Why Nesta is investing in ed-tech for higher education

Nesta Impact Investments recently led the £7million Series A investment round to support the growth of edtech company, BibliU.  Nesta invested £1million alongside other investors, Guinness Asset Management, Oxford Sciences Innovation and several family offices managed by Stonehage Fleming

Investment in edtech across Europe has grown fast over the past five years and passed the $1bn mark last year. Nesta has been a prominent edtech investor in the venture market, building a portfolio of ten companies across the sector. We see the transformative impact that technology can bring for students, educators and education managers, in enabling more effective learning, improving access to high quality education, reducing teacher workload and providing data-driven decision making tools. 

BibliU is a great example of this. It is a digital learning platform used by universities and higher education institutions to provide students with online access to learning materials. The platform gives educators, academics and university libraries detailed information about content usage patterns and learner engagement that helps them better assess the needs of students. BibliU already has partnerships with over 2000 educational publishers worldwide and offers incredibly comprehensive content coverage. 

We were drawn to support BibliU for several reasons. At its core, BibliU is playing a leading role in the digital transformation of higher education and seeks to support inclusive access to educational content. BibliU offers all students more cost effective access to their course materials and in formats that are inclusive and accessible. There are further environmental benefits of a reduction in print textbooks. 

Closing the access gap

The cost of print textbooks has skyrocketed in recent years. Since 1977, in the UK, textbooks have increased in price at four times the rate of inflation, over 1000%.   87% of students think it is too expensive to buy new textbooks. This leaves more disadvantaged students with poor quality materials such as second hand books that are out of date, or sometimes without course materials at all. In turn, this leaves students worrying they will not achieve the grades they are capable of, simply because they lack access to learning content. In one study, 94% of students who had foregone buying textbooks because of the cost, were concerned that doing so would hurt their grades. During COVID-19, this issue is heightened as social distancing means further lack of access. Ensuring students continue to learn is crucial, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds with no alternatives. 

BibliU provides a solution to this affordability gap. UK universities who sign up to BibliU offer it at zero cost to their students providing equal access to course materials for all. But beyond affordability, the digital format also improves access for students with learning needs such as large text or audio formats. BibliU’s technology offers inclusive access in a personalised way that helps students break down content into components and allows students to be more efficient in searching for definitions, explanations, and figures. BibliU helps students accelerate their learning and enables their teachers and professors to better support them. 

Why investing now matters more than ever

Under current circumstances, the digital technology provided by BibliU also provides a much-needed lifeline for universities adapting to remote learning. There is huge variation across the university sector in terms of tech-readiness. Some universities are at the forefront in applying technology to their learning methodologies, whereas, until recently, many others are still delivering degree education in the same way they have done for decades with face-to-face lectures, classes and tutorials. BibliU is playing a key role in the current Covid-19 crisis, helping universities to shift swiftly to digital learning as students face staying at home for the summer term. Nesta’s investment is supporting BibliU to continue to offer free access to their content during the lockdown, which has seen uptake quadruple. 

Educational content is a $65bn market which dwarfs even music and movies. BibliU has ambitions to reach 60% of the higher education students in the UK and US – 13 million students. The opportunity to deliver innovation at scale is there.  

A Nesta investee, Emerge Education, introduced us to BibliU and we are delighted to build on their early investment and look to scale innovation in higher education through BibliU. It reflects our commitment to the strand of Nesta’s education strategy which seeks to promote a smarter education system to empower learners, teachers and learning institutions to make more effective use of technology and data. Our investment in BibliU sits within Nesta’s broader portfolio of edtech activity which spans schools, higher education and workplace learning and we look to share the insights and experience we draw from this. 

Nesta Impact Investments is excited to be further building on our work in the edtech sector and supporting the BibliU team to transform access to learning in higher education.

GetMyFirstJob: Navigating a tricky apprenticeship market

Just before Christmas last year we made our fourth investment in GetMyFirstJob (“GMFJ”), an innovative platform helping young people find the right apprenticeships for them. In this blog we talk about why we continue to support GMFJ and share some thoughts about the wider apprenticeships market.

“I’ve finished my apprenticeship in marketing, and have now started a Degree Apprenticeship in Management,” said Jenny.

A few months earlier, she had registered on GMFJ website and expressed an interest in marketing and business administration. She applied for a few vacancies and about a week later was called by a recruiter to let her know about a marketing apprenticeship nearby. She had a telephone interview, an interview and then got the job.

