The Hamlet-like dilemma of digital competence in Estonian schools – development or clicking?

“When it comes to children’s digital competence, Estonian school teachers can be divided into two groups: one claiming that children are much more competent than adults when it comes to ICT; and the other – mostly composed of computing teachers – doubting the actual, self-taught ICT skills of students, namely rapid clicking skills, which only seem to be a sign of ICT competence."

Date 2020-12-07 Author Birgy Lorenz PhD, Cybersecurity specialist, TalTech Section awareness Topic media literacy/education Audience parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals

“These skills – digital awareness and informatics competence – should form the foundation on which children enter the information society later in life. If the responsibility of a school is to prepare the youth to step into society, then the Estonian education system has taken a number of steps in the right direction. For example, the national curriculum makes it mandatory for schools to teach digital competence as part of every subject. However, little progress has been made in this regard, since between teachers, subjects and interested parties, it is unclear who should be taking responsibility for this topic. Schools lack an action plan defining the “what” and “how” of learning digital competence in a way that benefits an increasingly digital society.

“The causes for concern are clear: not every child will receive the necessary training at school or at home, since teaching digital competence as a separate subject is not mandatory and schools lack cohesive syllabi (Praxis, 2017). This creates an unlevel playing field for succeeding in further studies and the information society. This applies to both work and personal life, in Estonia and between different countries (Informatics Europe, 2017). It remains unclear who should be teaching digital competence (the school or the family), how much they should be teaching it, who should regulate it (Innove, HITSA, the school or the parents) and whose task it is to discover and educate talented young people. As a result, many young people obtain the information they need from social media and videos, assuming they can find it in the first place and work independently to solve problems rather than, for example, watching cat videos online.

“Estonia must decide whether to focus in school activities on ‘human robots’ who tell machines what to do or on humans who take it upon themselves to bring society a step further by developing these machines. Both are necessary, but it is important to know which side of the line Estonia will stand on – will we develop, or will we simply keep clicking away?

“Today, we still lack a voice to speak for young people in demanding better ICT education in schools. Moreover, schools themselves are holding their tongues, since speaking out would mean yet another change in the organisation of their work: demanding technological upgrades (local governments and the state); hiring new teachers and training existing ones (universities); using already sparse lesson resources for ICT teaching (subject unions); and perhaps even proving that their students are excelling in the field.

“From the outside, it seems that Estonian children are highly capable in the digital field: we do well for ourselves in global rankings, and once a year our most talented youngsters take part in Robotex. The reality, however, is that many students have no opportunity to learn informatics, or can, but only once in their twelve years of schooling. The results of studies such as KüberPähkel show that children and young people’s knowledge of cybersecurity goes no further than choosing a stronger password and notifying law enforcement agencies of any problem. They are incapable of identifying dangerous situations or solving problems. It could be said that Estonian adults are on much the same level, since when purchasing items online they are easily fooled by the most rudimentary scams. Is this what we want for our children?

Examples of problems

  • The teaching of informatics is not mandatory in Estonia. In two thirds of the basic schools that took part in the KüberPähkel study, there were activities which were described as “working with a computer” – but what exactly is done as part of these activities has been a mystery to all strategy development institutions for the past six years. As such, it is impossible to conduct a proper standard-determining test that would satisfy all parties and measure actual skills.
  • According to a 2018 PISA study, Estonia and other countries issue a lot of ICT-related homework. The difference in Estonia is that our children have no way to access technology in the school environment. In addition, student activity in ICT lessons does not live up to society’s expectations.
  • There is a model of learners’ digital competence (2016), recommended curricula for teaching (2017-2019), courseware and materials created for beginners (2018-2019). Their implementation relies on a school’s interest and its teachers’ skills, and as a result, they have not been sufficiently integrated into teaching. ICT materials quickly become outdated due to their very nature, and half of them must be rewritten from top to bottom within two years, as the links and programmes mentioned in them will have been removed.
  • ICT competitions organised by the state, companies and universities are held in Estonia. However, a few students taking part in a competition once a year cannot form the pillar of ICT education. There is also a lack of systematic funding, and competitions are dependent on the voluntary contributions of its participants. If they disappear, so does the competition.
  • Extracurricular activities involving ICT prefer to utilise ready-made solutions and stifle creativity by forbidding it entirely or limiting it with a very narrow set of “correct” rules. The talent behind ICT competitions say that schools avoid teaching using a hands-on approach because they are afraid that the students will break the technology. But it is not interesting to learn how a fridge works in theory alone (Startup Estonia, 2018).
  • Curiously, studies focusing on children show that they are content with their skills and results. At school and at home, they are used to hearing that “young people are good at ICT from birth”, since they are born with a smartphone in their hands. Computing teachers say that if something needs to be done for real – creating content, finding solutions to a problem, finding information for an essay, formatting something – then students’ skills are often more lacking than that of their grandmother who did a computer course for the elderly.

“In conclusion, a simple, comprehensive plan is lacking, as well as the additional funding needed to teach IT in schools. In not taking the necessary steps today, Estonia risks facing a future in which machine learning has made processes even more complicated and people are forced to accept their limitations. Despite Estonia having labelled itself an IT country, it has failed to grow the human capital it needs to develop both its IT field and citizens and seems lost in the fog – lacking both measures and results. “Students who click fast” is by no means a strong basis for developing an information society. I say this as both an informatics teacher and a cybersecurity specialist.”

The author of this article, Birgy Lorenz, is an experienced trainer in cybersecurity awareness (cyber hygiene, that is to say safe behaviour and the digital security skills of children, teachers and parents). She leads a number of programmes aimed at raising awareness in which she works with teachers and talented youngsters involved in cybersecurity. She has compiled study materials for an upper secondary school elective on cybersecurity and created a practice portal for talented youth. Her Cyberolympics project (involving competitions and training camps) was awarded the Best Practice in Education prize by Informatics Europe in 2018. She was voted Teacher of the Year in the European Union in 2009 and 2010 and Teacher of the Year in Estonia in 2017.

Find out more about the work of the Estonian Safer Internet Centre, including their awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services – or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.

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