The ed tech world changes so fast it’s hard to know where to start when looking to purchase technology to serve students, teachers and school wide needs. Not only do the tools keep changing but so do the questions that need to be asked in order to ensure the right decisions are made.
Here is a list of the 10 steps edtech decision makers need to follow to be sure they are choosing correctly for their staff and students (from a guy who makes a living selling ed tech).
1. First, know what you own already. You need to know what you need. Before buying anything, do an audit and take inventory of what you already have. Calculate the ongoing license costs of current software and figure out what you can eliminate. You might find that you have a lot that you’re not using. Be sure to ask your teachers, CIO, curriculum coordinators, and principals for input on their favorite and least favorite programs. In one study we did with a mid-sized district, the superintendent thought the district used product A, B and C. One of the top principals told us she instead liked products D, E, and F and refused to use A, B, and C. The teachers of that same principal were using D, E, and F, but preferred another five different programs altogether. An audit showed that the district had purchased more than 70 ed tech programs, only one-third of which were being used. The same sales rep had sold them ten of the products, representing four different companies in seven years. No one is well served in a scenario like this one, especially students and teachers.
2. Ask one simple question: What is the product being hired to do? This question, asked by Harvard professor Clay Christensen, should guide many of your internal conversations and serve as a focal point in the buying process. Do you need help with RTI? Guidance in your transition to the Common Core? Support with a blended learning initiative? Do your best to make the answer simple, such as, “save RTI teachers time and improve reading gains for the lowest 10% of students.” Debate this question with your team as necessary. If you can’t come up with a specific, unanimous answer, you are likely to have problems with implementation and consistent use of your chosen product down the road. And if you’re not exactly sure how your answer translates to product features, consider issuing a request for information (RFI) first instead of a request for proposal (RFP). This will allow you to see what’s out there in the market (which is changing at an increasingly rapid rate) before writing a more official RFP.
3. Your district’s tech needs are not as different as you may think: don’t blow your budget on customizations. Despite unique traits in each district, the objectives schools have and the challenges schools face are pretty consistent around the country. Highly customized products are usually unnecessary and expensive. Most schools need products that help with the Common Core, have instruction linked to assessments, provide tools grounded in solid and reliable data that enable better decision making, include programs that work seamlessly together to create blended and differentiated learning environments, and are backed by a reputable company that provides high quality, ongoing service and support. If you ask vendors to customize products for you, they will likely charge you a lot more money and disappoint you with untested code and delivery delays.
4. The quality of service you receive matters as much, if not more, than the product. Service from your ed tech provider will make or break the experience of your teachers and the learning outcomes of your students. The service starts with the sale but continues through implementation, ongoing support, and the life of the product. You should discuss service at length during the buying process, including account management, data migration, roster sign-on, and the product road map. You should:
- Know how different tiers of support are handled
- Know the company’s contract renewal rate
- Meet your account manager
- Have the cell phone number of the CEO or other executive in charge in case you need something immediately
In the software-as-a-service world that we now live in, you are going on a journey with the company whose products you choose and you need to know how well they can adapt as testing standards and technology changes. The last thing you want for your teachers and students is a one-year implementation of a new technology. It wastes the time you don’t have and will leave them frustrated and unlikely to get on board with future technology changes or implementation.
5. Implementation, Implementation, Implementation. Correct implementation by the entire staff is crucial to the success of any program. Everyone–district leaders, teachers, curriculum coordinators, IT staff–needs to understand what the product is, how it will be used, and what the objectives are. We see the most success when the “average teacher” is on board and well trained with the product. Lack of cohesion in terms of strategy, expectations, and usage among district staff will limit the success of a newly purchased program. Buy fewer products and go deeper with them. You don’t need 15 reading and 10 math programs in your district. Find the one, or few, that meet your needs best and “own” them.
6. The data must be easily shareable. The technology you buy must be capable of seamless integration across multiple areas of need and multiple programs. As more student and school data move online for academic and administrative purposes, you need to find companies that integrate and partner with other service providers so that you are not creating extra work for your district staff.
7. Force vendors to make apples-to-apples comparisons. When you narrow your vendor pool to 3-5 providers, demand that their presentations be based on a common standard of your choosing (e.g. finding the area of the circle) and/or specific data questions. This will allow you to compare different approaches to the very same learning outcomes or data needs and find the one that is the best fit for you and your district. Also, when you ask about results in other schools, make sure vendors are providing you with data from districts of a similar size and make-up to yours. Make them get specific!
8. Ask for a money-back guarantee and pricing assurance. Set a policy that all curriculum vendors who do business in your district must give you an unconditional money-back guarantee. You have the purchasing power. Vendors need your business and will acquiesce to this request if you insist. Ask vendors to send the last ten sales prices, per student served, for districts of your size (at some companies, prices for the same software can vary by as much as 40%). Ask the CFO of the company to certify the authenticity of the information. This will prevent you from being overcharged and show you if a neighboring district was able to negotiate a better deal.
9. Know your ongoing costs. You must calculate the total cost of ownership (TCO) for your purchase in advance. Make sure you fully understand the ongoing costs for licensing, training, IT support, and troubleshooting before finishing the deal. Make sure you ask about the costs of all professional development so that you have an agreed-upon price in place if you opt for additional professional development service after you get started. Assume that you will spend 20% more on professional development than you originally budgeted.
10. Ask for references. Ask for five or six references of a similar size district. After hours, email or call these references and leave this message: “If you think product and service of [the company] is truly outstanding, please call me back and leave a message. Otherwise there is no need to call me back.” If the references are true “champions” of the company, product, and service, they will call you back. If you don’t hear from them, find another vendor.
Rob Waldron is the CEO of Curriculum Associates, an education company that provides research-based K-12 assessment and instruction programs in reading and math.
Curriculum Associates is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.