NESODDTANGEN, Norway — In a sun-drenched classroom a few miles south of Oslo, Jean-Baptiste Huynh stood in front of a class of rapt first-graders who watched as he played a video game.
A teacher and game designer, Huynh was showing off his new Dragonbox Numbers, in which the digits 1 through 10 appear as different-sized creatures who can “eat” one another. The resulting creature represents the sum of the two. After a brief lesson, Huynh set the students free. They scrambled back to their desks and their school-issued tablet computers and got to work.
It was mid-October, and Dragonbox Numbers had yet to be released on Apple’s iTunes Store, either here or anywhere else. These three-foot tall beta testers were among the first in the world to try it.
These students are attending school at an interesting time. Like much of the rest of the world, Norway finds itself chasing Finland, a neighboring country whose success in education has reverberated far beyond its shores. At the same time, their oil-dependent country is going through an economic upheaval that threatens to dwarf the recent recession. The response, in many schools, has been to look for ways to improve education across the board, in part by doubling down on giving students better technological tools.
Feeding the demand for better educational technology is an emerging local sector that is already making waves on this other side of the Atlantic, where teachers routinely use Norwegian products, even if they don’t know their provenance.
The emergence of the education technology industry comes at a key time: Oil accounts for about a quarter of Norway’s GDP, analysts estimate. But oil prices are down by more than half from their highs last year. In a speech to bankers in New York last March, Øystein Olsen, governor of the Central Bank of Norway, said the Norwegian economy “must adapt to considerably lower demand from the oil sector” if it is to survive. “We will be more dependent on growth in other sectors to support growth in the economy.”
Maria Amelie, an Oslo tech writer, said oil and gas have driven innovation for the past 40 years, but that’s changing. “Now what is happening is that oil prices are coming down and everybody sees that we have to start something new,” she said.
Tech is a natural place to start, Amelie and others said. Norway is already heavily digitally enhanced: Virtually the entire country is connected to the Internet. In a country of about 5 million, over 3 million people use Facebook.
A larger share of Norwegians own smartphones than anywhere else in Europe. A 2013 survey by Google found Norwegian smartphone ownership at more than two-thirds, putting it fifth worldwide behind the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. By contrast, Finland, home of Nokia, boasts only 46% smartphone ownership. In the United States, it’s about 56%.
“I think we are kind of early adopters,” Amelie said.
“Norway is a country where the ‘American Dream’ is actually possible. You have a lot of possibilities here,” she said.
The result is an emerging startup culture in a place that, until recently, didn’t prize competition, she said. In Norway, a plumber can earn more than a doctor. ” But the oil crisis and climate changes are now used to spark more entrepreneurship and challenge people to create new companies.”
But she said Norwegians “are not very good at selling, at commercializing the product. We’re really good at making products — technology and research. And part of the culture is very super-shy people — so humble. We kind of have to learn the culture of pitching.”
The oil crisis is making shyness a luxury.
As Rolf Assev of Startup Lab Oslo looked around the room at a raucous evening “pitch session,” in which a handful of winners among dozens of tech startups recently vied for investors, he estimated that half of the companies were founded by people who, a year or two ago, were in the oil industry.
“The last two years — amazing,” he said. “Last year, after oil prices went down, we were getting the best people. The people who used to be hired into the oil sector are now starting to become entrepreneurs, which is very positive.”
It didn’t hurt, he said, that Nokia, the Finnish tech giant, has shed jobs for the past three years. Even the sale of its phone business to Microsoft in 2014 didn’t stop the bleeding.
“When all the people at Nokia didn’t have a job anymore, they had to come up with something,” Assev said.
Many came here. Since 2012 or so, a small but growing cluster of technology companies emerged around Oslo, with about one in four focused on education. Many have been attracted to Assev’s incubator, which is backing 64 startups and has invested in another 19 established companies — among them Huynh’s tiny video game company, We Want to Know.
In 2012, We Want to Know scored a hit with its first Dragonbox game, which taught algebraic thinking to children as young as 4 years old.
The game and its sequels have sold more than half a million copies in the United States alone, at $4.99 and up — a high price for games on the App Store. For a while, Dragonbox was more popular in Norway than the gaming sensation Angry Birds.
