Virtual cave in education
Latvia is still affected by a structural deficit of STEM professionals in the job market. The challenge to leapfrog the country into a digital transformed world requires a bigger pool of talent. At the same time, Ventspils and Valmiera as small cities are paving the way for this challenge. As part of a larger strategy, NextGen Microcities project tested a variety of solutions to upgrade its educational system to make it more attuned to the future job market. The solutions tested are part of a global policy trend integrating STEM teaching and EDTECH into all classes and age groups of youngsters.
This article explores the solutions tested by the project and provides the knowledge context to understand their potential impact


NextGen Microcities project tested core solutions to prepare next generations for future skills and to increase local economy by scaling the ICT and digital skills of the workforce. The pilot projects were the creation of an experimental EdTech Factory – a Digital innovation hub in education – that would foster the integration of innovative solutions in the education ecosystem.

The innovative solutions tested were:

(1) a Smart School Concept to provide 21st century ICT, digital and education skills for end-users as employers, education organizations and local authorities of the micro cities;

(2) investments in education technology and teaching aids on “how to use EdTech” for teachers, trainers, lecturers;

(3) innovative active methodologies and new study programs in VET and Higher Education;

(4) Summer Schools on STEM and entrepreneurship development.

During the project, Ventspils University of Applied Sciences modernized and improved room C406 and is now proudly called the Interactive Digital classroom. The new Interactive Digital classroom was set up to assist the daily work of lecturers with various tools. It provides the lecturers a convenient way to present their lectures both in-person and remotely, or in a mixed-mode, even if the students are on-site and the lecturer is working remotely. The classroom is equipped with a microphone and a camera for online transmission of the lecturer, as well as webcams for students, digital tablets for drawing and writing on the computer, and an interactive whiteboard that provides remote access.

Valmiera Vocational Training Center is the leading VET center in technical study fields as mechanics and metalwork, mechatronics, coding, telemechanic and logistics. They already offer modern education that meets the trends shaping the job market. Within the UIA project, their goal was to test the latest digital technologies to engage students in new and innovative ways and enable teaching staff to facilitate learning. In particular, the training center has purchased a 3D virtual CAVE – a modern and innovative teaching equipment which is an immersive virtual reality environment.

Ventspils Vocational School has implemented a VR (virtual reality) classroom, which has the ability to simulate several topics in both general education and vocational subjects. The school will improve existing study programs by providing learning and testing opportunities on three study subjects: work safety, tourism and mathematics.

The Vidzemes University of Applied Science in Valmiera, is implementing two EdTech innovations: an Active Learning classroom and a virtual reality system to train mechatronics students.

“Creative Laboratory workshops” were piloted as a part of marketing campaign to attract more potential students. Two different approaches have been carried out - one for elementary school pupils - potential vocational school students and one for secondary school (high-school) students - potential university students.

All of these solutions have been tested according to an overall strategy of intervention on the education ecosystem of the two cities, that is grounded in both existing global trends and best in class policy intervention. What follows is an account of both.


Future of work

The world of work is in a state of flux, which is causing considerable anxiety — and with good reason. There is growing polarization of labor-market opportunities between high- and low-skill jobs, unemployment and underemployment, especially among young people, and stagnating incomes for a large proportion of households and income inequality. Migration and its effects on jobs has become a sensitive political issue in many advanced economies. And from Tokyo to Paris, public debate rages about the future of work, and whether there will be enough jobs to employ everyone. The development of automation enabled by technologies including robotics and artificial intelligence brings the promise of higher productivity (and with productivity, economic growth), increased efficiencies, safety, and convenience, but these technologies also raise difficult questions about the broader impact of automation on jobs, skills, wages, and the nature of work itself. Many activities that workers carry out today have the potential to be automated. Technological change has reshaped the workplace continually over the past two centuries since the Industrial Revolution, but the speed with which automation technologies are developing today, and the scale at which they could disrupt the world of work, are largely without precedent. As machines evolve and acquire more advanced performance capabilities that match or exceed human capabilities, the adoption of automation will pick up. The challenge is not that machines are getting better at replacing repetitive tasks or mere human labour, but that they are getting better at replacing human judgement and thinking.

Some argue that while technologies replace some jobs, they will create new ones in industries that most of us cannot even imagine, and new ways to generate income. One third of new jobs created in the United States in the past 25 years were types that did not exist, or barely existed, in areas including IT development and systems management, hardware manufacturing, app creation, etc.

