A Political Economy Analysis Framework for EdTech Evidence Uptake

Introduction and context

As of February 2021, Covid-19 has led to over 108 million confirmed cases and over 2.4 million recorded deaths worldwide (⇡World Health Organization, 2021). The pandemic has had a system-wide impact on society, bringing economies to a halt. By April 2020, nearly 1.6 billion learners were out of school across 194 countries (⇡UNESCO, 2020). As of October 2020, UNESCO (2020) estimates that 990 million learners remain affected by full or partial school or university closures. 

Worldwide, access to education technologies — EdTech — to enable distance learning during school closures has varied hugely. By mid-April 2020, less than 25% of low-income countries were providing any form of remote learning, whereas over 90% of high-income countries were (⇡Vegas, 2020). Similarly, the evidence and national experience of effective EdTech interventions in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) remains limited and fragmented, with decision-making often based on immediate opportunities and relationships rather than a considered approach based on effectiveness. In recent months, there have been significant efforts through EdTech Hub and others to synthesise effective EdTech practices and provide support and guidance to affected countries (see ⇡Webb, et al., 2020, ⇡Ashlee, et al., 2020 and ⇡EdTech Hub, 2020). A research challenge remains, however, to find out if and how these resources are actively being used to inform EdTech choices on the ground. 

The politics of evidence-informed policy decisions

Previously, producing and making available high-quality open access research was thought to be enough to inform and shape policy and practice towards the most effective responses (⇡Booth, 2012). Yet experience over decades of research and experience in this area shows that the production and communication of quality research and other types of evidence on their own do not always result in informed policy decisions (see ⇡Court & Young (2004), ⇡Nutley, et al. (2007), ⇡Carden (2009), ⇡Maxwell & Court (2006), ⇡Pellini, et al. (2011), ⇡Pellini, et al. (2012), ⇡Young, et al. (2014), ⇡Cairney (2016), ⇡Boaz, et al. (2019)

The complex reality of EdTech evidence production and uptake is evident in feedback from users of EdTech Hub — a programme that aims to increase the use of evidence in decision-making about technology. Interviews with 14 education decision-makers in August 2020 from Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, Lebanon, and Vietnam have highlighted that policymakers and other government officials need access to a range of types of evidence linked to specific objectives and purposes. For example, some respondents mentioned the need for evidence to help solve specific educational policy problems while others mentioned the need for evidence to help identify educational and EdTech policy solutions aligned with the government’s strategic goals. 

The variety of needs captured by the Hub user research shows that there are context-specific evidence needs and demands and that it is important not only to generate evidence that responds to those needs, but which also helps to understand the specific blockages that determine why those evidence needs exist and why they persist in specific contexts. Political economy analysis recognises that as evidence enters the messy reality of policy, politics and an ‘evidence ecosystem’(⇡Stewart, et al., 2019), the interests, incentives, strategies, contexts, and exercise of power of key stakeholders regulates which, if any, evidence is utilised. 

The political economy framework we propose in this paper provides a means of understanding that complex and messy reality of evidence uptake. This will not only inform the knowledge production and engagement activities of the Hub but also identify entry points to strengthen the evidence investment capabilities of the policy institutions with whom the Hub collaborates and partners. 

EdTech evidence, in particular, provides its own unique challenges as an emerging field competing with larger more established discourses within a wary sector thought to be late to technology uptake (⇡Education Commission, 2020). Covid-19 has added yet further complexity to this already complex ecosystem. Governments in general, and Ministries of Education (MoE) in particular, have been stretched over multiple areas of response, often forced to work remotely, disrupting traditional face-to-face decision-making processes (⇡Rogers & Sabarwal, 2020). The education sector has also been inundated with Covid-19 and EdTech research and guidance, in different shapes and forms, saturating policymakers with evidence beyond what many could reasonably be expected to absorb or deploy.

“Data [and evidence] does not automatically translate into better policy-making processes, but when it is interpreted, analysed and critically discussed, it can help make decisions smarter, more transparent and more open.” 

– Varun Banka, ⇡Pulse Lab Jakarta (2014) 

Aims and content of this paper

This paper sets out an approach to analysing evidence uptake in relation to EdTech, relevant to the Covid-19 response and also more broadly. It sets out a political economy analysis framework that can be applied to increase understanding of the extent to which different types of EdTech evidence shape policy decisions on EdTech. It is linked to EdTech Hub’s research theme of “using technology to improve governance, data management, equity, and accountability within education systems.”

This brief sets out a framework for future political economy research in relation to EdTech evidence uptake and can be used to inform engagement with policymakers. The description of the political economy framework introduces the concept of an evidence ecosystem and its role in policymaking processes. In doing so it recognises the importance of mapping out and understanding the characteristics of the system in which knowledge production and knowledge uptake interact. 

In particular, this paper is designed to inform both EdTech Hub’s own research and engagement work, as well as the wider community of researchers and practitioners interested in the applied political economy analysis of evidence-informed policy processes for the sector.

It is structured as follows: first, it defines and conceptualises the evidence ecosystem and sets out how this applies to EdTech. Second, it outlines the evolution and utility of political economy analysis and explores its application to education more generally. Third, it outlines a framework for understanding evidence uptake as related to EdTech and alongside this presents snapshots from three country case studies exploring their Covid-19 responses.

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