For Nesta Impact Investments, GMFJ’s impact on the speed and quality of matching apprenticeship candidates to vacancies was a key part of our decision to keep investing in the business. We believe that matching young people with apprenticeships more effectively could help to reduce the number of young people that are NEET (Not in Education or Employment).

We first invested in the business in 2014 and have seen the company transformed in the intervening period.

More and more young people are signing up with GMFJ; the company will shortly process its millionth application, a staggering achievement for a business that is less than six years old. GMFJ is also working with increasing numbers of employers and training providers to help them find apprentices in a time frame that works for them.

Our latest investment will enable the company to continue its growth into 2018 and hopefully beyond.

Sharp fall in apprenticeship starts

While GMFJ has had a relatively successful past 12 months, it has been a different situation in the wider apprenticeship market. In April 2017, the government introduced the apprenticeship levy, intended to incentivise companies to take on apprentices.

The result has been quite the opposite; apprenticeship starts are down over 40% in the six months since the levy was introduced. Some aspects of its introduction have been referred to an “omnishambles” – incidentally the 2012 word of the year, which will be familiar to fans of The Thick of It.      

Industry figures are concerned and have called for the government to review the legislation, not least the fact that some firms were, until recently, using the pot to send senior executives on MBAs. The government is calling for patience, believing that employers are taking time to understand the scheme before effectively deploying their pot. If apprenticeship starts don’t improve in the next quarter or two, they will find that all patience has run out.

Against this background, completing this investment round is a key success for David Allison, CEO and co-founder. “Apprenticeships are an ideal way for many young people to make the transition from school or college to their first job,” he said, “but it is vital that we have a placement system that’s quick and easy to use.”

“This funding allows us to invest in our team and position the business for continued growth.”

So, we’re delighted to continue supporting GMFJ, and believe that the successes to date, coupled with our investment in the company, will prove a winning formula.

For more information on GetMyFirstJob please visit www.getmyfirstjob.co.uk.

What is the evidence for Ed Tech?

We spent last week at the biggest education trade show in the world, BETT. In this final blog in our BETT series we ask what evidence we should be expecting of ed tech companies.

Every year at BETT I play a little game: I go up to stalls at random and ask how they know whether their product actually makes a difference to what or how well children learn. In the past I have been met with blank stares or told that ‘children just love our product’. This year was different. I was impressed by how many companies could talk about how existing research had informed the design of their product and how they had been taking baseline measures and looking for changes after children had used their product. Some even talked about plans for more rigorous research. Helped by initiatives like EDUCATEand a more savvy, cash-strapped customer, evidence in ed tech is getting some traction. It may not be quite mainstream yet, other visitors to BETT were not impressed by the evidence on offer, but from what I saw things are definitely changing (or maybe I have just learned to avoid the robots).

For an evidence geek like me, this is great news. Simply recognising that evidence should be part of the design and decision-making process is a great step forward. But behind the scenes, debate rages on the quality of the evidence being produced and used by ed tech companies. The Education Endowment Foundation has set a high standard for rigorous, independent research into ‘what works’ in education. Next to this benchmark much of the effectiveness research used by ed tech companies is methodologically flawed and biased.

The debate around evidence in education technology ping pongs between two uncomfortable truths:

  1. Improving learning is hard and it is difficult to be sure that an approach ‘works’ without very rigorous research.

  2. It is just practically impossible to expect the thousands of ed tech products out there to conduct rigorous impact evaluations of academic quality.

So if we want to make good, evidence-based decisions towards including technology in the process of teaching and learning, how do we move forward? What should be reasonably expected of an ed tech business that takes evidence seriously? How can we support this increased enthusiasm for evidence and raise expectations without asking businesses to do the impossible?

Different types of evidence answer different questions

The first step is being clear on what different types of evidence tell us and what they don’t.

Rigorous experimental quantitative research, such as randomised controlled trials, are powerful tools that can indicate whether a particular approach has ‘worked’. If well-designed and accompanied by high quality qualitative research, trials like this can also reveal why an approach has worked or not, who it works for and how it works. For example, a trial of the Parent Engagement Project that uses text messages get parents more involved in their children’s schooling, not only demonstrated positive results but also helped to understand where, why and how this sort of intervention is most useful.

