e-Estonia reprogrammed: Nation Branding and Children Coding

Estonia’s education initiative “Programming Tigers”, an program to teach its school children to code from the first grade, was praised by English-speaking media as a way to get a head start in the international digital race. The idea that children should start learning to program at a very young age is not a new one. However Estonia became, if not a unique, then definitely an interesting and noteworthy case for a number of reasons. Estonia’s project “Programming Tigers” has garnered a lot of attention around the world, and many countries now use Estonia as a “poster child” for innovative and cutting-edge thinking in terms of technology education, and earlyinstruction in programming, in particular.

Estonia's transformed itself into e-Estonia in an example of "nation branding": the idea that nations in order to survive and succeed, as well as to facilitate a feeling of belonging, should use the capitalist principles of international marketing to promote the country as a brand. The prefix “e” is meant to signify a digitally innovative and advanced country, and the “meme” of “first-graders coding” became an important element in that project, as it not only supported the country’s claim to digital excellence, but also helped its citizens to relate to this new image of their country as "e-Estonia."  This effort was undertaken in the face of several adverse trends: high emigration rates, young people’s low interest in university-level ICT training, and their alarming tendency to drop out of those programs, to name a few. Yet Estonia also enjoyed certain advantages emerging ironically from its past as a Soviet Republic, despite its current official attitude of “zero legacy” from its Soviet past.  The brand of e-Estonia and the educational initiative “Programming Tigers” became plausible in the broad context a pre-existent techno modernity that emphasizes future oriented thinking, belief in the power of technology and its role in making the world a secure place, more prosperous and more democratic.

Education in Estonia is a contested field of power. On the local level, ”Programming Tigers” and other ICT related education initiatives became the space, around which various actors such as the government, the IT industry, and the teachers community continuously renegotiate the power relations. On the global level, the “Programming Tigers” initiative has contributed to e-Estonia nation branding in the international discourse of technological modernity. The project has evident geopolitical undertones, as for example, when Estonia began talking about itself as an imaginary digital frontier, standing against the alleged cyber threats of a resurgent Russia.