Partial automation (where only some activities that make up an occupation are automated) will impact almost all occupations to a greater or less degree, not just factory workers and clerks, but gardeners and technicians, designers, sales representatives, and perhaps also CEOs. The EU states that already today 80% of all occupations requires some basic degree of digital skills. A new category of knowledge-enabled jobs will become possible as machines embed intelligence and knowledge that less skilled workers can access with a little training.

On the other side, a technology driven jobs market will require adaptation in most professions and at all levels, as the future work environments will likely be characterized by the following:

  • A predominance of dynamic, interdisciplinary teams
  • A focus on data
  • Ubiquitous computational, engineering, and design thinking
  • Convergence of technologies and systems and a focus on life sciences
  • Increased use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, with blurred boundaries between humans and machines
  • An emphasis on problem-based learning
  • Increased focus on continual lifelong learning.

From a public policy side, there is already the need for increased attention to ethical considerations that promote innovation and productivity while also ensure the well-being of individuals and societies and guard against building in or hardening our society’s inequities.


Helping students to develop their capacities to succeed in future work can be challenging in a world driven by fast-paced changes in technology. New and emerging fields such as big data, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of things often give rise to new job titles that did not exist a short time ago. Over the next 5 to 10 years, new jobs that are not yet imagined will be invented. It is important that students at all ages become aware of the changing nature of work and that they are encouraged to imagine, explore, and keep expanding their ideas about what constitutes careers of the future.

The European Commission stresses the need for the education to tandem with the technology development, in order to avoid the deepening of the digital divide which could cause subsequent erosion of the social capital base (European Union). Across the EU a major reason for labour shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields professionals lies in the insufficient supply of higher education graduates due to stagnant enrolment rates in STEM fields. Too few young people are enrolling to study STEM subjects at higher education. In order to tackle the shortage of STEM graduates, the EU Member states are using various measures, including supply stimulus: investing in education and training; using reserves of labour and skills; reskilling employees. Some countries have developed national strategies to encourage people to study and work in STEM, ICT and research and development (CEDEFOP).

High performing Anglosphere countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and a number of Western European countries have national STEM policies aimed at addressing unmet labour market demand for STEM skills, and securing international competitiveness within an increasingly globalized economy. Several of these policies have emerged within a narrative of ‘STEM crisis’ and declining relative performance in international science and mathematics assessments, along with growing emphasis on industry human resource requirements and innovation. Notable examples include the United Kingdom’s Science & Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014 and 2017 paper, Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the Future. In Australia, STEM education, R&D and industry innovation-related policy includes the National STEM School Education Strategy released in 2015, and 2018 plan, Australia 2030: Prosperity Through Innovation. New Zealand’s National Statement on Science Investment 2015-2025 aims to establish a coherent vision for the country’s science system. In the United States, leading reports such as Rising Above the Gathering Storm and Revisiting the STEM Workforce have generated interest in the development of a national STEM workforce strategy (see National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). In Western Europe, STEM or science policies have been adopted in Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain. They typically address public perceptions and knowledge of science, school-based mathematics and science teaching, participation and performance, and tertiary-level participation in STEM disciplines.

The foundational skills that students need for success in future work are best introduced during students’ early formative years, when their interests, skills, knowledge, and abilities are being shaped and they are beginning to imagine themselves in future life roles. For countries in order to succeed in the new age of industry both the technological expertise and professional skills have to be prepared ahead of time.

Policy makers working with education providers (traditional and non-traditional) could do more to improve basic STEM skills through the school system, and put a new emphasis on creativity as well as critical and systems thinking, and foster adaptive and life-long learning. The emerging characteristics of the future of work therefore require a shift in the way we currently prepare students in all grades of their formal education path. Educators can ensure that students have the opportunity to build these competencies over time by practicing relevant skills along a scaffolded and intentional trajectory.


Student assembling a robot


STEM study fields are Natural sciences, mathematics and statistics (5th field), Information and Communication Technologies (6th field), Engineering, manufacturing and construction (7th field) (UNESCO, 2015). They are seen as especially important for fostering innovation and economic growth. Many countries try to increase the rate of students taking up STEM education, or to attract highly qualified immigrants with degrees of given field. In OECD countries among tertiary- educated adults, in 2016 just an average of 25% had been studying STEM fields.

