Smart Procurement: EdTech & Learning Games

This interview with Tom Vander Ark  by Games and Learning  was first posted on Feburary 17, 2014. 
1) What about the way you all saw districts and school systems investing in edtech prompted you to put together this series of reports?
We wrote the Smart Series Guide to EdTech Procurement because K-12 purchasing is notoriously bad particularly when it comes to buying EdTech.  Technology has tremendous potential to improve American education and smarter procurement reduces the risk of it not being implemented properly. However, it behaves differently than most other assets procured–t changes quickly, both in terms of offering and price, and vendor information is less developed than in other industries.
Particular problems we see frequently:

  • Districts don’t know what they own;
  • They issue purchase orders for devices before developing plans;
  • There are often several departments/people buying systems, applications, and devices for the same classrooms—and they don’t usually work together;
  • They too frequently assume their needs are unique and sponsor customized development; and
  • They don’t fully consider training and maintenance costs.

2) There are clearing issues around overall planning, choosing hardware and platforms and finally in selecting software that you all want purchasers to consider. Based on your work, in what part of that process have you seen the most problems?
Bad purchasing is a function of a convoluted school finance system that creates lots of little pots of money with strings attached (e.g., SpEd, T1, ELL, Curriculum).  This mess is often convoluted by a lack of clarity in decision making.  With many people in charge of programs and projects, it’s often hard to create coherent strategies and integrated IT systems.  (Another Digital Learning Now paper deals with Funding Options, Students, and Achievement.)
Since 2010, this complicated context has been complicated by the viral teacher adoption of mobile apps and resources which makes many classrooms a complicated tech soup.
This system has led to a fragmented decentralize market of buyers, with little communication about who is buying what and for how much.  Higher level coordination among purchasing districts could lead to improved product quality and price.
3) How much have you all seen digital games becoming a part of district edtech plans?
Adaptive learning systems, learning games, and apps that incorporate game-based strategies are now a regular feature in most schools.  The purchasing challenge is that some are web-based apps and some are touch-enabled mobile apps—so device choices matter.  None of them easily share results with standards-based gradebooks making it difficult to combine achievement results with other formative assessments.
4) You cover all of education technology in your reports, but I wonder how could a game developer help those trying to make smart edtech investments?
Game developers could:

  • Consider a single sign on and gradebook integration;
  • Be able to describe what function you serve—and don’t; tell schools where you fit into emerging blended learning environment; and
  • Cultivate a primary entry point: viral teacher adoption, school-based purchase, or district sale.

5) Obviously Common Core and finding ways to assess student achievement of those standards are a major challenge for school officials. Have these issues affected edtech procurement? Do you see them affecting things in the near future?
Adaptive and game-based learning provide the benefit of continuous feedback.  Unfortunately, most schools don’t take advantage of all the data they produce.  By correlating results with widely used scales like Quantile and Lexile, game developers can contribute to better growth measures.
In addition to allowing teachers to share tools and resources across state lines, Common Core Sate Standards allow content developers to build one version rather than customizing products for every state.
6) How much are edtech decisions left to the specific teacher? Do schools set the parameters and teachers choosing the applications?
The answer to this important question is, it depends. Systems need to leverage teacher leadership, but they also need to create coherent and effective learning pathways for students.
Some schools like Las Vegas magnet school Bracken STEAM Academy use grade span teams make app decisions from a long list of digital tools and resources.
A growing number of schools operate within networks like New Tech Network that share a common platform but leave room for teachers to create innovative products.
Moving beyond flipped and blended classrooms to networks of schools that work better for students and teachers requires a new level of collaboration. (See a recent EdWeek blog on Leading with Teacher Innovation for a longer discussion.)
7) One of the things you recommend is to “Create Space for Exploring User Needs and Supplier Capabilities.” Is there a way for developers and publishers to help participate in that process?
The Mesa School District (Phoenix) held an EdTech Expo last year to introduce their teachers to exciting new tools.
Vendors can support try before you buy programs or offer free products with premium features.
Pearson recently launched an efficacy framework that helps EdTech developers predict and plan for impact. We’re also enthusiastic about the growth of short cycle efficacy trials.
Digital Promise, Education Industry Association and the Gates Foundation are conducting a market study that may provide useful insights.

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