Research and Development

Finnish School System and ICT

It has been almost two years since I last wrote about the use of Ubuntu in Finnish schools, so I thought it'd be a good time to write a small update on the current situation. As I was writing things down, I noticed that I kept explaining the Finnish school system, so I thought to write first about the Finnish school system and illustrate how the system reflects to ICT in schools.

The Finnish school system has been a lot in the media around the world lately. Finnish pupils have been scoring at the top in the international PISA tests. Because of that educators outside Finland have been interested in knowing how this has been achieved. I could not claim to know much about the foundations of the system myself when I got to experience this interest personally earlier this year while travelling in some far-away places. When people learnt that I work with schools for living, they were immediately asking how Finland is achieving these results. I've been surrounded by the Finnish education system all my life, so for me there's nothing special. I did spend a year in the US as an exchange student during high school, though, and only now I'm starting to understand what I experienced there. Pasi Sahlberg has written a book called Finnish Lessons that tells more about the Finnish system if you are interested in it. I personally found the book great.

My background is not in pedagogy, but technology. I have been working on school ICT for 7 years now through Opinsys, so I relate my findings to that. As a part of my job I've been testing a lot of software designed for schools and sometimes I've been left wondering why they have some really weird features. I have many times felt that there is misalignment between the needs and features. After getting to know more about the differences in school systems around the world, I'm starting to understand how the Finnish system reflects to ICT requirements.

First with the basics:

  • you start school the year you turn 7 (optional preschool starts a year before)
  • comprehensive school is nine years (=peruskoulu)
  • secondary education has two tracks, academic or vocational
  • after secondary schools one can continue to universities and polytechnics
  • all schools are free for everyone, including universities
  • in comprehensive school and in secondary level school lunches are also free to everyone
  • there are no standardised tests
  • there are no private schools with tuition (the handful of private schools get funded publicly)
  • curriculums are built on school level
  • only a small percentage of applicants get on the teaching programs that give you the required master's degree
  • Opinsys works currently with comprehensive schools and academic high schools
There are no standardised tests in Finland. And all schools are publicly funded. Really. The uniqueness of this finally struck me big time as I kept hearing how standardised testing and private schools are spreading all around. And because there are no tests, pupils or schools are not ranked in any way. And excellence is not the foundation of our school system, but equity. The goal is not to compete, but to learn to be innovative. As there are virtually no private schools, the cities run all the schools and pay teachers salaries. It's really difficult to become a teacher and you need a Master's degree in education for it. Teachers have autonomy and a say about their work, so mandating things from the top doesn't work.

When I was on my exchange year in the US, I couldn't stop wondering why there were tests all the time and why anyone would be interested in knowing their ranking within their class. I was used to having one exam per course and sometimes no tests at all. And the tests in the US were multiple choice exams instead of open questions. When I realised that most of the world has quite different system for their schools, I started to understand why some of the tools really make no sense in Finland. Like some of the Moodle modules. E.g. why have multiple exam modules for multiple choice exams when there are no multiple choice exams at all in use? (Optical scanner manufacturers have been left out in the cold also.) Moodle is still being used a lot, but blogs and other online tools are also spreading. When browsing online for student management tools, one easily finds features like "fee management". When schools are free and everyone gets also free lunches, there's no need to bring a lunch box or buy lunch coupons. And because there are no other payments to schools either, there's no need to manage payments in student information systems. So a feature like that doesn't make much sense either. The government doesn't need tools to rank schools either.

There are still tools needed and in Finland almost all schools are using StarSoft's Primus and Wilma as their student management software. They have built their tool to match the Finnish system and laws and schools use them to communicate with the parents online. There's also a newcomer in the field - Helmi, but its marketshare is still small. In a saturated market like this tools like SchoolTool have little chance of success when features don't match the need.

In Finland there are many critics today who say that technology is not used to its full potential in Finnish schools. Some blame teachers, some blame cities and some the government. When talking about technology, one can always say that you don't have enough money or other resources. Especially in rural areas it can be that there's nobody who would know how the systems work and how to make the most out of the available resources.

Because all schools are public and run by cities, they cannot demand that every student needs to buy their own laptop or tablet or something else. Schools need to provide all the technology needed. Some schools allow pupils to bring their own devices to school, but this is still a new thing. But if there's no stable wireless network, having your own wireless device doesn't help much. Some are hoping to integrate personal devices better to supplement school technology in the future. Internet connection filtering is not usually done at all.

As Finland is a large country in land area, but relatively few people, there are a lot of small schools in remote areas with poor internet connections. 1Mbps internet connection should be available everywhere as a human right, but for schools that is not enough. 100Mbps or gigabit internet connections are getting more common in the city schools. Overall the amount of money available for technology purchases and training varies by the city, so not all pupils have same possibilities regarding technology use. Teachers have autonomy in their classes and are free to experiment, so some are really creative and getting impressive results even when others are struggling. Technology that doesn't help the teacher and the pupils, doesn't get used, because the teachers will not use it.

There are many models for school ICT management. In some places it's the math teacher who takes care of everything for no pay, in some places city ICT center has dedicated support people for schools and most are somewhere in between. When the municipalities build the school infrastructure, it is often linked in some way to other ICT systems run by the municipalities, such as local government officials' ICT systems, public health care centers, libraries, etc. E.g. it can be that schools share fibre optic cabling with health care and daycare centers in their networking cabinets in the basements.

Innovative educators can get project money to try out new ideas. Schools can apply for money grants for technology projects from the ministry of education that has usually focus on a few areas every year. At one point they gave money for school networks. Then for many years the focus was on getting more computers in schools. Now they are sponsoring projects developing learning environments. There are quite a few projects every year with different focus. This gives the people possibilities to try new approaches and if the results are good, others can benefit from the work too. It's amazing what a single school can achieve when motivated and creative minds realise their dreams.

This post is only scratching the surface of the topic, but I hope to write more about the topic shortly. There's also more information available on what Opinsys does.