Trends, Problems and Governmental ICT-efforts in Schools in the Nordic Countries

Rene Belsø
Senior Advisor, Information Technology Policy
Nordic Council of Ministers

Why make efforts?

Rene BelsoAn obvious initial question, but often forgotten, is why one at all should make any special effort? The question is especially relevant in the ICT sector since change is rapid and often fundamental, and because governments, universities and the like are big and slow bureaucratic machines. But what is it that is changing?

Globalisation and its consequences in relation to education

Knowledge is increasingly becoming a main resource in modern civilisation, and the "knowledge society" is seen to substitute the "industrial society". Being able to understand global developments as well as "supply-demand-chains" in society is now not so much about raw material or industrial production as it is about possessing knowledge. For a nation as well as an individual it is of paramount importance to have "something that is needed", since the demand for what one has to offer, directly determines national as well as individual wealth and social positioning.

Globalisation and its consequences in relation to ICT

Global developments in the supply-demand-chains of the knowledge society point in the direction of ICT, biochemistry, genetic engineering, environmental protection engineering etc. The importance of ICT for a nation (and thus for an individual) is linked to the nations competitiveness, which is linked to its competence base and wage levels.

Education and ICT

The Nordic countries have a high competence base but also very high wage levels. Thus Nordic countries are forced to focus on competence areas where the demand is willing to pay the high wage costs - such as in the ICT sector.

The Baltic countries also have a high competence base. However, as opposed to the Nordic countries, they have low wage levels, making them extraordinarily competitive in the ICT field. Consequently, it makes good sense for the Baltic countries to invest heavily in the ICT sector and thus in ICT education.

However, a responsible government must plan for long term developments in knowledge society needs, which includes more then ICT, i.e. social and humanistic aspects as well as the more creative aspects of knowledge society.

Efforts in three dimensions

Educational efforts must be at the correct level, in the right sector with the right focus.

"Levels of analysis" - dimension:

Levels of analysis

Division of labour between the actor levels (intergovernmental, governmental, local governmental, school, pupil/teacher) is significant to an extent that it must be explicitly defined. Efforts should be on "a need to do"-basis, starting at the top level and only moving down if there is a need to do so.


Efforts must be aimed at the right sector reflecting political priority, national needs and cultural strengths. I.e. to identify the "weak spots" within the sectors of governance (finance policy, infrastructure policy, education policy - e.g. teacher competence, curriculum etc.) and to know who is responsible for what. This can also be expressed as "the right faculty focus" (natural science, social science or the humanities).

Pedagogical methodology and ICT:

A balance between focus must also include an understanding of pedagogical methodology and ICT as an inseparable whole.

In the following focus will be on the first dimension - the levels.

Pupil/teacher level

All efforts obviously have the pupil and teacher as their ultimate target. Thus, the role and intellectual, cultural and economic background as well as interests of this group are vital.

Nordic experience and efforts at the pupil/teacher level:

Teachers, by and large, see the development. However, they only in a marginal way peruse a personal competence upgrading - unless "pushed". Some teachers are even resisting or turn the blind eye to the development. Pupils, on the other hand, seem to like ICT and are fast to pick up the new trends.

Pupils spend a lot of their spear time using computers at home, in Internet cafés or at libraries etc. Time spent is, not surprisingly, not so much on "spreadsheets", "word processors" etc. but on computer "smart-games", "chat" and "Internet surfing" etc., giving other ICT competencies - namely the general feeling of the ICT-environment (interface concepts etc.).

Advice to pupils, parents and teacher:

Both teachers and parents must understand and agree on a need to do an effort due to societal change and consequences for individual social positioning as well as national competitiveness.

Very young children can not be excepted to understand. However they can be forced, lured or aroused (e.g. by "smart games", new possibilities) with various means, based on the understanding and means of parents and teachers. Arousing interests is obviously better then the use of force.

School level

Nordic schools approach the knowledge society in extremely varied ways ranging from no action, over the "misunderstood" to pursuing the "global elite".

Nordic experience and efforts at the school level:

We are beginning to see more and more interesting initiatives from individual teachers and school principles which come from enthusiasm and the willingness to spend a lot of time and effort, but which do not (at least initially) cost a lot of money.

