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3 Outcomes of Research Co-creation

Experiences from UNICEF’s Data Must Speak Research and DHIS2
02 Jul 2023
A teacher is looking over the shoulder of a student in Ghana.


While there are many valuable innovations in education, few are brought to scale. The Data Must Speak (DMS) Positive Deviance Research and District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) teams strive to ensure that innovations in education are scaled up by co-creating research with key partners and stakeholders from inception to policy transformation. 

Both initiatives are funded by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) which promotes actionable research and improved evidence use that is demand-driven by national education systems. 

How does a co-creation approach strengthen the use and impact of our research? The DMS research and DHIS2 teams share the outcomes from co-creating research on utilizing Education Management Information System (EMIS) data. 

Outcome 1: Well-aligned research with in-country priorities and needs 

The EMIS hosts most of a country’s education-related data and can inform priorities for improving the education system.  

Countries face recurring challenges to build, maintain and utilize the EMIS data. Improving management information systems, such as EMIS, is more than finding the perfect software -- but a socio-technical undertaking filled with people and social networks. 

DHIS2 deploys a participatory action research approach, working closely with education partners and stakeholders at national, district and school levels to inform data systems strengthening.  

University partnerships play a central role in cultivating in-country capacity to design, implement and maintain DHIS2. This drives innovation in the DHIS2 ecosystem that is government owned and responds to local needs.  

In The Gambia, a PhD candidate based in the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) is focusing work on key policy directives connected to decentralized EMIS routines, such as data collection, validation and use. In tandem, a diploma and Master program in information systems, with a specialization in education management, is being established at the University of The Gambia (UTG); a partnership between MoBSE, UTG and University of Oslo. This initiative supports local institutions' engagement in EMIS research, provides training that is connected to real-world experiences and prepares a future EMIS workforce within the Ministry of Education (MoE).

As part of its Stage 1 analysis, DMS research works with MoEs to harness the power of existing administrative datasets in generating evidence and improving decision-making.  

The DMS research merges EMIS datasets with other existing datasets, such as examinations and learning assessments, across multiple years. For instance, the DMS team, together with the Niger MoE, linked EMIS data with local data on poverty to better understand the relationship between various socio-economic factors and school performance. In Côte d’Ivoire, the DMS team used an external database containing information on the presence of cocoa fields within a specific school’s vicinity. Linking EMIS data with such information resulted in deeper analysis regarding the relationship of schools’ context and performance. 

The commitment of MoEs to utilize existing administrative datasets ensures that together, we can understand contextualized and specific education challenges within the country – such as resource allocation, teacher placement and learning outcomes. 


Graphical user interface, application

Description automatically generated Figure 1. Stages of DMS Positive Deviance Research 

Outcome 2: Strengthened capacities on data use and empowerment of education stakeholders  

Continuous EMIS strengthening efforts are enabled by long-term investments in local capacity and community resources. 

The DHIS2 ecosystem enables a range of contributors -- ministries, education staff, researchers, experts, developers -- to build meaningful applications and services on top of EMIS. These services have an open-source license which enables access, improves data literacy, enhances ownership and allows innovations to be shared. In Uganda, various ministry departments, districts and partners identified a need to streamline, integrate and routinize data collection efforts, to reduce ad hoc data calls to district levels. Together, a digital integrated tool was developed, with dashboards depicting termly data for each implementation site, and program-specific dashboards visualizing gender, inclusive education, school feeding and health-related data. To date, District Education Offices (DEOs) have been able to submit enrollment numbers for 2023/24 budgeting, supported partners targeting learners for accelerated education programs, improved teacher transfers as well as provided accurate figures for health interventions targeting polio immunization and tetanus vaccinations. In addition, the tool has enabled districts to respond to data requested for scientific research by local universities. 


 Figure 2. A digital platform ecosystem approach to EMIS strengthening 

The empowerment of districts with data is essential to meet the many challenges faced in ensuring all children and youth gain their right to participate in quality education, as the district is the appropriate level for aligning national policies and interventions with reality on the ground. Capacity building of district staff is key in improving data use. The ability of districts to collect, analyze and share data with stakeholders has demonstrated the crucial role DEOs can have in improving education service delivery through evidence-based planning and resource allocation. 


Outcome 3: Improved research uptake and impact on education systems 

Research co-creation improves evidence uptake and impact. When MoEs and key partners are meaningfully engaged throughout the entire research process, they become champions of the research who use the evidence to inform their own decision-making. To date, the DMS research has informed formal education sector planning processes in Lao PDR, Nepal and Zambia. 

In Ghana, the MoE has incorporated DMS research findings and recommendations into its application for a GPE Systems Capacity Grant, which aims to establish unique school identifiers to track school progress and identify trends over time, including within EMIS. Similarly, in Cote d’Ivoire, the MoE is convening a technical team to establish unique school identifiers to be able to keep track of the progress of cohorts of students through multiple years.  

MoEs recognize the power of existing administrative datasets. Partner governments have demonstrated commitment through follow-up actions -- like mobilizing their own resources to continue strengthening their data systems, and increasing the use of existing data, which extend beyond the life of the DMS research. 

While a research co-creation approach can be challenging, it is ethical and inclusive. It also proves to be necessary in ensuring that investments to addressing education challenges are sustainable. Through a co-creation approach, research is aligned with in-country priorities, capacities are valued and strengthened, and uptake and impact are improved. For the DMS research and DHIS2 teams, a co-creation approach means always placing students and education stakeholders at the center of research and innovation.  

This blog is the last in a three-part series sharing the value of prioritizing co-creation approaches when designing and implementing education research. The first blog detailed the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the DMS research co-creation approach and the second blog described the realities and circumstances that arise when co-creating research.

The DMS Positive Deviance research aims to mitigate the learning crisis by using existing data to understand the behaviours and practices of exceptional schools (i.e., positive deviant schools). It is co-created and co-implemented with Ministries of Education, partners, and key stakeholders. The DMS research relies on mixed methods and innovative approaches (i.e., positive deviance, behavioural sciences, implementation research, and scaling science) to generate knowledge and practical lessons about ‘what works,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ to scale grassroots solutions for national policymakers and the broader international community of education stakeholders.

The DMS research is currently implemented in 14 countries: Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Madagascar, Mali, Nepal, Niger, the United Republic of Tanzania, Togo, and Zambia. It is made possible through a coalition of donors: Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), Hewlett Foundation, Jacobs Foundation, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), Schools2030 initiative (Aga Khan Foundation), and UNICEF internal resources. 



The HISP Centre at the University of Oslo (UiO) has a 30-year history with information systems strengthening; solidified into a vibrant ecosystem, around an open-source digital platform, DHIS2. Since 2019, DHIS2 has seen uptake in the education sector in 6 countries: eSwatini, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, The Gambia, Togo and Uganda. By leveraging a proven innovation in the health sector, the project seeks to enhance demand for data use at all levels of the education system, addressing the lack of a “turnkey” EMIS, that can be used sustainably and at scale. 

HISP groups act as the primary liaison to ministries and are led by DHIS2 experts, several of whom have completed PhD and MSc programs related to DHIS2/Information Systems at UiO or partner universities. They are staffed with experienced DHIS2 implementers, developers and trainers, who provide support for national, regional and international projects. DHIS2 for Education is made possible by Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (GPE KIX), a joint endeavor by GPE and International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) and internal HISP Centre research funds.