5 principles to create effective Communities of Practice across governments


In 2021, EdTech Hub partnered with the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government to deliver an executive education programme focused on digital transformation and educational technologies (EdTech). This programme — which convened nearly 30 policymakers from 13 countries — was a miniature community of practice (COP) focused on EdTech reform. In this blog, we introduce key principles to implement international, cross-government COPs to support the design of effective EdTech reforms and programmes. 

With millions of schools closed at the height of the pandemic, governments globally worked fervently to develop and implement solutions to support distance learning. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the many and varied factors that impact EdTech programmes — both positively and negatively. 

In the face of these challenges, EdTech Hub worked closely with governments around the world to support them to provide learning continuity to all students, particularly the most marginalised. For example, EdTech Hub provided insights into how to design effective Covid-19 response plans and design virtual learning environments while building more resilient education systems. Working directly with government programmes, we have analysed the effectiveness of government learning management systems, helped develop a theory of change for technology-enhanced learning, co-designed frameworks to monitor and evaluate distance education and guided thinking about school reopening

However, while we agree that EdTech has the potential to increase learning amongst the most marginalised, EdTech Hub’s experience over the last two years has revealed that many EdTech projects are not well planned and executed, not appropriately resourced (both in financial and human terms), and lack supportive governance. In these circumstances, EdTech runs the risk of exacerbating socio-economic divides, and gender disparity, which further erodes trust in government. 

In an attempt to support senior leaders to avoid these mistakes, last year, during 2021, EdTech Hub and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford delivered an executive education programme aimed at equipping leaders with the skills to lead digital transformation. The programme was specifically aimed at senior policymakers working in 13 low-and middle-income countries (LMICs). There were three unique elements of the programme:

  • Participants from a range of departments across government: While traditionally education training draws participants from ministries of education, the actual delivery of an effective service demands skills from officials across a range of ministries including finance, IT and communications. 
  • Learning from all: The programme leaders invested in understanding and identifying common knowledge and specific expertise among participants and invested in active facilitation that drew on this technical knowledge as named contributors during the teaching sessions. 
  • Safe spaces: The programme fostered an environment where participants felt comfortable sharing their perspectives frankly and openly. This was created by experienced teaching faculty who were supported with strong IT for collaborative learning through breakout groups. Faculty ensured all sessions fostered trust and reflection by sharing concrete examples from each of the countries attending. 

Participant reactions illustrated the global demand for academic spaces where mutual learning and joint exploration of ideas could be achieved. One participant reported that, “this was the most valuable training experience of my career”, attributing this to learning directly from senior officials from a range of countries with related challenges. Some of the participants also mentioned that these collaborations and discussions allowed them to consider practices that led to negative impacts in other countries, such as omitting risks related to cybersecurity.

The mutual respect and camaraderie that developed, despite no in-person contact, resulted in participants continuing to connect after the end of the programme. A community of practice (COP) had emerged. 

This concept of COPs first proposed by Etienne Wenger in 1991 is defined as platforms where members access, share, and implement practices and evidence generated in other parts of their own government and/or the rest of the world. COPs are an innovative approach to improving the design of EdTech reforms and programmes by strengthening knowledge-sharing approaches within governments and beyond. These can occur in a variety of formal and informal settings, and they can be time-bound or ongoing. Currently, much of the COP-related literature focuses on their potential to improve knowledge management within the private sector, with limited understanding of how to optimise knowledge-sharing modalities within and between governments. Building on our experience, below we present five principles to create effective CoPs across governments — all of which complement the current body of COP-related knowledge (see this R4D report from Polk and Knox) — which we believe can help in the creation of high-quality  COPs. 

  1.  Identify challenges and design communities around members’ authentic needs

In advance of the executive education programme, the team interviewed participants and asked them to identify the key challenges they faced in their roles and general thematic areas they wished to understand more deeply. These insights were in turn used to shape the programme. Examples included challenges related to designing EdTech programmes that reach and impact marginalised learners and approaches that efficiently support teachers to use digital technologies in classrooms. Throughout the programme’s delivery, the team made iterative adjustments to address topics/themes as they emerged. The process of explicitly capturing the participants’ needs ensured the content of the programme was focused on their most pressing needs. Likewise, defining COPs’ agendas by analysing members’ needs and using problems emerging from practice is a key part of designing an effective community. This will ensure that COPs can be harnessed to identify, share insights on, and address the most pressing needs that tend to be faced by policymakers implementing EdTech initiatives globally. 

