Why some schools pay $100 more for the same iPads

By Dennis Pierce
March 9th, 2016


Education technology experts discuss various solutions to the ‘broken’ process of ed-tech purchasing

The ed-tech procurement process is broken, said former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Harold Levy during the 2016 South by Southwest Education (SXSWedu) conference in Austin, Texas, March 8—and to prove it, he said a study last month found disparities of more than $100 per unit on how much schools were paying for the exact same iPad model.

In a session titled “Begging for Disruption: Ed-Tech Procurement,” Levy and the other panelists discussed the problems that school districts have in discovering, evaluating, and buying technology products that meet their specific needs.

They also shared information about new services that aim to bring more transparency to the buying process for schools—including a nonprofit organization called the Technology for Education Consortium (TEC) that just launched last month.

Levy, who is now executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, said ed-tech companies have to be more transparent in their pricing and in the services they offer to schools.

But school districts bear some of the responsibility as well, he said: District leaders must be better at comparing various products and determining their efficacy.

A product’s brand name “is too often a substitute for quality,” Levy said. “And buying the wrong technology means that bad technology wins, because investors end up going with what sells, not what is best.”

Hal Friedlander is the former chief information officer for the New York City Public Schools. He left that position to form TEC and is that organization’s chief executive.

In his former role as the CIO for the nation’s largest school system, Friedlander found ed-tech procurement to be “eye-gougingly frustrating,” he said. He hopes TEC will help improve the buying process for other school district CIOs.

School systems can join TEC free of charge. As members, they can benefit from the collective wisdom and buying experiences of other consortium members—including the discounts they’ve negotiated and problems they’ve encountered with implementation.

Members of the consortium include six of the nation’s 10 largest school systems so far, representing more than 9 million students altogether, said TEC Research Analyst Ipek Bakir.

To get a sense for how widely ed-tech pricing varies from district to district, even for the same product, TEC analyzed how much school systems nationwide paid per unit when buying iPad Air tablets with wi-fi connectivity and 16 gigabytes of memory. The organization relied on publicly available data from school district websites and on conversations with CIOs from school districts of all sizes for its research.

TEC found what Levy called “crazy discrepancies” in the purchase price of these iPad Airs, ranging from a low of $367 to a high of $499—for a difference of $132. What’s more, this difference had nothing to do with the size of the district or the volume of its purchase: Many small districts reportedly got a better price than districts 10 times larger.

What seemed to define the cost of the iPad Airs was not the size of the district, but the relationship between the district and its sales rep—or, in some cases, the “chutzpah” of the district in negotiating, Levy said.

“We need to make this market more transparent, and we need to band together to make sure we’re not being taken advantage of,” he said. “This is just wrong. Yes, we live in a system of capitalism, and companies have a right to make a profit—but this is taxpayer money we’re talking about.”

Greater transparency on pricing will help, but school systems also must improve how they evaluate new ed-tech products. “We did an exceptionally poor job [of that] for the amount of money we poured into the market,” Friedlander acknowledged, referring to his former district.

One of the problems was that the people responsible for choosing classroom technology “were often the least qualified,” he said. Those who were most qualified—the teachers themselves—didn’t play a meaningful role in the process.

“Teachers are paid to be in the classroom; they spend a lot of time doing things outside the classroom, but they don’t get paid for those,” he explained. Asking teachers to take on even more responsibility by helping to evaluate new technologies is “almost an impossibility. … It’s very hard for us to pull people together.”

Besides TEC, the session revealed three other sources for help with finding, evaluating, and choosing new ed-tech products:

  • Noodle Markets CEO Nicole Neal discussed her company’s platform, which contains an online marketplace of ed-tech vendors, products, and services. Users can compare products, read third-party product reviews, and create requests for proposals that vendors can respond to. Registration is free for educators and administrators, while vendors pay a fee for the ability to peruse and respond to RFPs filed through the system.

Noodle Markets aims to connect school districts with ed-tech vendors, Neal said—and it can help ensure that teachers are included in the procurement process as well. “It’s a social community where teachers can search for appropriate products, curate the products they’ve found, and push information about these to the people making the buying decisions,” she said.

  • Edtech Concierge is a service that matches schools with “a short list of possible solutions to their needs,” said Senior Product Manager Leonard Medlock. Ed-tech buyers schedule a phone call to identify their needs, and then Edtech Concierge assembles a list of options, discusses these with the client, and makes introductions to the companies whose products best fill the bill.
  • LearnTrials CEO Karl Rectanus discussed his company’s platform, which helps schools run education technology pilots and quickly determine the efficacy of the software in question. Rectanus described LearnTrials as “an ed-tech ecosystem” that provides visibility for school district CIOs into how software is used in their district.

“We can run a rigorous analysis of an ed-tech pilot in up to two days,” he said—a process that typically takes large school systems several months to complete. The platform also aggregates user feedback, so school district leaders can pass this information along to the vendor easily—resulting in better implementation.

“Getting that data is hugely valuable for vendors as well as schools, so they can get better products to market,” Rectanus said.

[photo via Todd Dailey/Flickr]

About the Author:

The former editor-in-chief of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer covering education and technology.