Deciding how a school or district should invest its limited resources is tough, and made even more difficult by the multitude of ed tech products that have exploded onto the market. Digital Promise, an organization created by Congress to spur innovation in education, has teamed up with the design firm IDEO to tackle the difficult question of procurement when it comes to technology. It’s a question of resources, how to spend them and the fears decision makers have about making mistakes with public dollars and everyone watching.
To get a handle on the challenges school districts face when it comes to purchasing new products, the two organizations brought together a group of district leaders, ed-tech entrepreneurs, education experts and non-profit leaders to identify challenges and brainstorm solutions. The report, Evolving Ed-Tech Procurement in School Districts, is by no means the end of the process, but it begins to frame the challenges and possible avenues for further study and reflection.
SIX BIG FEARS
District leaders identified the six things that most worry them as they think about the many technology options available to them.
- Public scrutiny and the fear that causes risk aversion
- Difficulties creating school culture that facilitates the uptake of new ed-tech solutions
- Cumbersome, time-consuming and overwhelming procurement regulations
- Difficulty navigating product options when so few reliable proof points exist
- Shifting and complex resources streams that make sustaining a choice a challenge
- Trust among peers is high, but trust by outsiders is low.
After identifying the pain points that put gray hairs on the heads of school administrators, the group tried to look outside the education industry for examples of how those challenges could be met in new ways. For example, to try and build a more receptive school culture, educators might look at the “My Starbucks Idea” model, where customers are encouraged to share product and service ideas and comment on others. The most popular or best suggestions are considered and developed by Starbucks staff. Another example for dealing with difficult procurement regulations could be creating a program similar to TurboTax that walks users through a step-by-step guide for the complicated process.
Identifying what stops district administrators from jumping on new innovations and helping to see beyond limited industry tools, helped free up discussion of how to reduce some of those barriers, making purchasing technology a more efficient, informed and empathetic process. Together the group came up with five concepts that needed work and possible next steps for districts to take as they feel their way towards solutions.
SIMPLIFYING PROCUREMENT: This concept answers the question, how can we develop a more human-centered technology purchasing office? Simplifying the process and making it more transparent will help key stakeholders like teachers, vendors and administrators feel that they can get involved. Some ideas include a district-specific map of the procurement process or building up case studies and stories about how a particular product was successful. This might also mean that purchasing staff spend time in classrooms to build empathy for what teachers do and get real-time experience with how a new purchase might be used. The procurement office could become almost like a customer service office for teachers to get the support they need.
ED-TECH INCUBATOR: How can a district strengthen ties between its needs and the start-ups developing technology? One way to get the exact product a teacher wants is to participate in product development, creating stronger relationships between the end users and the developers. This idea could make products more relevant by giving entrepreneurs the access they need and benefit schools through discounts or privileged access.
OPEN PROCUREMENT: How can a district help those in charge of procurement understand the real value of the products in terms of price, quality and need? This idea might seem counter-intuitive to those concerned about public scrutiny, but by opening up the process and making purchasing as transparent as possible, everyone benefits. With extensive, disaggregated information about the vendor, quality of the product, alignment with common core, price, and other factors, purchasers can make more informed decisions. It also brings more competitiveness to the market when demand becomes smarter.
CREATIVE FINANCING: How can a district think about non-traditional resources available to them to help defray the costs of education technology? This concept relies on pulling together a diverse group of district stakeholders, end users and local experts to identifying underlying needs and brainstorm creative financing solutions based on models offered by other industries. The report suggests a 7 step process to do this: Set a vision, build a team, build the case, brainstorm solutions, meet the board, build based on input, and finally, apply the process elsewhere.
BETTER PLANNING, BETTER PROCESS: It’s a good idea to connect teachers — the end-users for most products — to those purchasing new technology. A bottom-up strategy will help ensure money isn’t wasted on products no one wants. Procurement officers will need to take the initiative on this, asking teachers and schools what kinds of pilots they may have planned for an upcoming school year or if they need specific equipment. They could also set up systems that open communication between stakeholders building awareness and empathy.
The ideas generated in this report are by no means complete. Digital Promise and IDEO intend to continue working with schools in the League of Innovate Schools to experiment with ways to connect better to entrepreneurs and vendors, connect within districts and connect across districts, leveraging the League’s size for transparency and buying power.