EdTech Hidden Gems for Indiana Schools: Improving our Procurement Practices

Thus far in this series, we’ve been working up through foundation layers of the edtech stack. Today we shift our focus to general procurement practices.

Introduction

If you are a school leader or enterprising classroom teacher, is your inbox flooded with marketing messaging from edtech vendors? Have they provided you with bullet lists for how their solution aligns with ESSER funding requirements? And are any of them catching your attention with that language, motivating you towards a purchase? Or are you feeling your motivation wane because of too many similar messages clouding your decision-making?

Today, we’re talking about procurement and looking at some of the inside baseball around this important work for improving teaching and learning. However, tuning the signal-to-noise ratio to make excellent choices may feel as daunting as picking a bottle of ketchup at your local supermarket, and for good reason. We have an abundance of choice from condiments to classroom tools anymore, and sifting through the options is energy-draining—especially when we’re decision-fatigued and short-handed. Even if cash-rich, school districts are resource-poor in other ways such as attracting talent in key roles and satisfying divergent demands from all the stakeholders across the learning community.

teachers meeting in a library

As the Spring semester continues, so does a season of transition for education leaders across the state. If we’re being honest, we’re hoping the ‘22-’23 school year feels more like the start of the ‘19-’20 school year did. Except, with a much better second act, of course. We’ve gotten used to dealing with the menace and specter of the pandemic, in spite of the mayhem and disruption it continues to deliver. Only history will be able to tell us if we did the best we could as educators, and some of the tools we can optimize ahead of the next school year can give us a solid foothold on recovering missed learning and supporting SEL for students and staff by investing in more efficient tools that put seconds, minutes, and in aggregate hours back into our schedules is a priority for many educators. In fact, protecting instructional time directly and indirectly should be the priority for procurement this season. Let’s improve our shrewd stewardship of school and district budgets, now flush with federal and state dollars from the CARES to ESSER funding.

Having significant experience on either side of the evaluation and closing table, I know as an educator what it feels like to be courted well vs. poorly, and as an account executive when educators make less than ideal procurement decisions. Below, I offer advice to educators for managing the timeline from the point of entering the market and how to best interact with your prospective vendor’s sales process. Here is a checklist to review as you and your leadership team consider your needs:

PREPARING TO GO TO MARKET

  • Gap or no gap? Whether staff ask for a new tool or you notice a growing problem with your current vendor(s), ask yourself and team:
    • What features or functionality is our current vendor’s solution missing?
    • Have you checked with your vendor for a deadline on when relevant new features may be released?
    • Do you know what gaps an alternative solution may have to prevent trading one problem for another?
    • How many users across your school or district does the current solution impact?
  • Knowing your local and state procurement policies before engaging a vendor:
    • Will the purchase come from the general operating budget?
    • Does the solution/service qualify for eRate, Title I, IV, IX, CARES/ESSER funding
    • Do you have the budget to cover the total cost of ownership into perpetuity?
    • Do you have to go to RFP or through another formal procurement process?
    • Does the vendor have to be approved (local/state) before consideration?

If you know what to buy, how it will be funded, who it’s for, and who the qualified vendors are, you can move forward with opening the door to vendors to present their offerings. As you start the process, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. You will like elements from each vendor better than the other, whether it’s based on price, the personality of the sales rep, or the ease of use for the UI/UX. So, working candidly with your team, you can discuss each of these salient things and many others to arrive at consensus. Here are some tips for when you’re ready to buy.

  • The goal is to gain an understanding for how long it typically takes to evaluate and commit in accordance with when you’d start using a given tool, including time for implementation and training.
  • Discover the pricing range for such a tool as you’re considering comparable features.
  • Work internally to develop a T-Chart with must have/nice to have features.
  • Appoint a teammate as project manager and point of contact for your team, school, or district depending on the scale of the implementation.
  • Develop evaluation criteria internally before entering the market. Sales teams will position their solution against the competition in a manner that showcases the show ponies, and keeps any glaring feature gaps in sharp focus until mitigated.
  • If the product demos well, don’t be afraid to be first in state for a tool. You get the utmost of attention and priority when things don’t go as expected or when a technical glitch rears its head. You also can leverage incentives to make the tool more affordable, get more for the dollar than those that follow your lead, and in the instance where your school needs a competitive advantage, can align that tool’s functionality to your district or school’s strategic plan.
  • Aid the sales rep in understanding where you are in the process. Don’t be afraid to ask about how they organize their leads and tell them the stage you are in and when you intend to make a decision between vendors.
  • Help in building consensus at the right pace. If you fail, that’s indicative of either a culture issue or a miss in the product promise to solve your unique variation of the problem their solution addresses. A good sales rep knows that building consensus means empowering the “champions” and taking away the objections from “blockers” on your team. They can aid in the politics, but your school’s culture benefits from your ability to navigate any extant tension between people, roles, departments.

Certainly, being empathetic to all parties involved is essential. And that stays authentic if all parties feel they can share their concerns and desires. This includes representatives from each role or cohort that are impacted by the decision. A few thoughts:

  • Seek input from all affected by a tool: fellow administrators, support staff, teachers, parents, and don’t forget students. Procurement opportunities are great chances to promote equity by giving voice to all, building trust in leadership. Just make sure to offer clear guidelines as to the sort of feedback you need from each unique role and develop a rubric for evaluating feedback from across the learning community.
  • As the process moves towards a decision, ask to talk with the vendor’s product designers. Compare their statements to their teammates’ marketing claims for your school, district, or state requirements.
  • Don’t take the bait of a discount in favor of a long contract for certain purchases. Money saved in the short run could be a ball and chain or lead to nasty contract disputes. All this negative energy is avoidable. Instead, offer event and case study support because assisting the vendor build a user community benefits all parties.
  • Ask for references to successful school partners and interview them—even if they’re in a different state. Make a list of questions including such as:
    • What incentives were you offered?
    • How did they handle data interoperability by integrating with all the other tools in your platform?
    • What was the onboarding process like?
    • What do you wish you’d done differently in the process?

When ready, make a firm commitment to a vendor as soon as you are comfortable moving forward, knowing you can commit the time, money, and energy with fidelity to implementing their solution according to their plan. Keep in mind:

  • For big purchases that affect the entire learning community, it’s like mountain climbing—you’re only halfway done once you reach the summit.
  • The time commitment is the easiest one to fudge. Don’t. Make room in your calendar from a mutually-derived launch date, think about rolling out in phases if necessary, and backwards plan so you know when you need to make a decision. You can share this with the vendor and their implementation team and adjust accordingly.
  • Consider hiring a qualified consultant or managed services partner to make sure your investment is properly managed and implemented and the early days are as positive as possible, especially if you’re migrating data from the legacy system to a new one.
“Protecting instructional time directly and indirectly should be the priority for procurement.”

Final Thoughts

To many education leaders, constant management of your current technology stack can feel like a round of digital Jenga being played by a group of mostly well-herded cats. And this is understandable given the constant moving goalposts and stakeholders represented in our work, from families to legislators and all of us professional educators in between.

As an education leader, your team is made from a diverse group of professionals with even more diverse skill sets. Therefore, whether as a teacher, administrator, working with edtech companies, I believe every educator deserves professional tools. Incremental improvement in your procurement processes from market research through onboarding and training are essential to the modern superintendent and director of technology in our profession.