“Digitalisation is part of a school's everyday life”

Arja-Sisko Holappa © Alain Herzog / 2020 EPFL

Arja-Sisko Holappa © Alain Herzog / 2020 EPFL

Mrs. Arja-Sisko Holappa is an Educational Counsellor and the Head of Impact Programme at the Finnish National Agency for Education.

She was invited by the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW) as a speaker on Finland’s education model during the symposium on digitalisation at school hosted by EPFL’s Education Outreach Department and SATW. The event was held at EPFL on 8 February 2020. This was the opportunity to discuss best practices and field experiences.

From what you have seen and heard today, what is your viewpoint about digitalisation in Swiss schools, and maybe your vision for the future?
I can see that a lot of progress is going on. It is not just empty talk; I see high hopes and possibilities. There are plans and development work that are realistic.

Could you tell us about the Impact Programme that you are currently leading?
The Impact Programme develops big processes; the most important ones are curriculum processes. These are developed in different ways in various levels of education. Many teachers are retiring, new ones are arriving. We ask professors how they found these processes and what there is to develop from their point of view; we are doing a lot of researches. There is still a lot of work to be done, but ideas are coming.

Throughout your career – considering its length and the numerous hats you have worn, how did you perceive the early days and then the implementation of digitalisation in Finnish schools?
I was a teacher in the 1980’s when the digital revolution started. Back then, the first personal computers were huge and their power was 20 mega only but they were fine. Development was so quick. That decade saw the raise of a big national programme for teachers in Finland. The learning of the basic IT skills and related further skills had a huge impact on the pedagogical use of ICT. The problem was that the equipment and the connection were not ready for proper pedagogical use. The enthusiasm of the beginnings vanished. Real significant steps started with good equipment: digital white boards, PCs for classrooms, digital cameras… Then the wireless connection came. Today we use these in many fields of education.

In the 1990’s municipalities were responsible for health and services, including schools. They noticed that different fields were buying ICT equipment of their own. Purchases should have been pooled but it was not a good solution from the schools’ perspective since the equipment was for office use and not for teaching purposes.

It took several years for the stakeholders to discuss the special needs in education. This is not a problem anymore, except for the money: there is not enough to keep the equipment updated.

What was the role and influence of the various stakeholders (teachers, politicians, pupils, companies) involved, and how did they collaborate?
Cooperation has to be organised in a way that education remains free and coherent.
As far as business is concerned, cooperation with ICT companies is restricted, yet Microsoft and Apple operating systems were bought for schools, and the latter are now dependent of the former. Many ICT companies would have liked to sell their products labelled “approved by the Finnish Government” but the Government refused. There are a few collaborations with companies today, however not at a large scale. Some interesting start-ups in Finland have an agreement with municipalities, but commercial agreements with schools are not permitted.

On the tool side, the biggest municipalities are planning to connect our e-curriculum platform to new systems that will help teachers plan their work at school and assess students, amongst other features.

The State is not officially involved in the development of those systems, yet it has a link through the municipalities.

How does that translate in the field, concretely speaking? I mean by this: financial and human resources involved, trainings for teachers, teaching tools, apprenticeship etc.
Learning and teaching materials (digital tools, equipment, etc.) are the responsibility of the municipalities, who buy and use them to their best knowledge. In the past, the State subsided the purchase of equipment but not anymore, hence the municipalities using their own resources. It had a large budget to lead huge development programmes but it did not last. The strategy is different today, focussing on small steps. For instance, the State subsidies teachers’ trainings in the equipment but also in the pedagogical use of ICT.

What does digitalisation in schools actually imply?
Digitalisation is part of a school’s everyday life; we do not separate digital and non-digital daily activities. For instance, children in kindergarten play with tablets, take photos, play games, use the various installed programmes. Teachers document these activities by taking photos and sending them to the parents. In primary school, tablets are considered as learning material, pretty much like a pen or a book. At the vocational education stage, digitalisation is very closely organised with companies and the tools at the students’ disposal are related to their fields of profession. All fields of profession are covered.

What were the challenges of this digital revolution in education/teaching?
The main challenges were resources – both human and financial. Implementing digitalisation in schools was not an easy task back then, and is actually still the case today. Municipalities are struggling with finances and have to cut in equipment and personnel. Some kindergartens and small schools even had to be shut down.

What has proven to be successful and unsuccessful?
We believe that digital education has to be organised as an integral part of daily life. We noticed that training is the most effective when it comes directly to the schools. It is a question of empowerment. Students have to believe they can learn it and fix it, even if not right at the first try.

Why do these actions work particularly well? How could they be implementable in other countries where culture, school routine and education style are different?
Some actions could work everywhere, such as developing a network of teachers that would enable them to discuss, visit different places to stay up to date with various methods. Teachers have to look around what is going on in society. Some of them are reluctant to digitalisation at school, but they use laptops, social media, pay bills online etc. themselves. These are nowadays basic skills like reading. The role of teachers is to prepare children for life-long learning, so none can say that s/he is not a “digital person”. It is something more profound, on the kind of society that we want. Learning by listening as we were used to in the past is now over. An old proverb says, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily”. We are good learners but we learn bad things too. Whereas the things you are highly motivated to learn, you will remember for the rest of your life.

How can digitalisation and essence of play be compatible? Screens are often blamed for making children less intelligent since they do not use their cognitive skills as much anymore.
It really depends on what you do with the hardware. Is it for entertainment, for instance? Small kids are thrilled with sound and music already.
There was a discussion in Finland about screen time that led to restrict it, especially for the younger. We consider that, generally, screen time should be used to learn something. We need to learn again how to learn.

What did today’s various presentations and discussions inspire you? Any action that was implemented in Switzerland and France that could also work in Finland, in your opinion?
Peer-school system, like Ecole 42, is something that we should consider for later. There is a lack in Finland and worldwide of people with ICT and coding skills, which makes this model really interesting. We have to consider informal forms of education, how we develop know-how from hobbies. Is there a system that could be created to recognise this expertise?

Currently universities of applied sciences organise coding workshops for adults. They are very popular because they are accessible and free.
I also really liked Mrs. Cesla Amarelle’s presentation about the organisation of digitalisation in schools planned over the next years. I think it is brilliantly done and very concrete. It will surely be a success.

About the event

The symposium offered a varied program with presentations, a panel discussion and workshops that provided the framework to explore the topic from various angles. Not only were experiences from different European countries shared, but also speakers from fields ranging from education, industry, politics to the teachers’ union represented the different stakeholders involved in this digital transition in schools. These complementary views on the same topic led to rich discussions.

Author: Laurianne Trimoulla
Source: EPFL