In Estonia, a nation renowned for its digital leadership, Education Minister Kristina Kallas is spearheading an AI-powered revolution in education. Minister Kallas envisions a future where technology, including AI, empowers students to become self-directed learners, navigating their educational journeys with personalized support and feedback.

This transformation extends beyond the classroom, as Estonia seamlessly integrates technology into both formal and non-formal education. From e-school diaries fostering transparency between students, parents, and teachers to robotics clubs and coding camps nurturing tech-savvy youth, Estonia’s commitment to digital fluency is evident.

Minister Kallas acknowledges the challenges of teacher shortages and the need for curriculum adaptation in light of the rapid emergence of AI. However, she remains optimistic, emphasizing the importance of investing in teacher training, developing AI-enhanced learning tools, and fostering collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Estonia’s groundbreaking initiatives, such as the AI-enabled infrastructure for personalized learning and the ProgeTiiger Program for teaching programming skills, have garnered international attention. Kallas envisions further collaboration with countries like Singapore, sharing insights and expertise to advance the field of EdTech innovation.

In this exclusive TNGlobal Q&A, Minister Kallas delves into the intricacies of Estonia’s digital education transformation, offering valuable insights for other nations seeking to harness the power of AI to shape the future of learning.

Kristina Kallas, Education Minister of Estonia

Estonia is renowned for its digital leadership in education. Could you start by giving us an overview of your vision for empowering Estonian youth through technology and AI?

We need to constantly remind ourselves that digital tools alone are not magical solutions for modernizing the learning process. Reports from the OECD and the World Economic Forum on the “Future of Jobs” have long forecasted changing needs in the global economy, leading to new expectations for workforce skills and capabilities. From this, the concept of 21st-century skills has emerged, with various applications being further developed by countries, including Estonia.

At the heart of contemporary education is the self-directed learner. Technology, including AI, plays a supportive role, aiding students in navigating their learning processes by mapping prior knowledge, suggesting tasks, and providing feedback to improve their learning experiences.

In the Education Strategy 2035, Estonia focuses on seamlessly integrating technology into all levels of education, aiming to prepare our students not only to consume digital content but also to create and critically engage with it. Estonia’s vision for empowering youth through technology and AI is rooted in our commitment to nurturing a digitally fluent society.

The irreversible integration of large language models developed by entities like OpenAI into everyday life has acted as a catalyst, even in otherwise relatively conservative educational environments. Students in both general education schools and universities are quickly embracing new opportunities, and teachers and professors must simply adapt. Prohibiting the use of tools like ChatGPT or investing in detection programs for AI-generated texts is simply a waste of energy, time, and nerves.

Instead, we must rethink the entire process of learning and teaching, as well as the design of learning tasks, so that AI becomes a natural part of it, freeing up time for students and educators to engage in higher cognitive processes, including metacognition.

In this sense, AI acts as a factor exerting evolutionary pressure on the human species, while also providing opportunities for responding appropriately to this pressure. What may be novel is the speed at which all of this is happening, which presents a real challenge for all of us. However, for Estonia, I see this as an opportunity, because in the new paradigm, it’s the fastest and smartest who win, not necessarily the biggest or wealthiest.

How does Estonia integrate technology into both formal and non-formal education to foster well-rounded youth development?

Estonia seamlessly integrates technology into both formal and non-formal education to cultivate well-rounded youth development. Since the late 90s, our schools have embraced cutting-edge IT infrastructure, with digital literacy embedded in the national curriculum. This was all done under the national umbrella program Tiger Leap.

For formal education, our e-school diary system exemplifies this integration, offering a digital platform for students, parents, and teachers to access study materials, grades, and attendance records. This fosters transparency and facilitates continuous communication among stakeholders.

In non-formal education, Estonia encourages tech-oriented extracurricular activities like robotics clubs, coding camps, and startup incubators from a young age. Additionally, initiatives like the Tiger Leap Foundation promote IT education through teacher training programs and extracurricular activities, nurturing a tech-savvy generation both inside and outside the classroom.

