NESTA: Moving towards evidence based businesses in Edtech

Our understanding of the vibrant London Edtech space could not be accurate without understanding the work achieved by charities or former government instances. Oliver Quinlan was kind enough to take the time to introduce us to his work within NESTA, spreading digital making across the country and researching its impact on learning. A former teacher himself, he explores the challenges of sustainably creating learning technology, bringing together practice, industry and research.

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK. Originally funded by a £250 million endowment from the UK National Lottery when it was set up in 1998, it is now kept in trust, and Nesta uses the interest from the trust to meet its charitable objects and to fund and support its projects. The digital education team there is focusing on both edtech and “tech ed” (digital making to get young people making rather than just consuming with technology).

Beyond usage: showing evidence of success

Learning technology is far from being a new concept in the UK. In the last five years, schools have spent over £1bn on digital technology but the demonstrable evidence of success in improving education outcomes remains little.

Lately, Nesta has been working with Third Space Learning (the latest impact investment from their fund) to explore the potential of remote one-to-one tuition to support primary age children at risk of underachievement in mathematics, sourcing global talent to match local demand with tutors based in India or Sri Lanka. The “Remote Tutoring” research programme spans over 600 children in 60 schools and aims at showing evidence of the impact by running a various range of trials and evaluating behaviors and results in respect of those new tools, resorting to a carefully crafted randomized controlled trial that aims at assessing results.

They also work with twelve schools to investigate the impact of an approach to Flipped Learning as well as explored the potential of real time captioning and transcripts of lessons to support teachers’ professional development.

When selecting schools for those research programmes, Oliver found out it was much easier to convince them with a value proposition being “achieving better SAT results” than for the independent research on flipped learning whose outcome was less focused on metrics.

What works, or the value and effectiveness of digital innovations in education isn’t easy to evaluate globally besides very local metrics.

The problem with the technology narrative

The market proposition is not in line with the expectations of teachers. When entrepreneurs use the word “disruption”, one would rather look for something you can build on: the technology narrative isn’t taking into account the specificities of the powerful experience of learning.

“I see technology as a mirror, something that can show us things from a different perspective. There has been much discussion in the education community in the last ten years about technology becoming transparent, a tool that enables but doesn’t get in the way of learning. This is a laudable aim, but I’m also interested in what it makes visible. When we use technology for many tasks we often have to think about the way we perform them. This starts new thoughts and new conversations about whether the current way is the best way, and how other ways might be better or worse.”

Oliver Quinlan The Thinking Teacher

Privileging evidence-based presentation of impact over demonstration of Edtech products bells and whistles

Generating superficial excitement isn’t enough: technological initiatives must show success and impact in classrooms beyond the enthusiasm from the tech-savvy academia. We need more research, impact assessment and balanced debate to achieve this aim.

The UK is in a privileged position to experiment. Is extrapolating from related research the best educational technologies developers can do for now when there are no organisations in place to assess their impact?

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