By undertaking several experiments over time an evidence base builds up that, at its best, can reveal ‘design principles’ (or core components). For example analysis of the literature on computer-assisted learning shows that it is most effective when used as an in-class tool or as mandatory homework support. These design principles can help both developers and purchasers of ed tech pursue strategies that are more likely to have an impact

This is an approach that is in contrast to a more common model whereby an specific intervention from a specific organisation is tested and, if a positive effect is found, it is kite-marked as ‘effective’ and the organisation is encouraged to scale up. There are a few reasons why for ed tech in particular this approach alone will not solve our evidence problem:

  • Most ed tech innovators are businesses and businesses have a tendency to go bust. We should not put our hopes of spreading effective practice on businesses managing to navigate schools’ sales cycles.

  • Ed tech is constantly evolving: as individual products are constantly being upgraded or implemented on different populations, previous experimental results lose their validity. Broader design principles are likely to have better longevity.

  • There is so much ed tech: There are 600 exhibitors at BETT this year, in its 5 year history the Education Endowment Foundation has undertaken rigorous trials of 85 interventions. It is just not practical to expect that more than a few per cent of ed tech companies will be able to test their approaches in the most rigorous way. This problem is not unique to ed tech, for example there are over 1,000 parenting programmes most of which will never be tested, but an important obstacle nonetheless.

  • Individual experiments are vulnerable to ‘false positives’, where an effect is found due to statistical noise rather than genuine impact on individuals. This is particularly the case for analysis of large data sets, typical of those produced by new technologies. Only repetition of trials in varied contexts can give us reassurance of genuine effects.

Design principles can come not just from experimental research but also from the vast pedagogical literature that tells us how children learn. The EDUCATE programme , led by UCL’s Institute of Education in partnership with Nesta,BESA and F6S  is helping cohorts of ed tech startups to use the existing evidence as they test and adapt their products, as well helping them to collect new evidence.

Rapid cycle testing and other lighter touch evaluation approaches are probably the most common and immediately practical form of evidence used during product development by ed tech companies. New ideas are tested on small samples in short time frames to inform the next stage of design. The results from these tests do not tell us that impact has occurred, but that is not their purpose. Their purpose is to improve each small step of a design process. If these tests are done thoughtfully, involving educators, then they increase the chance that the final design will indeed have impact.

I come last to the probably the most common form of evidence (and probably considered the least rigorous) in ed tech: teacher feedback. As with rapid cycle testing, teacher feedback cannot be considered evidence of impact and should not be used as if it is but it does have two very important uses. The first is to help companies improve their products based on feedback, the other is to help teachers navigate the incredibly confusing array of products on offer. Ed tech, more than most education projects, risks not working because it simply isn’t used or is not used well. Kit stays wrapped in original boxes in cupboards or used only once, teachers don’t receive adequate training, no one knows what to do when the kit goes wrong. Teacher feedback allows us to determine whether that first step towards impact can be taken, have others in your situation found a way to integrate a particular technology into their teaching in a way that works for them? A ‘yes’ does not guarantee impact but a ‘no’ pretty much rules it out.

What should we expect of an ed tech company?

So to return to the question I asked at the beginning of the blog, what should we be expecting from ed tech companies who claim to be serious about evidence? We propose five expectations:

  1. Companies should have a clear theory of change that shows an understanding of where their product sits in the complex education ecosystem of schools, students, teachers and parents. Companies should understand what assumptions they are making about how their product creates impact.

  2. Companies should be using all of the available evidence, both from impact evaluations and pedagogical research to design their products and track the quality of what they do.

  3. Where the evidence is weak and there is not yet consensus on which ‘design principles’ lead to impact, companies should be aiming to build more evidence. However where the benefit of this research is broader than an individual company, public or philanthropic money should go towards funding these research efforts so that the research produced is high quality and independent.

  4. Companies should be responsive to reviews and rapid cycle tests, involving educators and students in the design process.

  5. Companies should not overclaim. Teacher reviews and rapid cycle testing are good practice and maximise potential for impact but they are not evidence of impact in and of themselves. However these evaluations can be used as an indicator of where impact is more likely and can help justify further investment in more rigorous research.

From our experience there are many many ed tech companies that aspire to or meet these expectations. They engage enthusiastically with programmes like EDUCATE and submit applications to the Education Endowment Foundation. But more support is needed. Research needs to be made digestible and accessible to companies, just as the Education Endowment Foundation and EDUCATE make research accessible to teachers. A clear research agenda that shows where the consensus is and where the biggest gaps are in the evidence is needed. The Education Endowment Foundation plans to update its review of the literature in ed tech this year, so this is a promising starting point.