Last year, Huynh and a collaborator persuaded children throughout the entire country to spend a week solving nearly 8 million algebra problems together — the collaborator, a University of Washington researcher named Zoran Popovic, adapted Dragonbox to offer more help to students who needed it. The “algebra challenge” underwent smaller trials in 2013, with students in Washington State, who solved nearly 391,000 problems. In Wisconsin a few months later, students solved nearly 645,000 problems.
Assev was an early investor — he admits that Huynh, a Vietnamese Frenchman married to a Norwegian child psychologist, was the one who “opened my eyes for ed tech.” The company started in Huynh’s Oslo apartment.
Startup Lab occupies the bottom floor of an office complex next door to Oslo University. It often attracts potential talent by offering the best coffee in the neighborhood, as well as free beer on Fridays.
“Students who are smart come in here and have a free beer and we talk,” Assev said, recalling that he hired four people for Huynh’s company over Friday beers.
A long-time tech entrepreneur — he was employee No. 10 at Opera, the Norwegian web browser creator — Assev said ideas in the tech world aren’t as important as ability to execute them. “There are so many ideas. For us, the way we invest in companies is that we let them work with us for three months and we get to know them. We see how they work, how early they get up, how late they work, how smart they work. And they get to know us. It’s a good starting point for investing.”
Among the other efforts that Startup Lab is backing: a kind of dating service for app developers and researchers, created by Ingrid Somdal-Åmodt Vinje, a graduate student in educational pedagogy. She’s developing a way for companies that create apps, games or other learning tools to quickly find researchers willing to evaluate their products.
Most ed tech companies “want to know if their product works,” she said. “They want to put their product up on a pedestal and test it — I think that’s brave and I also think that’s necessary for them to sell it.”
The service is set to debut in December with about a dozen researchers and companies meeting face-to-face.
Perhaps the fastest-growing Norwegian ed tech export is Kahoot!, a game-based platform that allows teachers and students to create interactive quizzes out of any content they wish. Students use mobile devices such as cell phones or tablets to participate in live classroom sessions, and the results show up instantly on a classroom screen.
“It’s really about having fun — and when you’re having fun, things happen,” the company’s CEO, Johan Brand, told a gathering of educators in Oslo recently.
A games industry veteran — he’d previously worked on Mercedes-Benz’s Driving Academy in the United Kingdom — Brand said the platform provides a way to help students get engaged in school in a deeper way than usual.
“If people are going to learn something and fall in love with it, it needs to be a lifelong commitment to improve yourself and not just pass your tests,” he said.
The company, incubated here in 2012 alongside Huynh’s game company, now has offices in London and Austin, Texas, and boasts 40 million players in over 150 countries. But Brand is quite open about the fact that participating in a classroom game created by your teacher, or, for that matter, your classmates, represents a kind of transgressive undertaking. That, as much as anything, is the key to the company’s success.
“You’re doing something with your teacher that you’re not supposed to do,” he said. “You’re doing something with your friends that you’re not supposed to do.”
That builds class cohesion, which is key to a healthy learning environment.
“In the long term, we’re building class culture,” Brand said. “Culture eats any strategy.”
At Oslo’s Elvebakken Upper Secondary School, as students changed classes one recent morning, a quintet of boys stood in the middle of the commotion, gathered around a laptop and talking about the results of a stock trading videogame Moments later, in a classroom a few feet away, vice principal Knut Halvard Roald looked on as one student soldered a circuit board and another built a computer power supply.
Students at Elvebakken are expected to work together. Hedda Marie Stene-Johansen, 16, said a Facebook group chat, used as a study aid by the 33 students in her homeroom class, “kind of bonds us.” But she recalled that one day before a recent test it got a little out of hand: “There were a thousand unread messages,” she said. “It didn’t take very long, really.”
How long? “An hour or two.”
Roald said the school’s flexible schedule — students can take days off for independent study — allows them to feel they’re in control of their time. Most, however, choose to come to school even when they’ve got more credits than they need “because they like it.”
Indeed, a recent international comparison found that while Norwegian students perform just above average worldwide on key skills, 87% “feel happy at school,” second only to Iceland at 90%.
Like many schools in Oslo, Elvebakken has invested heavily in technology. Students, who attend through the age of 19, routinely tote laptops to class, and the school recently expanded into an old electrical transfer station across the street, where it built a chemistry lab and, improbably, a huge experimental concrete wave tank.
“We are in a constant revolution, all the time, when it comes to technology,” Roald said.
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