Looking back at our work in Edtech

Maximising technology has been at the forefront of Nesta's work in education for more than 20 years. While persistent challenges to more equitable and effective use of technology in schools remain, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted its potential to support teachers and transform lives. If education is our most powerful force to shape the future, then technology is one of its most important tools.

Nesta’s story in EdTech

We have learnt a huge amount from our work on EdTech, in part because of the varied role Nesta has played.

We have worked directly in partnership with governments, dozens of exciting EdTech organisations and hundreds of schools to help ensure that EdTech products better meet the needs of teachers and learners. We are an investor in EdTech start-ups, both directly and through our investment in Emerge Education, championing impact investment to combine social and financial return. We have carried out and commissioned research to shape the role of technology in our school system - on subjects from the potential of artificial intelligence to the role of ‘EdTech Testbeds’ in strengthening evidence.

There are too many partners and projects to mention in one blog, but our work has centred around a small number of major themes described below - each with stories of success celebrated by the EdTech organisations and schools we’ve worked with, and lessons learnt that remain relevant as we think about the role of EdTech in delivering Nesta’s new strategy.

Designing for scale and widening access

Technology provides opportunities to reach children and support teachers at scale. Our work in the tuition space is an example of attempting to leverage this. While there is extensive evidence showing the impact of tutoring to support pupils who have fallen behind, access to tuition is mainly limited to the schools and parents that can most afford it, and it’s estimated that around 80 per cent of disadvantaged pupils don’t have access to quality tuition. To try and increase access at scale, we launched the Click Connect Learn Fund in 2016, supporting organisations to develop or expand scalable models of online volunteer-led tutoring, and supported Third Space Learning, one of the major providers of online tuition to primary age children through our impact investment arm. We used our experience to help launch the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) in 2020 to rapidly scale the amount of high-quality tuition being accessed by disadvantaged students - both face-to-face and online - in response to the widening attainment gap being created by the pandemic. One of our roles has been to help a small group of tuition partners to improve their online tuition offering, supporting them to develop a range of products and features that improve their impact, quality and accessibility. Although this strand of work has been a small part of the wider programme, the NTP as a whole has enrolled 234,000 children to date, demonstrating the potential for technology to widen access at significant scale.

Evidence and evaluation: more rigour and more responsiveness

Nesta has worked with others across the sector to champion more rigour in how EdTech is evaluated - from guides to impact measurement in investing or applying behavioural science to EdTech platforms to explorations of different models for improving evidence through ‘EdTech Testbeds’. We haven’t been alone, there is a growing coalition of organisations promoting more rigorous approaches to evidence, from EdTechImpact to the EdTech Evidence Group.

Alongside more rigour, we’ve seen the benefits of more responsiveness to evaluation and evidence. It’s too easy for research to grow lonely sitting in pdf documents on websites, but there are some great initiatives in the sector to improve the usefulness of research. For example, we have provided funding to ImpactEd to work on its evaluation platform designed to help schools carry out more robust evaluation themselves - and to make better decisions with this information. We’re pleased to have echoed the calls of organisations like EDUCATE Ventures for closer collaboration between the creators and users of technology.

Most recently, in response to COVID-19 school closures, we launched the EdTech R&D Programme in partnership with the DfE working with 65 schools and six EdTech tools to rapid-test improvements designed to help those disadvantaged children with remote learning. Working with partner schools to test and iterate improvements, grantees have developed a new set of interactive resources for A-level maths, explored the use of texts to nudge parental engagement, and much more. These improvements reflect more rigour, more collaboration and more responsiveness in how we can approach EdTech evaluation and development.

Patience and focus

EdTech is making a real difference to the lives of teachers and children now. But a common theme across the sector, helped by the emergence of more powerful technologies such as artificial intelligence, is that the full potential of EdTech is a short distance in the future.

Against this backdrop, we’re acutely aware of the luxury of patience to support organisations over many years and the ability to target funding on specific challenges. This has enabled us to form unusual and close relationships with EdTech organisations and schools, and provided the freedom to focus on issues - such as improving accessibility or evidence generation - which can be overlooked when competing with other priorities. The potential of foundations, with risk-tolerant capital and independence from government, to play an outsized role to support innovation in school systems is a theme of research carried out in collaboration with other foundations around the world.

COVID-19 and the need to stay focused on disadvantage

School closures have thrust EdTech under a spotlight and we’ve seen an acceleration in the adoption of many tools as schools switched to ‘remote learning’. While the negative impact of COVID-19 on young people will be enormous, technology has been a lifeline connecting teachers, children and friends. It’s too early to know the longer-term effects of school closures on the EdTech sector (although our research suggests signs of ‘remote learning fatigue’ affecting EdTech use already) but the last year has shown us that not all children experience EdTech equally.

Access to the hardware required to use EdTech tools is one part of this digital divide (and the government’s distribution of 1.3m devices to those in need is welcome). However, recent analysis of usage data from three EdTech platforms shows that even as children in more disadvantaged areas access devices, there is still a consistent ‘engagement gap’ between those children and those in areas of less deprivation.. This underlines that there are further barriers to fairer distribution of the benefits of EdTech. It’s likely that these are more challenging to overcome, encompassing context-specific improvements to implementation, product design and teacher support (themes we’re exploring through the EdTech R&D Programme).

Looking forward

Technology will continue to play an important role in achieving Nesta’s new mission to achieve A Fairer Start for young people and close gaps in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers. We’re so grateful to the people and organisations that have supported us on our EdTech journey so far, and who we will continue to work with to realise its potential to help address some of the barriers to a fairer education system. However, if one lesson from the pandemic stands out more than any other, it’s that not all children experience EdTech equally - and that a relentless and intentional focus on the children who need help the most is required. We’re excited to put this focus on narrowing the gap at the centre of our new strategy.