Quality, inclusive education is key to emerging Europe’s digital future

Regional disparities between the digital haves and have nots can only be resolved by offering everyone the education they need.

Over the past decade much of emerging Europe has made a name for itself in the field of IT, both in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation. The region’s digital economy has, as a result, been growing steadily, but there is still a wealth of untapped potential, and there are wide regional differences in the adoption of technological advances. If the region as a whole is to make the most of its potential, more collaboration will be needed. Laggards will need to learn from the leaders, and across the board, talent will need to be both trained and retrained.

According to Eurostat, the European Union’s data analysis unit, three countries in emerging Europe lead the bloc when it comes to the digital skills of their young people: Croatia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In all three, over 90 per cent of young people (aged between 16 and 24) possess basic or above basic digital skills. However, three countries in emerging Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary) are also among the EU states with the fewest number of digitally-skilled young people. In all three, barely half can boast adequate digital know-how.

Making education inclusive

Quality of education clearly plays a role, and it is no coincidence that emerging Europe’s digital leader, Estonia, also has the region’s best education system.

Education and innovation in Estonia do not just stand out in emerging Europe. The country has become a global leader in providing its citizens with high quality digital services, of which education is one. What can the rest of the region learn?

Inclusivity, for a start.

In the countries of the region that have fallen behind, poor IT skills are a problem that primarily relates to socially excluded groups and less economically well developed areas. For this reason, numerous independent organisations are attempting to address the issue by providing training where it is needed most.

In Ukraine for example, IT is one of the country’s most promising sectors, growing at an average of 19 per cent a year. However, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), just 25 per cent of the nation’s overall population possess basic digital skills. The Ukrainian digital education project BrainBasket has been trying to improve this statistic since 2014, by providing free digital training for children, young adults, teachers, and even women on maternity leave. BrainBasket’s initial success in Ukraine has encouraged it to export its free programming course, Technology Nation, to Moldova and Slovakia.

Similarly, in Bulgaria’s (and the EU’s) poorest region, Vratsa, the NGO Vratsa Software Society is trying to teach sought after skills amongst the local population by providing free programming, digital marketing, and design courses.

Government must play a role

However, Kadri Tuisk, the CEO of Estonian digital education start-up Clanbeat, does not think that the work of such NGOs is enough to address the issue of low digital skills amongst the general population.

“The work of NGOs is usually project-based and this financing model does not allow for a continuous strategy,” she tells Emerging Europe.

Ants Sild, IT and strategic management consultant and lecturer at Baltic Computer Systems, tells Emerging Europe that cooperation between all sectors is needed for the development of a digital society of the kind we see in Estonia.

Sild points out that as early as 1997 the Estonian government rolled out its Tiger Leap programme aimed at improving internet accessibility by making it available at all public schools and libraries. According to Sild, this presented the right environment for the emergence of private initiatives, such as the Look@World Foundation founded by a number of private Estonian banks, telecom and IT industry organisations that invested in the training of 100,000 people (or 10 per cent of the adult population in Estonia) between 2002 and 2004.

Tuisk agrees that efforts to improve digital skills cannot just come from one sector of society, but she also argues that there is a specific mindset that needs to be encouraged for a digital society to develop.

“If you are going to be pushing digital skills from, for example, government level, and you’re saying that it has to be done in five years, it creates resistance. In Estonia, we have had an open discussion.”

She also argues that those emerging European societies that are lagging behind need to be transparent about the issues they are facing. “Leaders need to be able to say, ‘we screwed up here, but we are looking for solutions’.”

Furthermore, people should not be made to feel ashamed for not having mastered certain skills.

“If you feel like you’re the only one struggling you might think ‘I’m stupid, I cannot do it’, then you might give up. If you can see that there are other people struggling with the same thing then you combine forces and start troubleshooting together.”

Unfulfilled hope

Overall, Tuisk argues that digitalisation and upskilling should be a process and a discussion, not a mandatory diktat that everyone has to follow.

Sild points out that it might be difficult to create a digital society if those in charge of the country also have a low understanding of the benefits digitalisation can bring. He says that Baltic Computer Systems is now working with the Estonian government to improve the digital skills of civil servants through a new project hoping to train the top officials in every ministry in IT management.

The Covid-19 outbreak came with a great deal of hope – and hype – of accelerated digitalisation across the region. Nine months into the pandemic, this has not proven to be the case, especially in the countries that were already falling behind. Meanwhile, the populations of countries like Estonia, that have succeeded in utilising technology to their advantage, especially in education, have not been as negatively impacted as others.

As new cases continue to mount across Europe, so does pressure on laggard countries to make genuine steps towards digitalisation. Not for the first time, they could look to Estonia for a path forwards.

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