Gaining better insight into educational technology (EdTech) through a systems approach – in conversation with Akanksha Bapna

Arnaldo Pellini
Nov 5 · 5 min read

Written by Senja Väätäinen-Chimpuku

The EdTech tree

A systems approach is intuitively a necessity in many fields tackling complex challenges. For many such as myself, whose academic education has been based on traditional, reductionist approaches, systems thinking provides a new way to look at reality. I am also interested to learn how in different fields of international development researchers and practitioners put systems approaches into practice. I am speaking with Akanksha Bapna, an expert in education and especially in educational technology (EdTech). She has recently led a team publishing a position paper A Case for a Systems Approach to EdTech with the EdTech Hub.

EdTech in short is defined as “technologies — including hardware, software, and digital, television and radio content — that are either designed for or appropriated for educational purposes” and encompass the “use of information and communication technologies (ICT) at any point within the education system — in ministries, schools, communities, and homes, including between individuals and for self-learning” (⇡Hennessy et al., 2020).

I was interested to hear from Akanksha about her research perspective on systems thinking and the value add of a systems approach to the future of EdTech research.

Can you please talk more about yourself and how has life brought your focus to EdTech and particularly the systems approach in it?

My name is Akanksha Bapna and I am a scientist by training. I obtained my PhD from the University of Cambridge in Biochemistry and subsequently worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the area of structural biology for several years. My interest in education came from a volunteering experience with an organization that was fundraising in the United States for supporting education projects in South Asia. I was coordinating one of the projects and through that experience, realized that significant change could be brought about for the last mile learners through changes at the policy level. I was convinced policy was the way to make the change happen and went on to get a Masters’ degree in International Education Policy at Harvard. Since then, I have been back and forth on the idea of policy-driven impact.

Since I started working in education over a decade back, I have been conducting large-scale evaluations in low- and middle-income countries such as India, Nepal, Tanzania etc., working on two parallel strands of education — 21st Century Skills and Educational Technology (EdTech). Through these evaluations and spending time on the field, I have also realized that the problems in education are complex and no one solution can be enough. It is this idea of complexity that brings me to the systems way of thinking.

Through your experiences what would you think are the major differences and benefits systems approach can bring to EdTech compared to traditional approaches?

Systems approaches bring in an interesting way of considering problems, particularly where complex sectors such as education or EdTech are concerned. What systems thinking does, is that it compels us to examine problems holistically. Unlike traditional approaches to problem-solving, which break problems down into the smallest components and examine cause and effect in isolation, the systems approach asserts that all entities within a system are interconnected and that one cannot examine a pair of interacting entities without considering the impact of all of the other entities and their interactions simultaneously. While such an approach compels the systems thinker to hold ambiguity for extended periods (as there may or may not be clear solutions visible immediately), it also prevents us from understanding the complex world around us in an overly simplistic and naive manner.

Systems approaches can be applied to several problem types within a given field. Within EdTech for example, systems thinking could be applied to the research, management, governance, or evaluation of EdTech. But what does ‘applying a systems approach’ really mean at a practical level? In the case of EdTech research, for example, a systems approach adds a repertoire of methods for data collection and analysis to the EdTech research repository. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is one such method we have used to analyze existing EdTech frameworks as described in the EdTech Hub’s Systems Position Paper. We note some interesting findings that do not emerge using traditional methods. Employers (i.e. stakeholders involved in the school-to-work transition) for example, appear to have a significant influence on the network of EdTech stakeholders and this influence was not detectable through traditional research methods. This newfound knowledge could be leveraged within an EdTech system to institute significant change.

Why do you think a systems approach is not so widely used in the EdTech space yet?

Systems approaches have only recently become part of the education conversation and it might take some time for it to become mainstream for EdTech. There are several reasons for this. EdTech itself is a fairly recent phenomenon; systems thinking takes one away from the comfort of log frames, linear thinking and definitive answers; it forces one to think about unintended consequences and as mentioned earlier it compels one to be comfortable with holding ambiguity for an extended period. In short, it requires a significant shift in mindset to adapt to thinking in systems!

What do you think are practical steps for wider adoption of a systems approach to EdTech both in terms of research and policy decisions?

For systems approaches to be adopted widely, we first need to answer a few fundamental questions regarding EdTech and systems. What is an EdTech system in the first place? What are its boundaries? What type of system is EdTech? Given technology is integral to the system, how does it change the properties of the system? What kinds of theories should be used to analyze the EdTech system? Once we have some direction to these fundamental questions is when we can start making systems approaches more concrete in terms of what are the practices that need to be adopted or updated. We also need to simplify and clarify the language around systems thinking. The word ‘system’ is often used interchangeably with the sector in current usage. On a practical note, we are planning to apply systems approaches for our in-country research to map and understand EdTech systems within specific contexts, and how we could leverage system-level knowledge to bring about change in the EdTech sector.

Akanksha Bapna, thank you very much.

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Systems Change Finland

Cultivating a society that can deal with systemic and complex challenges

Systems Change Finland

Systems Change Finland seeks to cultivate a society that can deal with systemic and complex challenges. The purpose of Systems Change Finland is to promote the application of approaches that help people, organizations and society understand and work with systems and complexity.

Arnaldo Pellini

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Founder of • Associate @ODIdev • governance innovation • knowledge systems • problem-driven development • • own view

Systems Change Finland

Systems Change Finland seeks to cultivate a society that can deal with systemic and complex challenges. The purpose of Systems Change Finland is to promote the application of approaches that help people, organizations and society understand and work with systems and complexity.