Educating Finnish Preschoolers Remotely Amid the COVID Pandemic
Early childhood education is critical to healthy development. Daycare and preschool facilities provide safe environments where young children can explore the broader world by interacting with peers and adult educators. They also provide learners with a sense of comfort and security outside of the home, with people who are not family members.
One of the essential elements of early education is eye contact, and preschoolers learn best in highly interactive, hands-on environments. But how do you engage young learners when a global pandemic means most of them must stay at home?
Running Finland's Largest Privately-Operated Preschool Network
I'm the marketing and communications director at , the largest privately-owned daycare and preschool provider in Finland. Our network of 190 early education centers in Finland serves 10,000 children and employs 2,500 educators and support staff. Most of our facilities have a sports theme and emphasize physical activity as a learning tool, but some of our centers, including our English-speaking preschools, focus on language.
In Finland, 80% of early childhood education is publicly funded and operated. Private entities—mostly family-run daycares—supply the remainder, and Touhula occupies 20% of that market. It's an impressive feat for a company founded 10 years ago.
Our marketing and communications team has four members, including myself. I've been at this job for two and a half years, and my duties include providing information about our policies and our operations to parents and Touhula employees. My team is also responsible for operating our website, which is our primary information and marketing tool. The site features separate pages for each of our centers, as well as an online application form that allows parents to enroll their children in their local Touhula facility of choice.
Childcare in the Time of Coronavirus
In our normal course of business, my team and I focus on providing unified messaging and consistent programming across all of our preschool facilities. With the emergence of COVID-19, however, our priorities shifted. It was immediately apparent that Finland, like the rest of the world, was going into lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Our children would be staying home, and that meant rethinking Touhula's operations from both an educational and an organizational perspective.
Although we are a private entity, we are contracted by municipalities to provide daycare services. If we didn't find a way to hold classes during the pandemic—especially if it went on for a prolonged period of time—our funding would dry up. All of this unfolded while I was on holiday in mid-March. I sent an email to my colleague Jemina and asked her to start looking at potential remote learning solutions.
From the beginning, we had a couple of non-negotiable priorities. First, we wanted our children to be able to see one another through the virtual program offering. That way, we could better engage the more reserved children, who would ordinarily be less likely to take part in our learning circles. We also wanted to protect the privacy and safety of our instructors and learners, so choosing a solution that had solid security protocols was a must.
Changing Course to Cisco
We initially settled on Zoom and had even gone so far as to prepare a week’s worth of learning material that leveraged its features. However, at the last minute, we discovered the news of potential privacy issues in Zoom and went back to the drawing board.
We ended up switching to Cisco Webex, which not only had the features we needed, but we were in luck because the mother of one of our preschoolers was a Cisco account manager. Coincidentally, she had already introduced the solution to the educators at her son's daycare and helped them set up the platform.
Deploying Webex in 72 Hours
The news about Zoom’s security breach broke on a Friday, and by the following Monday, Touhula's IT team had deployed Cisco Webex across all 190 of our daycare facilities. It took us another week to train our instructors, and we rolled out remote learning across our entire network the week after that.
I was amazed that everything happened so fast. Typically, there's some lag between the time our administrators make a decision at the corporate level and its implementation at the daycare level. We must also answer to all of our investors—Touhula is part of , a global fund focusing on responsible and thematic investment strategies and a digital transformation agenda. Regardless of our ownership structure, the pandemic was an unprecedented situation and we were able to fast track the adoption of Cisco Webex.
We didn't have time for a pilot, but we worked with our parent Cisco account manager to prepare voluntary Cisco Webex training for our instructors. We held several remote training sessions, each lasting a couple of hours. These sessions were delivered through Cisco Webex and were often the first experience our people had with the platform.
This initial adoption reinforced the idea that it's easy to use. From there, our educators started using the platform to create online versions of the learning activities our daycare students enjoy. Some took to the platform instantly, and others needed a little more time to adjust their instruction to an online setting, but by and large, our employees stepped up to the task.
4,000 Learning Circles in Two Months
Our remote learning initiative has three goals. The first is to provide children and families access to a continual learning journey throughout this time of crisis. The second is to allow children to interact with their peers and their adult educators remotely so they can continue to build their social skills even while in isolation. Thirdly, we know that we must support parents who are struggling to balance their work and family commitments when everyone has to stay at home.
As much as possible, our remote learning activities echo what children do when they are physically present at our daycare facilities. Our KotiTouhula—"Koti" is Finnish for "home"—remote learning circles revolve around the same themes as our in-class activities, such as music, sports, play, and adventure. We also scheduled virtual forest trips and spring parties in Cisco Webex to give students access to the open-air activities they would normally have enjoyed at this time of year.
We organized nearly 4,000 circles in the first two months alone. Not only has it been satisfying to see our children engaging with the content and each other, it’s also been wonderful to see our instructors blossom and come up with new and creative ways to adapt to their new classroom situation. As the pandemic progressed and restrictions eased, we found ways to accommodate both the children who were able to attend daycare and those who had to stay at home. We also started using Cisco Webex for our internal meetings, as our administrative staff was sheltering in place too.
We couldn't have done this alone. Although Cisco Webex was the right platform for Touhula, we couldn't have moved as quickly without a lot of help from our managed services provider, , and . Netox worked with our internal IT team to deploy Cisco Webex across all our locations in 72 hours.
The company continues to provide technical assistance as needed. IBM Finland is one of the biggest Cisco Webex users in the country and volunteered to train our daycare workers and early childhood educators. We couldn't have asked for a better combination. Cisco, Netox, and IBM Finland all came together to help Touhula transition to Cisco Webex within days of our government declaring a national state of emergency.
Getting Through to the Other Side
I believe we did everything right to keep the children in our care safe and help their families thrive at this challenging time, but you don't have to take my word for it. Parents overwhelmingly approved of our way of handling daycare during the pandemic and boosted our net promoter score (NPS) from 40 before the pandemic to 60 in May; that’s higher than it’s ever been before.
Thanks to Cisco Webex, Touhula has helped early learners and their families weather the early days of the COVID pandemic. Many restrictions have since been lifted in Finland, and families are enjoying their summer holidays. But back-to-school time is fast approaching, and soon the country's daycares will be returning to full capacity.
We are bracing for a possible second wave of coronavirus infections, but this time we won’t be caught off guard. We can scale our Cisco Webex deployment up or down to meet our future educational and administrative needs. We'll be ready for our preschoolers, whether they're coming back to one of our centers or staying at home.
To prepare for the fall and winter sessions, we are reviewing and refining our approach to distance learning. We have learned so much about boosting learner engagement and involvement with Cisco Webex, but there is always room for improvement.
Like the rest of the world, we are adapting to the realities of COVID-19. Amid the crisis, we have discovered new resources that have strengthened our resolve and have allowed us to thrive as a company while giving our preschoolers the tools they need to flourish.