The evidence agenda has finally reached ed tech. This is critical time when attitudes and expectations can be shaped. Please get in touch with your ideas and suggestions for supporting an ed tech sector that delivers real impact for students based on evidence.

This blog orginially appeared on the Nesta website here: https://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/what-evidence-ed-tech

Investing in Education: Four key things we'll be looking for at Bett

In preparation for the annual education tradeshow Bett 2018, we’re sharing a short series of education blogs. In this blog, we take a look at how an impact investor spots new investment opportunities.

Another year, another January spent limbering up for the four-day marathon that is Bett. All my standard prep is in place: comfy shoes are at the ready, step-counter is packed, and plans to meet people at opposite ends of the arena are laid. But years of practice has taught me the most important thing of all is to get clear on what I am looking for. The event can be so overwhelming, such a sensory overload, that it’s easy to lose sight of your well-considered criteria within minutes of picking up your programme and having someone pitch how the latest drone powered by artificial intelligence will propel schools into the 24th century.

As an impact investor looking to grow our portfolio in the education space, my primary reason for going to Bett is to meet companies that we might one day invest in. We typically invest in early-stage technology businesses (you can see our portfolio here), so I’ll take a shortcut to the Bett Futures area, which is all about edtech startups (including Nesta’s very own Rocket Fund, which helps schools access technology by connecting them with their community). Of course, networking, finding out who’s launching what, and checking out who has the biggest stand are important pursuits too, but ultimately looking for new, potential investee companies is the aim of the game for me.

So to help me stay focused and make it more likely that I will spot some great opportunities, I’ve made a list of the top things I’ll be looking for:

1. Making the world a better place – every company is trying to solve a problem, but not all problems are created equal and we’re looking to find startups that are tackling problems that link to some of the biggest challenges society is facing: school readiness in the early years; numeracy and literacy attainment; the school to work transition; preparedness for future skills; and the upskilling and re-skilling of adult learners. Our focus on these areas generally means we’re more likely to invest in businesses with B2B models rather than B2C, as they are more likely to be able to reach all end users and for those users not to be limited by affordability. Ultimately, we see long-term value creation as being linked to meeting the greatest needs.

2. Getting paid for doing good – whilst there are some real success stories of businesses adopting the ‘Robin Hood’ model of ‘doing well’ with one hand and ‘doing good’ with the other, I’ll be looking for businesses whose sales are directly linked to the product doing a good job. This isn’t just about ‘increased sales equalling increased impact’, as it’s more complicated than that, but alignment between the two certainly helps keep impact at the front and centre and reduces the risk of a trade-off between the two. You can read more about our approach maximising social impact through our investments here.

3. Dreaming big – going global means having the potential to scale across countries, education systems, curriculums, and so on. This, along with a host of other reasons, means our default preference is for platform-based businesses rather than content ones, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for them. And as for which sectors, having seen a lot of startups emerge in the school/K-12 sector of late, I’ll be interested in seeing what’s new in the further education, higher education and adult learning spaces.

4. Putting teachers before technology – the best edtech companies we’ve come across have a genuine understanding of how teachers, schools and other education settings engage with technology. Not just an anecdote here and ‘friend who is a teacher’ there, but a deep and extensive knowledge based on real-life experience that captures the heterogeneity of how technology is used both inside and out of the classroom. Having this enables companies to design the best products that meet the needs of their customers and users and bridges what can sometimes feel like a big gap between the technology and education communities.

With this in mind, I’m ready and raring to go and looking forward to meeting lots of you at Bett 2018.  


This blog originally appeared on the Nesta site: https://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/investing-education-four-key-things-well-be-looking-bett

Too young to choose? – a parent's educational dilemma

My daughter recently got her GCSE results and has started her A level studies at 6th Form.  However, she has a problem.  In some ways it is a good problem to have, but in others it is worrying for me as a parent, an employer and someone with an interest in building a healthy society.  

Her problem is this.  She now has to choose to focus her attention, specialise and study just three subjects for the remainder of her school level education.  She actually liked studying all of her GCSE subjects and got good enough grades to continue to study any of them further.  She has wide ranging interests and doesn’t yet know what she wants to study or ultimately do for work after she completes her education.  Chances are she will be working in a rapidly changing world for at least 50 years so in reality the requirements of her employers and the nature of her work is likely to change massively during her lifetime so I’m not sure that it is even possible to have enough foresight to know this anyway.  

