Education Technology (Edtech) – and the role for big business

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There has been a notable shift in the number of communications initiatives supporting the burgeoning Education Technology (Edtech) sector in recent years. Digital skills has become a hot topic for many industries and many business leaders are increasingly demonstrating their support. But what are the challenges and opportunities when raising your profile in this space?

Whether your school years were the best of your life or ones that you’d rather forget, those who have been out of education for a while would hardly recognise some of the tools and techniques used in the modern classroom.

Despite the best efforts of educators, the world is, unfortunately, changing at a far faster rate than the education system can adapt, especially when it comes to technology education. What’s cutting edge one day is obsolete the next, leaving schools, especially those with limited resources, struggling to keep up.

This dilemma is only adding to the widely-publicised IT skills gap, which threatens to leave businesses without the necessary cybersecurity professionals, programmers and IT managers they need to survive.

As more and more of our daily lives are spent in a digital environment, it’s essential the next generation of professionals is adequately equipped. Charities and NGOs are making great inroads. The established charity, Apps for Good, is working directly with schools to equip students with the right skills and confidence to develop digital products. So far, it has supported over 50,000 school children across the country – a remarkable achievement.

Reassuringly, the business world is also increasingly working directly with schools and universities to ensure they are giving students the skills they need for the modern workplace. Many major tech companies now support teachers to provide them with the skills they need to equip the digital generation – the Oracle Academy, for example, or IBM’s Teachers TryScience initiative.

Concurrently, a whole new industry is emerging around ‘Edtech’. The sector is growing rapidly, and is expected to be worth £129bn by 2018. Indeed, digital start-ups in the industry are now as numerous as those in that other great boom market: fintech.

Organisations that are influencing the space, such as Edtech UK, (a strategic body that aims to act as a “front door for industry, investors and government and a convening voice for all of the education and learning technology sector including educators, start-ups, scale-up and high growth companies, large corporations and investors”) are springing up fast. This body will support initiatives like FutureLearn and Code Club, which have been set up to update IT education.

When it comes to digital skills, it seems that the gap is narrowing between the business and education sectors. This is both a welcome change and a necessary one – the EU is predicting up to 825,000 unfilled ICT vacancies by 2020, which must be tackled head on.

However, this raises a huge communications challenge. Whilst big business intervention is widely welcomed in principle, many people feel uncomfortable about companies involving themselves with education, particularly if there’s the faintest chance they are doing so to embed their products and services in the minds of a new generation of consumers.

This is where strategic communications is invaluable.

Businesses have an obligation to help the education sector prepare the workforce of the future, but they should do so with complete openness and transparency.

If a big organisation is to make a contribution to this cause, then it must communicate its aims and objectives to all stakeholders – including parents and students – at every step along the way.

Where possible, businesses should also elevate their efforts by partnering with competitors to deliver such programmes. Joint initiatives such as these would not only allow organisations to extrapolate the impact and share the resource burden associated with such programmes, but would also shift any suspicion around their motives, leading to a more positive business profile.

Business really does have a lot to offer teachers and students when it comes to digital skills. It is only with the support of industry that we can truly understand what is required from future generations of school leavers. Without this, the education sector could be shooting in the dark, despite best intentions.

Communicating in a transparent way will help businesses do so and do it right, keeping stakeholders on side and, ultimately, working to solve a very real and fundamental economic need.

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