Interesting observations include the evidently slow moving universities as well as central government administrations in contrast to the inventiveness of approaches within the pool of schools. Examples include:

  • ICT evening causes at school (for profit).
  • Class competitions in the use of ICT
  • Pupil tasks using global group work with partner schools via the Internet.
  • Free Internet cafés at school
  • Free or cheap ICT evening clubs at school ("smart-games"; subject focus using ICT etc)
Advice to schools:

  • Just facilitate! Have computers and Internet connections and let them be used - even on a 24 hour bases - for whatever purpose the user deems worthwhile (even chat and games).
On the other hand:

  • Approaches must include pedagogical subject software based on a curriculum, which in turn is based on an "understanding of the needs".
  • Approaches should be relative depending on external parameters (pupil/teacher background e.g. urban/rural; old/young; rich/poor; social stress etc.).
  • Understand the limits and roles: Often, it is the pupils that can teach ICT to the teachers - and not opposite. However, pupils can not put ICT into a social context. The ability to use ICT is not the same as understanding the "empowerment" that lies in it.
  • Employ the right teachers (competent and wise) even if it means that some teachers get paid much more then others or get more "privileges".
  • Make sure to have basic technical competence on the school. E.g. a small group of staff or bright senior pupils.
  • Have access to expert technical competence when the system brakes down. E.g. an extra-job for a parent or a regular service contract with a local company or - even better - ask local government to assist.
  • Have an on school "ICT- strategy group" consisting of competent teachers, parents and pupils and - if need be - an external local company.
  • Local governmental level

    Local governments in the Nordic countries control some 50-60 percent of all national funds and are formally responsible for the running of schools. Thus, local governments are free to pursuer independent priorities when distributing fund. Furthermore, though local governments must follow national legislation they do have a lot of freedom to take extra initiatives.

    Nordic experience and efforts at the local governmental level:

  • Curriculum from first grade (e.g.):
    Text processing in "Danish class"
    Graphics manipulation
    E-mail and Internet
    Ethics in use of ICT
    "Short cuts"
  • Families with school children get (borrow) a computer for home. These include software and Internet accesses.
  • "Top-end" schools have the following hardware (200-300 children): Three computer rooms each with some 6-12 computers; One computer room has in addition 1 scanner, 1 digital camera, 1 video grabber card (for TV and video manipulation); each classroom has 2 computers.
  • All teacher are offered one computer with Internet access for there home if (and only if) they promise to try to pass the Teacher's ICT certificate test within two years (otherwise they lose the computer). Almost all teachers are trying or have already passed the test.
  • Local government sets up school ICT-councils of teachers, parents, school board members and the school headmaster for every school. Every year they work out a School ICT-strategy.
  • ICT skills are considered a "social must" like the ability to read and write.
  • Advice to local government:

  • Facilitate: Build infrastructure (connect schools to Internet). Subsidise or even force acquisition of equipment.
  • Train (motivated) teachers: Finance curses, "clubs" and scholarships.
  • Co-operate locally, nationally and internationally.
  • Provide technical support enabling schools to participate with minimal technical expertise.
  • Governmental level

    In the light of the obvious need for action in respect to the lack of ICT competent teachers as well as ICT qualified school graduates, Nordic governments have made an array of efforts the last ten years - some more successful then others. Efforts are now part of National Programmes or Strategies and the like.

    Nordic experience and efforts at the governmental level:

    Government education programmes are targeted at many actors but mainly local government and schools. Government programmes - by and large - always include:

  • Internet connectivity for schools and telecommunications monopoly control (Almost a fulfilled goal now).
  • Development of "schoolnets" (Though this is outdated now).
  • Special delegations for designing policy and projects. Besides representatives of the Ministry of Education, delegations typically include members from the partners that are needed for successful implementation, including the national agency for education, the local authorities and various foundations and organisations (e.g. teacher groups and trade unions).
  • Efforts to enhance teachers' skills and induce them to use computers as tool (the big thing these days!).
  • Curriculum for education of teachers. Most Nordic countries have a Teacher's ICT certificate that is issued to teachers who pass a set tests including (Denmark centralised >< Norway decentralised):
    1. Introduction to computers, Internet, e-mail and co-operation via the Internet.
    2. Word-processing in the writing process and work with texts and layout in teaching.
    3. Searching for information on the Internet and evaluating what one finds.
    4. Work with spreadsheets, and ideas about how one can use them for teaching in many subjects.
    5. How to make a good and easily readable layout using pictures and illustrations.
    6. Layout and multimedia presentations and making your own homepage.
    7. Databases in education - including Internet databases and PC-databases.
    8. School development and ICT integration.
  • E-mail accounts for all pupils and teachers and more (soft infrastructure; portals; subject communities).
  • ICT for pupils with functional disabilities.
  • Prizes for excellent pedagogical inputs using ICT.
  • Filtered Internet connection. These efforts are (mostly) abandoned but still "a problem".
  • Advice to Nordic governments:

