By Märt Aro • 28 January 2020

Märt Aro: Education into a revenue source for Estonia

Märt Aro, co-founder of DreamApply.com and chairman of the Nordic EdTech Forum “N8”

We are shifting from industrial to information society, but our current school system is circa two hundred years old and tailored to the prime time of industrial society. Märt Aro, co-founder of DreamApply.com and chairman of the Nordic EdTech Forum “N8”, is debating whether this system continues to be fit for information society.

There are quite a few arguments in favor of a serious overhaul of the school system. Fundamental questions should be asked: what is the role of education and which skills do children need to succeed in the twenty-first century.

Estonia is in the absolute top of the existing global educational paradigm on the basis of the PISA test. Further excelling in academics would be difficult. Some issues have already been actively raised - how school should provide more digital know-how and develop teamwork and social skills. But little is discussed in regards to the role of schools in contemporary society. There are some who still believe that the primary aim of a school is to provide a safe place for children while their parents are productive at work. But the question could be approached differently by considering how best to equip children to succeed in real life in the 21st century. Once that is clear, we could discuss which methods best support it.

Notice private sector innovation

In Estonia we have about 1400 public services available online. Of these, only a handful are exported, as government services are typically built on a monolithic IT architecture and not designed for export. However, the Estonian private sector already has outstanding international success stories in the field of exporting e- services. Specifically in the education sector, more than 10 companies offer services around the world: research management software Sona Systems, language learning application Lingvist, and university management software DreamApply, to name a few. According to a study by the University of Tartu, the artificial intelligence-supported language learning system developed by Lingvist has already reached a level that is four hundred percent more efficient for learning languages than traditional curriculum-based learning. Thanks to its excellent work in the field of e-government, Estonia has a very positive international status, which could be used to turn its digital services into a source of revenue, including in the education sector. Many of the state's end-user services could be developed by the private sector and exported.

What opportunities do we have?

Getting utopian, each one of these 1400 public services could be exported and that`s still far from the full potential. For instance, in the education sector, a narrow vertical approach could be used. When one service solves a specific problem, it is called a micro service. For example, learning a multiplication table is one specific learning outcome that can be supported by specific software.

Taking education into small pieces in a person's timeline from cradle to grave, it is very easy to imagine hundreds of thousands of technological solutions and tools to support learning different skills or obtaining knowledge. The economic potential there is huge. The DreamApply service alone has a global market of approximately $ 2 billion. If we were able to develop and successfully export hundreds of solutions based on a similar model in Estonia, the annual revenue could reach billions of euros. The question is, why aren’t we doing it yet?

Technological possibilities are there

Looking back in history, in the late 80s, when governments around the world started actively implementing software to provide better quality public services, we did not yet have internet and were limited by the power of available servers. Typically, a compact system was built, often stored in a server park, located in the basement of a house, which served a couple of surrounding houses. Today, the situation has changed drastically. There are many examples in the world of companies providing service out of one country to the whole world - Google, for example. Why not take this opportunity seriously and start designing a relevant policy for all public services in Estonia? We could achieve a situation, where we do not pay for the services from the taxpayer’s pocket, but instead, the export of e-government services brings our treasury significantly more revenue than we spend on the services altogether.

The idea that local start-ups could be developing government services is not novel – it emerged over 3 years ago in a small group discussion between businesses and local politicians working to improve the standard of living in rural Estonia. Developing these services is realistic for small businesses as well as large ones - for example in DreamApply we started out with a team of only three people. However, the government policies need to enable effective interaction between the state and the nano-companies.

Learning system developed by Lingvist has already reached a level that is four hundred percent more efficient for learning languages than traditional curriculum-based learning.

Both knowledge and practical skills for such technological developments already exist and there is a growing number of services developed by private sector that are designed for export, in the education sector and in other e-government sectors. There is a need for stronger political desire to direct resources towards developing exportable services. In order to move forward, the strong e-services team that we already have at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications could use more meaningful backing.

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