The wave of national lockdowns has had a serious and lasting effect on the education of children. 

The World Bank estimates that there are an ‘additional 72 million primary-school-aged children’ who have been plunged into ‘learning poverty‘, and that there are ‘students at risk of losing about $10 trillion in future lifetime earnings’ — something that affects disadvantaged children in developed countries, and especially those in LEDCs. For this reason, online teaching tools are becoming increasingly essential to ensure that children continue learning no matter the circumstances. Curious, I decided to try and interview some online course providers such as EtonX, a company founded by Eton college in 2015, about what they offer and what plans they have for the future.

Is online learning the future? 

The role that online teaching will have over the next few years has been greatly accelerated by lockdowns across the world. It’s clear that the service this provides is greatly in demand. Education is a driving factor that increases human capital, allows people to escape poverty, and gives them the necessary skills needed to grow economies.

The pandemic has dented many young people’s futures. In the long term, this will certainly be felt by the world economy at large when the pool of skilled workers becomes smaller.

Online education companies can help solve this problem, offering a vista into the future of young people’s education.

James Stanforth, Director of Digital Education for EtonX

What is the idea behind EtonX?

The key idea behind it is that to have a broad education, the academic part is only one part of it. You need to develop confidence, problem-solving, critical thinking. Eton X wants to develop these so-called ‘future skills’. It does this through providing digital content that goes through these skills, all made with specific Eton masters who use their expertise to make the course.

How does it actually work?

It takes place in two formats:
1. A self-study course where you have a year to complete
2. A tutor-led course which is 7 weeks long and helps the students in a group of 8 to understand issues

One of the benefits of the latter is that you have an international mix of students. They also all have practical elements that are facilitated by an EtonX tutor. That is really what it is.

We are in process of a University Interviews course, which is for medicine or Oxbridge students and involves how to prepare for interviews. We also have the university admissions course, which is for international students to help understand the process of applying.

What are you planning in the future for EtonX?

Academic enrichment and extension of work. It would extend a student’s knowledge in a certain area and allow people to engage more in a subject that they already do.

Is there any ambition for any full-time education plans so that children in LEDCs can receive a good education, as long as they have internet access?

This is something that is really happening aside from Eton. The advent of MOOC and future learn and edX, universities like Harvard and MIT etc., all give free access to large swathes of the course. They also certify that you have completed a course to help you with credentials.

Live teaching is very hard to do, so recordings of seminars have become more commonplace. What they can also do is provide a community where you can submit work and it is marked by a real person.

From Eton’s standpoint, scalability and having the biggest impact are why we haven’t gotten involved with live teaching.

So what are some of Eton’s other plans for having a proper impact in different areas of education?

There are different aspects to Eton’s 2020 vision. Part of it is extending bursarial access in Eton and double the number of free places with people from backgrounds where it will make a real difference.

Another part of it is the desire to found free schools. We would want links between Eton and those schools, but live teaching may be more difficult to arrange. Seminars or coming to other parts of extra-curricular activities may be a more feasible option for those schools.

As you know, teaching is more than having a camera as a teacher lectures. Teachers need to respond to questions, see students work, and give feedback.

The last is providing all EtonX courses free to state schools. An important point to make is that this is not just a Covid idea, but it is also a long-term ambition of Eton.

We are helping departments that are full of the talented body of teachers at this school, to make digital content for people to access. One example is a physics course on electricity, which is one of hardest parts of the course.

Over the next five years, we would like to provide substantial learning material to users of EtonX and state schools.

Catherine Whitaker, CEO of EtonX

What are you looking to do with EtonX in the future?

Working in an area of future ready skills and getting and ensuring people have a rounded academic skill. We are taking that further into university application skills and other things we are doing. Next year, we are doing another series with teachers at Eton. [This will involve] making super-curricular activities to make sure you are passionate and have a broader understanding, [as well as] connections between other areas into this.

How has the government been supporting your role as an education company?

Not complete help from department of education, as we are a commercial entity. We have the department for international trade which finance trade missions, and we have exhibited the work [that] we have at a major trade event. We have not really been helped in that way.

Do you think that they should help you more?

Individual schools often feel that they are best placed at how they do [things]. Individual schools should be the ones that decide what they get. We should get a more local level.

Do you think that it reflects poorly on the UK education system that education supplements are needed in this way?

There is only so much time that teachers have to teach their schools. Especially in state schools, there is an opportunity to supplement the schools as we shouldn’t have to rely on teachers to do everything. Technology is helping teachers who are already incredibly stretched. they are doing a great deal already. It is no negative reflection on the system, it is a good thing that it is helped in this way.

Also, it is a question of facilities where certain people get a service that isn’t usually on service at their school. It is an enabler and allows you to get people across the world talking about certain niche interests that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

Additionally, we have often helped students in a different way to academics. However, the exam system is a great blocker in that way. Due to this, there is far less flexibility and ability to go off syllabus.

This is something that I referenced earlier with James Stanforth, but is there no way that through collaboration you could provide some type of full-time education for students across the world, especially in LEDCs where education is sometimes non-existent?

We will take a more flexible approach to how teaching takes place. We have more personalised learning due to technology, and we may also get stronger connections of learning between schools. Covid has accelerated that and people are aware of the benefits.

In terms of partnering with other organisations, we have already licensed our EtonX platform for means of education. The British Council has already used our platform in their classes. It would be more in that way that we could get involved in a more full-time kind of education. Running a full-time and intensive education system is not part of EtonX’s strategy.