The COVID-19 pandemic has had a fundamental impact on the way education is delivered. Last year’s quick pivot to digital classrooms and solutions spurred a shift away from traditional approaches to teaching that may never fully be returned to.
Back in March 2020, Finnish educational companies were among the world’s first to collectively offer their digital services in the hope of continuing education for many. The Koulu.me initiative provided educational tools for distance learning – for free and for immediate help.
This proactive approach was then taken further with Nordic partners, via a comprehensive collection of digital services known as Teach Millions.
Initiatives such as these are just another reason why the world continues to be intrigued by Finnish education, which perhaps first piqued the world’s interest with its PISA scores or the autonomy enjoyed by Finnish teachers. Now, as we settle in for another pandemic-affected year, the digital reliance brought about by COVID-19 has only solidified Finland’s place at the vanguard of education achievement.
For Kangasniemi, this represents yet another chapter in the recent history of Finnish educational success, a story he has been privy to more than most. He has 28 years of experience at the upper level of education-related state administrative organisations, including the Finnish National Agency for Education, the Higher Education Evaluation Council and the Ministry of Education and Culture.
In his current role at Education Finland, Kangasniemi seeks to drum up Finland’s education exports, helping the 120 member organisations to internationalise and grow at a time when digital solutions are at the forefront of educational development.
We spoke with Kangasniemi about the success of Finnish education exporters in these unprecedented times, how digital solutions will change the world around us and why is he personally a great example of what the flexible education system in Finland produces.
What are your best school memories?
The best memories I have are related to successfully completed stages and phases associated with the celebration, joy and shared experiences with other children and later with my colleagues. Moreover, learning new things and insights has always inspired me. The warm feeling of those moments when I lost track of time and space because I was immersed deeply in the subject matter and discovered new connections and, on the other hand, understood how little I actually know is frozen in my memory.
With having a long career and diverse background in the education sector and public administration, what do you consider the reasons why the Finnish education system produces such strong results?
First of all, the teacher quality is the most influential in-school aspect affecting students’ performance. Every teacher in Finland has a university degree, and it is a very prestigious occupation. This and the advanced teaching methods, as well as solid understanding how learning is at the centre of all activities, are crucial factors behind the great learning outcomes.
Secondly, I consider the Finnish education system to be a very flexible one, where continuous learning and local innovation has been given great value. This enables many different study paths and flexibility, so that not everyone is driven down the same path. Instead, individuals can proceed according to their own abilities and desires. I am a great example of this. I have taken advantage of the education system on different levels and at different times. After I graduated from high school and applied to university, I didn’t get into the degree programme I wanted. So, I began my studies at a business college. Once I graduated from there, I got into university to study adult education, which I originally wanted. At a later age, I complemented my education by returning to a university of applied sciences where I gained a vocational teacher qualification. It is very typical in Finland that at some point you go back to school and update your skills and knowledge. A well-functioning education system enables that, too.
In relation to Education Finland’s activities, you wrote the education export roadmap for 2020–2023 published by the Finnish National Agency for Education last year. In the roadmap, you discuss the thematic focus areas for activities supporting education exports. What are those?
When I wrote it together with Ari-Matti Auvinen, we placed emphasis on the challenges and bottlenecks that exports are facing. For that, we listened carefully to many organisations and companies operating in the field. One of the challenges has long been that companies operate alone in the whole world. In this respect, the majority of our education export companies are relatively small. The demand and problems out there are so great and puzzling that it is difficult for individual companies from tiny Finland to provide comprehensive solutions.
Correspondingly, our goal is to bring different actors together to form larger clusters, as clusters have better capabilities to solve these problems. By co-operating this way, companies punch above their weight. It widens the offering, enables the diversification of service design and the scaling of solutions, since also edtech companies are involved. Being part of these entities also eases market access. In relation to this, another thing we are focusing on is a so-called flagship company model, in which companies that have been operating abroad for a longer time mentor the newcomers.
Another focus area I would like to highlight relates to rigid education systems. We are asked to consult on national-level education reforms all the time. This is where the position of Education Finland in connection with the Finnish National Agency for Education comes in handy. Finland strives for transparent governance, and plenty of good practices and models can be adopted from Finland’s experiences and policies.
So where do the stakeholders export to?
