Introducing: A political economy framework for EdTech evidence uptake

“Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all” 

– Gregory Bateson

Evidence only makes a difference if it is used. While the EdTech field suffers from significant gaps in knowledge, more research won’t mean much unless it can be used to inform policy and decision-making. And to do this, an understanding of the context and of how individuals and institutions are involved in production, demand, and use of evidence in relation to EdTech is essential. One of the famous quotes attributed to cyberneticist and system thinker Gregory Bateson is ‘without context, words and actions have no meaning at all.’ 

Why do we need to consider the political economy of EdTech evidence uptake? 

In an area such as EdTech – where an already fast-moving sector has seen accelerated changes due to the Covid-19 pandemic – producing high quality research was previously thought to be enough to inform policy.  This is also validated by decades of research and experience showing that the production and communication of quality evidence on its own rarely results in evidence-informed policy decisions. No matter how brilliant the EdTech research, unless it considers the contextual political economy factors that drive evidence uptake in each country, it may not be used or even reach the eyes and ears of decision-makers. 

What is political economy analysis? 

Political economy analysis  helps to go beneath the ‘formal structures to reveal the underlying interests, incentives and institutions that enable or frustrate change’. It is a discipline with a long tradition in the social sciences but has emerged in international development relatively recently in response to the growing recognition that technical analysis needs to be complemented by a better contextual understanding. Some of the potential benefits offered by a political economy analysis approach are: 

  • It can help identify gaps in knowledge and challenge assumptions about the context in which we operate
  • It puts local context at the center and can help identify technical solutions and policy interventions that are politically feasible 
  • Focusing on institutions, it helps determine the incentive frameworks that induce patterns of behaviour

What are the key elements of our political economy analysis framework?

The framework we have developed for EdTech evidence uptake in our recent publication uses insights from political economy to better understand the factors that are influencing whether and how evidence about EdTech is used to inform public policy decisions. The framework includes five core elements: 

We can use this framework in a number of ways such as:  

  1. To frame  and contextualise research centred on either evidence producers, intermediaries or users and the ecosystem in which they operate.
  2. As a sub-component of an ongoing policy-influencing project, which is reviewed and updated regularly to support the adaptation of the project to changes in context and circumstances.
  3. As a tool for reflection and learning, enabling stakeholders in the evidence ecosystem to ask critical questions of their own evidence production, intermediation, and evidence use in order to maximise evidence uptake in policy.

What does this framework look like in action? 

Let’s look at India and the Edtech policy response during the school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The issue. Over 320 million children have been affected by ongoing Indian school closures. Despite limited connectivity and a lack of content, state governments have demonstrated commitment, resourcefulness, and a sense of urgency in responding to the ensuing learning crisis. Policy decisions have been made with limited access to evidence given how quickly the crisis unfolded. In May 2020, the Indian central government announced the Pradhan Mantri e-Vidya Initiative for Digital Education, a website that pulls together the available online learning options. 

Structural factors. Education in India is a devolved, state-level responsibility and  decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic has consolidated the responsibility held by senior state officials such as the state principal secretary and state education minister. Although highly-educated and trained these officials only stay in post for around three years — rarely long enough to develop long-term evidence uptake strategies. 

Rules of the game. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Indian state officials often sought evidence about the extent of access to online learning (such as the numbers of computers in Indian schools) and about the suitability of online platforms (such as ePathshala for ebooks content or DIKSHA for learning content). However, the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the focus. The pandemic has exposed India’s vast ‘digital divide’ and state officials have come to demand much more evidence about those children excluded from online learning and about the high-tech or low-tech solutions that could help them to keep learning. 

Stakeholder interests and power. Education authorities at central and state level have recognised that distance learning is likely to last longer than initially planned and are thinking about the budget implications for the education sector of a protracted crisis. As the pandemic continues to unfold, they have expressed the need for access to up-to-date data and analysis about a range of impacts: 

  • the impact of distance learning on marginalised learners and learners with disabilities
  • the reach of EdTech 
  • the impact of EdTech on learning outcomes
  • the effectiveness of different Edtech solutions such as the distribution of tablets to students. 

Additionally, as Covid-19 continues, evidence is particularly sought about what works within and between Indian states (notably, evidence from overseas is less influential unless it comes from countries with a similar education system and large population such as India).

Opportunities. There are opportunities to test at state level how to integrate existing communication channels between schools and education authorities (e.g. Whatsapp) into more systematic feedback and data analysis systems to provide the ongoing, up-to-date evidence that state education authorities need. A second area of opportunity is related to the assessment and strengthening of the operational and regulatory environments needed to improve emergency data collection and analysis on EdTech during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

This Indian example shows how a deeper understanding of context and the evidence ecosystem can act as a guide for future research and experimentation with evidence uptake. We hope that this framework will serve as a useful tool both for the EdTech Hub’s work as well as partners and the wider education community. 

Read the full publication HERE 

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