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5 steps to move technology purchasing into the 21st century

Choosing and buying the right technology can be a daunting process, especially if you don’t know where to begin

technology-procurementWith marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, Google Marketplace, AirBNB, and OpenTable, it’s quite conceivable to think purchasing educational technology for the 116,000 schools across the United States in a $12B market would be as easy as buying a toothbrush online. Point. Click. Buy.

Rather the opposite is true. Ed tech procurement is a very analog process in a very digital world. I have seen this as Superintendent of the Howard-Winneshiek Community School District (Howard-Winn) in rural northeast Iowa. Investments in ed tech companies reached historic levels rising to $2 billion in 2014. The choice and innovation is great, but finding and buying even simple things can tax our resources.

As Superintendent my goal, like that of my colleagues across the country, is to ensure we have the most up-to-date technology in the hands of learners—kids and adults. Historically, it’s been inefficient to discover the right products. There are many vendors and sales people. Deciphering the best solutions to even begin conversations can be daunting.

We believe it is critical that 21st century students have 21st century tools that will empower them to think, learn, and create. In that sense, it seems that current procurement practices within our industry are working against us.

Next page: How to involve students and develop trust


Our district’s technology coordinator, Harold Jensen, has seen this first hand during an outdoor WAN project implementation this past year. It was tough to find qualified providers without a vetted marketplace or any true exchange of information, so countless hours were spent trying to find and vet a solid answer.

Once reserved for graduate school finance classes, school procurement is entering mainstream conversations. Recently, there have been three organizations pioneering the study of school procurement: Johns Hopkins University released a 170-page report (see our recommendations below). Digital Promise, a congressionally-mandated nonprofit and the Education Industry Association (EIA), an industry trade group, are also doing pioneering work. The basis of this work is fixing an antiquated system

Two years ago, I had the honor of leading one of Iowa’s first K-12 one-to-one tablet and laptop initiatives. This put a digital device in the hand of every student. Iowa has one of the highest density of such programs in the U.S., second only to Maine. To excel at both digital learning and one-to-one, procuring the right tools effectively and efficiently needs to be a cornerstone.

Here is how we took educational technology purchasing into the 21st Century for our students:

1. Get student involvement in technology purchasing decisions

In our district, students are included in the initial evaluation of a solution we are considering. We believe students need to evaluate the technology first-hand. Student input is weighted heavily and has proved nothing short of successful. It’s all about the kids.

2. Do your homework on the vendors you work with. Trust is important.

Vendors and schools need to be on the same page with technology and implementation. Having the “trust conversation” early with a vendor leads to optimal success for student learning. The focus needs to be on the students not the technology. Learning needs to take center stage, with the technology living more in the background. Trust and due diligence goes a long way. A recent post from Digital Promise goes in depth on this topic as well.

Next page: Connect with the community


3. Think jets, not steam trains; think digital, not analog.

To get 21st century outcomes, we need think in 21st century terms. Leasing is a good example of this. Leasing our Apple products ensures we have the most recent hardware, updated every three years for students, while retaining the residual value of it. Marketplaces such as 3rd Quote can help reduce the noise and ensure schools can find and vet products quickly based on other schools’ reviews and efficacy. Additionally, it is a great platform to exchange information about providers and the effectiveness of products. This efficiency, in turn, allows the focus to be on students and learning.

4. Break down the silos.

Schools need to move away from silo-based kingdoms to working in collaboration on procurement with school districts in their local area. This can also lead to other forms of resource sharing. Reaching out to other districts has huge advantages with educational technology procurement. Area Educational Agencies (AEA)—like our local Keystone AEA—are great resources for procurement beyond the siloed kingdom.

5. Establish business partnerships.

Taking a look beyond the school campus to business and industry gives valuable insight into the skills and technologies needed to prepare students post graduation. Developing these partnerships early on in the decision-making process—to help guide procurement decisions—will yield huge dividends for learning and student success.

To new and even established superintendents, I offer these four additional tips:

  1. Reach out to me at Howard-Winneshiek for advice.
  2. Network with other superintendents.
  3. Discuss ed tech purchases with stakeholders especially students.
  4. Make decisions that serve children best.

There are myriad of vendors and options to match the needs of not just the district, but, most importantly, the students. As a champion of digital learning and student success, we are taking big strides in digitizing the procurement of educational technology.

John Carver is Superintendent of Howard-Winneshiek Community Schools in Cresco, Iowa. Follow him @johnccarver.

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