  • Most national strategies are ambitious but bureaucratic and slow, or even naive and ineffective - but try anyway! (Trial and error...).
  • Have an international strategy: Co-operate, find partners. Think of "who" and "how" to co-operate?
  • Facilitate: Build (more) infrastructure, subsidise acquisition of ICT equipment and connectivity (for schools and pupils at home).
  • Watch the telecommunications markets: Government nets >< Commercial nets (more monopoly control).
  • Establish "bulk buying" agencies.
  • Do not enforce "standards" - users know best.
  • Continue, and continue to train teachers (constantly rethink the approach: centralised, decentralised, privet marked etc.). (I.e.
  • Establish ICT in pedagogical universities and ICT-universities in the "non-hard-core" areas i.e. pedagogical innovation; arts; design; business (i.e.
  • Subsidise research and development. I.e. Digital teaching material and new education.
  • Build special information "portals": Links, publications, literature, debate forums etc. However: content before form: Pedagogical, intellectual but also "entertainment" (news; smart games. etc.). Something to come for!
  • Intergovernmental level

    The Nordic countries have via the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) 15 years of experience in ICT co-operation, beginning with infrastructure and now being at the point of trying to put in to operation a Nordic Council of Information Technology. Here, the Nordic ministers responsible for ICT will two to four times per year exchange experience and discuses possible joint efforts. Between meetings the Nordic Council of Ministers Secretariat (i.e. I) will pursue the implementation of decisions.

    Nordic experience and efforts at the intergovernmental level:

  • Nordic ICT co-operation began in 1985 with the NORDUnet-project, which is an ICT infrastructure system connecting all Nordic universities (in Denmark also schools) and central governmental organisations in one network - thus providing some of the worlds best Internet connectivity at US$ 39 per year per user.
  • In 1993 the NCM stated the Odin-project, which at the time connected Nordic schools and offered an array of information of mutual interest for schools, teacher and pupils. Now, it is merely a "subject portal".
  • Since 1996 the Nordic Ministers of Education and Research have had a special advisory body consisting of senior civil servants with high ICT competence - the ICT policy group. The group is commissioned to suggest joint Nordic ICT policy initiatives as well as to design tangible ICT development projects. Current and future areas of focus include:
    1. Developing indicator for measuring ICT development.
    2. Tomorrows university (virtual universities, pedagogical development etc.)
    3. Consequences of the ICT developments for modern research.
    4. Making "knowledge" an export item in the arising global educational marketplace.
  • IDUN2 is a continuation of IDUN, which was a development project focused on the general utilisation of ICT in education, research and development. IDUN2 has concentrated this effort on developing the Nordic educators' co-operation network as well as developing tangible ICT tools for teaching on all levels - pre-higher education, higher education and research as well as liberal adult education.
  • The BaltNet project aimed at aiding the Baltic countries in entering the knowledge society age: BaltNet was a project along similar lines as NORDUnet and IDUN2. The project has moved from supporting ICT infrastructure development to teacher training within the field of ICT.
  • Many more ICT-projects in other non-educational fields.
  • Advice to Nordic intergovernmental co-operation.

  • Intensify co-operation - and mute the fight over control of ICT policy ("meet the challenges and fix the problems"):
  • (More) infrastructure & monopoly control

    Pedagogical understanding of ICT


    Distant education & virtual universities

    Security issues

    Language technology

    24 hours government

    Tele medicine

    Copyright issues

    Transport logistics

  • Co-operation must see the "big picture": "big picture"

  • Overcome the governmental ministerial "turf battles".
  • Background perspectives and Nordic culture

    What works for us might not work for you. Be aware of the underlying set of values, historical and economic context, and "tradition" (Nordic cultural heritage, e.g. "N. F. S. Grundvig").

    Nordic experience and efforts:

  • It is not the pupils isolated abstract knowledge that is interesting, but the pupil's ability to verbalise and independently reflect on the knowledge in a social context.
  • The pupil's ability to find and use information is more interesting then his/her pool of knowledge.
  • Social interaction (teamwork) in the acquiring and interpreting of ICT-knowledge is paramount to one-way knowledge programming of the pupils.
  • The ability to combine artistic and creative thinking with technology is better then the ability to send a man to Mars.
  • ICT moves too fast to allow society to wait for the dinosaurs of central government and universities to get going... Identify and focus on the small success story, and then stimulate them further and copy them.
  • Advice:

  • Facilitate as opposed to push and control.
  • Let free the creativity, and advertise the possibilities.
  • Do it "small", stimulate the competent and forget the "dinosaurs".
  • Debate status and future challenges.
  • Identify "disruptive technologies" and new approaches.
  • Conclusion

    Teaching your children to speak English, play with ICT and play the trumpet and, in the process don't wait for the dinosaurs...

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