A chat with Catherine Whitaker, CEO & Head of Learning, EtonX

Catherine WhitakerCatherine Whitaker is CEO of EtonX, an online provider of soft skills.

EtonX, a subsidiary of Eton College, is addressing the emerging worldwide issue of teenagers having great grades but lacking in soft skills, such as critical thinking and interpersonal skills, that aren’t formally taught in many international schools.

In this article, Catherine tells us about EtonX and how it is helping improve soft skills.

What does EtonX do and what is your role at the company?

EtonX is an education technology company and a subsidiary of Eton College. We provide online soft skills courses for teenagers globally. We work with Eton to create the course content and have built technology, including a bespoke virtual classroom, to enable students to practise and develop their skills.

My role is CEO and I’m also Head of Learning, ensuring that we deliver a great quality of education to our students. My background is in educational publishing and I’ve specialised in getting new businesses off the ground either within corporates or, as in my last two jobs, in true start-ups.

Do you get to meet Eddie Redmayne or Prince Harry?

Our team is based in London so we don’t have many opportunities to rub shoulders with Eton alumni! We do spend a lot of time at the school, especially in their Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, to develop our soft skills course content with masters from Eton.  The College has an extremely broad co-curricular programme so apart from observing lessons, we’ve got involved in the life of the school in other ways such as watching students pitch in entrepreneurship competitions. This led to us asking students from the College’s Entrepreneurship Society to help us develop the syllabus for our Entrepreneurship course which is launching in January 2019. Recently, we’ve been involved with Eton and researchers from Harvard looking at character education.

What are soft skills? Why are they so important?

I don’t think there is a definitive list of soft skills that educators agree on but we have chosen to develop courses in skills such as communication, creativity, and critical thinking and practical skills such as interview skills, CV writing and essay writing. In fact many employers (myself included) think that ‘soft’ is a misnomer – we need these skills just as much if not more than technical or academic skills. If you can’t communicate your great idea either verbally or in writing, work in a team to realise it and solve problems creatively along the way, no amount of technical education is going to make up for a lack of crucial skills.

Why do secondary schools struggle to teach soft skills?

School systems are usually defined by the exams students take at exit and the curricula that work towards those exams. Schools have their work cut out getting students through these exams. However, many schools do manage to integrate soft skills development through the way that they teach students and through the co-curricular programme and leadership opportunities that they give students. EtonX is working with schools that want to supplement their programmes and schools who want to give parents and students the choice as to which courses are most important to them.

EtonX Virtual Classroom high res Sept 2018

How does EtonX find new classroom technologies and bring them to market?

We believe that the technology is only as good as the educational outcomes it delivers, and we don’t develop technology for its own sake. We decided to build our own virtual classroom because we felt that there wasn’t a safe virtual environment out there that was truly suitable for teenagers and which would allow meaningful interaction to take place between students and their tutor. What sets our classroom apart is all the features that allow teachers to teach as if they were in a real offline classroom and, importantly, all the safeguarding features that we’ve built in.

I hear of innovations like VR for immersive learning and AI changing education – is this really happening or is it just hype?

There are certainly lots of opportunities to integrate new cool tech into lessons but what we are doing is something which values the important human interaction which takes place in physical classrooms but which technology hasn’t managed to replicate well until now. In class, students learn how to interact with other students, how to share ideas, listen, take turns, give and receive feedback. These are all important skills which older versions of e-learning couldn’t deliver because they relied on asynchronous interaction and recorded content.

In our live online classes, study groups of up to eight students come together and our tutors are facilitators of discussion and debate, not lecturers. Our classroom allows students genuinely to learn with and from each other. In fact, we say if our technology is working well, then our users will be focussed on learning, not on the technology.

What’s it like being a female CEO in the edtech market?  

It’s striking how male edtech is compared to education in general. That’s a reflection of how technology as a career still attracts more men than women and there are fewer female entrepreneurs than male ones in the start-up world.

Although I might notice when I’m the only woman on a conference panel or in an external meeting, for me there is no gender divide in terms of ambition: men and women are equally committed to providing the most rounded education and successful outcomes for their children.  In my current role, I’m leading a small team of highly-talented and committed male and female digital learning specialists and dealing with different stakeholders to create new learning experiences.

One thing I find really motivating is the fact that although Eton College is obviously an all-boys school,  EtonX’s courses are available to girls and boys worldwide. Our student cohorts have always had roughly equal numbers of both genders. Hopefully we’ll be part of the solution by helping to create more female entrepreneurs and technology specialists through our courses!

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