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An educational revolution that started in Estonia

This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Life in Estonia Magazine.

Märt Aro is chairman of the Nordic EdTech Forum and one of the earliest Estonian EdTech founders. He is an educational innovator who believes that raising the quality of education tenfold can be achieved globally through tens of thousands of micro-services in EdTech that seamlessly work together within a smart infrastructure, delivering the best possible tools and methodology to each learner. Aro dreams of enabling access to high-quality education to everyone globally.

“We would all have finer lives if we were better prepared to co-exist on the little blue dot we call Earth,” says Märt Aro. He believes this could be achieved if we invite the community to offer solutions to the educational issues they see. Together with a team of volunteers, Aro initiated quick crisis relief efforts: “When the crisis started, we asked Estonian EdTech companies to make their solutions accessible free of charge in Estonia in cooperation with the government initiative Education Nation so everybody would have access to the best possible remote-learning tools. Then we extended the free offer internationally – 15 different companies joined initially. Now the movement has become a NordicBaltic joint initiative with more than 100 companies under the umbrella of teachmillions.org.” Aro is glad that the EdTech startup sector has lived up to the expectations and has used this opportunity to prove its value for learners.

“The agility of the startup approach allowed us to react fast and find solutions literally overnight,” says Aro, who could tap into his own experience as a startup founder. As a university student, he discovered through his first company that being an entrepreneur is hard work: “So, I decided it’s only worth it if it creates some added value for society and decided to focus on educational development. Education is the foundation of who we are – improving education is essential if we want to have a better society for all of us. If we had access to great education globally, we would probably not have to talk about global warming today, because everyone would comprehend that it’s suicide not to correct our mistakes.”

Aro now focuses on supporting educational innovation via the Nordic EdTech Forum – N8: “Educational innovation is nothing new. Take Gutenberg’s printing press, for example, from the 1440s. The ball-point pen was invented in 1888 by John J. Loud but it was allowed to be used in schools many decades later.” In the 21st century, the speed of innovation is much faster: “Thanks to the spread of high-speed internet and the invention of cloud computing we have recently seen an explosion in EdTech solutions, but we need to still work on which of these tools actually work and add to educational outcomes. After all, not all solutions are good.”

Before looking at specific technological tools, Aro recommends having a better understanding of our goals: “We live in the time of a big paradigm shift from an industrial to an information society. Due to this, the expectations towards schools have changed dramatically. 100 years ago, the expectation was that people who finished school had to be prepared to work 60-hour workweeks in factories, working 6 days a week in jobs that they detested and that were filled with routine. What are society’s expectations towards school leavers today and how can we fulfil them?”

“Tech development work can’t be separated from the rest of society. Ideally, we should first agree on the desired ‘product’ of the 21st-century school. After the aim is clear we can look at how and which EdTech solutions can help to achieve those goals.”

Learning is more than acquiring knowledge

While traditional testing at school typically measures knowledge, the skills emphasised by the World Economic Forum as crucial to cope during the 4th industrial revolution are more elusive to traditional testing methods. The European Union is leading the development of eight fundamental skills that could also be tested: literacy; multilingualism; numerical, scientific and engineering skills; digital and technology-based competencies; interpersonal skills, and the ability to adopt new competencies; active citizenship; entrepreneurship; cultural awareness and expression. Estonia is already able to measure digital skills and is about to start measuring social skills such as communication. If more soft skills are needed to navigate the complexities of the Information Era then learning will have to change as well, creating a need to develop ways to measure improvements in skills such as emotional intelligence, creativity, or cognitive flexibility.

For Aro, methodological innovation comes before technology: “A teacher can choose to just teach multiplication or choose a method that enables the kids to cooperate at the same time. There are methods available to obtain academic knowledge whilst developing other useful skills. We need to support teachers with ways of measuring the complex. This could be done with the help of a learning analytics tool to make sure that, in addition to learning multiplication, we also learn teamwork, leadership skills, etc. Because: what we measure is what we get.”

Another intriguing aspect of today’s education globally is that we educate citizens to participate in a democratic society using an authoritarian school system. “Conflict resolution is a critical skill in a democratic society – if this is not learned, how can we have a better society for everyone to live in? Instead of just telling learners what they must do, we have to learn how to trigger the intrinsic motivation in students and minimise top-down instructions.”

While soft skills are increasingly important, it might seem odd to move towards technological solutions in learning. Can an app really be empathetic and replace human interaction? It can’t and it shouldn’t. According to Aro, technology’s main role currently is to save the teachers’ time for things that computers can’t do: “There is reason to believe that the academic ability of the teacher is less important than the motivation of the child to learn. And the latter can be affected by seemingly invisible factors. For example, if the child’s brain is preoccupied with worrying about a hurt friend, (s)he will not be able to excel in academic learning. While focused on moving through the curriculum, a teacher hardly finds the individual time to even discover problems. Technology can free up teachers’ time and support teachers in achieving better results with current resources.” Technology can also enable more adaptive and individualised learning paths to enable each child to reach their full potential. When dividing students into grades by age, we often see a wide range of developmental differences – up to 4 years – in one classroom. With the help of technology, we will be able to offer customised learning paths that benefit each learner most at a low-cost per child.

Let the whole world learn

The ambition of Estonian EdTech founders is nothing short of teaching the whole world. Having founded four educational companies, among them DreamApply, which makes international education more accessible worldwide, Aro has recognised three main models in educational development: “Enthusiasm-based projects don’t have a business model and usually end when people run out of resources. Project-based innovation that is funded by 1-3-year grants often comes to a dead end because it may take 3 years to create an educational solution that people actually want to use. The startup model means that, when looking for educational solutions, the initiators look for possibilities to solve issues globally while earning enough to pay fair salaries to their team members in a sustainable manner.”

According to Aro, there are about 500 EdTech startup-like initiatives in the Nordic-Baltic region and the majority of them has been created by students: “The reason is very simple – they have just gone through the educational experience and discovered things that could be improved with the help of technology. In a way, they are still naïve enough to believe they can make the world a better place. We need these crazy people who believe that they can change the world, as they are the ones who do.”

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