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Finland launches free AI skills course for EU citizens as presidency parting gift

Finland is making a course in basic artificial intelligence available to citizens of all European Union countries

Finland has opened up its highly popular Elements of Artificial Intelligence (EAI) online skills course to all citizens of the European Union (EU).

The pan-EU roll-out of the free-to-use course, which is funded by Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment (MEAE), sets out to demystify AI for students in the EU’s 27 member states. 

The EAI course is currently available in five languages – English, German, Swedish, Estonian and Finnish. Finland’s immediate plan is to offer the course in all the EU’s official languages. The MEAE estimates that up to five million Europeans will complete the course in the 2020-2021 academic year.

The course is customised to provide students with a critical understanding of AI, said Teemu Roos, an associate professor in computer science at the University of Helsinki and the EAI course’s lead instructor.

“Universities have traditionally served as hubs for ideas and innovations,” said Roos. “Nowadays, they are playing more elevated roles in building Europe’s competences for the future. We look on the EAI initiative as a social innovation that carries tremendous potential to empower citizens through skills learning.

“As research into AI is highly advanced in Finland, it was natural for us to want to make online AI teaching more widely accessible to an international audience.”

The Finnish government’s decision to internationalise EAI was buoyed by the popularity and success of the course’s test run in Finland in 2018. The aim of the course is to give online students a rudimentary understanding of AI, explaining how the technology is used by business and industry as a tool for change and enhanced productivity. The course also examines the societal changes that are likely to result from the evolution in AI use.

Pilvi Torsti, permanent secretary at the MEAE, said: “Our primary ambition is to cross borders and reach out to EU citizens who are curious about AI and want to know more in a structured way. We expect to enroll five million students on the EAI course in 2020-2021, which is equivalent to 1% of the total population of EU states. We see this as a significant reach and achievement.”

The MEAE will bankroll the pan-EU EAI project from its own budget, with the initiative estimated to cost €1.7m a year. This will cover administration and online course delivery overheads. The Finnish government flagged its intention to launch the EAI course at a designated meeting in Brussels on 10 December that was timed to mark the end of the country’s six-month rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU. 

Torsti added: “Member states traditionally mark their departure by extending gifts to fellow EU leaders specific to their nations. Finland wanted to do something different and offer something concrete that would help develop digital literacy in the EU.

“The free AI course is our gift to EU countries and their citizens. AI is driving change around us. There is a growing need to develop people’s knowledge and skills to better prepare them for the jobs of the future in a more digitised society.”

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The online course is a collaboration between the MEAE, Helsinki-based digital AI solutions consulting firm Reaktor and the University of Helsinki. It was co-developed by Reaktor and the university.

The original ambition was modest when the course was test-launched in 2018. The initial target was to enrol 55,000 Finns, or 1% of the country’s population, but such was the popularity of the concept that this target was exceeded in just two months.

In fact, course managers began to receive inquiries from individuals, young and old, in all five continents seeking access to the course, which attracted exceptional interest from prospective students in Europe.

Ville Valtonen, managing director at Reaktor Education, said a deepening competence in digital and AI technologies offers enormous potential for the development of European society and national economies.

“A basic knowledge of what digital and AI technologies are and how different technological solutions work should be of vital interest and concern for more Europeans,” said Valtonen. “Our plan is to have the EAI course widely adopted in Europe and in an ever-increasing number of language versions.”

Some 40% of the enrolled students are women, which has surprised the Finnish management team because it is significantly higher than the average for tech-related educational courses in Finland.

“We were positively surprised by how popular the course became in Finland, especially among women and people over the age of 45,” said Valtonen. “We also hope to see the same development in gender patterns and enrolment in other EU countries.”

Golden opportunity

The high level of international interest in the EAI course gave the Finnish government a golden opportunity to enhance the country’s reputation as a hub for digital-based education, said Timo Harakka, Finland’s minister of employment.

In launching the course, Finland embraced the view that every EU citizen should have the opportunity to pursue continuous lifelong learning, regardless of age and educational background, as an absolute right, said Harakka.

“The AI course’s success was apparent within a short time after it was launched in Finland,” he said. “We quickly realised the EAI project had a much broader potential beyond our borders. The international EAI course enables us to provide an online education programme that has wider benefits for millions of people outside Finland. They now have free access to a course purpose-designed to increase their practical understanding of what artificial intelligence is, as well as the technology’s potential for change, its challenges and implications.

“The course very much reflects Finnish thinking in the area of technology-related education. It strives to meet the challenges posed by ongoing transformations in the workplace that are originating from the growing use and influence of AI and digital technologies. The EAI initiative was also developed to reinforce the EU’s digital leadership in a world that is increasingly competitive and rapidly changing. More than ever, Europe needs to invest in people and skills.”

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