Pandemic’s purchasing punch: Ed tech procurement in the COVID era

How the coronavirus pandemic has created technology purchasing challenges and what it means for the future of tech buying for schools

With the quick-changing landscape of ed tech and the plethora of products available, incorporating evidence-based programs is key for districts under tight budgets, even in normal times. That’s the case even more so now, with COVID-19-triggered digital learning necessities and the need for pandemic-related budget cuts. While many products are currently being offered for free, costs will eventually kick in.

The questions are many. Are the programs improving outcomes? What type of research exists? What roles should district leaders play in educating vendors on what they need?

Here’s a look at eight big realities related to ed tech purchasing during school closures and how to they navigate current and future buying decisions.

1. Providers are being flexible about pricing structures.

In Wisconsin, where procurement is under local control, vendors are adapting to district needs, such as by structuring pricing by usage and not by license to fit how the product is being used, explains Janice Mertes, the assistant director of teaching and digital learning for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

2. Provider pitches are often overwhelming.

Districts are inundated with calls and emails from what vendors are offering. They need help, says Candice Dodson, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), adding that state departments and organizations, such as SETDA, should help with vetting. The Universal Learning Technology ID collaborative vendor project, announced in May 2020 by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), is one such effort. With IDs assigned to ed tech products, administrators can more easily search for what they need.

The project is being supported by CoSN, the Jefferson Education Exchange, Project Unicorn and SETDA.

3. Such pitches may be more targeted, thanks to feedback.

Mertes sees more vendors customizing case studies to show Wisconsin districts the effects of demographics and changes on instructional sizes. Companies are getting more savvy in what they need to pitch; by understanding an individual district’s base core framework and resources, they can more effectively collaborate to accomplish their learning objectives within the district’s existing ecosystem, she finds.

That includes an increase in support of pilot programs. District leaders are realizing the importance of sharing perspective and experiences with vendors, including product experiences, lifecycles usage and issues. She has also observed an increased number of districts completing requests for ed tech reviews.

More partnerships for tech purchasing help

Utah School Technology Inventory: Connected Nation partnered with the Utah Education and Telehealth Network on the project, working with more than 1,000 public schools to gather more than 17,000 data points. The initiative tracked how schools use technology, including how teachers and students access digital content, devices and platforms.

Digital Promise: This nonprofit was authorized by Congress in 2008 as the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies. It commissions and conducts research studies on educational product effectiveness among other initiatives.

Education Technology Joint Powers Authority: This purchasing consortium was formed by four school districts, which coordinate purchases of products and services to benefit member agencies. It enables district leaders to take an active role by joining others to gain better ed tech pricing and vendor responsiveness.

4. There’s no shortage of resources available to help with buying decisions.

As with Wisconsin, Indiana schools are under local control for ed tech procurement. But state-level vendor conversations help schools define best practices, says Dodson of SETDA.

The new SETDA Coalition for eLearning portal, its edWeb community and a series of webinars offer educators case studies, e-learning planning documents, vetted tools and resources from nonprofit and for-profit private sector partners, district pilot examples and more. It enables district leaders to learn more about the “language” of pricing negotiations and transparencies, and the possibilities of shared purchasing and utilization throughout the district.

With more than 7,000 ed tech products and services, it is not feasible for individual districts to develop individual expertise on so many products because of different technology environments, number of initiatives, demographics and more, says Bart Epstein, CEO of the Jefferson Education Exchange.

5. Districts are hungrier than ever for data on program success.

In 2017, the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, Digital Promise and the Jefferson Education Accelerator hosted the EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium, after a year-long collaboration between 150 education leaders.

District decision-makers expressed interest in knowing more about what their peers are doing. It is a collective action problem, Epstein explains. While district leaders don’t take (or have) the time to document their ed tech efficiency and efficacy details, they want to benefit from the insight of others who document why and what ed tech decisions they made. A resource was needed to investigate the academic reasons by building a system for collecting feedback.

In October 2019, the nonprofit formed steering committees for the Ed Tech Genome Project. Its year-long mission is to build an evidence-based framework around 10 variables connected to ed tech implementation success or failure, and why tools work differently in various contexts.

6. Purchasing ability is limited now but districts are still adding to remote learning infrastructure.

During the challenges presented by school closings due to COVID-19, Mertes finds districts are “skinnying down” purchases but customizing what they already have in place to their remote learning needs. By doing so, administrators are seeing where their ed tech gaps may be and choosing to purchase integrative programs, such as a standalone resource with specific content assessment capabilities, or creation and collaboration tools.

Dodson cautions against integrating new programs into the digital learning mix. She points to budget as one reason; schools need to be strategic about what they spend as budget adjustments due to 2020’s school closures are unknown.

“If you have to do more digitally, like we are doing now with school closures, you may need to reject certain programs in favor of those that work more efficiently in engaging kids online and in teacher professional development,” Dodson says.

7. Current usage data is needed for future decisions.

With social distancing and professional conference cancellations due to COVID-19, educators don’t have the informal networking and information-sharing time to learn from each other, Epstein says. Most administrators are also overwhelmed by the crisis, doing what they can to deliver services to students, keep technology systems up and help their educators.

“It looks like it will be feast-or-famine for ed tech companies,” says Epstein. “Now is the time when schools need to understand what they already have. As for free [products] being offered, if those programs can support schools, the tech could become part of the schools’ permanent plan. Programs that aren’t being used efficiently-and the schools realize it-will not be spending priorities going forward.”

Dodson suggests school districts look over the summer at what they have purchased, what schools have been using and what parents are comfortable with.

Tools, such as the LearnPlatform ed tech effectiveness system, enable schools to inventory, streamline and analyze their ed tech.

8. Implementation and support are more challenging for educators and staff during school closures.

“Ed tech has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have,” says Epstein. Big additions come with challenges, however. “Implementing tech in ordinary times is hard, but now, students, teachers and administrators are all remote. It is several orders of magnitude more difficult to do tech in these unprecedented times with untried technology. Districts can underestimate how much time it takes with training, support, supplies and more.”

“We are currently studying how much it matters to give teachers substantial agency over the technology that makes it into their classrooms,” says Epstein. “If a school changes from a tech product that is used and the teachers have no say over it, the implementation success may be different. When teachers don’t feel heard or when they are not given enough planning time, it really matters.”

Ariana Fine is a Connecticut-based writer and editor.

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