So I have a burning question at the moment: Why do we require such tunnelled approach to education so early in life?

My suspicion is that it is down to the sometimes archaic approach we have to thinking about higher education.  My personal view is that this manifests, often unhelpfully, in a couple of ways as follows:

  1. A university degree is still held up by most as the “best” sign of a successfully educated young (and maybe not so young) person, despite the fact that many university curricula are not designed around either personal, societal or employment requirements.  
  2. A disproportionate emphasis is placed on quality and volume of research papers produced by post graduate teams when ranking higher education institutions, when often that ranking is used by the public to imply a much broader understanding of “quality”.
  3. Funding mechanisms for universities, both direct and indirect are significantly influenced by these research based rankings.  

In turn this background drive behaviours and actions in universities, schools and homes that have led to the situation where a 16 year old finds it very hard to get a rounded and multifaceted education that is considered to be of high quality:

  1. Universities are understandably often highly influenced by research agendas
  2. Delivery of high quality research papers requires a cohort of deeply technically focussed and single minded post graduate students and staff
  3. Selecting a broad pool of similarly focussed and single minded undergraduates improves the chances of having a deep pool to select from when picking post-graduate candidates.
  4. Objective university entrance criteria are framed in achievement of three “A” Level results and subjective assessment criteria of non-academic activity and potential are being dropped in the pursuit of academic specialism.
  5. Schools that operate in the socio-demograpic circles that aspire to high education attainment are highly motivated to help children get places at their first choice university and therefore focus almost entirely on getting the best possible results in the three “A” levels that are the basis of entrance assessment.
  6. Schools increasingly encourage “non-academic” interests to be highly vocationally focussed to ensure that to the extent that subjective assessments on candidates are made by universities, students demonstrate unwavering commitment to their stated field of interest.

The result of this is that my 16 year old daughter is now forced to not only select a very narrow curriculum but is encouraged to use her free time to reinforce this specialism rather than to maintain a broad set of interests.  As a parent I don’t think that this is the best thing for her and kids like her, for the places she may work and the people she may work for and with, and ultimately for our broader society and economy.  Is it right that our approach to education has changed little since Victorian times when the needs of society and government were very different?  

Here at Nesta we are working with a wide range of organisations in the field of education, including funders, publishers, service providers, schools and companies developing innovative technologies that we hope will provide the tools and environments to explore and support the development of education tools that equip young, and not so young people to learn relevant life and employment skills throughout their lives and it is exciting that there are a growing number of schools, higher education institutions and employers that are beginning to challenge much of the legacy thinking in the sector.  You can read about some of our work on the main Nesta Website and check out our investment portfolio here on the Nesta Investments site.  

Announcing our latest ed-tech investment

We are delighted to announce our latest investment into Third Space Learning, which uses technology to connect academic talent from around the world to children at risk of failure in primary schools across England.  Alongside Ananda – Social Venture Fund and a group of angel investors, we’ve supported them with £500,000 in a round totalling £1.5m.


What’s the problem?

The benefits of high numeracy are widely documented – it is linked to being employed, earning higher wages, and having good health.  In the UK, 4 in 5 adults have a low level of numeracy.  There are a range of aspects to this issue and many of the approaches to improving numeracy require systems and wider attitude change.  However, one solution lies in greater targeted support to children who are falling behind in school, including one-to-one tuition.  Whilst there is promising evidence of the effectiveness of this approach, it tends to be expensive and hard to come by (in part due to the shortage of specialist maths teachers) and therefore not accessible to all young people that need it.


What does Third Space Learning do to help?

Third Space Learning increases access to one-to-one maths tuition by sourcing talented specialists from across the globe, and using technology to connect them to children at risk of failure in primary schools across the UK.  By delivering a quality, affordable service, direct in to schools, Third Space Learning has the potential to reach thousands of young people that may not otherwise have access to one-to-one tuition.


What impact does Third Space Learning have?

Third Space Learning has the potential to improve student confidence and attainment in maths.  In the longer term, we hope this will improve the life chances of young people through improving their educational attainment.  We also believe TSL has the potential to improve cultural and attitudinal problems associated to maths i.e. transitioning pupils from thinking “I can’t do maths” to “Actually, I’m alright at maths, and that’s not such a bad thing”.


What will our investment be used for?

Our investment will be used to grow the customer, academic and technology resources, to enable the company to scale up its reach and impact in the UK.


