Some global lessons for technology-enabled change

Digital Estonia

Estonia is fascinating. I’m not talking about the whole country, though I bet there’s much to marvel at. I’m talking here specifically about Estonian government.

What? Of all the things to be fascinated with, you choose the public sector of a tiny Baltic country with about half the land mass and the same population as Maine?

I haven’t been to Estonia nor do I know much about its history, language, culture, etc. Like a modern armchair researcher, I looked it up on Wikipedia and also Googled “most interesting facts about Estonia” and got to “57 Interesting Facts About Estonia.” A handful of those 57 facts touch on the country’s high rate of internet connectivity and its entrepreneurial culture (“highest number of startups per capita in Europe”). Those in particular are reflections of what interests me about Estonian government and lessons our higher education institutions can draw from it.

Estonia’s public sector is largely an e-government. Nearly everything that can be digitized has been. In a TED Talk, Anna Piperal that other than getting your national ID, filing for marriage or divorce, or selling property, all government transactions that don’t require physical human interactions (e.g., driving tests) are handled electronically.

There’s a lot more to this than simply changing a bunch of paper processes to web forms. It’s a digital strategy built on some key concepts regarding duplication of information and effort, security, privacy, and transparency. And this digital strategy influences and is influenced by the country’s society and economy. According to Tallinn University of Technology professor Wolfgang Drechsler, Estonia’s “small size and trusting relationship between the citizens and government” makes their system difficult to perfectly imitate elsewhere. Estonians have mandatory ID cards for digital identification, provide data for an electronic health record to create “a comprehensive profile of each patient,” and proactively pursue methods of simplifying interactions between the state and the individual. It is perhaps hard to imagine the United States pursuing a similar level of government involvement in everyday life. 

Lessons for U.S. higher education

But what about U.S. higher education institutions? How well has higher ed simplified interactions among students, faculty, and administration? How have our institutions leveraged technology to enable instruction? How broadly are instructional data and technologies integrated into teaching and learning?

By and large, North American institutions successfully moved instruction online in spring 2020 and will continue to do so this summer and (at many) next fall. And, in addition to showing us that motivated and dedicated faculty are capable of significant shifts in order to continue delivering content to students, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that many colleges and universities are not equipped to make the switch to online functionality in a way that approximates an experience comparable to classroom interactions. 

Again, I’m not diminishing the significant – sometimes heroic – efforts of both faculty and students to quickly adapt and wrap up the academic year. Rather, I am pointing out that, though able to deliver instruction online, most institutions have a long way to go to provide institution-wide educational experiences that are as engaging, effective, and attractive to students as the established learning environments on college and university campuses. 

(For examples, see “COVID-19 has thrust universities into online learning⁠—how should they adapt?” or “Will Shift to Remote Teaching Be Boon or Bane for Online Learning?” or this university’s straightforward summary of pros and cons.)

So, what cues may be taken from Estonia that might inform future changes to instructional delivery and communications within our institutions of higher education? Among the most important would be to cultivate a “digital native culture.” In addition to creating the technology and service infrastructure, institutions will need to develop faculty and students who are well-versed in the technologies and pedagogies that enable a full and continuous learning experience, regardless of how and where instruction is delivered. 

Interestingly, Estonia and other Baltic and Nordic states are offering various e-learning platforms for higher education for free in response to the crisis. Whether those or the many other platforms spread among our institutions, supporting enterprise-level standards, adoption, and competency with such tools would change the conversation from moving or rebuilding everything online to merely intensifying online delivery in an environment where instruction is already within a commonly utilized hybrid framework. In other words, no heroic efforts, just pivots.

Even if we’re not all digital natives, we need to be thinking in terms of immigration and acculturation (to extend the metaphor) to a digital higher education space. A community that is comfortable with and well-versed in the strengths and limits of technology solutions is better poised to tackle crises that require use of those solutions to continue operating. 

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