Exclusive: How Estonia is training young people to spot fake news

Estonia’s Vice Minister of Education and Research and Director of Digital Education share their perspectives on the future of education.

In 2016, the term ‘fake news’ first entered the online lexicon. Who could have known how much mayhem a group of Macedonian teenagers, keen to make a quick buck off Facebook advertising, could cause? Estonia is one country hoping to educate its young people to spot fake news. This is part of a broader mandatory strategy to ensure that students from kindergarten to 12th grade learn digital skills and how to stay safe online, says Kristel Rillo, Director of Digital Education at the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. With this focus on digital competence, she hopes to impart in young Estonians “the kinds of skills you need to find information, and can you make sense of whether the information is correct or not”, Rillo explains. Rillo and Mart Laidmets, the Vice Minister of Education and Research, recently sat down with GovInsider to discuss the future of education, and how lifelong learning plays an essential role. Digital citizens from young Digitally competent students are able to communicate online safely, find the right information, think critically about what they read online, understand copyright matters, and protect their personal data, Rillo explains. The education ministry provides instructions and training for teachers and school administrations to understand the concept of digital competence. Teachers are also responsible for constant monitoring of their students’ progress through their schooling years. The digital competence strategy was adapted from the European Union’s Digital Competence Framework, says Rillo. Key parts of this framework include data literacy, online safety, and problem solving in digital environments. “We took the framework and adjusted it to Estonia’s circumstances,” she continues. The work in this area is spearheaded by the Information Technology Foundation for Education or HITSA, a partnership of government, private sector and academia. Part of Rillo’s work is determining the types of skills needed at grade 3, 6, 9 and 12, so that students know where they stand and what is expected of them as they mature. “You cannot expect critical assessment of information from a nine year old,” Rillo notes. And for the past couple years, the ministry has also developed comprehensive assessment measures to keep close tabs on students’ progress, she adds. Teachers and school leaders have to undergo self-assessments of the digital maturity of their students and staff as well. “No European country is assessing digital competence as we are,” she remarks. Estonia began testing the digital competence strategy on a national level last year, while at the same time procuring digital devices for schools. Currently, 83% of students 7-17 years of age in Estonia meet the minimum requirements for digital competence at their level, and Rillo has the “bold goal” of hitting 100% within the next year. Success of the digital competence strategy depends on the strength of leadership in schools, says Rillo - schools themselves need to be advocates for change. It is key that “the school leader has the vision, and also the attitude of just fighting the teachers to change, and expecting the development of skills from teachers and students,” she believes. The ministry provides training and mentoring for school leaders to help with this, she adds. Learning for life Laidmets, on the other hand, is working to ensure Estonians are well-equipped for their post-school years. As professions fast become obsolete, Laidmets is concerned that “when I start to educate somebody right now, when they graduate in five years, they probably will not be in a good position in the labour market”. The Vice Minister will soon announce a new lifelong learning strategy which will last until 2035. This is an update to the current one launched in 2014 and ending next year, he explains. “Part of it is that education is becoming more and more personalised. People with different skills - what is needed is different,” Laidmets remarks. Part of Laidmets’ work is to identify the skills of the future. The Estonian qualification authority carries out forecasting of future skills, working in tandem with ministries, entrepreneurs, and academia to do so, he says. “We are going through all sectors of the economy, trying to predict what's going to happen,” he remarks. And it seems one future-proof skill has to do with data: “We try to educate people with data mining capabilities,” he says. [blockquote]“We try to educate people with data mining capabilities.”[/blockquote] What’s more, public and private sector offer a variety of IT courses for people at any age to join - and these are often free. This helps professionals improve themselves, and could be key to a career change. Besides the skills of the future, the ministry is exploring the work environments of the future too. “Maybe it's more convenient to work from a distance, and different kind of working conditions enable them to be more active for longer periods; maybe work from home,” Rillo explains, adding that this could be more convenient for older people in particular. Rillo believes that the potential for digital education to transform economies could be huge. It “opens up so many opportunities” for students to learn more effectively, Rillo notes. What’s more, crimes such as identity theft and cyber attacks have no borders, she adds; citizens need to know how to guard themselves against these nefarious actors. There is no shortage of dangers lurking online, and it is a challenge for any country to educate its people on how to be safe in cyberspace. Estonia’s plan is to start young, instilling digital skills that last a lifetime.