What attracted us to this opportunity?

There are three standout things that attracted us to investing in Third Space Learning:

  1. It tackles a significant social problem with a solution that is scalable and has very promising potential to create sustained social impact.
  2. It is led by a very impressive entrepreneur who is supported by a talented, ambitious team.
  3. The opportunity to co-invest alongside Social Venture Fund to form a syndicate that we believe has what it takes to support the business over the coming years.


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Guest blog: Fixing the apprenticeship market – supply or demand?

hatIn January we announced our investment into GetMyFirstJob, an online platform that proactively matches training providers and employers with apprenticeship candidates. As we enter National Apprenticeship Week, GetMyFirstJob co-founder David Allison looks at the state of the apprenticeship market and how it can be improved.


One look at the media and you will see that Apprenticeships are on the agenda. Each political party has their own spin on what is important, but they are all focusing on the overall growth of Apprenticeships to support the UK economy. This is not new; the Coalition set themselves the target of 2 million apprentices early on in the administration and there was much fanfare when this number was achieved.

Crunching the numbers

Apprentice Engineer Using Milling Machine

The Government’s Statistical First Release that was updated last week provides an interesting picture. Despite growth in 2009/2010, the last three years have shown little, if any growth. In fact there was a slight drop in overall apprenticeship participation in the last academic year. Given that apprenticeships typically last for more than 12 months, the number of ‘starts’ gives us an insight into future participation levels. Here, we see a drop of 13.7 percent from the 2012/13 academic year.

The major reason for this change was a cut to apprenticeship funding for those over 25 years of age. This cut is entirely a supply side factor, not touching employer demand. So why were the number of ‘starts’ not higher? The reality is that the sector as a whole is dominated by supply side factors – hence many of the recent high profile pilot programmes to ensure ’employer ownership’ of the apprenticeship model.

There is an undoubted requirement for apprenticeships – something that companies and government agree on. Individuals that undertake an apprenticeship also benefit; I read with interest this week a report that 27% of graduate employees were paid a gross hourly wage that was lower than the average £11.10 earned by non-graduates with an apprenticeship under their belt. And the apprentices had no student debt.

Where does the problem lie?

So with this backdrop, why are apprenticeship numbers not growing as rapidly as government, providers and business would all like? There are many reasons, but the area we focus on is recruitment.

Successful private providers and colleges have to focus on the requirements of the funder and the regulator – the Skills Funding Agency and Ofsted. If a college or private provider breaches their requirements, the consequences are very public and potentially very damaging. As a result, the needs of the employer can get lost amongst the complexities of the funding claim and the Ofsted inspection framework. The first place this becomes clear is the apprenticeship recruitment process. If a small business decides to take on a new member of staff through a high street recruitment agency, they can expect CVs within hours. For a variety of reasons, historical practice within the Apprenticeship sector is that this process can take weeks.

Application for employmentHow can we help?

GetMyFirstJob allows training providers and colleges to tackle this head on by adopting an approach similar to that used by commercial recruitment agencies. This allows apprenticeship providers to deliver higher levels of service to the employers that are their customers. As an example, last month one provider that is a longstanding customer of GetMyFirstJob started 100 young people on Apprenticeships. They did this by proactively searching for the right candidate rather than waiting for them to apply. As a result, 87% of them were sourced directly from the GetMyFirstJob candidate base, 9.5% from the government Apprenticeship jobs board and the balance from other promotional activity.

Our mission is more than to provide a website for candidates, colleges and training providers; it is to help provide the tools required to change the approach of apprenticeship providers across the country; to provide them with a system that allows them to act on the fact that the employer should be the focus of the Apprenticeship system. The SFA and Ofsted are important, but it is, after all, companies large and small that generate the jobs and the tax receipts that fund the system in the first place.

By David Allison – Co-founder of GetMyFirstJob

3 ways to fix the drop-out problem in education

hatThe Local Government Association published research on achievement and retention in post-16 education yesterday. It’s not good news, and reinforces the importance of the innovative work of our portfolio companies in the area of education and employability for young people.

The report, written by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, finds that 180,000 16 to 18 year-olds dropped out of AS, A Level or apprenticeship commitments in 2012/13. More specific to our current interest in apprenticeships, the research also found that a staggering 25 per cent of apprenticeships were not completed. Altogether, the CEEI estimate that more than £800m of Government money is wasted due to shortfalls in achievement and retention.

