Digitalization of Basic Education: A Case Study from Kaarina, Finland, Part I

This article gives an insight to how one Finnish city, Kaarina, carried through a digitalization process in basic education level starting from 2014 by deploying personal mobile devices to all
students from grade 4 upwards. As well as to all of the staff, executing an intensive ICT training program for in-service teachers and introducing the use of electronic learning materials from several Finnish learning material publishers.

There were a number of reasons why the decision to push this kind of vast systemic change was done in the municipality, on a scale that no other municipality had done before in
Finland. First, the Finnish core curriculum was coming to be renewed with many alterations, one being the emphasis of using ICT as an everyday tool in teaching and learning. There was
also a need to have boys to be more enthusiastic about learning, unleash the potential of technology to give a boost on to teaching methods. Additionally, to introduce novel tools for
students to start creating and sharing knowledge and to make sure that all of the students, regardless of their family background, would have equal opportunities to learn to use
technology and learn new skills to be needed later in adult life.

It was clear for all of the stakeholders that besides mastering the clear learning objectives stated in the curriculum, students should also learn to learn skills, social skills, collaborative learning, self and peer assessment, media literacy and information acquisition skills. Learning all of these skills would be more efficient with the use of ICT, but only when a personal mobile device would be in use. The decision makers, politicians and the department of education all shared the same vision, so the political decision to give the project a green light was given in Spring 2014.

The technical & pedagogical overall vision of the project created in 2014 is illustrated below in picture #1.

 

The foundation of the project was, however, laid a year earlier. In 2013 the renewed strategy for educational technology was formulated to stand in three pillars: well designed
infrastructure, efficient operating models and pedagogical change. Each of these pillars consisted of technical, functional and pedagogical specifications that were laid into concrete
stepping stones in order to achieve the overall vision. Educational technology vision is presented below in picture #2.

 


Looking at the changes from a school’s perspective, there were three key points that needed modifications. First, the technical equipment of the classroom should be equalized in every
school. Second, with the technological advances combined with pedagogical know/how, one goal was to change the move the teacher from in front of the students to work with the
students: go more into the direction of student centered learning methods. And third, instead of using one learning management software, start using the same social media tools that
students already were using outside school. These objectives are described below in picture #3.


Before the actual deployment of devices could be started, it was necessary to make a number of modifications and additions to the technical infrastructure such as establishing the use of
new web services and creating ways to support teachers and students as they started their journey with the new technology. Picture #4 below illustrates all of the development processes
done during Spring and Summer 2014.

As we know, teaching and learning processes are very complex even without technological additions, so it was clear that implementing a novel tool and materials into that process was
something that required a lot of technical and pedagogical support. It was also clear that there would be problems encountered that were not known before as this was the first large-
scale project that was done in Finland.

The first phase of the project started officially in August 2014 as 1,200 student devices were taken into use. The deployment was carried through in four days, with one school per day. The following school year did not go without technical problems, as was predicted: even though the WiFi network was renewed before the start of the project, the coverage was discovered to be insufficient as there were so many devices simultaneously in use. This problem was addressed by increasing the number of WiFi access points. Another problem discovered in the first year with regards to WiFi was roaming. When students and teachers changed classrooms or moved school, the device got stuck to the access point it was originally logged on; as a result, WiFi access points were not able to connect the device to another access point used outside the range of its original access point. Luckily, the manufacturer was able to provide a system update so that the issue was resolved.

The pedagogical change was one of the key outcomes expected from the project and was supported with an extensive teacher training program that covered the first year, starting from the basic use of the device and continued to subject-specific training sessions, keeping the pedagogy in focus. When it was time to extend the project to cover grades 4-6 a year later, many of the technical solutions were updated; new ways to handle mobile device management emerged and the device manufacturer introduced volume purchase program so the deployment and management processes became easier. What kind of results did the municipality get with this changed process? After all, there were expectations and demands set by the politicians in the municipality. The results of the project are covered in part 2 of this article.

by Dr. Keijo Sipilä