Estonian edtech founder: ‘Coronavirus will make a lasting change to digital education’

Across Europe and much of the world, social and public life has ground to a halt as social distancing measures and curfews are enacted to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Schools are now closed just about everywhere emerging Europe, affecting the education of millions of pupils. Nations have been scrambling to push out distance learning solutions, from TV broadcasts to the use of digital platforms.

It is in this environment that an Estonian edtech start-up, 99math, has become a key player in the digital learning push. It is one of  more than 40 different service providers from the Baltics and Nordics who are all offering their services for free.

99math recently made waves by closing an investment round to the tune of 454,000 euros in January.

Making maths fun and engaging is at the core of 99math’s philosophy. It does so by offering a free online platform where children can compete, video game-style, to solve maths problems.

Now, 99math is at the centre of a project dubbed Education Nation, which enjoys the full support of the Estonian Ministry of Education.

And it all happened quite serendipitously, CEO Tonis Kusmin tells Emerging Europe.

“At first I contacted other education entrepreneurs in Estonia asking them a couple of questions, such as ‘Can your solution support remote learning?’, ‘Is it easy to adopt without much training or implementation?’ and ‘Can you provide it for free?’”, Mr Kusmin explains.

“So, about 15 education solutions from Estonia joined in, and were just lucky enough to have a meeting with the ministry the next day. We shared that we’re combining the solutions and the education minister herself urged us to move even faster with the initiative to get the solutions out to people as fast as possible,” he continues.

The response to the move was immediate, with 99math seeing a five-fold increase in new teacher registrations.

“The role for these edtech companies is to shoulder social responsibility. They can influence positively a lot of people in this crisis. There are currently 800 million students around the world affected by school closures, as well as their parents and teachers. That’s why I’m trying to bring these education companies together to help this situation,” Mr Kusmin tells me.

But there are benefits to remote learning beyond just weathering the current storm. Mr Kusmin points out that many of the digital platforms can actually make learning better.

“What these education solutions can do is they can engage students and walk them through a learning process so the student enjoys learning more. Some of the solutions are very efficient, so the kids actually develop faster,” he elaborates.

Right now, many educational institutions around emerging Europe, elementary schools and universities alike, have no other choice but to pursue digital strategies.

Time will tell if the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to long term changes in education, but Mr Kusmin is optimistic.

“Because of the crisis teachers are unfortunately forced into the situation where they have to use digital learning solutions. But once they become accustomed to them, and realise the benefits, many of them will continue to do use them.”

It’s not just teachers that might be the drivers of future change: kids and parents will have a role too.

“I think that as parents and children become accustomed to digital tools, there will also be bottom-up pressure for teachers not go back to entirely paper-based learning, because the kids themselves have realised how cool it is to learn with some of these tools. And then they will be asking the teachers to use them again.”

“I expect this will make a lasting change,” Mr Kusmin concludes.