These numbers are worrying but avoidable. The investments we have made in this area highlight a number of improvements that would all have an impact on the achievement and retention of 16 to 18 year-olds in education.

Here are three recommendations that stand out for us:

  • Better matching – As the report suggests, there is currently too much of a focus on getting bums on seats. Whilst numbers are of course important, there’s no point if the positions are unsuitable to the young people that fill them. We need less of a focus on numbers and more of a focus on better matching. If the skills, interests and experiences of young people are properly accounted for in the process of matching them to courses or training places, retention rates will rise, as will achievement and overall employability. Last week we announced our latest investment into GetMyFirstJob, an organisation which is tackling this issue head-on. GMFJ has created an online platform that helps match young people to apprenticeships moreApprentice Engineer Using Milling Machine efficiently and effectively. By providing personal guidance right from the start and allowing employers to contact the users directly, GMFJ makes it more likely that young people will find an opportunity that suits them.
  • Personalisation of learning – Research is beginning to show that a higher level of personalisation in learning leads to an improved rate of retention and attainment. There is huge potential for personalisation to be increased through the use of adaptive technology, but it is currently an under-tapped resource. Last year we invested in CogBooks, whose software is introducing adaptive learning platforms to institutions. The CogBooks platform allows students to supplement traditional teaching with real-time feedback from online tutors, improving achievement and decreasing drop-out rates
  • Bring back coursework – Coursework enables students to demonstrate their capabilities to think and complete an extended task. It helps students develop the sorts of skills that employers highly value like team work, constant improvement and persistence. One of the criticisms of coursework is that it has involved unreliable assessment methods. However, this is a problem with marking not with coursework. DigitalAssess – one of our portfolio companies – offers a suite of tools that help students capture their work digitally, enables teachers to feedback in writing, in sounds, and in video, and enables highly accurate and reliable assessment of coursework using a novel approach called Adaptive Comparative Judgement.

These are just a few examples of what can be done to tackle problems in retention and achievement for young people in education. In today’s digital age, there are huge opportunities to supplement traditional educational techniques to increase interaction and personalisation of education and, ultimately, retention and employability of young people.

By Joe Ludlow and Daniel Kraemer – Nesta Impact Investments


Announcing our investment into GetMyFirstJob

We are excited to announce our investment into GetMyFirstJob, the eighth beneficiary of our impact fund. GMFJ is a platform that helps improve the experience of young people entering apprenticeships. We’ve supported them with an investment of £500,000 to help it become a one-stop-shop for young people, training providers, colleges and employers.

Here’s why we decided to back this company……

iStock_000009115575MediumWhat’s the problem?

Youth unemployment is stubbornly high and the number of jobless 16 to 24-year-olds has recently risen by 30,000 to 764,000. So, it’s vital that apprenticeships fulfil their potential of delivering key skills and life-changing experiences to young people making the transition from school into employment.

However, the way young people currently search for – and are matched to – apprenticeship vacancies is hard to navigate and inefficient. This means that young people often miss out on the right role even though there are lots of opportunities out there, and employers can’t find suitable applicants. The need for an improvement in recruiting young people was highlighted by recent figures from the Department of Business, which revealed that the number of people starting Government backed apprenticeships had fallen by almost 70,000 last year.

What does GetMyFirstJob do to help?

Founded by three training and learning experts who identified the potential for the recruitment process to be improved, GMFJ is a unique web based platform that allows young people to be quickly and efficiently matched to apprenticeship vacancies by approved training providers.

This is achieved through an innovative approach to candidate search that is tailored exactly to meet the demands of the apprenticeship market.

Over 160,000 young people are already registered and GMJF hope to help place 10,000 young people into apprenticeships this year.

Young people who sign up receive pro-active support right from the start, with training providers able to contact them about vacancies and users able to search for suitable openings near to them.

What impact does GetMyFirstJob have?Application for employment

GMFJ has the potential to increase the number of young people entering apprenticeships that they are well suited to, in a quick and efficient manner.  As a result, this will help improve their skills, employability and long terms career prospects, and stop them becoming unemployed when they leave school.  These outcomes match the aims of our social investment fund: to improve young people’s employment readiness and rates of employment.

We hope that growing the GMFJ platform will also have a wider impact.  For example, if training providers are able to fill vacancies more efficiently, then this could encourage employers to create more apprenticeships for young people – growing the pool of opportunities available. 

What will our investment be used for?

