How do you solve an IT skills crisis before it happens? Estonia has the answer

How do you solve an IT skills crisis before it happens? Estonia has the answer

Summary: Estonia's ProgeTiiger project aims to prevent the country's IT skills shortage worsening in future by teaching some of its youngest citizens how to get to grips with tech and code. The initiative has proved so popular, it's hoped local IT companies will step in to finance it.

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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.

child on a computer
Estonia's ProgeTiiger is proving popular among teachers and parents. Image: Shutterstock

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."

Among the programs that are being used by schoolchildren in the first three grades are Kodu Game Lab and Logo, while from the fourth grade onwards there will be some materials provided for Scratch.

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.

Topics: IT Employment, Software Development, EU

Kalev Aasmae

About Kalev Aasmae

Kalev Aasmäe is a technology and economics journalist, who also writes for the oldest and largest quality newspaper in Estonia, Postimees.

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7 comments
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  • And

    Judging by your picture ZDNet is solving their blogger shortage with 6th graders!
    slickjim
    • Are you a complete and utter idiot?

      Sorry, I think your post confirmed that. Silly question.

      One thing is patently obvious: The blogger is a LOT more mature than you are.
      D.T.Long
      • Yes and

        Clearly you lost your sense of humor with IQ.
        slickjim
  • Interesting initiative

    Perhaps other countries should follow. I found it curious that you did not mention the Raspberry Pi at all. Any particular reason?
    D.T.Long
  • America's Forgotten Resource

    America has a neglected, rejected resource in the retired and semi-retired mainframe programmers whose existing technology skills are obsolete. Since most of us spent our careers as salaried programmers and designers, for whom management respect disappeared over the years, we were passed over for opportunities to learn new skills in favor of the cheaper, younger graduates. This is a mistake for our nation, because in the old days, we were taught not only "cookbook" procedures, but basic principles of engineering, which would enable us to adapt to new technologies; but our managers denied us transfers into new technology positions until the gap became too expensive in their eyes to bridge. Those of us who did not have thousands of dollars of personal capital saved up for time off for self-study, software and hardware for home labs, and exam fees to become "certified", were retired early, or laid off in our 50's without retirement benefits, having to take lower skilled jobs to survive till Social Security and pensions kick in.

    Even though older workers may not be able to tolerate the 16 hour days for weeks on end that managers want now (for the same pay), if someone (at this point it would have to be government) invested in us to upgrade our skills, we could work part time (or true 40 hour full time) and help stimulate the economy and reduce the deficit.

    If nothing else, we could help stimulate interest in the "how-to" of computers among the school children, with an appreciation of how quickly this technology has grown.

    Is there any support for this idea?
    jallan32
    • No Tech in the US?

      Obviously, there is a huge tech skills base in the US. Most of those currently working might be younger folks, but many are older.

      I've worked with plenty of older people who didn't wait for their managers to provide training. They studied and played with new tech at home an hour or 2 at night for months.

      I hired a DBA who self-taught herself using free downloads of MySQL and SQL Server, plus a couple cheap books. I've hired multiple web developers who came from the mainframe world - they self-taught by inventing a project and then coding at night/weekends. There have been a lot of web resources out there for more than 10 years.

      As the CTO of a start-up in 2000, I hired 40 tech guys, about 25 were developers. To be honest, your attitude would have kept you from being successful in the environment.

      3 of my former guys are lead/senior developers at Google. None are under 55 years old.
      Regulator1956
  • And in the US ...

    We have way too many states -- particularly in the South and Mid-West -- where it's a struggle to get public schools to teach basic science! Programming (much less coding)? Yeah, when Texas freezes over!

    /rant
    Jim Kirk