Tech for good: Stephen Somerville

Concluding part of our series looking at how edtech companies and education institutions can use technology for the benefit of all

Stephen Somerville is Managing Director of Government and Employer Partnerships at FutureLearn

Can you give us examples of how edtech companies and education institutions are already using technology for the greater good?

The numbers alone show that technology in education really can be harnessed for the greater good. Since launch, we’ve seen over 20 million course enrolments across all nations globally and over 8 million registered users have joined us on a huge variety of courses. To date, 1,600 unique courses have run or are scheduled to run on FutureLearn.

Regarding specific examples of collaborative approaches, Accenture has its own Digital Skills programme on FutureLearn, which includes seven courses developed by digital experts across Accenture: Grow Your Career; Social Media; Web Analytics; Digital Marketing; User Experience; Retail; and Mobile.

The courses, designed to help hard-to-reach 16–24-year-old NEETs (not in education, employment or training), make sense of the ever-evolving digital world and cover everything from understanding the basics to the more advanced concepts and how to apply them. The courses are hugely popular, and we’ve had tens of thousands of enrolments. At a time where we face a digital skills crisis, it is hard to imagine how we could expect to tackle this at scale without a technology-based collaborative solution.

As another example, Ebola in Context saw over 18,000 enrolments in its first run from over 185 countries and territories all over the globe with learner engagement from low- and middle-income countries being very strong.

It’s estimated that almost 2% of the 18.1K enrolments on the course came from Sierra Leone, which was badly affected by the epidemic. One particular learner, who worked in an Ebola treatment centre, emailed FutureLearn to ask for certificates for 40 of his clinical staff colleagues. They had all completed the course, sharing the content on his single mobile phone. The course reached almost 25,000 learners in total across all three course runs.

… and any other examples you expect to see gaining traction in the education sector over the next few years?

The Institute of Coding (IoC), a £40m project funded by the Office for Students and tasked with training the next generation of digital specialists definitely stands out.

There is a clear need for the IoC. We should remember that a big part of education’s role is to prepare students for the wider world. That world is increasingly digital, and it is only right that we invest in the next generation of digital specialists.

I think the cross-sector collaboration on this project shows that there is an acknowledgement across society that this is important. It’s not education for education’s sake, but an ambitious, timely, and wide-reaching initiative to upskill in an area where we, as a country, are lagging behind.

 Can you highlight one edtech-for-good development that particularly stands out for you?

I think one really topical example that stands out is the provision of education to refugees. At the time of writing, in fact, The Guardian has just reported research by the children’s charity Unicef, which shows that not a single region in the UK has successfully met the 20-school-day target for finding places for all the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) in their care. The report says that young people trying to get into secondary schools and further education face the longest delays, with up to a quarter waiting for more than three months for a place and some up to a year.

It’s really worrying that one of the primary reasons given for the delay is a reluctance from schools to admit refugees, for fear that the latter will lower GCSE results and affect school league tables. Edtech should not have to be the answer to this as we should never be in this position. But it does make you question what we want the purpose of education to be? Is it something that can, or should, be reduced to a league table?

Part of transforming access to education for all, is opening up as many pathways as possible. One example we’re really proud of is the work we have done as part of the PADILEIA project (The Partnerships for Digital Learning and Increased Access). As part of the project, we have hosted the courses Basic English 1: Elementary and Basic English 2: Pre-Intermediate on the FutureLearn platform, created in partnership with King’s College London, specifically for Syrian refugees, displaced people and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon.