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  • 29th Apr 2019

How behavioural insights and education technology could transform schools

The government’s new EdTech strategy offers huge opportunities for behavioural insights

The Department for Education’s new new strategy on education technology, announced earlier this month, aims to build the evidence base for education technology (EdTech) and help schools take advantage of the best products and services. Nesta, an innovation foundation and owner of BIT, has also recently launched an EdTech fund in partnership with DfE that will support products that tackle some of the challenges outlined in the EdTech Strategy.

It’s a very welcome announcement – technologies have already driven impressive outcomes for learners and teachers alike, and it’s high time for extra investment. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) finds that the average digital tool improves learner outcomes by the equivalent of 4 months of extra schooling (based mostly on research from several years ago; newer tools may well outstrip those outcomes). Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) finds that teachers who use information and communications technology regularly in class work on average 4.6 hours less per week.

When Edtech works best, it enables teaching that is more responsive to learners’ needs both on and offline – helping teachers provide more effective support and feedback as well as adapting online exercises to each learner. Several studies suggest that these bespoke learning approaches are particularly useful for disadvantaged pupils. But the majority of technologies have thus far not been rigorously evaluated – which could be limiting the effectiveness of these tools.

At BIT, we are particularly passionate about Edtech because it is, in essence, all about behavioural science. Whether it’s getting teachers or learners to use new technologies or keeping them engaged while working/studying – these challenges can all benefit from a better understanding of human behaviour. And the best tools use rigorous testing and rapid test-and-learn cycles to narrow in on what works. For example, Duolingo have run tests to determine whether it is better to teach plurals before adjectives, or vice versa.

We see three key ways in which behavioural science can improve Edtech’s performance:

  1. Behavioural insights can help sustain learner/ teacher engagement with Edtech tools to improve study outcomes.

    Our EAST framework provides a guide for driving any behaviour by making it easy, attractive, social and timely. These principles have helped to double sign-up rates for online study modules and to reduce drop-out rates by 30% for first-term college students. We have also drawn on the latest educational research to design and test a series of motivational messages for lower attainers – based on concepts such as grit, growth mindset, and implementation intentions. In a large trial, these weekly text messages boosted learner outcomes by 25%. Incorporating these principles into Edtech tools could improve their success rates.

  2. BIT can layer in the latest non-cognitive interventions identified by psychologists.

    BIT has tested a host of short interventions designed to boost attainment by addressing non-cognitive barriers to learning – anxiety, low self-belief, and uncertainty about the purpose of learning, among others. These exercises can be as short as 20 minutes long, but often drive outsized outcomes. One approach, known as Values Affirmation, asks learners to reflect on their personal values (e.g., kindness, humour) and drove a 27% boost in attainment in our trial. Learner data from Edtech tools could help target these interventions based on the actual barriers students are likely to be facing – potentially increasing impact further.

  3. Edtech data can help rapidly test new behavioural concepts.

    BIT is continually seeking platforms to test promising new ideas for boosting education outcomes or adapt successful trials from other countries. Edtech tools provide an ideal test bed, as they offer instant access to a large number of learners/pupils as well as real-time data. This could enable Edtech tools to hone in quickly on the most effective behavioural principles, maximising impact.

Advising on Behavioural Insights to Boost Outcomes

This is why the Behavioural Insights Team has partnered with several Edtech providers, for example Eedi – the maths homework tool which saves teachers time by identifying misconceptions through diagnostic questions, and is used by over 12,000 schools worldwide. Our role is to provide advice on where behavioural insights could boost outcomes. With Eedi, we have offered tips on how to turn data from the tool into feedback for parents – in ways most likely to boost parental engagement with their children’s studies (based on our previous work in this space). This week we are delighted to announce a new partnership with Eedi, supported by Nesta’s Collective Intelligence grants programme. This project will investigate what effective feedback looks like and how to encourage teachers to use the feedback that we identify as being most beneficial for students.

We see great potential for further partnerships with Edtech products – particularly tools designed to boost lower attainers’ outcomes or reduce teacher workload (e.g., marking and assessment tools, especially for essays).

Beyond partnerships with Edtech providers, the Behavioural Insights Team has developed several of its own technologies – such as Promptable or Networky – both of which have applications to education. Promptable facilitates more effective parent communications, while Networky does the same for mentoring or buddy schemes.

The future of education will undoubtedly involve technology. We firmly believe that education technology tools and behavioural insights can improve outcomes for learners and teachers.

Interested in a potential partnership? Contact the team. 


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