However, naturally, we encounter obstacles and setbacks as well. For example, we just had to postpone the general transition to e-exams from 2025 to 2026, because nearly a quarter of schools were not ready for it. It has also become clear that our respective digital systems need an upgrade. Not to mention that the development of the EdTech ecosystem needs better coordination between the public and private sectors. Nonetheless, acknowledging these genuine challenges marks significant progress towards finding solutions.

In what ways do government policies actively support young people in accessing and learning about AI and other emerging technologies?

Our government policies actively support young people in accessing and learning about AI and other emerging technologies in several key ways. Firstly, digital skills, encompassing computational thinking and digital literacy, are seamlessly integrated into the national curriculum across all educational levels. This ensures that students are introduced to these concepts from an early age, laying a solid foundation for their future learning and career opportunities.

Secondly, we recognize the crucial role of teachers in delivering effective technology education. Therefore, the government invests significantly in continuous professional development programs. Initiatives such as the “Digital Accelerator” provide educators with essential training and resources to effectively teach emerging technologies like AI. By keeping our educators updated with the latest advancements, we ensure they can impart cutting-edge knowledge to their students.

Moreover, we find ourselves at an opportune moment with the implementation of European Social Fund programs. This enables us to make necessary adjustments in response to the rapid emergence of AI, both in teacher professional development and curriculum updates. The core principle of ESF funding is investing in development, with decisions made based on needs and prudence. Occasionally, needs arise more swiftly than anticipated in the planning process, necessitating a flexible approach.

In the context of digital tools and AI revolutionizing teaching practices, could you provide specific examples of successful implementation within Estonia’s education system?

Our success stories largely stem from the pioneering efforts of the first Tiger Leap initiative in the 90s. For over two decades, we’ve been utilizing e-diaries and calendars in schools. Privately owned digital platforms like e-Kool and Stuudium serve as vital connectors, seamlessly linking parents, teachers, and schools, facilitating the sharing of grades, homework assignments, and attendance records online. This fosters real-time feedback and ensures continuous communication, showcasing how digital tools can significantly enhance both administrative and instructional aspects of education, promoting transparency and efficiency.

Another remarkable example is Estonia’s ProgeTiiger Program, dedicated to teaching programming skills to children from a young age. With the goal of fostering digital literacy across all school levels, starting from pre-school, ProgeTiiger has played a pivotal role in acquainting young Estonians with software development, robotics, and other tech-driven activities. It stands as a shining model for integrating practical tech skills into formal education.

Furthermore, I consider the consolidation of EdTech startups under the umbrella organization EdTech Estonia as a positive trend. This has provided the government and universities with a strategic partner for coordinated collaboration and role delineation. In my vision, new initiatives and applications related to AI should find the fastest route to the educational technology sector’s market and onto the desks of students and educators through such channels.

Estonia is aiming for a fully Estonian-language education system by 2030. What challenges are you anticipating, and how are these being addressed?

One of the primary challenges we foresee is ensuring an adequate number of teachers who meet the language requirements for Estonian-language education.

To tackle this challenge, universities have ramped up efforts to increase teacher training admissions and are offering more flexible study options to accommodate aspiring educators. Additionally, to attract young talent to the teaching profession, we’ve launched the ‘Youth to School’ program, aimed at bringing in motivated individuals from diverse backgrounds into education.

Furthermore, there’s a significant ongoing effort in providing language training for those teachers who do not yet meet the language requirements mandated by law. The focus here isn’t solely on learning Estonian but also on acquiring subject-specific language skills, enabling teachers to effectively teach subjects like biology, physics, mathematics, and others in Estonian.

It has become evident that we are facing a shortage of teacher trainers. Therefore, another solution we are focusing on is the development of digital solutions that support independent learning. This is being pursued both internally within the ministry, through the development of AI-enhanced applications like Keeleklikk, and by reaching out to startups specializing in language learning tools. We aim to ensure that their product development aligns with nationally established language proficiency requirements, ranging from B1 to A1 levels.

