Catherine Whitaker, CEO of EtonX tells us about future skills for teenagers worldwide.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Catherine Whitaker: Thanks for asking. We are all well but having two adults working at home while homeschooling hasn’t been at all easy. Fortunately, here in the UK, the rollout of the vaccination programme is proceeding apace and the latest lockdown restrictions are gradually being eased so right now, the outlook is positive.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined EtonX.
Catherine Whitaker: I joined EtonX as Head of Learning in 2015 then took over the reins as CEO the following year. The company grew out of Eton College, the UK’s best known independent school, which wanted to find ways of expanding its reach and generating funds for its bursary and partnership programme. At the time I joined, we were operating in China with a leadership development programme for teenagers delivered via a blended learning model. In 2017, we took the decision to focus on delivering our courses 100% online and built the technology we needed to do that. We now deliver a range of soft skill and university preparation courses to students in over 60 countries via this technology. Previously, I’ve been COO of another edTech start-up, but my background is in educational publishing where I’ve had editorial, marketing, and business development roles. I’ve helped launch several new businesses within education publishers such as Macmillan and HarperCollins, including one of the first learning platforms for English language learners in 2003 – at that point broadband was limited, Wi-Fi was non-existent and we relied on dial-up connections for sales presentations!
How does EtonX innovate?
Catherine Whitaker: We are operating in an area that is in its infancy, so everything we do feels like an innovation. Firstly, we had to find a way of developing online programmes to improve soft skills in teenagers. There are no widely-used syllabuses, standards, or assessment mechanisms for skills such as creative problem solving, resilience, or verbal communication so we’ve made our own. We’ve also had to create our own technology including a virtual classroom because we didn’t find anything that worked for the programmes we wanted to develop. We innovate by taking techniques and methodologies that we know work offline at Eton College and workshop ways to translate the experience into a different but equally effective online version. Everything we do gets piloted with real students and we seek feedback all the time from our users, teachers, our tutors, and our operations teams.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business and how are you coping?
Catherine Whitaker: The pandemic has been a complete game-changer for edTech. Out of necessity schools across the globe have had to shift learning online and as a result, it’s accelerated the acceptance of live online learning amongst educators, parents, and students. That leads to growth in our business – both as a provider of online skills and university preparation courses but also as a technology provider. In the spring of last year, we had to close our London office, work from home and also massively scale up our tech infrastructure and operations.
We opened our courses for free to UK secondary schools which meant a huge influx of new users and we also provided the technology platform for one of the world’s largest English language teaching providers to move all their students’ classes online. We grew the team by 50% and there are still members of the team who report to me and who I’ve worked with for 9 or more months who I haven’t met in person yet. My team has been amazingly resilient.
I’ve enjoyed the challenge, but I do struggle with the blurring of work and home. I’ve also started booking old-fashioned phone calls to avoid staring at a screen and to save my back and neck!
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Catherine Whitaker: We have to make difficult choices all the time. As a start-up, the number of opportunities are usually greater than our capacity can cope with. We have to make sure we focus on every area of our business. That means making choices about which markets we are active in, which channel and partners to work with and how to shape our product and content roadmap so that we achieve a good product/market fit. If you don’t focus, you end up achieving less, not more although it doesn’t feel like it when you have to say ‘no’ or walk away from opportunities. The most difficult choice was to wind up our Chinese operation in 2017 because we couldn’t continue our operation there and enter an R&D phase to turn our operation into a global, online business.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Catherine Whitaker: We’re lucky that we are all able to work from home and we can use our own virtual classroom for meetings. We get to test our product or ‘eat the dogfood’ as it’s charmingly called while keeping in touch. We moved from Slack to Teams at the start of the pandemic which has served us well.
As the leader of the business, I think the most important thing I can do is make sure that I join the dots across the distributed team and ensure every area of the business is communicating with the others. We have found a pattern of 4-monthly company objectives and key results work best for us and I think everyone on the team is really clear about their part in delivering on those. I try to ensure I check in personally with everyone on the team to make sure that staff is coping on an individual basis with the challenges of the pandemic. We still haven’t found a way of socializing online that everyone enjoys so that‘s going to be a priority when we return to the office.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Catherine Whitaker: In terms of virtual classroom technology, our field is getting more competitive as companies providing video-conferencing which wasn’t built for education, have found themselves well established in the space as a result of the pandemic. There are many new entrants too who see an opportunity, but different tools will suit different contexts.
We plan to stay in the game leveraging our experience of creating and delivering our own courses and ensuring that our technology works for educators. The advantage of being linked to a school is that we can call on the expertise in the teacher and student body there whenever we need to try out something new. This means we can provide other institutions not just with technology, but with content and know-how for them to develop their own programmes too.
Your final thoughts?
Catherine Whitaker: Catherine Whitaker This has been an extraordinary time to be in edTech. I couldn’t have imagined circumstances like this in which the face of the industry would be changed almost overnight. It’s going to continue to be interesting as life gets back to some kind of normal to see what the lasting impacts will be. There is still so much more room for innovation – we’ll see more flexible models of education, a teaching workforce more comfortable blending different modes of delivery, and parents more ready to pick online-only options for their kids. We’re looking forward to the ride.