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Experts weigh in on the ed tech purchasing process

By Gail Marshall
March 29, 2016
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The fifth grade teachers rallied around Lenny Schad, inspired by how their roles were changing since the rollout of a 1:1 mobile learning initiative when Schad was chief information officer at Katy Independent School District in Katy, Texas. The rollout was a modern-day ed tech success story with lasting results.
No longer are the teachers spending all of their class time in front of their classes lecturing in the typical “sit-and-get” mode.

The dynamics of their classrooms are transforming, and the teacher’s role is no longer to be the expert on everything.

Students are thrilled at the realization that the devices they’ve received as part of the pilot program actually go…home…with…them. They’re taking leadership roles with their mobile learning devices and what can be accomplished using them. In some cases, students are leading portions of lessons. More important, the students sharing with the class are often not the students typically willing to get up and speak.

Discipline issues decrease, attendance goes up.

Ah, the promise of learning and teaching with technology, as recounted by Schad in his ISTE book, Bring Your Own Learning: Transform Instruction with Any Device. If only those successful snapshots told the whole story. Schad, now the chief technology information officer for the Houston Independent School District, would be the first one to say there is a very complex backstory to these happy endings.

Procurement solutions

The state of procurement in schools – and how to improve what can be an arduous process – has been the source of ongoing debate and a subject of research.

Procurement reform has been all but ignored in policy discussions and procurement policies have remained virtually untouched, according to recent research by Tricia Maas and Robin Lake from the Center on Reinventing Public Education titled, “A Blueprint for Effective and Adaptable School District Procurement.” But the price for ignoring procurement is coming home to roost as those trying to transform education with the effective use of education technology continue to run into roadblocks to streamlining the process – impeding timely decision-making and stymying potential partnerships.

“Emerging technological solutions and the need for school redesign demand that school systems bring procurement practices into the 21st century to make them agile, adaptable and innovation-friendly,” write Maas and Lake.

The report details gritty complaints about the current state of procurement in schools, including “death by a thousand cuts,” “slow, frustrating, maddeningly mired, filled with bureaucrats, unspoken code, lawyers and bidders’ conferences, nonsense, so much staff time” and “sometimes 10 people are each reviewing proposals that are required to be 110-180 pages long.”

What emerges is a procurement process that can cause paralysis. Buyers and sellers often are at odds, all trying to mitigate risk and uncertainty.

As a senior manager in the standards department at ISTE, Mindy Frisbee is well acquainted with the procurement challenges educators face.

“I think that the biggest takeaway with this procurement process is the disconnect between knowledge and expectations, between education decision-makers and non-decision-makers and product developers,” Frisbee explains.

Product developers need to have meaningful conversations with educators and tech decision-makers to ensure they are creating the types of products that serve students and teachers. On the flip side, their clients in education operate within a very specific framework. They must not only consider the quality of the product, but also the education code, the procurement processes and time constraints of their districts and their schools that must be followed.

“These [considerations] govern what they are able to purchase, how they are able to quantify it, what they are able to get approval for,” Frisbee says. “There is not a whole lot of communication between the two about how product developers can better meet the educators’ needs and vice versa.”

One guy with a lot of experience helping out with these conversations is Pete Koczera, manager of business development for k-12 education at CDW-G, an ISTE corporate member that provides technology services and solutions to education, government and healthcare. Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it is his job to stay ahead of trends in the k-12 education marketplace. He is focusing his attention on the connected classroom, converged infrastructure, student access and services for education.

His motivation for making the process work begins before he ever leaves for work each day.
“My passion for educational technology is driven by watching my children begin to learn in an environment of unprecedented digital tools,” he says.

He has led successful projects at the state and local levels, including the delivery and installation of more than 100,000 customized laptops, 4,500 interactive whiteboards and peripherals, as well as teacher professional development services, to thousands of 21st century classrooms in a statewide program.

Three key questions

Koczera’s advice to school districts is to ask three key questions and require vendors to demonstrate how their product or service supports these ideas in advance of a purchase. This information helps schools cut through the maze of options and zero in on products that will accelerate the vision:

Are the products designed to put the user first? Technology should employ a people-centric design. Within 30 seconds of picking up a new piece of technology, a teacher or student should find it to be intuitive, friendly and easy to use. A district can buy the latest, greatest technology, but if a teacher turns it on, feels the confusion of a poorly designed interface and can’t easily incorporate it into his or her lesson plan, adoption will be a struggle from day one.

Does the technology manage remotely? In order to scale effectively, the technology should be easy to manage remotely. A district’s it team will need to manage hundreds or even thousands of new devices – tablets, displays, access points, etc. Enterprise manageability ensures the it team can handle this influx of technology. Ask for a demonstration of cloud-based management capabilities. Ideally this will be through a single dashboard for the entire district, with the ability to share authority to schools and teachers.

Does the technology align with state and school standards, as well as address privacy concerns? Almost every piece of hardware and software released in the k-12 market is connected to the cloud in some way, which means it is also important to ask the vendor what data it is collecting and how it plans to keep that data safe.

“Determining these elements will smooth the path to successful adoption and use,” he says. “Ensuring a district’s technology is user-friendly, easy to manage and scale, and aligned with standards and regulatory concerns will allow the district to move quickly past implementation and on to supporting educational outcomes.”

The ISTE vision

ISTE, too, has a vision for what a successful procurement process should look like. The starting point – meaningful, appropriate planning guided by the ISTE Standards and the 14 Essential Conditions that provide a systemwide lens for ed tech planning.