Given Singapore’s multilingual context, what potential insights can Estonia’s language plan offer?

Firstly, I want to acknowledge Singapore’s concept of a multicultural society in education, which I had the privilege to witness during my visit. I propose that Singapore can find further inspiration and validation in Estonia’s dedication to providing equal opportunities for all children, regardless of their linguistic or cultural background. By ensuring that children and youth from non-Estonian speaking communities are not marginalized, Estonia promotes inclusivity and social cohesion, values that are equally important in Singapore’s diverse society.

Moreover, Estonia’s support for minority cultural societies operating hobby schools highlights the importance of community involvement in preserving languages and cultures. Singapore can capitalize on community organizations and cultural institutions to supplement formal education endeavors, offering additional resources for language acquisition and cultural enrichment. Ultimately, we are dealing with the multifaceted identities of individuals, and it is crucial to provide non-formal, supportive spaces for identity development within the framework of national regulations.

Both Estonia and Singapore lead in EdTech innovation. Where do you see the greatest potential for collaboration to advance the field further?

Both Estonia and Singapore are at the forefront of EdTech innovation, offering abundant opportunities for collaboration to advance the field. Sharing insights in curriculum design can pave the way for personalized learning journeys, harnessing technology to cater to individual needs and learning styles, thus enhancing the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

Paradoxically, I see the greatest value-creating engine for collaboration between Singapore and Estonia in our relatively contrasting approaches to educational governance. It appears to me that Singapore’s modern educational governance is heavily centralized, enabling efficient and rapid dissemination of best practices nationwide. Estonia’s education system (which, incidentally, predates the Estonian state) relies on a high level of autonomy for teachers and schools. Such autonomy fosters the emergence of diverse, often “wild” solutions to the same objectives or problems.

In the exchange of mutual views and ideas, synergy can arise, generating entirely new solutions, much like the two-dimensional images from each eye create a comprehensive three-dimensional perception in the brain. This is not merely a metaphor—some of the most creative solutions have emerged from the synthesis of different perspectives or the overcoming of dilemmas.

The quickest collaboration direction, I believe, lies in the cooperation between universities and the startup sectors. Collaborating in sharing insights, data, and research findings from EdTech projects holds immense potential to accelerate innovation in both countries. Pooling resources and expertise can refine tools for self-directed learning, leading to more effective educational outcomes.

Establishing a platform for collaboration between EdTech companies in Estonia and Singapore can foster synergy, facilitating knowledge exchange, joint projects, and investment opportunities. This can expedite the development and adoption of innovative educational technologies. Estonia’s dynamic public-private partnerships in EdTech can serve as an inspirational model for Singapore. By sharing best practices, both countries can develop collaborative frameworks that promote innovation and scalability in EdTech solutions.

Together, Estonia and Singapore can lead the creation and implementation of international standards and frameworks for educational technologies, ensuring interoperability and quality assurance across global EdTech solutions, shaping the future of education on a global scale. Through leveraging each other’s strengths and expertise, significant advancements in EdTech innovation can be achieved.

How do you believe AI-powered education tools can be refined to address current shortcomings and maximize effectiveness?

AI-powered education tools should prioritize supporting modern learning goals like learner agency, self-regulation skills, metacognition, collaborative learning, and the development of general competencies. These are the skills and abilities that various reports have highlighted as necessary to fill the jobs that will be created in parallel with the disappearance of those jobs that will be taken over by AI automation, both in terms of physical and mental performance.

Development of AI-powered tools should begin with a deep understanding of modern education objectives, rather than solely focusing on technological capabilities. This ensures that the tools are designed to meet the specific needs and challenges of educators and learners, rather than being a solution in search of a problem.

