IT education returning to Estonian schools

Mari Mets
, reporter
Teele Karro.
Teele Karro. Photo: Mailiis Ollino

When Teele Karro first started teaching informatics at the Pärnu Koidula High School three years ago, she was surprised by the limited computer skills of high school students. “I thought I was dealing with the IT generation that spends all its time online, but it turns out their practical skills are quite poor,” she said.

The tiger’s paw prints in Estonian curricula have started to fade away following the end of the Tiger Leap program that equipped schools with computer rooms around the turn of the millennium. Informatics disappeared from the national curriculum in 2001 and digital skills were made the task of teachers in charge of other disciplines. Children were supposed to pick up computer skills when their geography or history class happened to take place in the computer room.

Head of the informatics teacher curriculum at Tallinn University Mart Laanpere said that informatics needs to teach skills that represent it as a discipline: algorithms, programming, data processing. The Ministry of Education and Research (HTM) said that informatics exists as an elective subject on the basic and high school levels, which is not to say all schools provide the opportunity.

A study looking at the IT skills of students of grades 9 and 12 commissioned by Transferwise and carried out by the University of Tartu this spring revealed that both teachers and students feel informatics education concentrates mainly on word and spreadsheet processing and data queries. However, that does not represent IT as a tool for creating something new either through programming, web design, hardware and software development as well as database management. The survey also found that IT education is very uneven from one school to the next and largely depends on whether the school has a proficient teacher.

More than 20 high schools will adopt a new informatics curriculum this fall the main aim of which is to make high school students create new digital solutions, such as smartphone and web applications or hardware and software prototypes, working together similarly to how IT companies operate. An informatics curriculum for grades 1-6 where class teachers can do much of the work has been used for a few years, but there is no obligation for schools to offer IT training. Laanpere said that the final grades of basic school are also problematic in terms of IT education as students are overworked with different classes as it is.

Taking the startup model to schools

ProgeTiiger program lead at the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA) Kristi Salum said that aim of the program is to bring high school students’ informatics skills up to date and have them correspond to real-world needs. It is important to approach the subject similarly to how digital solutions are created: students take various informatics courses, like programming, software development, user experience design and prototyping, software analysis and testing as well as digital services.

Students will work in teams to find solutions to problems, develop apps. Five courses offered in grades 10 and 11 should give students the necessary skills to achieve something like that by the end of their 11th year. The result then needs to be defended much like an individual research project. In addition to proficient teachers, the program hopes to find tutors from IT companies.

Salum said that they want to show young people that informatics is no longer just programming or deep database analysis but also involves project management and design. The latter is hoped to bring more girls into the world of IT who are often less interested than boys at first but quickly prove their equals once they get to know the disciplines.

“The important thing is for students to at least understand what IT is and get a better understanding of whether it is something they want to study or not. Everyone needs to understand programming to some extent these days, if only so they could be more knowledgeable clients for IT service providers in the future,” she said.

A desktop computer as a rarity

Teele Karro, who already tested the new IT curriculum at the Pärnu Koidula High School last year, is convinced that separate IT classes give students necessary know-how that goes beyond YouTube and social media. She pointed out that students do a lot of things on their smartphones, meaning that their informatics class is one of the few places they encounter desktop computers.

“It is difficult to find teachers who feel confident teaching these subjects. This curriculum can give them their feet. There are a lot of tasks they can use. What I personally liked was the fact you do not need to simulate company X developing product Y in every lesson. We could work on developing the same imaginary service over several lessons,” Karro said.

Salum is glad that after a six-month test project involving ten schools and despite modest advertising, over 20 schools have taken an interest in the new curriculum and is convinced more will follow once the academic year starts. Those that have taken an interest include city schools, rural area schools as well as Russian and vocational schools. The biggest obstacle on the road to offering informatics as an electable subject is shortage of teachers.

A subject revitalized

If a survey by Praxis from a few years ago found around 300 informatics teachers in Estonia, Mart Laanpere from Tallinn University says that barely 30 of them are qualified. He believes Estonia needs closer to 600 informatics teachers.

Laanpere is hopeful for the future: “We have now received a strong signal from the state that we need informatics teachers. We also got a new curriculum and funds for teacher training.” Every student admitted to study informatics is eligible for a monthly stipend of €300.

Last year, Tallinn University reopened its informatics teacher master’s program that admitted 20 students both in 2018 and 2019. The program had been dormant for three years as not enough people took an interest. “We cannot offer a program with four or five students half of whom will drop out. While the University of Tartu retained its program, it trains mathematics and informatics teachers. Life has shown that teachers sporting a double qualification will quickly be locked into teaching mathematics,” Laanpere said.

When the informatics teacher program and stipend reappeared, among the first to take an interest were heads of informatics clubs who lacked a teacher’s qualification. Laanpere believes that if the program can be retained for 6-7 years, with both Tartu and Tallinn sending around 15 dedicated informatics teachers to schools every year, in addition to teachers of other subjects who can access a one-year retraining course, it will be possible to man Estonian schools with proficient IT teachers and boost and harmonize the IT education of young people.