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Coronavirus sends class home

Nancy Isenson
March 19, 2020

Schools across Europe may be shut to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but pupils are still going to class — virtually. Led by trailblazers like Estonia, a new experiment in digital learning has taken off.

A girl sits in front of a laptop
Image: picture-alliance/empics/P. Byrne

Monday started with the booting up of computers for millions of schoolchildren around Europe as pupils, parents and teachers began transporting classrooms into their homes. For most people in Germany, it was a novel situation. For most people in Estonia, it was an extension of a way of learning that they have been practicing for years.

The Baltic country of 1.3 million people is a pioneer in e-learning, while Germany has yet to warm up to the subject. That was evident in a recent a study of digital learning in the 27 European Union countries by the Center for European Policy Studies: Estonia ranked first, Germany finished last.

Read more: Estonia reaches out to its ethnic Russians at long last

"Estonia is simply an amazingly good example, if we look at digital learning,″ says Dr. Julia Hense, the author of a comparative study of e-learning strategies worldwide and a project manager at the mmb Institut in Essen. ″They started many, many years before us. The Estonians are crazy about all things digital. They find everything digital exciting.″

A Wifi sign next to a snowed in hut in Estonia
Nowhere is too remote when it comes to digital access in EstoniaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Estonian Tourist Board

Estonia has a strong digital infrastructure, and 99% of households have a broadband internet connection. Teacher training in e-learning started around 10 years ago, according to the country′s deputy education minister, Marts Laidmets. Estonian educators also have access to a wide array of online tools to connect pupils, teachers and parents. Those include eKool, a school management network that has more than 200,000 active users on a normal day, and Stuudium, a suite of apps with educational materials, assessment tools and messaging. Much of Estonian schooling is already in the cloud, and 87% of schools use tools like eKool and Stuudium, whether for lesson plans, homework, absence management or recording grades.

Even tricky in Estonia

But those platforms weren′t designed to function as a substitute for classroom instruction for the entire country, so even in Estonia, online school didn′t roll out entirely smoothly on Monday. EKool [kool means ″school″ in Estonian] was out of commission for 20 minutes in the morning because it was overloaded from an unexpected source of usage: More parents logged on.

Teaching digital literacy

″We experienced more than 15-20 times more users than normal,″ says eKool CEO Tanel Keres, ″and although we were prepared, we constantly had to add additional resources. This is actually the situation at the moment as well. We are constantly monitoring our systems because the situation is new for everyone.″

Read more: Estonia buoys cyber security with world's first data embassy

Deputy Minister Laidmets said there had been other problems too. The school closings are essentially a trial for the country′s digital learning systems. ″There are teachers who are not so well prepared for this situation because it was never an obligation to do this online earlier. So some of the teachers have to adapt very quickly.″

For those having trouble, help comes from education technology, he said, or from the country′s Information Technology Foundation for Education, which has set up groups to come to teachers′ aid.

Watershed for e-learning

It′s a situation that students and teachers in Germany can only dream of.

″The huge claim that they made about how all the instruction should be shifted online is absolutely not being realized. It simply doesn′t work,″ lamented one Berlin 10th grader, who was frustrated to find that only very few teachers even knew how his school′s online platform was supposed to work.

A person holding a tablet
Germany is struggling to keep pace with Scandinavian countries in particularImage: DW

But Julia Hense is hopeful. ″What I am now seeing is that a whole bunch of initiatives have taken form in recent days,″ she says. ″There are efforts now to catch up, which of course won′t work in the short term because, for example, when it comes to hardware, Germany is not well equipped like Estonia or Finland or Sweden.

″It is an amazing watershed for us all in every sense. It shows where the system is bumpy,″ she said. ″And that′s also why I believe it is a total booster for digital learning.″

Read more: The importance of studying at home for a degree: E-learning in Africa

Sabine Kinkartz contributed to this story.