There is a growing demand for education everywhere, actually. I would highlight several Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Latin America as a whole is also an important market for us. For example, this afternoon we are having a negotiation concerning the model of an innovative school in Chile that is to be scaled up with a local partner. There is more and more interest in Central Asia, but the volumes are still small. The Gulf countries have traditionally been really interested in Finnish education and now teacher training is in high demand there, because a large proportion of teachers, who are foreign workers, have left for their home countries due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
And who are the exporters? Well, many higher education institutions, such as universities and universities of applied sciences. Many of these have their own export unit or export-based company which provides teacher training and consulting services. For instance, HY+, a fully owned subsidiary of the University of Helsinki, serves this purpose. Tampere University of Applied Sciences and Häme University of Applied Sciences also have global teams covering such initiatives. While studying in Finland is free for the citizens of EU and EEA, the tuition fees that students coming from outside the EU and EEA pay are counted as educational export revenue and becoming more important for higher education institutions.
Furthermore, we have plenty of trailblazing companies offering combinations of methods, educational services and technology: The rapidly expanding KIDE Science, whose core business is science education for children, and Code School Finland, which exports programming lessons. 3DBear has developed VR applications to liven up phenomenon-based learning – students can design virtual environments and storytelling – and Cesim promotes business case-type teaching. These are a few examples of modern education export products and services showcasing Finland riding on the crest of the wave. Nevertheless, in the midst of all digitalisation, it is worth mentioning that exporters of traditional educational materials Sanoma Pro and Otava are both doing well and growing in foreign markets. And Isku, the exporter of antibacterial furniture and school supplies, offers solutions that are craved at this moment in time.
How do you see the current state of Finnish education exports? How has this global pandemic changed the picture?
The current situation has affected our stakeholders in different ways. Simply put, the pre-digital companies have generally done quite well. For some companies, the pandemic has, thanks to the remote operating environment, improved efficiency, created savings and even triggered higher demand than ever before. For example, Qridi, which exports teacher’s tools that makes it easy to plan teaching, and Claned, a developer of an artificial intelligence-based learning platform, are staying the course to be able to meet demand.
Those companies whose operations were based on old-world models were forced to re-think themselves. Luckily many of those made a digital leap and adapted commendably to the new kind of operating environment. Then, unfortunately, there are companies whose services have been based on physical interactions that are struggling with profitability. Education tourism – bringing groups of students, teachers and experts to Finland – has come to almost a complete halt. But I am pleased to mention that there are some success stories here as well. VisitEDUfinn has succeeded in digitalising the school environment and begun organising fully virtual visits to Finnish schools for expert groups.
You have mentioned elsewhere that you are interested in technology and digital societies. What does a digital society mean and what opportunities does it create?
Technology creates huge opportunities for us, and it is quite a fascinating world. My son is now in the sixth grade, which puts me in an excellent position to closely follow the development of education. It is very interesting to see in concrete terms what the processes of learning and studying look like in this digital world. Also, I have for decades been a member of the ITK Conference, the largest digital education and learning event in Finland. Here, I have been in a fortunate position to closely follow the latest trends in technology for decades.
What I have observed is that, in the long run, technology is becoming ubiquitous. Technology will be found everywhere, but in a way it goes into hiding. In addition, personal phones and other smart wearables will become more capable assistants – secretaries that can even be given information-gathering tasks. I find it important, however, to bear in mind that digitalisation is not an end in itself, but it is a good servant when used well. The good aspects of digitisation are scalability and accessibility, but a certain kind of digital craze doesn’t get me sympathetic. Every now and then, it seems that the digitalisation hype bubbles over, as if digitalism was omnipotent. In learning in particular, social interaction, interaction between the learners and that permission to ask foolish questions is indispensable. Besides, a safe physical environment to acquire new knowledge is really important for learning and personal growth.
In addition to internationalisation activities, pre-pandemic you have been a world traveller in your free time. What is your perfect getaway location, in ideal circumstances?
As many fellow Finns, I am a nature lover by nature. I appreciate our pure nature and diverse wildlife very much, but to answer your question I would say the Swiss Alps or the underwater world in Thailand. These places hold something very unique and have nature that differs from the Finnish enough to be really exotic to me.
The love for nature clearly shows in your other spare-time activity as well. You have been exploring bears and their role in the Finnish folklore. Why do you find that fascinating?
As a child, I was an avid scout and a bear guard. Maybe that’s where my interest originates from. A few years ago, when I was mushroom picking in a forest near Karkkila, only an hour from Helsinki, I happened to find a bear skull. The majesty of it made me truly want to get acquainted with this topic. But more than just bears and their role in folklore, I am fascinated by ethnography, old knowledge of how people used to live. That represents an interest in where we are coming from so that we can understand where we are going. This goes well with the education sector, as I have gathered in our home a small reference library of all the major Finnish educational publications from the past century.
When scrolling back through history, there are lots of similarities and points of identification with the history of all regions of the world. For example, Finland’s staggering social rise and the closely related increase in the level of education last century. Similarly, investments in education are currently the focus in many countries. Realising this is the essence of this hobby of mine.