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Portrait of Tobias Ley

“The teachers here are adventurous”

How can digital learning environments add the most value for students? That’s the big question for Tobias Ley at the Tallinn University in Estonia.

Dr. Ley, you’re a professor for Learning Analytics and Educational Innovation at Tallinn University. Estonia is hailed as a world leader in digitalization. Has this digital affinity found its way into schools, too?
My impression is that schools here are generally more open to digital methods than in Germany, where digital media use tends to be driven by especially motivated or tech-savvy teachers. At least, that’s what German delegations say when they visit us. In Estonia, by contrast, the approaches tend to embrace the whole school. It helps that the schools here are relatively well equipped with fast internet and Wi-Fi. Plus, almost all the schools have their own in-house educational technologists.

Educational technologists?
They’re professionals that we train in a master’s degree program here at Tallinn University. Once they’ve graduated, they are assigned to schools with very small or no teaching loads at all. Instead, they spend most of their workdays developing learning scenarios with digital media and helping teachers integrate the scenarios in class.

Do digitally supported learning scenarios always help students learn better?
That’s what we want to find out here at the university. One way to do that is through “learning analytics”. Basically, it involves collecting and analyzing data during the learning process, not just at the end of the school year. We then use our findings to systematically improve learning processes and environments. Let me give you an example. In one study, we wanted to find out the best way to use robots in math class. So we sat down with math teachers, developed various learning scenarios and then rolled them out in schools.

And then you use learning analytics to find out whether it works?
Exactly. Learning analytics starts with feedback tools that teachers can regularly employ in the classroom: Were students activated to participate? Did the scenario encourage them to collaborate better? To what extent did the students learn to plan out their learning? By collecting all this data, we can determine at the end of the school year whether the learning scenarios had the desired effect and adjust them as needed. Another, more experimental example of learning analytics consists of digital textbooks that we supplement with interactive exercises. Students work through the exercises and the textbook automatically gives them and their teachers feedback on the learning process, comprehension problems, etc. We’ve also experimented with “motion profiles” in the classroom. They track where the students congregate and how they collaborate. But this method is not yet ready for prime time. We’re currently at a stage where we want to see what’s actually doable and what’s truly beneficial.

If you’re collecting learning and motion information on students, data privacy seems to be the next obvious question to ask. How important is this issue in Estonia?
That’s what German delegations always ask me first. I’d say that awareness of the problem is much less pronounced here in Estonia. That’s certainly convenient for us researchers. Of course, the European General Data Protection Regulation raised awareness here, too. We comply with all ethical guidelines in our research and discuss them with the parents and teachers. However, it’s much less clear what happens with data in commercial learning platforms and environments.

How open are teachers to using digital learning environments and learning analytics in class? These things do fundamentally change their role, after all.
The teachers are generally fairly adventurous. They don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the risks but just jump in and try things out. There’s no question that adaptive digital learning environments will eventually change teachers’ role. They’ll become more learning guides and moderators than transmitters of knowledge, and will have more opportunities for collaborative, project-based learning. But that’s a long way away. First, the digital assistants have to work so well that teachers trust and believe in them. We’re not quite there yet.


Professor Tobias Ley is an expert council member of Deutsche Telekom Stiftung's project "The Future of STEM Learning". In this project, five universities have been jointly developing and testing ideas for teaching high-quality STEM classes in the digital world since fall 2018 and will later integrate these ideas into STEM teacher training programs.

Picture: private