STEM education gives people skills that make them more employable and ready to meet the current labor demand. It encompasses the whole range of experiences and skills. Each STEM component brings a valuable contribution to a well-rounded education. Science gives learners an in-depth understanding of the world around us. It helps them to become better at research and critical thinking. Technology prepares young people to work in an environment full of high-tech innovations. Engineering allows students to enhance problem-solving skills and apply knowledge in new projects. Mathematics enables people to analyze information, eliminate errors, and make conscious decisions when designing solutions. STEM education links these disciplines into a cohesive system. Thus, it prepares professionals who can transform society with innovation and sustainable solutions. 

The STEM approach to education fosters creativity and divergent thinking alongside fundamental disciplines. It motivates and inspires young people to generate new technologies and ideas. To keep it short, its aim can be formulated in two simple actions: explore and experience. Students are free to exercise what they learn and embrace mistakes in a risk-free environment. Project-based learning and problem-solving help learners to form a special mindset. Its core is in flexibility and curiosity, which equips learners to respond to real-world challenges.


Interactive screen for virtual lessons

STEM educational projects promote the use of so-called active methodologies encouraging the active participation of the student, who becomes the protagonist of the teaching-learning process and develops his/her own knowledge. Active methodologies such as project-based learning, problem-based learning, collaborative learning or the flipped classroom, are revealed as effective tools to generate meaningful learning and to train critical, creative people who will be prepared to face current and future challenges and be able to work in a team, communicate, discuss, evaluate.

Project-based learning is defined as a set of tasks that culminate in a final product and that students must solve autonomously through research processes. It is a holistic strategy in which interaction with reality beyond the classroom is enhanced. Problem-based learning places the student in a confusing, unstructured situation, before which they assume the leading role: they identify the real problem and learn, through research, what is necessary to reach a viable solution. Both methodologies use collaborative learning, so that work is carried out in small groups in which students with different skills and levels share situations and address common goals. In cooperative learning, each student is responsible for their own learning and that of their peers, so that they will reach their goals if, and only if, the peers also achieve theirs.

The flipped classroom methodology creates a learning environment in which students learn the contents at home, usually from online tutorials, and then carry out classroom activities and tasks guided by the teacher. In the flipped classroom, although a greater student involvement is required in learning, it is adapted better to the student’s pace, providing deeper and more meaningful learning.


Education technology (EdTech) solutions are expected to evolve in line with the advances in the latest technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR), and contribute significantly to the market growth. The integration of AR and VR in EdTech solutions helps offer an interactive experience to the learners. It allows learners to explore and seamlessly connect with abstract concepts, and subsequently driving student engagement. On the other hand, the integration of blockchain technology allows end-users to store and secure records of students and learners, thereby enabling educators to analyze the consumption patterns of the material offered to the learners and make data-driven decisions.

Enhancing student engagement is emerging as a prime concern for educators. Hence, market players respond to such concerns by introducing advanced interactive whiteboards and shifting from projector-based displays to touchscreen displays. For instance, interactive whiteboards have become widely popular and provide a more improved experience. They incorporate a wide range of features, such as dry-erase surfaces, digital pens, communicating software, and other multi-touch options. Also, they allow users to save and share notes among other digital devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and laptops. Such initiatives are encouraging active learning and developing critical readiness skills in the learners. Furthermore, both educators and learners can access Student Information Systems (SIS) with a primary focus to generate comprehensive student profiles that can enable educators to make informed decisions with a particular focus on enhancing every individual student’s performance.

Many educators wrestle several aspects of Ed tech, including, how to start using Ed tech (Caukin, 2018), when to use Ed tech (National Education Technology Plan [NETP], 2017), how to incorporate it without creating more distractions for students (Thomas, 2019), and ways that Ed tech can move students towards higher levels of thinking (Caukin & Trail, 2019). It is important for educators to provide opportunities for students to not only participate in effective and meaningful learning experiences, but also engage them, sustain their attention, and assess them in a variety of ways, all of which Ed tech can provide (NETP, 2017).

Education is a complex, highly interdependent system. It is not like the banking, record, or media industries. The simple transfer of technology from other sectors often fails to appreciate the sociocultural context in which education operates. Generally, only those technologies that directly offer an improved, or alternative, means of addressing the core functions of education get adopted.

This experimentation is often characterised by a specific narrow focus (for example, on the technology itself), rather than considering: (i) the wider connections between technology and pedagogy; (ii) what constitutes effective technology-enabled learning environments for children (in the classroom); (iii) corresponding teacher professional development opportunities.

