Estonia decodes IT future

Dec 12, 2012

The European Union launched an information technology agency in Estonia last Saturday, just months after the Baltic country announced it would begin teaching computer programming to first-graders.

For a nation that recognizes Internet access as a fundamental human right, boasts the greatest Internet freedom in the world, is home to NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, and produces more tech start-ups per head of population than any other country in Europe, these latest achievements only cement its status as an IT trailblazer.

Establishing the EU’s IT headquarters for large-scale home affairs, such as Schengen area border policies, in Tallinn is “a sign of respect,” according to Estonia’s Minister of the Interior, Ken-Marti Vaher. Many would argue, however, that the move represents more than a mere accolade and is the result of a two-decade long strategy to shape an “e-Estonian” identity.

Estonia’s size first encouraged President Toomas Hendrik Ilves–a self-proclaimed computer “geek”–to carve a niche in the IT field following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He believed  computers could compensate for a tiny workforce and for a lack of physical infrastructure, in addition to eradicating the culture of oppression prevalent during Soviet rule.

Now that same momentum is propelling a drive for universal code literacy in the nation of 1.3 million. A pilot program introduced last September by the government-sponsored Tiger Leap Foundation, which promotes science and technology in schools, laid the foundation for instructing six and seven-year-olds in Java, Perl, C++ and other skills needed for coding, such as logic.

The intention behind the program, known as ProgeTiiger, is not to build an army of computer scientists, but to develop a generation of users with a more intimate connection to technology.

“We want to change thinking that computers and programs are just things as they are,” Ave Lauringson, founder and project manager of ProgeTiiger, told Forbes. “There is an opportunity to create something, and be a smart user of technology.”

The program, which receives some $90,000 from the Estonian government for course material and to train teachers online, is still in the very early stages, with 20 of the country’s 550 public schools participating in ProgeTiiger. The plan is to make computer programming a mandatory course for grades 1-4 and an elective course with extracurricular “coding clubs” thereafter.

Neighboring Latvia and Lithuania are also emerging as tech havens, with the some of the fastest Internet download speeds in the world and the London-based TechHub selecting Riga for it’s first international expansion, but both lag behind their Estonian counterparts.

Some secondary school students in these nations can take elective computer courses and participate in international programming competitions, but Latvia seems more interested in bringing technology to senior citizens than in wiring the youngest generations. Lithuania, meanwhile, is still adapting to information and communications technology in the classroom and is working to ensure an Internet connection in every school–something the Tiger Leap Foundation was finalizing in Estonia as early as 1997.

Organizations such as Girls Who Code and CodeNow are attempting to breed an interest for computer programming in schoolchildren, but Estonia is unique in starting at such a young age and in implementing the program on a universal scale.

It will be decades before the benefits of the ProgeTiiger program can be evaluated, but Lauringson said Estonia’s small size makes it a model country for experimenting with new projects and that their “e-society” mentality is ideal for turning a nation of ingrained tech users into tech developers–two factors the EU is certainly embracing with their new headquarters.

Photo courtesy Lars Ploughmann/Flicker. Creative Commons

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Nirvana Bhatia

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