The Covid-19 crisis escalated fast, both globally and in Estonia. On 16 March, the government closed all education institutions, except kindergartens. For the 24 000 VET students, 2 100 VET teachers and 32 VET schools in Estonia, it meant an abrupt transition to distance learning.
As the organisation of VET is very flexible, the sudden transition to distance education did not cause administrative or legal problems. Both the admission of students and the completion of studies take place throughout the year. Admission conditions are determined by the VET schools themselves. Every VET school has the right to make decisions on the reorganisation or prolongation of study period. Normally, the school year would have ended mid-June. Assuming that the restrictions will be lifted by the summer, the schools have planned to continue studies during the summer. It gives students the opportunity to complete their studies and does not overburden the schools next autumn.
Regulatory flexibility has facilitated the transition to the new reality. Nevertheless, VET schools needed to act quickly. Sigrid Ester Tani from Tartu Vocational Training Centre (VEC) explains: ‘We are the biggest VET school in Estonia with just under 3 000 students from very diverse target groups, starting from 16-year-olds to adult learners whose digital skills are quite uneven. In a big school, the key is to make sure everybody gets correct information fast. We agreed to use the school intranet notice board for communication and sent a clear message: learning will go on according to the agreed schedule.’
For all VET schools, the biggest challenge was provision of practical training at a distance and online. In Estonia, nearly 90% of VET studies are school-based, but the ratio of practical work and assignments is generally at least 50%, 70% at EQF level 2 and 35% in upper secondary VET.
The alternatives depended on the field of study. The Vocational Education Institutions Act does not regulate the timing of school breaks. School-based practical training and in-company training in the areas subject to restrictions under the emergency situation (such as catering and hospitality) have been postponed. As Estonia was not in complete lockdown during the crisis, in-company practical training could be resumed in some areas (metalwork) if safe conditions were ensured by the training provider. Also, parts of the practical training could be completed online.
To reorganise work-based learning, VET schools communicated with their partner enterprises, students and parents, and made decisions case by case; sometimes this meant postponing or temporarily terminating practice in enterprises, and sometimes continuing it. In all cases, health and safety has been the priority. Student participation in on-site practical training is voluntary, and protective equipment and disinfectants are provided.
VET schools were advised to use the distance-learning period for theoretical studies but the challenges of online learning needed to be addressed. The transition was smoother in schools where the use of digital learning and communication environments was common even before the crisis.
‘Our strategy was to use online platforms that are familiar to our school already, such as G-Suite’ said Roosi Nemliher from Tartu Art School. ‘We decided to follow the usual school timetable, keeping in mind that students need more time than usual.’
At Tartu VEC, e-learning days have been a part of the schoolwork for five years already. Last year, curricula-based Moodle hubs were created to systematically collect e-learning resources. For the past two years, the educational technologist has been delivering weekly training to staff and teachers. During the crisis, the team of master teachers and technologists provided round-the-clock support to their colleagues.
The schools adjusted their work in accordance with quick online feedback from students and teachers, which helped to identify the weak points and areas in need of rapid response. During the initial weeks, information about equipment needs and lack of internet connection was collected, and students in need were provided with necessary devices.
During the crisis, the education ministry and its subordinate agencies kept regular contact with the schools and tailored the state-level support to the feedback from schools; this included short webinars, Facebook groups, answers to FAQs about school management, and organisation of studies. Guidelines for distance-learning environments were offered at the State level. It became evident that more e-learning resources have to be developed centrally, and more virtual and augmented reality equipment would be needed to have more practical training in simulation environments. There has been an open call for teachers to share their digital learning materials, e-courses and digital learning objects.
From the student point of view, the two months of distance learning posed a real challenge in terms of self-regulation and time-planning. Although online seminars and tutorials, group discussions, shared working environments and simulations were used, students still had to cope with an increased amount of school-work, and to overcome lack of motivation and distractions. In their feedback, they stressed the need for a fixed daily agenda and more individual support. In VET schools, the support staff moved to web-platforms to be available for students. For parents, online seminars were organised and helpdesks were set up. Nevertheless, the dropout rates are expected to increase as the distance learning period had the hardest impact on students who were already struggling before.
Based on feedback from schools, the success factors that contributed to a relatively smooth transition to distance education were:
- sufficient digital skills among students and teachers to cope with the new situation;
- adequate digital infrastructure in VET schools and at homes;
- information and clear messages for organising distance learning;
- good governance, cooperation, partnership and information-sharing between stakeholders.
From 15 May onwards, schools are being gradually reopened. Until the end of the school year, school-based studies can be organised in smaller groups of up to 10 learners plus a teacher or tutor. Other restrictions also apply. In school buildings, people have to stay in groups, avoiding unnecessary contacts between the groups. Reopening is complicated by the fact that 48% of Estonian VET teachers are over 50 years old.
Further analysis will be needed to evaluate the impact the two months of distance education had on the quality of VET and the learning outcomes of the students. There are still worries about the organisation of practical studies and professional exams that were postponed. At the same time, guided by the famous words of Winston Churchill, the Estonian VET system did not ‘let a good crisis go to waste’. We are definitely better prepared for the unforeseen future. Teachers and administrators are collaborating more than ever before in schools but also in wider professional learning communities. Lessons have been learned to improve online classes, new resources have been commissioned, partnerships with enterprises reinforced, and problem-solving skills of learners, teachers and administrators profoundly tested.