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EdTech procurement – 5 ways to be a better buyer

Ed Fairfield presents a checklist of edtech procurement tasks schools should work through before clicking on that ‘Buy’ button or signing on the dotted line...

  • EdTech procurement – 5 ways to be a better buyer

Technology isn’t a solution. Technology doesn’t deliver improved learning. Technology doesn’t reduce teacher workload, and it also won’t improve outcomes.

It’s the same with plastic. Plastic, in itself, can’t help children to understand obtuse versus acute angles, or enable them to draw straight lines. When schools understand and use such items effectively, though, when they become embedded into the day-to-day, and when users actively value how they work – that’s where the magic happens.

Prone to error

The good news is that more schools than ever now understand this. If the last decade has taught us anything about edtech, it’s that it’s all too easy to buy new technology, only for it to end up in the ICT Cupboard of Doom, doing little more than collecting dust as a depreciating asset.

These risks will become ever greater as edtech extends further into not just every corner of our schools, but also the computing clouds hovering over us all as individuals. Think software subscriptions, apps, ‘Teams vs SeeSaw vs Google Workspace vs Kahoot’ (in use concurrently at some schools I work with), teachers’ laptops running Windows, sat beside staff iPads.

And yet, even as we’ve all become increasingly tech-savvy and wise, the actual processes involved in the procurement of edtech are becoming more prone to error than ever before, making it essential that schools are able to fine tune their decision-making.

Edtech is here to stay; it’s essential, it’s expensive and it’s also easy to get wrong. Here, then, is a set of considerations every school should make each time their mouse cursors are poised above the ‘Buy Now’ button. Think of it as an edtech checklist schools should tick before they click.

1 | Consider your objective(s)

An edtech or ICT Strategy is your ‘why / what / how’. A framework of aims and objectives that you’d like edtech to help you achieve, supported by plans on how this will happen. The question you must ask yourself whenever you’re considering a purchase is, ‘Will this help me achieve a specific listed objective in my ICT strategy? Can I define how?’ If the purchase you have in mind doesn’t pass the test, think again.

A classic example of this can be when a school purchases a replacement entry-level classroom projector – by doing so, they’re perpetuating inadequate provision, rather than moving things forward. Or else they might get excited by a tempting summer term offer for 30 flipcams – in this instance, what’s the ‘why’?

2 | Make a fully-informed choice

Technology can be complicated, littered with jargon and often present a challenge when trying to compare like with like.

Attending the annual Bett show, for example, will often entail having 20+ sales conversations about a given product type. The information you receive will frequently be contradictory and fragmented, leaving you with sore feet and feeling none the wiser.

Regardless, edtech purchasing decisions equating to millions of pounds of are made each year based on precisely this type of ‘research’. So next time you think you’re ready to make a purchase, ask yourself the following…

  • Do I know what I’m talking about? Can I confidently justify my decision compared to alternatives?
  • Is there jargon involved that I don’t fully understand?
  • Have I found agnostic information that will enable me to make a like-for-like comparison?
  • Is there evidence of the solution’s effectiveness?
  • Have I experienced the technology myself and verified that it’s fit for purpose?

3 | Earn the trust of your users

Research I’ve carried out in my role at Elementary Technology has indicated to me that trust – or rather the lack of it – is a big issue in edtech.

There are two main facets to this; trust among users in the technology itself, and trust among schools in the technology’s suppliers (see point 4). An individual that doesn’t fully trust someone or something will naturally be more cautious and less willing to engage – both of which are behaviours that can set you off on the wrong foot when it comes to technology.

This can be particularly relevant in the event of siloed decision-making, such as a network manager procuring tech on behalf of their teacher colleagues, or a MAT making choices on behalf of its schools.

Without prior warning, the school is suddenly the recipient of a pallet of shiny new edtech. Said edtech’s intended users – usually teachers – will be curious, but also wary of the unknown. They’ll likely have some concerns around changes to their workload and the expectations that will henceforth be made of them. Without meaning to, the school has immediately created a barrier to the edtech’s wider adoption.

The important takeaway here is to therefore consider your end users. Make sure you consult them, perhaps using a Forms user survey, focus group or simply via face-to-face conversations. By sure to involve them, maybe by sending them updates on how the purchase decision is progressing, and/or inviting them to view a demonstration prior to a decision being made.

Above all, share your plan with them. When a purchasing decision is made, announce it to the school and invite feedback. That way, when the shiny pallet turns up, your colleagues will be more ready to embrace it and you’ll see better value as a school.

4 | Exercise vigilance

It’s entirely possible for a company representative to sound charming and knowledgeable on the phone, win the trust of a school and succeed in supplying that school with technology solutions.

Due diligence remains essential, though, with several ‘credibility clues’ that schools can actively watch out for. You could start by searching out previous examples of the company’s experience and past successes, or a reference site from a school similar to yours.

Ask around – if the company can’t point to its prior achievements, you should probably move on and proceed to look elsewhere. Some companies may display certain ‘badges of honour’, such as being partnered with a widely- recognised manufacturer or developer.

Look for any wins of education-themed awards and preferred supplier agreements with MATs and public sector organisations. See if the company is included on any procurement frameworks, such as Crown Commercial Service or YPO.

Moreover, do they talk your language? Do they understand your needs as their customer? Does it look as though they’ve spread themselves thinly, perhaps by supplying businesses operating in spaces other than education? Will that affect the service they can offer you?

Be demanding! Ask for evidence of any claims, insist on training, drill down into the knowledge their representatives possess and ensure you’re given options.

5 | Ask about training

So, you’re clear as to the ‘why’, the ‘what’ has been delivered – now it’s the ‘how’. How will your school get best value from the edtech solution it’s chosen and maximise its use?

Before it was abolished, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) recommended that 20% of ICT spend be dedicated to training. My experience as a supplier is that schools aren’t prepared to fund anywhere near that – and having seen some suppliers’ provision, to be honest I can see why.

There is, however, good training to be had out there, which schools should insist on receiving. Before ordering, consider the training dimension. What will be included in your purchase? Is it developed with teachers in mind? Will it be formative, or consist of a basic one-off session?

Can the provider offer support for training an in-house champion? Will there be separate support for your own ICT team? Consider also the software and firmware side. Can the solution be updated, and for how long will it be supported? Are there any ongoing costs? Poor edtech training and lack of CPD can present significant barriers to learning.

With all that in mind, perhaps the single biggest question you should ask yourself is this: ‘Do I have a long-term, supported plan to ensure this technology will help me deliver better education?’.

Ed Fairfield is the vice chair of Naace – The Education Technology Association, a senior manager at Elementary Technology and a school governor overseeing ICT; follow him at @mreddtech.

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