How the Pandemic Accelerated Innovations in Education in the Baltics

How the Pandemic Accelerated Innovations in Education in the Baltics

Latvia along with the other Baltic countries – Estonia and Lithuania – have proved to have successfully adapted to distance learning challenges. What can we learn from them?

Summary

  • Education in crises is seen as a wise investment
  • Educated people better adjust to remote work
  • Top universities in Latvia maintain high student enrolment numbers with online recruitment activities
  • Remote learning TV channel Your Class recognized as one of the top solutions by OECD
  • Previous investments in digital infrastructure and skills pay off
  • Uncertainty impacted internal communication at universities
  • The role of the teacher beholds increased expectations
  • Rise of EdTEch direct to consumer companies

The value of education is particularly appreciated during crises. Investment in education could be the best insurance against unemployment and lack of work experience. OECD research concludes that people with higher education levels adjusted to remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic more easily and the unemployment rate is in general lower among educated people.

Numbers worldwide tell us that more than 1 billion learners are currently affected due to school closures in response to the pandemic and universities are expected to lose billions of dollars due to a decreasing number of international students. In the UK, for example, studies revealed that one in every five high school graduates were considering changing their autumn plans, and The Impact of Coronavirus on Global Higher Education report revealed that 47% of international students had decided to defer their university place during next year. Students worldwide are showing growing interest in gap year activities, temporary employment, and staying closer to home.

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In the meantime, Latvia along with the other Baltic countries – Estonia and Lithuania – has proved to have successfully adapted to distance learning challenges. Having one of the highest internet speeds in the world and with 94% of students having a PC or laptop they can use for school tasks, the Baltics’ education system went digital overnight. Just three weeks after lockdown, Latvia launched an educational TV channel for remote learning Your Class, which was later recognized by OECD as one of world’s top solutions for education during the pandemic. Universities have had e-learning systems in place for several years now, and even some kindergartens started to Zoom with kids and assign tasks digitally. Top universities in Latvia have experienced an increased number of students, even international students have enrolled as planned, although the mix of nationalities has shifted from Uzbekistan, India to Germany and Scandinavian nations. Lithuania saw a 40% increase in vocational education this autumn, signalling that students are choosing more focused education with instant access to the labour market.

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How could these three small countries prove to be so agile and digitally savvy? No surprises, only hard work and timely preparations for the inevitable trend of digitalization. Estonia had all educational materials digitalized by 2015, while Latvia announced the Year of Technology for educators well before Covid-19 first outbreak in China. The Baltics have created digital infrastructure with nearly 100% coverage of affordable mobile broadband. During the pandemic, somehow society mobilized for cooperation and implemented digital education projects, with great examples of effective public-private partnerships involving government officials, private companies, start-ups and NGOs – all co-creating in an agile and proactive mode.

What challenges did universities face in terms of communication? The winners were those that could transfer planned recruitment activities online, for example Open Door Days at Riga Stradins University took place virtually in #StayHome mood.  The communication messages had to be adapted, for instance, newly developed positioning for a university – ‘Open to the World’ – was found to not be so relevant during these times. Instead a targeted Master’s degree campaign with the slogan ‘Upgrade Your System, Apply for a Master’s Programme’ delivered the best postgraduate admission results ever. Through the cooperation of the largest universities, students became innovators in the hackathon CrisisLab, where they remotely developed various solutions to fight challenges caused by the pandemic.

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The largest challenge was internal communication to existing students, teachers and direct communication to new applicants. Uncertainty was high, but everyone expected clear messages and actions. Universities created internal support systems providing psychological support, IT and remote teaching techniques support. Schools that had previously developed a practice of mutual cooperation among teachers were able to share the best remote learning practice more efficiently. International students who used to go home on weekends, but were not stuck in their study homes and universities with stronger internal student communities organised remote chat and game nights. Municipalities feared that incoming students from abroad would become virus spreaders, and Tartu – the largest student city in Estonia – fought several virus outbreaks in its nightclubs. Eventually all incoming international students needed to find a place for self-isolation, and universities helped them in this process.

Rising unemployment also hit students hard. Many lost their part time jobs in the hospitality industry. Parents that supported their students financially experienced decreased funds. Students mobilized across Latvia and a pulled out a well-organised digital campaign #IWantToStudy. They shared hundreds of stories across Instagram and Facebook, and made the Ministry of Education double the amount of scholarships.  Concerns about increased inequality still remain.

This educational crises let us see the role of the teacher in a new light. Remote learning could be a success or a disaster and it depends on the teachers’ ability to adapt, their attitude to digital tools and talent. Expectations in relation to teachers have increased – they needed to rearrange their teaching mode and materials in a very short time, and those who previously used digital tools in learning were winners. If learning is remote, can it be done without a teacher? Research focusing on professional robotization reassures us that there is just a 1% chance that teacher could be replaced by a robot (8% chance for graphic designers).

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A rising trend globally and also in the Baltics is EdTech companies. Many EdTech websites have seen increased demand for study materials. New demand forced companies to innovate and make adjustments that some believed would happen in five or ten years’ time. Reflecting their willingness to help educators worldwide, Latvia along with Estonia and other Nordic countries made 40 education tools for everyone to use for freeGlobal giant Online course provider Coursera reported more than 13 million new registered users since mid-March, a 535 percent increase from the same period last year. TikTok announced plans to launch LearnOnTikTok, spending millions on strategic content partnerships in both Europe and the US to generate ‘snack-sized’ educational video content for students to access ‘on demand’. Experts say a new key audience has emerged in the sector: parents. Many have tried to assume the new role of home-school teacher, and they’re looking for ways to keep kids on track academically. EdTech also addresses adult learning. The so-called ‘Edutainment’ trend appears when people are turning to learning as a source of entertainment, because they’re bored, or as a way to gain some new skills while out of work. These insights could be applied within the Baltics’ EdTech community.

Many questions still remain unsolved. How to deal with “digital fatigue” during the online learning period? Fresh research from Latvia proves that remote learning was the second highest cause of distress in society. How can help be provided to students with learning difficulties? How to avoid the gap created by inequality? Everyone is still searching for the optimal hybrid educational model, but undoubtedly the education sector is being disrupted and it’s fertile soil for innovation.

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[ This article was written by Ieva Pūķe, Strategist at Bounce Agency ]