Aug 27, 2013
Last week, Annie Murphy Paul’s review of Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, began with Ripley’s quote: “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”
It just so happened that I was there last week for a CICERO conference on digital learning. (Editor’s note: Tony spoke at the conference and his travel costs were covered by the conference.) In addition to grokking with academics, I had another quest in mind: are there edtech entrepreneurs in Finland? And if so, what problems in this seemingly idyllic education environment are they trying to solve?
A Peek at the Edu-Grail?
The media has a tendency to fawn over Finland as the Holy Grail of education. The reasons have been repeated many, many times. Among them: the Finnish education philosophy is designed around inclusion, equality and the growth and well-being of the group rather than the individual. There are no tests. Teachers are rigorously trained and held in high esteem. There is a two-track education system that treats vocational education as something equally valued as “traditional” university education.
For an education system that’s been thrust into the spotlight, the country’s schools are certainly not very photogenic. There are no flashy, technological state-of-the-art classrooms along the lines of what you might see at Avenues: The World School in New York. Ripley described in her book a “trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard--not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight.”
On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, I took a stroll through Mattlidens Skolcentrum in Espoo, about a fifteen minute drive from downtown Helsinki, and confirmed Ripley’s observation. The school looked like any typical suburban counterpart in the U.S. But there’s a sense of openness and tranquility. There are no fences, no graffiti among the plain buildings and open playground.
As I walked across the playground, I came across odd shapes drawn on the asphalt. “A lot of the learning happens outdoors, in the physical world,” explains my guide, Aape Pohjavirta. At this school, where his children attend, students from different grades are encouraged to share physical spaces and socialize. Much has been said about the lack of homework in favor of letting kids be kids and play. “In our education system, it’s all about trust and love.”
Playground at Mattildens Skolcentrum
Edtech Bubbling Up
Even so, a budding edtech community is emerging in Finland, starting at sites such as collaborative workspaces like InnoOmnia, the Helsinki Think Company in downtown Helsinki, and the Startup Sauna at Aalto University. Pohjavirta, founder of Inclusion.fi, is building a mobile learning platform that allows users to easily create and distribute educational content to any mobile network and device. He’s piloted the project in Mexico and is gearing up for a wider public launch later this year.
The Startup Sauna
Another company, CBTec, generated some buzz this year with the release of Eliademy, which allows students and teachers to create courses and classrooms online. The company, founded by former Nokia veterans, is targeting international markets--particularly in South America--through offering Eliademy in over 40 languages.
Another ex-Nokian, Jussi Impio, used to work with Nokia’s Africa R&D team in Nairobi. He’s currently working on a mobile solution to help youths build skills in demand from employers. “When we consider that the population in Africa is expected to reach 2 billion in the next 25 years, it is scary to think of the number of unemployed youth who will be idling around,” says Impio.
Many startups have roots in Nokia, the former telecommunications giant headquartered in Espoo that has undergone a substantial downsizing in recent years. With their background and expertise in mobile networks, it’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs are working on developing mobile solutions for the overseas market.
There are practical reasons as well for looking abroad as well: a lack of domestic demand for technology in classrooms and the small size of the Finnish education system of 600,000 students. (By contrast, the U.S. has an estimated 54.7 million K-12 students.)
And the Problem is...
But Finnish entrepreneurs struggle with a different kind of education problem: knowing how to build but not sell. And this may be a by-product in the educational system they were raised.
A system that instills at an early age the concepts of equality and well-being of the group tends to create individuals who shy away from the spotlight. As a result, says Pohjavirta, entrepreneurs tend to shy away from calling attention to their work in a culture that is sensitive and skeptical of those who actively sell themselves. “There’s this belief that if a product is good, it will sell itself.”
One of the presenters at the CICERO symposium came from an education gaming startup, SkillPixels, and showed off the underlying research behind its game, Math Elements. It was filled with elaborate diagrams of knowledge maps that demonstrated how the game could model the connections players make between different math concepts. But when asked how the research played into his marketing--particularly to distinguish it from the thousands of other math apps in the iOS App Store--the founder conceded that the research was so far not a factor in the business process.
Nigerian-born Joseph Fakayode, who runs business development at CBTec, suggests that the idea of monetizing products--particularly in education--strikes many in Finland as a foreign concept. Sometimes Finnish entrepreneurs see “doing research and innovation as completely separate from the business side,” he says. “It’s noble that they build solutions with a people-first mindset, but ignoring the money side of the equation is not exactly sustainable.”
So the future of mobile education technology may indeed come from Finland--if only they can get the word out. Case in point: a recent Arctic Startup article asked “Where Are Finland’s Education Startups?” The author only found one; other entrepreneurs did raise their hands in the comments section.
Success too frequently breeds a reluctance to see change--and to respond to it. Pohjavirta worries that Finland could be a victim of its own education success.
“Jobs change. Society changes. In twenty years, 60% of the jobs now will be gone. Our ‘model’ works--for now. But how do we prepare our future generations for the future?” asks Pohjavirta.