The implementation of technology in the classroom cannot be seen as a one-off process, and a pragmatic Design/Engineering-Based Research approach offers a means of iteratively developing robust designs that can be sustainably implemented in classrooms. Lessons for the successful introduction of technology in schools include technology management and appropriate infrastructure. Holistic strategies for integrating digital and nondigital resources are needed, and teacher professional development (TPD) needs to be aligned with a shared vision across all stakeholders. Indeed, pedagogical practice is not an outcome of technology use, and does not simply change as a result of introducing new technology. Pedagogic spaces must be opened up to promote student dialogue, collaboration and problem-solving activities. This can be supported by a broad range of hardware and software used in conjunction with nondigital tools and resources.

Edtech products


Baltic States are vibrant regions with similar sized population and historical experience. Their adaptation to the new digital era is undermined by lack of professionals, although those states have a combined advantage in the number of young people.

In the last 30 years an increase can be seen in the overall tertiary education attendance in the Baltic countries, especially in Latvia and Lithuania. In terms of the total supply of STEM professionals, in 2017 Latvia covered only 23.7% of the projected demand. The low results in Latvia indicate a sustained deficit of STEM professionals and further struggles to meet the job market demands in the mid- term and long-term.

In addition, Latvia’s population is declining rapidly, driven by negative natural growth and relatively high emigration. The share of the population aged between 3 and 18 is projected to contract by around 20% between 2020 and 2030, as compared to just 2% for the EU as a whole. The average class size in Latvian schools is already the lowest in the OECD: 11 pupils per class in primary and 15 in lower secondary (against OECD averages of 21 and 23 respectively).

Latvia’s students achieved above the OECD average in mathematics, around the OECD average in science, and below the OECD average in reading in PISA 1 2018. Unlike in many other OECD countries, student performance in Latvia did not vary substantially according to socio-economic status. This may be partly due to certain system-level practices in place in Latvia that can favor equity, such as low grade repetition and limited between- and within-school ability grouping. Participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) has grown considerably since 2008, now exceeding the OECD average for those over the age of three. Educational attainment among adults is also growing more quickly than elsewhere.

Latvia has already met and exceeded its Europe 2020 education targets. Latvia should achieve further improvements in learning outcomes through the new competence-based curriculum, a stronger individual approach to students at risk and support for inclusion of students with special educational needs. Enrolment in vocational education and training (VET) is increasing and the employment rate of VET graduates is improving, although both remain below the EU average. In higher education, a gradual increase in investment and incremental changes in quality assurance are welcome, but the sector remains fragmented and international competitiveness low.

The new government has pledged to improve the quality and inclusiveness of higher education. This includes stronger support for students in need and a commitment to ensuring financial support to the three-pillar funding model introduced in 2015. Planned measures include digitalization in higher education, improving international cooperation, revising academic career policies and simplifying recruitment of international teaching staff. The government’s programme sets as a benchmark the inclusion of at least one Latvian university among the top 500 universities globally. It also pledges to continue addressing the fragmentation of higher education programmes. The financing priorities submitted by the Education Ministry for government approval for 2019 include an annual funding increase for study programmes and other quality-related investment in state-funded higher education institutions (HEIs). One of the Education Ministry’s proposed financing priorities is financing under the second and third pillars of the model, which includes performance-based funding and funding for innovation and development of HEIs.


NextGen Microcities experimented with some cutting edge solutions to upgrade its learning ecosystem in order to prepare it for the future of work. The challenge now will be to sustain the effort locally after the project ends and scale those solutions across the country. Current political and policy priorities on education in the country are aligned with what the project experimented with, therefore chances of sustainability of the action are high. Furthermore, the UIA initiative allowed for infrastructural investments in Ed tech, and benefiting institutions, UIA partners, understand the importance of the opportunity that was given to them through the project. The people involved in the project team are integral to those institutions, and they are keen to share the knowledge they have gained through the project for the benefit of their institutions. This is even more felt by the two municipalities involved, that by the Latvian educational system have direct management of many school grades.

The crossing of multiple alignments, including the one between the project’s pilots and the state of the art internationally, will make it possible to turn the seeds planted by NextGen into beautiful plants in the near future.

AR/VR classrooms


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About this resource

Fabio Sgaragli
Ventspils & Valmiera, Latvia Small and medium-sized cities (50k > 250k)
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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