What does a nearly six-century-old private school that charges $54,000 a year in tuition do when confronted with start-ups with bright ideas about how education should work? If you’re Eton College, alma mater to much of the British establishment including the serving prime minister and the mayor of London, you work with them.
Along with Oxford University’s Said Business School, Eton College—a high school for boys between the ages of 13 and 18—has partnered with Emerge Venture Lab, a London-based accelerator, to support educational technology, or “edtech,” start-ups. The first cohort of six start-ups will start the program in London with a party on Jan. 17. Eton will not provide financial support or take equity (though it does not rule that out), but its teachers will help guide the start-ups in the program and may also try the new products with their students. “It’s quite easy for the technology to dominate and the way we’re interested in getting involved is to make sure there is a pedagogical influence as well,” Eton’s Serena Hedley-Dent told Quartz.
Behind this ancient institution’s embrace of the modern is an intense awareness that things are about to change, and dramatically. “Nobody knows for sure where this business is going to be in five to ten years’ time. It would be very foolish of us to bury our heads in the sand and assume that education in schools will carry on in the traditional way,” says Percy Harrison, head of information technology at Eton and executive director of the newly-formed Eton Online Ventures.
Two trends are driving the change. The first is that old culprit—mobile devices such as tablets. If students are used to interacting with information on tablets at home, it seems strange to them to not use one at school. But schools and universities need to figure out how best to use them. The second trend is more structural: While education is often seen as the process of teaching children facts and skills, another important aspect is learning to grow up and dealing with life’s ups and downs. Harrison says that is the most important aspect of what Eton does, but one that existing education technology companies have not focused on. That is the area the school is interested in promoting.
Eton would not reveal the names or nature of the start-ups the program has accepted in advance of a formal announcement on Jan. 17, but Harrison says the products he is most interested in are those that help people work in groups. “The MOOC [online courses] world for example can be a rather lonely one. And if you get stuck how do you get unstuck? So it’s those kinds of features we’re really looking for,” he says.
Education technology is still very much in its infancy, as anybody who has experienced some of the widely-used platforms such as Blackboard can tell you. But it is a rising sector. Mendeley, a London start-up for academic collaboration, was bought last year for £65 million ($100 million) by science and academic publisher Reed Elsevier. Other areas of focus are learning analytics, which give educators the tools to monitor student performance and, the idea is, predict which ones are lagging behind or likely to fail. The way education technology is advancing, however, suggests no reason to believe that the social aspects of education and the skill-acquiring aspects of education need to be in the same place. That is why, says Harrison, ”it’s important to us that if technology is going to play a bigger part, both in the classroom or indeed in replacing the classroom, [that it] drives people towards a good teaching style rather than a bad one.”