Stepping Back to Move Forward: Applying Systems Thinking to Digital Education


by Jim Turner and Irina Niculescu

Tackling today’s multifaceted education technology challenges requires updated thinking capacities fit for dynamic systems and times. Systems thinking offers methods to help understand intricate dynamics, unravel assumptions, and chart integrated action amidst uncertainty. Read on to learn more. 

Last week, the latest ELESIG webinar was run by Irina Niculescu, a senior learning technologist from University College London (UCL). The event, tailored for beginners, aimed to uncover how systems thinking can stabilize analysis amidst complexity and guide clearer strategic direction-setting. As a far-reaching conceptual framework, systems thinking has evolved over decades, intersecting diverse fields from management science to sustainability. Irina is interested in its connections outside of Western science to connect with other cultural traditions such as Buddhist philosophy. During the session, Irina used Peter Senge’s view of it as a “framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” First emerging in the mid-20th century, it now permeates many disciplines and practices after half a century of development. With sociotechnical systems rapidly increasing in complexity, systems thinking has gained even greater applicability amidst today’s uncertain world. The table below helps us to see the differences between ways of seeing things. Both are important but sometimes linear thinking becomes dominant. Three key insights struck me during the session, which I would like to develop in the blog.

Linear / Analytical ThinkingSystems Thinking
Reductive & separate elementsHolistic and integrated
Focus on elementsFocus on relationships
Cause and effect thinkingEmergent thinking

Seeing Wholes, Not Just Parts

Systems thinking helps learning technologists analyse educational challenges more thoroughly by looking beyond superficial events or technical issues to examine the interconnected structures, patterns and beliefs that shape what happens. As Irina put it, “It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things and also foreseeing patterns of change, rather than static snapshots.” Applying this holistic lens leads to better solutions that address barriers at multiple levels, not just tackling surface issues. Equipped with systems approaches, learning technologists can facilitate more meaningful analysis leading to impactful recommendations. The session analysed examples like online student disengagement and insufficient authentic assessments to identify associated patterned tensions and underlying structures. This style of joined-up thinking forces fuller consideration of the academic, technological and social ecosystems in which problems manifest.

Questioning Mental Models

Hands-on use of systems thinking tools like the “iceberg model” enables learning technologists to have more insightful collaborative analysis sessions about complex educational issues. Irina sees it as encouraging us to “acknowledge what’s seen from the outside what’s visible, as the tip of the iceberg, and go a bit underneath the surface and see what is happening that led to that ‘event’ taking place.” Facilitating this kind of reflective dialogue could lead to a more shared systemic understanding that could be invaluable when say co-designing educational solutions. So learning technologists skilled in systems tools could foster better idea generation and solution design. And by externally exploring our internal mindsets together, we gained practical experience in how systems thinking methods can reveal limiting perspectives and normalise continual collective reflection.

Integrating New Habits of Thinking

Applying systems thinking approaches alongside design thinking, learning design, futures thinking and other established methodologies enriches the capacity of learning technologists to operate effectively in digital education contexts. No one lens gives the full picture. Systems reveal interconnections between structures, mindsets and actions shaping how things currently unfold. Other frames imagine future possibilities or creative innovations. Layering these gives sophisticated multidimensional perspectives that are often missing when problems are treated superficially or in isolation. Developing your literacy in these multiple lenses expands our understanding of the complexities of being a learning technologist and how to think contextually, facilitate participatory problem-solving, and build connections across silos, all invaluable skills when guiding educational transformation.

As emphasized, systems thinking is an iterative journey that complements other forms of thinking. It is about opening capacity to see anew rather than perfecting strategies. Study resources were shared for those inspired to continue nurturing systemic worldviews.

The session left me excited to integrate fresh habits like looking longer term for patterns, surfacing assumptions collaboratively, and sketching concept maps to continue grasping systemic complexities underpinning digital education with more compassion and clarity.

Here are 3 key resources curated by Irina which can help you start or continue your learning journey with systems thinking:

If you want to discuss this topic further, collaborate or have any questions,  please get in touch with Irina via email

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