  1. Facilitate collaborative problem-solving

When it came to shaping countries’ EdTech governance policies, many attendees, regardless of the country they represented, were tackling very similar problems. As an example, many of the participants needed to better understand the advantages and disadvantages of different EdTech procurement processes, and factors that have contributed to positive educational outcomes. Tackling common challenges collectively is important;  it could facilitate collaboration among countries, leading to refined strategies and an improved understanding of the complexities of EdTech. Collective problem-solving can be used to build on best practices to design stronger regulatory frameworks, EdTech reforms and mitigation strategies that could ultimately lead to improved educational outcomes. 

  1. Ensure privacy, confidentiality, and trust

Creating environments that maintain privacy and confidentiality is key to supporting fruitful discussions. Implementing this principle into practice may necessitate community convenors to define, acknowledge, and/or validate participation criteria, or co-creating norms with participants. These guidelines can cover topics such as who is allowed to observe sessions and who is not, whether sessions are recorded, whether they take place under certain rules, etc. These types of guidelines could be used to improve transparency among participants, and to create circles of trust that allow for members to discuss issues openly and honestly without fear of information being shared elsewhere. 

  1.  Harness collaborations with scholars, practitioners, and EdTech vendors 

Engaging scholars and practitioners to participate in COPs can help enhance the community’s technical depth, leading to more robust outcomes. Collaboration with scholars and practitioners can enable governments to leverage their knowledge to directly inform, evaluate, and improve EdTech reforms. For example, this programme brought in Stefan Dercon, a Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School, who is an expert in the political economy of development, with practical experiences in supporting countries to foster digital technologies for inclusive growth. These collaborations could also be used to enable policymakers to leverage scholars’ credentials to help build momentum and authority to implement innovative approaches to solve EdTech challenges. Facilitating these collaborations could also lead to another result, which is related to the design and evaluations of EdTech products. Scholars have been key actors in increasing the transparency and accountability of EdTech vendors to develop products that inherently allow for data mining and rigorous research. This could be used to strengthen the capacity of EdTech vendors to directly engage with governments, and improve holistic and evidence-based collaborations within EdTech systems. 

  1. Use COP to break down silos in government 

The selection of participants is critical and requires close consultation between the international programme organisers and local stakeholders. Selected participants held high-level positions in agencies such as the ministry of finance, directorate of science & technology, communications, ICT, and the ministry of planning; this was a good way to break down silos and begin to build new relationships required to build effective EdTech solutions. Other government agencies can also be invited to join COPs to ensure that all key stakeholders are contributing to EdTech reforms and have a shared understanding of the evidence of what works on EdTech delivery.     

COPs across and between governments are becoming integral to strengthening and spreading effective evidence to design EdTech programmes and reforms. Well-designed COPs can foster collaboration, provide tailored learning opportunities, and improve governmental practices. These can be used to strengthen the delivery and quality of EdTech to ultimately improve children’s learning outcomes. 

The power of this programme was summarised by one of the participants from Bangladesh, Anir Chowdhury, who said, “The course was really high calibre, I loved hearing from and learning with the mixture of internationally renowned academics and world-class practitioners who delivered the course.” Anir mentioned that he is already using many of the lessons learnt in the course to facilitate the design and execution of the very ambitious Blended Education for All (BEFA) strategy and masterplan 2022–2041 to transform the education ecosystem in Bangladesh. 

This reaction is the exact impact that EdTech Hub is striving to achieve. As Verna Lalbeharie, EdTech Hub Executive Director said, “This programme is a great example of how EdTech Hub wants to empower decision-makers with evidence to improve learning for all — this programme led to collaborations, critical discussions, and uptake of EdTech evidence that enabled policymakers to understand how to better use EdTech to improve children’s learning outcomes in LMICs.”

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