Prior to our investment, GMFJ had developed and tested its product, secured contracts with providers, and attracted 160,000 young people to register on its site.  Our support will be invested into sales, marketing and other resources to help GMFJ scale-up its reach and impact, right across the country. 

What attracted us to this investment opportunity? 

Despite being one of the earlier-stage companies in our portfolio, GMFJ impressed us from the start. Firstly, the team – David Allison, Ian Hunt and John Parkes – have a deep understanding of the apprenticeship and training market. For us, this was vital as the sector is complex and fragmented. There are currently over 3,000 training providers with apprenticeship funding, so to be able to grow and succeed in this area requires a deep knowledge.

Secondly, we like the scalability of the product from both the commercial and social impact perspectives. Rather than investing in an individual training provider or college, investing in GMFJ gives us the opportunity to support training providers and colleges right across the country – increasing both the size of the addressable market and the number of young people that we have the potential to reach. 

Finally, at NII, we look for ventures that can measure and evidence their impact. We have developed an approach with GMFJ that, over time, will enable us to measure the extent to which it has improved the fill rates of vacancies and the longer-term impact it has had on young people’s lives.


By Isabel Newman – Nesta Impact Investments

Education needs to adapt – this time it’s personal


As technology continues to influence the pace of change across nearly all sectors and avenues of life it brings with it the challenge of how to stay productive. How can you ensure your learning and training keeps up with this level of change? Fortunately, we now know much more about the learning process and how best to support people to acquire knowledge and skills.

In recent years it’s become clear that optimising learning to meet individual personal needs, and freeing educators from the constraints they face, is vital.

At CogBooks, we work with education partners in both the US and UK to deliver adaptive learning that allows students to work at their own pace and to the depth they need. By gathering valuable feedback and insights on how learners engage with activities and content, we can ensure they receive timely and targeted support. This keeps them confident and motivated, which in turn reduces dropout rates and maximises achievement. Analytics on how a student has behaved or reacted can also help pinpoint ways teachers can improve their courses for future students.

The move to an evidence-based model, designed to deliver a personalised learning experience at scale, will transform how we educate and train. Yet, unlocking this transformation will require a deeper embrace of technology to fundamentally re-shape our education practices.

This is not wishful thinking. We are already seeing this rapid and disruptive innovation cycle in other sectors (for example retailing, health, entertainment, technology to name a few) and it is now coming to education.

And this goes beyond the current generation of MOOC online course, most of which have garnered a lot of attention in reaching large audiences, but are just at the very beginning of identifying how to successfully sustain engagement and deliver a genuinely personalised learning experience. We need an inclusive approach that uses technology to catalyse the efforts of both faculty and learners together to bring about a real step change in outcomes.

We are already seeing movement towards this deeper goal. In the US, CogBooks is working in collaboration with Arizona State University and NBC Learn, funded by the Gates Foundation, as part of a $20 million initiative to develop Next Generation Courseware. Based on mastery learning principles and learning science the aim is to improve the postsecondary success of more than 1 million low-income students by 2018.

In the UK, the publication earlier this year of the Further Education Technology Action Group (FELTAG) report called for the inclusion of a 10% online component in every publicly-funded learning programme from 2015/16, with incentives to increase this to 50% by 2017/2018. This is an opportunity to apply technology that supports better learning outcomes first, moving beyond the simple replacement of existing offline learning activities.

Elsewhere we are already seeing the adoption of adaptive learning methods gathering pace. Educational publishers are revisiting their textbooks and associated learning products to move from a largely static, linear experience, to create stimulating adaptive versions that respond to students specific needs. For example, the awarding body and examination board, OCR, has taken the full curriculum of GCSE Computer Science and created an adaptive learning course. This enables students to work through course materials at their own pace and receive automated support when they need extra help. At the same time, teachers can track the exact progress and capabilities of each student and target the most appropriate support for their class.

Elsewhere, universities are redesigning their own course content to offer a more blended and flexible experience for students on their degree programmes. This is a real opportunity to offer new non-campus based learners access to alternative qualifications from a quality higher education institution. This can help bridge the gap in expectations between employers and education providers regarding graduate readiness for the NII_overlaysworkplace. Increasingly we are seeing a demand for education that focuses on skills that can be applied more readily and directly when moving into employment.

Looking forward, this is an exciting opportunity for educators at all levels to design new and innovative learning experiences that can meet the accelerating demands of the world around us.

By Lars Hyland – Director EMEA, CogBooks