By Catherine Whitaker, CEO & Head of Learning, EtonX

Catherine Whitaker Etonx Ceo


We know automation is going to cut a swathe through tomorrow’s workforces but how are we going to help young people upskill for such a seismic change given the academic workloads they already face?

The scale and speed of job changes are certainly profound – but, surprisingly, so are the opportunities.  World Economic Forum (WEF) research reckons that around 75 million jobs will be wiped out worldwide by 2022 as organisations’ core processes are digitised and automated.

But the data also say that workforce entrants and existing employees that strike a balance of highly-developed technical and soft skills will help create around 130 million new jobs.  

The factor setting us apart in a world of AI and robotics is refining our human skills: for example, the critical thinking that allows us to make fine judgement calls, or problem-solving in the most complex situations, and the ability to collaborate with many different people: even the most advanced robots and algorithms still cannot match such capabilities.

But with teenagers weighed down by exam grade expectations, they will need easier and more sympathetic settings in which to understand and acquire these life skills – without disrupting their core studies.

Step forward bespoke virtual classrooms. These online learning innovations take a giant leap forward for soft skills instruction for busy schools.  That’s because they humanise online learning, replicating students’ experience in a physical classroom and redefining what online learning can do.

We introduced a new, custom-built virtual classroom in the autumn for the first eight courses in our new Future Skills Programme which address gaps in schools’ teaching of soft skills under traditional curricula.  The short, seven-week courses help students from all type of school or college across the world to develop vital skills such as assertiveness, active listening and public speaking.

In these classrooms, the difference is made by their higher-quality video streaming: participants can interact more naturally with each other and their tutor.  Students take part easily in role plays, group discussions and presentations.  Young people that sign up to these virtual classroom-based courses can choose to study alongside people from different countries and backgrounds, gaining a lasting cultural appreciation that is a crucial but under-rated skill for working effectively in our globalised economy.

And since our virtual classroom uses the latest WebRTC standards, users can join their classes from their browser without installing any software. Schools anywhere can add standalone soft skills subjects to their co-curricular programmes and individual students can top-up their soft skills – just as they would by having extra academic tuition out of school hours.

In the ponderous video and creaking bulletin boards of my early e-learning days, learning how to give a speech or doing an assertiveness role play would have been impossible.  With these flexible classrooms, students can practise crucial soft skills learning, for a more rounded education, in enjoyable and non-challenging surroundings.

There’s another benefit for students too. World Economic Forum analysis of academic outcomes across the world in 2016 found that students with social and emotional learning achieve outcomes up to 11 percent higher than those without.

The pace of change in today’s workplace is unnerving. By enabling students to learn soft skills in sympathetic settings, we can give students a real opportunity to get to grips with it.