Two technology innovations


The development of real-time captioning in lessons and trials of how to use the popular Khan Academy resource are two current focuses for charity Nesta. Oliver Quinlan and Isabel Newman explain.

It is clear from the work we have done at Nesta that technology works best when it is tested and developed with the very teachers and students for whom it is meant. The commercial world of the technology industry and the world of education don’t collaborate as much as they should, but where they do there are big opportunities to have a real impact on learning.

One project we are involved with is the development of education technology that will transform the classroom experience for many young people with learning difficulties and enable teachers to give better feedback to students.

Real-time captioning and transcription has been used for some time in education, particularly in universities, to provide access to learning for deaf students. During a school trial in Australia, Ai-Media and the University of Melbourne noticed that as well as helping with access for these students, the teachers and other students in the class were also using the transcripts to review the lessons for revision and professional reflection on practice.

The Visible Classroom project has been trialling this technology alongside education experts from the University of Melbourne, including Professor John Hattie. This Education Endowment Foundation-funded study has seen 35 teachers running real-time captions in their class, with children able to read their words as they speak and review explanations during the lessons by looking back at the transcripts.

This gives the children a “second go” at the learning, catching up on what they have missed or misunderstood. They also have the opportunity to rate the learning in each lesson through a feedback survey, giving their teacher data on how effective they think the lessons have been.

Once the lesson has finished, teachers can also access the transcript of their entire lesson and reflect on what went well and what they would change. 

Throughout the project, researchers have been analysing the transcripts and looking at the balance of teacher and pupil talk, the types of questions teachers are asking, and how often they draw links between learning and the real world in their explanations.

We await the results of the study on the impact that this process has had on learning and professional development. However, the collaborative nature of this project allowed the use of the technology to develop, with the teachers feeding back throughout. This helped to develop the practical aspects of using the technology in the classroom and how it interacted with the teaching and learning taking place. 

This vital engagement of teachers in the development of the approach has contributed to Nesta’s decision to make an investment in the company through our Impact Investments programme. We hope that this will enable more teachers and students to benefit.

In another area, we have been exploring how the Khan Academy, a resource originally developed using YouTube videos to teach maths, can be used in schools. 

Salman Khan originally recorded his instructional videos to tutor his young cousins who lived on the other side of the US. Although the videos remain central, around these have now been developed bespoke practice and assessment exercises. 

These allow students to practise and assess their skills and they adapt to their learning by recommending next steps and areas to develop further.

In our trials in schools, it is this structuring of the videos around a curriculum and adapting to the learning of pupils which teachers have often felt most valuable. 

Simply sending students off to watch videos misses the feedback and accountability that effective teachers build in to lessons even when encouraging independent learning. When such tools for practice, assessment, and feedback are built in then technology can move forward from an interesting innovation to a powerful tool that enhances the learning process.

So, what have projects like these taught us about developing effective education technology? First, those that are grown and tested in a school, by the teachers and pupils that will use it, are more likely to be effective than those developed in a lab. 

Second, given a lot of education technology is going to continue to be developed outside the classroom (not least because teachers already have a full-time job), we must involve teachers and schools in the testing, co-design, and evidence-building stages. This is not just paying lip-service, this is about taking a rigorous, evidence-led approach to design that genuinely puts users at the heart of it. 

While it is not surprising to hear of teachers being jaded by being used as guinea pigs for new technologies in schools, there is a real difference between piling endless devices, apps, and tools on to them and the prospect of genuinely putting them at the centre of a development. 

Finally, we have learned that real innovation in education technology requires significant investment in building the evidence-base before it is scaled up. While many commercial businesses take the reverse approach – grow first, measure later – investing in research with both academic and teacher input upfront gives us the opportunity to bring technology with true impact to the classroom.

Technology holds enormous potential for continuing to develop and enhance the great work that schools and teachers do. Working with teachers and learners to develop it is the way forward for realising this potential.

  • Oliver Quinlan is programme manager for digital education at Nesta and Isabel Newman is an impact investment analyst within the Nesta Impact Investments team.

Further information
Nesta is a charity that focuses on supporting innovation across many sectors, including education. For more information on its Impact Investments, visit


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