with partners was one of the prioritized activities during all the period of distance learning. In addition to that, online webinars and training in the Estonian language as well as in Russian for school leaders and teachers were conducted.
Also, a national education technology helpline was launched in Estonia to counsel teachers during the crisis. “People need to ask for help or advice. In these kinds of situations, the exchange of information critical,” thinks Uiboleht.
A lot of help was provided by education technology corporations in the private sector, which offered schools to use their products and services for free. Within the frame of Estonian education brand Education Estonia, Estonian knowledge and experience were also shared with the international community. From March to May, free remote learning online webinars “Education Nation: tips for remote learning” were conducted once a week.
Less is more
Although the digital world offers many solutions, Aru-Chabilan and Uiboleht suggest using familiar and already tested options. “This makes the situation easier for both teachers and students,” said Uiboleht. For example, before the COVID-19 crisis, Tartu Private School has had some experience with online study days, and Uiboleht believes this helped them to handle the new situation.
Aru-Chabilani thinks that each school should have the freedom to choose preferred digital solutions, but they should agree on using the same platforms within the school environments.
“Distance learning is not just e-learning. Ways and opportunities to learn and teach screen-free must be found,” Lao emphasized. “Cooperation and co-creation are necessary. It is possible to achieve the learning outcomes of several subjects in one lesson. For example, do sports and math together.”
Five lessons for long-distance learning
Crisis makes people hungry for knowledge
In the unexpected situation, schools that as a first thing established what kind of information will be shared on which channels and to who, were more successful and handled the crisis with less stress.
The role of a teacher is crucial
Long-distance learning showed that in using digital technologies, teachers had a crucial role as tutors. Human interaction was ever more important, both students and parents needed support and counselling in the learning process.
Parents need support
Parents suddenly found themselves in the roles of mentors and were waiting for guidelines and help from schools. The situation required closer cooperation between parents and teachers, and parents needed guidance.
Fast and easy solutions are better
If before the crisis, all kinds of digital tools and platforms were more like extras for the teachers, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they became essential and even indispensable. Teachers shared digital books, videos, audio files, movies, applications etc. Time was a deciding factor: as soon as using materials or tools seemed too challenging, they were left aside.
Teaching and grading
In an online study, grading and checking methods need to be changed, and the focus should be more on the process and in integration of subjects.