by KAROLA KLATT
Last autumn, Estonia’s minister of education and research, Mailis Reps, hailed what would be a ‘digital-crazy school year’—only to be taken by surprise by how wildly digital the year would become, for pupils, teachers and parents, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Back then she sought to lay the foundations for further expansion of the information-technology infrastructure, especially high-speed internet, in Estonian schools, to give an added boost to digital teaching and learning. The Estonian government plans to spend an extra €8.27 million euro on the digital infrastructure of educational institutions by 2022.
When schools in Estonia had to close their doors in mid-March, the country was far better equipped for digital distance learning than its European peers. Since 1999, the government has been pushing ahead with the digitalization of educational institutions, connecting all schools to the internet, equipping them with interactive smartboards, personal computers and tablets, creating e-learning teaching materials, digitalizing textbooks, and introducing ‘eKool’—a system which not only manages the school but also meets many needs for students and parents, including digital exercise books, learning materials and an overview of grades and performance. Home-schooling was much easier and more effective for Estonian families than for those in the rest of Europe, where school administrations, headmasters and teachers found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by the search for new ways of teaching online.
Why were Estonians able to achieve the digital transformation of classrooms so much earlier? Probably the key reason is the country’s longstanding emphasis on education, which is also reflected in its excellent educational results, for example its strong performance in the periodic Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. In the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) comparison of industrialized countries, Estonia’s education policy leads the field with nine out of ten possible points.
The other reason is that Estonia is a very small country, home to just 1.32 million inhabitants and around the size of the German state of Lower Saxony. Its small size enables bravery and innovation. As with all the Baltic states, Estonia was faced with an enormous transformation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and associated independence. How could the radical transformation to a market economy succeed in this resource-poor country? The young Estonian government under Mart Laar, only 32 when he took office in 1992, put all its eggs in one basket: the digital economy. It prioritised creating conditions for this change—quickly, radically and consistently.
Estonians have simply tried out what is possible, with the help of public-private partnerships, in digitalization. In 1997, the government declared free internet access a basic right and, in co-operation with companies, pushed ahead not only on connecting schools to the net but also on the digitalization of public administration at all levels. It envisaged a highly networked society, which would become increasingly efficient through the extensive use of internet-based services.
Among the best-known IT solutions to have emerged are proving identity electronically—together with electronic signatures, this serves as authentication when gaining access to a range of digital services in the public and private sectors—and a nationwide system for secure data and information transfer, called X-Road. According to the SGI country report, over 900 companies and organizations in Estonia use X-Road on a daily basis. It adds: ‘X-Road is also the first data exchange platform in the world that allows data to be exchanged between countries automatically.’
Thanks to its high degree of digitalization, Estonian society therefore already had tools to mitigate significantly the consequences of the coronavirus crisis for various aspects of daily life. Before the pandemic took hold, for example, Estonians already completed most administrative procedures online: registering births, registering cars, applying for state aid, setting up businesses, even voting. Via the internet, all this and much more is possible in Estonia—in a matter of minutes.
The SGI report also assesses the extent to which industrialized countries’ governments use digital technologies to support inter-ministerial co-ordination. Here too, Estonia leads the field, with ten out of ten. The SGI country report affirms: ‘The Estonian government has pioneered a large-scale use of information technologies. An Information System for Legal Drafts (Eelnõude infosüsteem, EIS) is used to facilitate interministerial coordination and public consultations online. EIS allows users to search documents currently under consideration, participate in public consultations and submit comments on draft bills. Draft bills are submitted to the government and parliament via EIS.’
Estonians are proud of their role as pioneers in digitalisation and are happy to use the soft power of their digital governance on an international level. In co-operation with Finland (another top country according to the SGI indicator ‘digitalization for interministerial coordination’), Estonia has founded the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions, which promotes further development and dissemination of X-Road. The Faroe Islands and Iceland have joined the digital partnership.
The Icelandic government is working on the introduction of X-Road while Germany has also voiced interest in the Estonian data-exchange system, as part of the digitalisation of its healthcare system. The Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians in Hessen is conducting a pilot project, with Estonian support, to issue electronic prescriptions during video-consultation sessions with on-call medics.
The latest highlight of Estonia's digital soft power: the former president Toomas Hendrik has assumed the leadership of a working group to develop digital strategies and IT solutions for pandemic-related problems, at the invitation of the World Health Organisation's Pan-European Commission for Health and Sustainable Development. It is hoped that the concentrated digital competence of the small Baltic state will trigger, if not miracles, then at least a fresh digital vision.
Translated by Jess Smee. A version of this text was first published by Social Europe.