How to make the right ed-tech purchase (the first time)
If your district does not already have a robust online presence, shutting your doors for an extended time can mean unnecessarily large gaps in student progress. While any time out of school isn’t optimal, it may be especially detrimental to progress toward graduation for high school students.
In the rush to find ed tech to fill the gap, districts will face shortened procurement and research timelines that may lead to choosing vendors who aren’t great long-term partners. It’s not enough to hear a pitch and maybe glance at app store ratings. (Although you absolutely should look for both native mobile apps and good app store ratings. A vendor app with 2.5 stars should make you question suitability for extended usage.)
If your district needs to purchase now, here are a few critical questions to ask now that may keep you from having to change course and make a new purchase later.
Every vendor will say student data is secure and private, but hackers know otherwise. A few things make a difference: Where is your software hosted? Cloud-service hosting should be from AWS, Microsoft, IBM or Google. AWS server security is “best of breed” with multiple failovers and even pandemic staffing plans. Hosting by anyone else may mean your data and their servers aren’t as protected as they should be.
When was your last security audit? Regular external security audits by an outside service, preferably with publicly available results, is important.
If your district is feeling overwhelmed by choices and you need to move faster, the safest choice may be what the extra-large districts choose.
Do you backup in different geographies? Redundant backups in multiple locations ensure that if one data center is compromised (by an earthquake or tornado, for example), your vendor can failover to another site without losing your data.
Most vendors will also assure you that they have great uptime guarantees and their software essentially never goes down. Salespeople talking about “four nines” (99.99%) are not enough to ensure that your teachers and students will have critical access during peak usage times. What’s more important are the answers to the following questions.
What’s the highest number of concurrent users you’ve had? Many companies will readily share estimates of how many users, schools or districts have signed up for their service, but what’s most important is how many users can operate in the software at the same time. It’s one thing to have millions of users in software once a day and an entirely different thing to have millions of users all pushing the same buttons at the same time.
Describe how you scale when you bring on new users. Horizontal scale, or the ability to add app servers proactively, quickly and on demand, before your users experience slow page loads is key. Vendors should be able to explain how they are notified of higher-than-usual traffic and what proactive measures they take to ensure sufficient bandwidth at peak times, as well as average page-load times.
How a vendor provides support is almost as important as their software, especially when you may have a lot of new users at once. Districts need to ask questions about both typical software support and available community support.
When do you provide live support? Beware of vendors who have restricted hours for when live humans will answer questions. Often, companies will say they have 24/7/365 support, but they only staff call centers during business hours. After hours “support” is access to their online guides. Unfortunately, teachers are often doing the heavy lifting of lesson planning or grading outside the regular business day and can’t wait until Monday morning to get things done.
Who else near me uses your product? Equally important is the local community of users around your school district. What does your neighbor district use? What about your local community college, vocational technical school or university? These can be great sources of advice, expertise and pre-built content, in a pinch.
Look to large districts
If your district is feeling overwhelmed by choices and you need to move faster, the safest choice may be what the extra-large districts choose. Ask vendors how many of the top 10 biggest districts, how many states, or how many districts with more than 100,000 students are their clients.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to vendors. We’re all here for you.
Trenton Goble is vice president of K-12 strategy for Canvas. He is a former school principal and author of Reclaiming the Classroom: How America’s Teachers Lost Control of Education and How They Can Get It Back.
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