“The teachers’ union and all kinds of other people were saying that it’s a very stupid idea,” recalls former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Teachers were protesting against his 1996 programme to install a computer in every Estonian school.

This programme was installed while the country was impoverished and trying to rebuild itself following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Technology was not top of mind, with many worried about basic income levels and public sector salaries.

Government’s focus on education laid a strong foundation for the country’s present success, however, with the nation ranking third in science in the global PISA education rankings. President Ilves caught up with GovInsider to explain the secrets of Estonia’s success, and help other developing nations follow suit.

What did they do?

By 1999, every Estonian school was online. “We’re all starting at this digital revolution from the same place, and you want to get people started early,” Ilves says.

The project made Estonians more comfortable with technology. Schools were required to keep their computer labs open to the public after hours so that everybody could have access to them.

The success of the programme, called Tiigrihüpe (Tiger Leap), sparked other computer literacy initiatives, such as the Look@World Foundation that was founded five years later to develop computer competency in adults.

At the same time, the government set up internet spots in public spaces, like libraries and municipal town halls, to provide people with easy internet access. Estonia currently has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world at 97.7%.

What made it a success?

One of the reasons this programme had such widespread impact is that the government ensured schools had a stake in its success.

The government didn’t just give out computers to every school. It required interested school districts to pay for half of the costs to ensure the machines would be actually used. “You need to make schools stakeholders,” Ilves says. “There has to be a certain amount of skin in the game so the computers don’t just sit there.”

Estonia also lacked teachers trained in using computers at the time, but this was not a concern for the President; the programme’s initial goal was simply to get children curious about technology. “People who got exposed to computers would want to tear it apart, figure out what was going on, and would want to programme,” he adds. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Today, children as young as seven are learning coding basics in Estonia. “At 7 years old, you have a degree of logical thinking that you can actually do that [coding],” he says. In 2012, the country began teaching programming and robotics at all educational levels, from making games and animations in primary school to learning programming languages such as Python in high school.

The initiative also provides training packets for teachers and a training course to enhance their technological skills.

Advice for others

In less than two decades, Estonia transformed itself from an undeveloped economy with little infrastructure to one of the most advanced nations in the world. Across Asia, countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are today going through a similar experience – and education will play a key role. For them, the President shares two lessons Estonia learnt.

First, he believes that it is important to expose children to computers and get them curious, before progressing to more complex tasks with it. “Trust the students,” he stresses. “They’ll figure it out.”

Second, to ensure that schools actually make an effort to integrate the use of computers, President Ilves suggests involving them in the process. “Don’t just drop the computers in the schools,” he says.

Ilves’ education vision helped transform a poor Soviet country to a world-leading digital society. Countries looking to reform their education systems should look to its bold moves for inspiration.

Image by Chatham HouseCC BY 2.0