Towards Better Ed-Tech Procurement

The Ed-tech procurement process can be frustrating, but a recent research study makes some recommendations on how to take some of the teeth out of its pernicious bite. In my previous two installments, we unpacked an interesting research study.

It’s entitled “From the market to the classroom: How ed-tech products are procured by school districts interacting with vendors“ (Morrison, J. R., Ross, S. M., Cheung, A. C. K. (2019), Educational Technology Research and Development, 67(2) pp.389-421 doi:10.1007/s11423-019-09649-4)

This mixed methods research study involved more than 335 survey participants, ranging from district stakeholders in 54 school districts to vendors from 47 ed-tech companies.

The concluding section of this study (available in its entirety here) offers key recommendations for improving the overall procurement process. Here’s a quick snapshot of how to make ed-tech procurement a much better experience on your end, from a customer development point of view:

Encourage pilots/trials of your products. The study evidenced that running onsite product pilots and trials were vital, and are especially beneficial when written guidelines and best practices for conducting pilots are firmly in place.

Build reference sites. A common theme in the research responses was the “value and frequency of using other districts as references for product selection.” Educators are more comfortable hearing stories and advice from their peer districts/schools than from vendors.

Certify honesty in practical ways. We can be sure that both vendors and educational customers are all getting a fair shake by using a number of proven approaches:

  • Conduct needs assessments beforehand. According to the study, “few district stakeholders conveyed that needs were formally identified or that systematic needs assessments of any type were conducted.” To prevent moving targets and to prevent wasting time on both sides of the transaction, good faith evidence of a needs assessment is necessary.
  • Use or develop a standardized product evaluation rubric for judging product fit and quality, so the customer doesn’t end up comparing apples to oranges
  • Precede RFPs with RFIs (requests for information). If a district precedes their RFP with Requests for Information (RFIs), vendors can identify their products’ “key properties, evidence support, and cost parameters.” The study states, “from the [RFI] application information, districts should be able to narrow the potential choices fairly efficiently and invite those selected to participate in a more intensive RFP process or other type of product exhibition.”
  • Frame and simplify RFPs. Focus the RFP on the needs assessment and simplify it from the standard business office template so that smaller manufacturers can compete more fairly and effectively.
  • Be upfront as to what is required for proper implementation of a product.

Ensure communication and follow up. A range of attuned communication strategies clearly emerged from this research study:

  • Build strong relationships.
  • Ensure more frequent and open communications, on both sides. In particular, districts need to be more responsive. “It takes a lot of time to track people down to move the process along and get some type of direction from them” laments one vendor cites in the study.
  • Remember that a lack of support after an initial sale will influence whether the district chooses to renew a software license or pursue a replacement strategy down the line.

Move beyond marketing information to useful information. The study’s authors noted: “our findings suggest that few district stakeholders actually searched the literature, read journal articles, or consulted review sites” in making their decisions. When they did view research evidence, argue the authors, “it was valued and taken seriously.” The authors warned, however, that “the obvious advantage of research evidence is its greater credibility than marketing data (Helleman, Burke, May, Charania, & Daniel, 2017), but disadvantages include its relative inaccessibility, technical nature, and datedness (Dagenais et al)”.

Predictably, the report made a huge push for the use of research and best practice clearinghouses in improving ed-tech improvement:

“The predominant theme in district participants’ open-ended survey responses and interviews was [the need for] a central source or national website with product information and reviews. District participants viewed such a website as a potentially valuable resource for obtaining information about products, experiences of other districts using products, and a general means of learning about the ed-tech products available to them. They expressed the desire for independent reviews, third party evaluations of products, and a resource to compare all of the available products in one location.”

So what do we make of this mantra calling for some sort of centralized product information? Does that make any sense? The call for such product or research repositories is not a new phenomenon. Highly respected product repositories already exist, such as the What Works Clearinghouse, the ISTE Edtech Advisor, and the EdSurge Index. No, the problem is that clearinghouses are the predilection of academics, high-level school administrators, and school boards and not always the concern of grassroots customers. Grassroots purchasers rarely use them; rather educators depend much more on pilots, trials, and peer references.

This research paper suggests that “the ed-tech procurement process has a way to go to ensure that needed products become available in schools and classrooms.” No doubt.—Len Scrogan