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Why are tech companies putting their weight behind Estonia’s education? Co-founder of Bolt explains

Interview with Martin Villig, co-founder of Bolt, who decided to found the Good Deed Education Fund with the help of 30 Estonian entrepreneurs, to tackle problems the Estonian education system is facing.

Why was the Good Deed Education Fund created?

In the summer of 2018, I bounced ideas about how to give back to Estonian society with my brother Markus and the founder of TransferWise, Taavet Hinrikus. Education stood out as a topic and we decided to discuss it with people involved with education to get a better understanding. After 35-40 conversations it became clear that in spite of the great PISA results, Estonian education is facing many deep problems that can’t be solved by international internships of a few teachers or headmasters – it needs a more systemic approach.

Through recommendations, we got in touch with the Good Deed Foundation, which has more than 15 years of experience in launching and supporting societal initiatives. We shared the idea with a few entrepreneurs who all immediately agreed to contribute. The word spread quickly and surprisingly we managed to find more than 30 Estonian entrepreneurs within just a few weeks who contributed more than 1 million euros in total. We launched the Good Deed Education Fund in December 2018.

What is the main problem you are trying to solve?

Based on the conversations, education statistics and analysis we identified four areas to focus on with the Education Fund: first – to increase the number of new teachers; second – to raise the quality of school leadership; third – to minimise dropouts from education after the mandatory level (9th grade); and fourth – to improve the learning of STEAM skills. In addition to funding projects, we as entrepreneurs dedicate our time and knowledge to advise initiatives and help shape the educational policy in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Research and local municipalities that are actual administrators of schools in Estonia. It looks like, within the last one and a half years, society has started to appreciate the Education Fund as one of the contributors and developers of the education field.

Is technology offering the ‘magic wand’?

The majority of contributors to the Good Deed Education Fund are startup founders or technology companies that understand the possibilities of technology in solving the problems of the world. As digital services are widespread in Estonia, education is also tapping into technology more avidly than in many other countries. Most schools use eKool.eu, we have digital textbooks (Opiq.ee, e-Koolikott.ee), virtual reality solutions are being developed, as well as online testing and statistics (haridussilm.ee).

Technology can support innovation and change but all processes are led and used by people – teachers and students. Estonia has many EdTech companies that have received international attention due to the current crisis and hopefully will be able to grow faster due to this.

Which of the projects supported so far seem most promising?

The Good Deed Education Fund has so far supported seven initiatives with 500 000 euros. I would point out 99math.com as a project with great international potential. It gamifies learning mathematics, enables real-time competitions in class and between schools and gives access to learning analytics to the teachers. HK Unicorn Squad is a technology school for girls that today operates as an extracurricular activity but which could be part of a general curriculum and offer engaging technology education universally.

Several initiatives of the fund address the lack of teachers. ‘Teach for Estonia’ (Noored Kooli) has brought several hundred young teachers to schools and the substitute teachers programme (ASÕP) helps to find short-term high-quality teachers. We support the faster growth of both programmes.

Could the current experience of forced-upon remote work and remote learning accelerate technological solutions and create a wider understanding of the need for change?

Remote learning has certainly forced many teachers and students to try out many more e-learning solutions that otherwise would have spread a lot slower. We will see over time if some or all of them will become permanent parts of the education system, but for sure it’s a useful experience. For example, kids with a mild cold can easily continue studying from home online and families could live-learn-work from the countryside or from abroad for a while if needed. Remote learning will be viewed as normal.

All in all, remote learning has been a valuable experiment that we can all learn and draw important conclusions from. Within a few months, we have tested many hypotheses that otherwise would have taken years. One important conclusion is that just as we are moving towards more differentiated learning in class, this also needs more attention in remote learning. What is suitable for one child and a family might not work for another. Technology can help, but all of this has to be thought through thoroughly, also from the aspect of the content of learning.

How can Estonia make the most of the sudden demand for educational innovation?

As the first country, Estonia offered its e-learning solutions to the whole world for free and gained a lot of positive attention and enhanced its image as an innovator. Our EdTech companies are small and thus need to move fast to use the current momentum both for product and business development. Vast funds are being invested in education technology right now and all technology giants, starting from Google and Microsoft see a role in it. Competition is tough and the development has accelerated within the recent months but we don’t know yet who will win this race or with what solutions.

EdTech is an area of high potential and it’s really worth leaving no stone unturned. In order to get a foot in the door a lot of work and, foremost, cooperation is needed. Not just within the technology sector but much more widely between all actors in the education field – test, try out, brainstorm, develop, involve. The past two months have given us a vast amount of experiences that need to be collected and analysed. Let’s hope that this is an area we will be able to prioritise at the highest possible (governmental) level.

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