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Partnerships between school districts and edtech developers can be incredibly beneficial--but schools should make sure to ask the right questions of edtech vendors at the outset

3 big questions schools should ask edtech developers

Partnerships between school districts and edtech developers can be incredibly beneficial--but schools should make sure to ask the right questions at the outset

Educators on Twitter know that sharing is something teachers love. If you’re a school leader, it’s likely your school is at the center of your community, with close links to parents, local groups and valuable community initiatives. Working together is the whole ethos of a school. In the daily activities of teachers with their students, collaboration and teamwork is the heart.

Extending that cooperative spirit to embrace edtech vendors is a beneficial mindset for schools. It’s a great chance for teachers to provide real-world guidance and feedback to developers, helping them to shape solutions that fulfil a real purpose and with specific functionality the school needs.

I’ve worked in edtech for nearly three decades and have held multiple voluntary roles at the school board level in the UK over the last 15 years, which gives me considerable insight into both sides of the equation. This unique perspective means I see the opportunities and obstacles for each party, but equally, can provide valuable insights for those schools and edtech companies who do choose to work together. With that in mind, here are some questions to ask when considering the benefits of working with an edtech vendor.

Do we have a clear idea of what our students and teachers need and why?

This question ties in to your school’s digital strategy, its aims, and whether being involved in a collaborative project with a vendor will achieve what is needed for your school or district. Without knowing your district or school’s aims and where the impact is needed, time invested in a partnership will be wasted.

Is the company invested in the education sector?

Programmers not dedicated to education may not be a good fit. Conversely, well-established edtech vendors understand the demands and pressures on teachers, administrators, and IT staff. I always recommend using a company that works primarily in education. Find out their commitments to other projects. Examine research they may have conducted and evidence gathered to prove efficacy. Is your district’s primary need for technology like hardware, whiteboards, microphones, and tablets? Hardware solutions are far different from learning technology that must align to pedagogy. Have desired learning outcomes been factored into the equation? I would suggest that if the vendor’s thinking does not align with your district’s needs and values, you need to look for another vendor.

How much time is needed to build from scratch or modify an existing product?

Sometimes, people are hesitant to tread this path. I surmise that the problem is time. It may seem that the investment in time it would take to work with a company on a solution cannot possibly be worthwhile. But if both sides are clear on their objectives from the beginning, then being involved in co-producing an edtech product can be productive and rewarding.

Firstly, find out from the developer whether they need input from scratch or if it is acceptable to test a completed product. Testing a completed product means that needed improvements and adjustments can be made from feedback, which saves time and money. Growing a product from scratch–for example, designing and developing a solution to record skills acquisition and progress for elementary school pupils, while integrating multiple reporting options and the ability to import data from third-party school management information systems–takes significantly more time than modifying an existing product.

Do not forget to factor in the long-term needs. Teachers are on the ground floor of implementation, so testing and collaborating can create extra work for them. Their feedback is critical not only to design the solution correctly at the beginning, but for buy-in later on. Investing time supports digital strategy and could lead to a free or reduced product price in the future–but only pursue this if the product fits your digital road map.

A final note on understanding the partnership

Finally, remember that transparency and frequent communication is key. Both sides need to respect the other’s circumstances. Suppliers need to be clear about what they want to achieve with their product and set a realistic time frame for receiving feedback so that teachers have ample time to accommodate it into their lesson plans and workflow. Development time tables are tough to manage, so be sure to factor in any potential challenges so that production can continue uninterrupted.

Even with the best laid plans, student learning and security are the paramount concern so software development needs contingencies. Yet, with a carefully chosen collaborator, co-production can have enormous benefits in bringing technology of value to schools. And if it can help you meet your digital strategy goals, it’s a long path that has the best potential to produce a technology solution your school or district actually needs, rather than matching your school’s problem to an existing solution.

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