Earlier this year, Estonia hit the headlines with reports it would be teaching all first graders in the country to code. While not every child will be learning to program at six years years old, Estonia's schoolchildren are now getting a first taste of a scheme aimed at helping them get to grips with technology, popularise progamming and even potentially help satisfy Estonia's future need for skilled techies.
The initative that raised the prospect of coding kids was ProgeTiiger, a project by the state-backed the Tiger Leap Foundation.
The foundation was founded in 1997, and stemmed from a proposal developed by the then Estonian ambassador to the US and now president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Jaak Aaviksoo, the Estonian minister for research and education.
The name for the foundation was inspired by The Four Asian Tigers - Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea - and its mission has remained the same over the last 15 years: to help Estonia's eduction sector use the best new technology.
The Tiger Leap Foundation's ProgeTiiger scheme is a voluntary educational program for schools and is aimed to help them to teach and popularise programming, web design and the creation of online applications among students between the first and 12th grades, both in class as well as in school clubs and hobby groups.
According to the Tiger Leap Foundation's head of training and the point person for ProgeTiiger Ave Lauringson, the fact that the program starts in the first grade doesn't mean that the seven-year-olds who participate in the project will instantly be taught how to write code. First, they have to get to know the basics of technology they're using and its working principles.
"The idea of Progetiiger is to provide children programming-related activities which are appropriate to their age, starting from the ABC of computers – what is a mouse, a keyboard, a computer etc, and how they work, before moving on to some simple programming tasks."
Although a few Estonian schools have already experimented with teaching programming and the Tiger Leap Foundation has funded robotics teaching, the projects were aimed at children of 12 and over, so in the beginning – meaning there were some doubts about making the program available to first-graders.
However, according to Lauringson, meetings with different experts and teachers who were involved in above-mentioned projects, convinced the foundation that the decision was the right one.
"Nowadays the children get their first experiences with computers, tablets and smartphones already at home when they are just a few years old. Our goal is not to make all of the children who participate in the ProgeTiiger programmers, but to teach them how to use technologies sensibly," she said.
Building simple applications
Pupils that are smart users of technology could one day become smart developers of technology, Lauringson said.
"They are using the computers anyway, they're playing and socialising, but when they face some problems, it would be really great if they were able to find solutions and create some simple applications by themselves. We use the environments which are designed to create games, mobile applications and web pages to make children think, develop their logic, see the problems and solve them."
ProgeTiiger started in September with an online course for teachers and, with the course designed in such a way that teachers can put their new knowledge into practice with their class or hobby group, the project is already underway for pupils between first and fourth in some schools.
Places on the first ProgeTiiger course for teachers were filled in a day and a half, and there's already a long waiting list for the next one.
According to Lauringson, the new initiative has been well-received by schools, parents and teachers and could in the near future be picked up by many of Estonia's schools.
"We actually have parents who have been calling and asking which schools are taking part of ProgeTiiger, so they would know in which schools to put their children next year," she said.
The full program will be launched from January when all the materials for grades 1 to 12 are made available, with the next course for teachers also starting around that time.
New funding options
Because the project has grown rapidly, and more and more schools are taking an interest in it, the foundation has had to start thinking about finding extra financing. It's already had some discussions with the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research and is also looking for the private sector to hop on board.
Although at the moment the project is funded exclusively by the Tiger Leap Foundation, Lauringson believes that because of the IT skills shortage in Estonia, the country's IT companies may be interested in sponsoring the project.
"It would be great if the local IT companies decide to support us. This investment takes some time to pay off, but it is a big step towards satisfying the needs of Estonian IT sector," said Lauringson.
There are some local enterprises which have already have supported the ProgeTiiger in one or another way. "I believe that other IT companies are willing to participate as well," said Raul Ennus, a consultant at Tieto Estonia which helped to develop the teaching materials - adding the initiative is a positive one, as it prepares students to pursue IT courses in higher education.
Along with garnering media attention, the project also drew the attention of Codecademy, which opened an online learning environment for schoolchildren in September.
Lauringson hopes that some of its modules could in the future be translated to Estonian, helping to spread the basics of programming to a wider audience in the country.