System Analysis

Transformational Educational Technologies

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The problems we have created in the world today will not be solved by the level of thinking that created them

Albert Einstein

Unit 1 Aims

Week 3 Learning Outcomes

Week 3 Recording

Week 3 Slides

Week 3 Learning Activities


Come to the tutorial prepared to discuss your understanding of Systems Thinking / Systems Analysis and how this can support research into Educational Technologies.

Watch the video What is Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking makes it possible to analyse and understand complex phenomena such as those involved  educational research questions (indeed any human activity) which are often very complex, and is a useful tool to use when commencing research to better understand the complexities involved.

Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organisations, such as schools or classrooms, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Watch the video What is a System?

Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem-solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to a specific part, outcome or event. Systems thinking is not however one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. This approach to systems thinking focuses on cyclical or repeating processes rather than linear cause and effect.

A system is an organised group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems thinking is thus an holistic approach to the identification and solving of problems where the focal points are treated as components of a system, and their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the entire system.


The structure, properties, behaviour and interactivity of people and components (inputs, processes and outputs) within and between natural, managed, constructed and digital environments.

Systems Thinking

A holistic approach to the identification and solving of problems where parts and components of a system, their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the whole system. This approach enables students to understand systems and work with complexity, uncertainty and risk.

Defining Systems

The several ways to think of and define a system include:

Watch the Bicycle video 

By considering the various systems involved, innovative solutions to the problem may emerge that may not have been thought of when considering just the aspect that is seemingly the most relevant.

Bicycle Brake Example

An example of systems thinking would be understanding a problem with a bicycle not braking fast enough. Rather than trying to improve the brake by looking in great detail at the material composition of the brake pads (a reductionist approach), the boundary of the braking system may be extended to include the interactions between the:

Come to the tutorial prepared to describe at least one other system contained in a Bicycle and the variables involved.

Unintended Consequences

Sometimes research and subsequent design solutions have unintended outcomes, these can be positive such as an unforeseen use for a product, but can also be a negative outcome such as an environmental impact.

Watch the video Systems Thinking Cautionary Tale 

Post to Teams. What may be some unintended consequences of the introduction of your Educational Technology into your Educational Organisation?

Read Systems Analysis and Education 

(Optional Reading that explores the first uses of Systems Thinking in education)

Kershaw, J. & McKean, R. (1959). Systems Analysis and Education. No. RM-2473-FF. RAND Corp. Santa Monica, CA.
Lemke, J. & Sabelli, N. (2008). Complex systems and educational change: Towards a new research agenda. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), 118-129.

Connection Circles

Connection Circles are a tool we can use to better understand and develop system models

Watch the video Introduction to Connection Circles 

Systems thinking can also be described as the process of understanding how a group of interacting, interrelated, interdependent components influence each other within the whole. Rather than viewing each problem as an independent entity, it must be considered in the context of its relationship to other parts of the system. Systems thinking teaches students how to solve problems, communicate, use data, and design policies for greater success.

By making or modifying a model and plugging in data, researchers can almost immediately see the influence of their choices. This type of interactive modelling is a key advantage of systems thinking.

Come to the tutorial prepared to develop a connection cirlce for your Portfolio Task. You should be able to identify at least 10 variables to place around your circle and make at least 20 causal connections between these variables. Each causal connection should be labelled  as a positive or negative influence.

A Connection Circle is a visual tool that shows the relationships between variables in an organisation or complex situation. 

When you are using a Connection Circle, you should consider: 

What are the key factors or variables in your organisation and what are the cause and effect relationships between the variables?

Some links may be based on actual data and some may be simply a hypothesis. 

Post to Teams. Share your initial Connection Circle and seek feedback and ideas from your peers.


Let's say you have been dealing with unhappy customers (students or teachers) with a product (educational technology). We know they've been complaining about too many bugs in the product and slow response times from our support (as customers create more support tickets). At the same time, we've been shipping more features to make them happier. Let's use make a connection circle so that we can make sense of this.

From this story, we can identify the key elements: unhappy customers, bugs in the product, response times, support tickets and new features. We'll document them around our connection circle:

Now we need to document the relationships between them. For example, we know that unhappy customers create more support tickets. More tickets means longer response time which in turn produces even more unhappy customers. We try to introduce new features which lower the number of unhappy customers. But they also produce more bugs and those lead to more unhappy customers again. Let's map these relationships to the connection circle:

The connection circle is now nicely showing the key elements of the system and the relationships between them. There's even one feedback loop that we can see here:

The completed connection circle and an identified feedback loop make you better understand the system. This understanding could help make needed changes.

Further Examples

Quaden, R., & Ticotsky, A. (2006). Do you want fries with that? Learning about connection circles.
Quaden, R. & Ticotsky, A. (2013). Creative Learning Exchange.