Moreover, AI-powered tools should support a holistic approach to learning, focusing on the learning process rather than performance outcomes. This means providing students with personalized learning experiences that cater to their individual needs, strengths, and interests, while also fostering collaboration and critical thinking skills.

Another dimension to consider is the need to better value teachers’ time. In recent years, the issue of teacher overload and burnout has come sharply into focus in Estonia. One contributing factor is that many activities supporting learning and teaching, such as monitoring, documentation, initial analysis, and written feedback, still operate essentially in a pre-21st-century manner, as manual tasks. Automating these activities with AI would liberate teachers’ time previously spent on low-value tasks, effectively translating into working hours in the Gantt chart sense.

Teachers should be able to focus on creative engagement with students, both as a class and individually with each student. This is the most valuable and highly skilled time that should not be sacrificed to inevitable administrative or procedural tasks. Here, I would expect greater commitment from the R&D and EdTech sectors.

Are there specific Estonian AI education initiatives that could be adapted for a Singaporean context, and vice versa?

I wouldn’t rush ahead of time. In the EU, for example, there’s still ongoing discussion about whether and how to limit the potential negative impacts of AI. Different countries have vastly different perspectives on the whole issue, ranging from genuine Luddism to optimistic enthusiasm, which ultimately creates a cautious atmosphere of scepticism.

Certainly, we have developments that we hope to take pride in in the future. For instance, some developers consider Estonia’s initiative to build an AI-enabled infrastructure for personalized learning groundbreaking. By gathering and utilizing personal learning experiences while ensuring privacy and security, this infrastructure automates personalized suggestions for improvement and provides detailed diagnostics to teachers. Additionally, Estonia seems to be pioneering the use of machine learning for predictive models in diagnostic testing, refining requirements, and gathering early feedback.

For example, Tallinn University’s model focuses on AI applications for feedback on learning outcomes and recommendations for further learning paths, empowering students to autonomously direct their learning process. However, the risk of such developments lies in the probability that learners may become blindly dependent on the sequence of tasks dictated by the AI application. This would strongly contradict the principle of autonomous learning. In turn, psychologists from the University of Tartu and researchers from the Faculty of Computer Science are exploring ways to mitigate similar risks.

As you can see, in Estonia, we’re in a phase of debates and development in different directions, often competing. Here, I would see less of a mutual adoption of ready-made solutions between Singapore and Estonia, but rather collaboration or division of roles in the creation and/or adaptation of AI-based solutions.

At the same time, we have no illusions about our financial and human competitiveness compared to international corporations like Alphabet (mostly known as Google) or Microsoft. Therefore, we aim for international success primarily in the sensible adaptation and widespread implementation of AI applications in our schools and universities. If a cherry on top comes in the form of a from-the-scratch solution, it’s only a delightful bonus. Mutual sharing of ideas, teams, and resources between the two countries would naturally increase the likelihood of such cases.

What advice do you have for other nations, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region, seeking to accelerate their digital education transformation?

It’s challenging to offer something new and groundbreaking as advice to a country (and region) that serves as a model for the rest of the world. The general recipe for success is well-known to everyone—a clear, strategic vision coupled with investment in digital infrastructure, teacher training and empowerment, and collaboration with the private sector. The question is how to bridge the gap between the outcome on paper and its implementation in a way that is digestible and appealing.

If I were to suggest anything at all, it would be to ensure that amidst many “nice to have” solutions, focus is not lost on addressing real pain points. Even if it doesn’t promise substantial financial gain or fame. The emergence of AI, especially large language models (like ChatGPT), can be boldly compared in terms of impact on humanity to the emergence of language itself. It’s not just about technical progress, like the adoption of fire, the wheel, or gunpowder.

AI puts our existence as humans to an evolutionary test, in terms of our humanistic values. Here, all nations are in the same boat, and the journey is just beginning. And in the ecosystem of education, the key to the prosperity of nations/regions is undeniable. I would like to see Estonia not only as a dispenser of recommendations but also as a respected partner to consider collaborating with.

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