This approach will increase the likelihood that schools have established the criteria to create a plan that drives local learning objectives, notes ISTE Chief Learning Services Officer Jim Flanagan.

“Procurement success should always be defined by educational outcomes. Procurement should not be separate from thoughtful planning, but should be driven by planning that includes clear communication with stakeholders about educational objectives and the effective and appropriate integration of technology to advance learning and teaching.”

Secrets of a rockin' rollout

In CDW-G’s experience with districts, Koczera says purchases that are well-planned and well-handled always have clear leadership and are driven by a well-communicated vision. Schools, teachers, students and the surrounding community all are able to articulate how the purchase will support educational outcomes.

“It can’t be about buying the latest, cool technology and figuring out the vision after the fact,” he says. “It must be about how to use the technology as a tool to drive a school’s mission and vision.”

The most successful programs also have a plan for sustainable funding. Beyond the budget for the initial purchase, districts should prepare for upkeep and maintenance throughout the expected lifespan of a product.

“A trusted vendor should be a partner you are comfortable will be around to support planning for the total life cycle of a product or service,” he explains.

A district should discuss with the community how its new technology is going to benefit students and teachers, facilitating a conversation that will help bring to the surface and address any issues and concerns that might cause hesitation or stalled adoption in the future.

“Yes, more inclusive conversations take longer, but they can go way beyond just identifying stumbling blocks and lead to technology purchases the entire community can support both on and off campus,” Koczera says.

Deceptively simple advice: Start small

Daniel Owens is a partner with The Learning Accelerator (TLA), a nonprofit that’s working to bring blended learning to scale in the u.s. He is a co-author of tla’s learning series on ed tech procurement that helps school districts make wise decisions about purchasing devices for blended learning. He also is a leader of The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools’ blended learning implementation.  

In a recent article he wrote for T.H.E. Journal, Owens concedes that even after good strategic planning, a large tech rollout is daunting.

He suggests this “deceptively simple” advice: start small.

“The information you gain by piloting devices for a couple of weeks will far outweigh several months of crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ of a large-scale plan,” he says. 

“Spending too much time in the strategy and planning phase is nearly as wasteful as buying higher-priced devices. Lessons learned from the pilot will help you figure out whether the device is the right one, and, if so, how to build the program in a way that works for schools’ and districts’ students, teachers, leaders and it systems.”

 He goes on to emphasize Koczera’s point: Ask good questions.

“By asking the right questions in the right sequence,” Owens says, “a district can realign its priorities to ensure that it is spending the right amount of resources on education technology devices. At the most fundamental level, time and money are our schools’ main resources, and there is a great deal of each to be saved when dealing with devices. When choosing hardware, a mediocre device implemented well will always beat out top-of-the-line devices implemented poorly.

“With the right framing and approach, schools and districts should be able to minimize the time and money they spend on devices and focus their attention where it matters most. The more our schools and districts can prioritize the education element of educational technology, the greater the chance that technology will improve education in the United States.”

Districts take the wheel

Marguerite Roza is the founder and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University in Washington, d.c. The lab is a research center focused on exploring and modeling complex education finance decisions. Her team studies and designs sustainable fiscal practices for districts and states. 
When the time comes to make technology purchases, Roza advises districts to plant themselves firmly in the driver’s seat when drafting contracts for technology.
Again, the simple advice is the wisest. “Many districts sign standard contracts,” she says. “They don’t know they can negotiate with providers.” 

Negotiate, for example, the cost of software based on how many teachers or students are actively using it rather than paying a set rate of, say, $1,000 every year. If the enrollment goes down or the number of teachers and students who are using it declines, the school is not paying the same cost.

It is also important to ask the tough questions when developers are bidding, claiming their products will “save” the district money.

Does the product allow the district to increase class sizes? Will it require hiring additional staff?  Can the software be used by the district in another way? How much will it increase the overall spending in the district?

These are all pieces of a big puzzle that will reflect the true costs far beyond the sticker price.
Roza suggests districts make sure the schools using the purchases are encouraged to weigh in on the selections. Engage teachers in identifying the providers they prefer.

We're all in this together

Procurement is a challenge all schools face, and one that many in the field feel could be handled more strategically and more uniformly. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes the problem and provided a $75,000 grant to help the new Technology for Education Consortium tackle the issue.

The nonprofit is led by Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York Department of Education, who left the department in January to lead the consortium.

The Technology for Education Consortium will provide no-charge analysis and consultation to school districts to help them execute a procurement quickly, and will create checklists and tools to help school leaders choose technology that matches their district’s instructional goals.

The group will collaborate with schools and other organizations like Edtech Concierge, Noodle Markets and LearnTrials that are already assisting schools with procurement issues.

Ed tech marketplaces

Marketplaces – one-stop shops for vendors, products and services – have been tried for years with little success, but advances in technology are making the idea a hot topic again in the education industry. 

Nicole Neal is chief executive officer for Noodle Markets, a newly launched online market platform where educators and vendors can do transparent “speed dating” to determine if there is a good match. Neal and her team plan “to streamline the search and bid process and the way products get into the hands of students and teachers as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

She’s getting positive feedback and says “The districts are really, really excited about the possibility of having a place to go where they can research vendors and the products and services they offer. Vendors are really excited because there are a lot of great companies out there doing great things in k-12. They just don’t have the sales power that allows them to get those good products in front of the districts.”

Ultimately, Neal hopes that users will think of Noodle Markets as a network where districts and sellers can make connections and conversations that weren’t possible before.