Some districts dread the end of a laptop or technology contract, envisioning a spate of committee meetings, budget decisions and equipment overhauls. But the York Region School Board in Toronto couldn't wait to dig in and get a fresh start and the result has been a whole new way to approach purchasing of laptops and other technology.
The district's contract with Dell for equipment and services was due for renewal early this year and the deadline gave directors and educators a chance to develop a request for proposals that was about more than just servers, laptops and routers.
It was a chance to forge a new type of partnership with technology vendors that took a long-term view, according to Bill Vansickle, senior buyer of the district's Purchasing Services Department.
"In the past, we used to just tell vendors that we need computers and they'd come back to us with a price and that would be that," he says. "But we've matured and become more sophisticated. Technology in the classroom now needs to be supported by vendors and there needs to be more of a relationship between districts and vendors. It's just a different world than even five years ago."
A more comprehensive vision also became necessary for accommodating the district's expansion. One of the fastest growing in Canada, York has 143 elementary schools, 28 secondary schools, 20 other buildings, and new schools opening every year. With a vendor that took that type of growth into consideration, the district could feel confident about putting technology in place that didn't just keep schools current but also cutting edge.
How York approached its technology purchasing isn't just a model for Canada, though. Every district, whether in the U.S. or Canada, faces similar challenges in implementing technology, a process that's rife with educator and staff training, budgetary considerations and support contracts. Meeting those needs through a comprehensive, detailed RFP can serve districts well into the future, educators say.
"Ideally, every district wants full integration of technology in a way that's meaningful and measurable," says Paula Bennett, information services director at York. "It doesn't matter where the district is because that's a goal that transcends geography."
As the district discovered, putting an effective technology plan into place involves much more than thinking about hard drive memory and server capacity, however. It necessitates conversations with vendors that help them understand the district, and asking them to commit to being a partner, not just a seller.
Road to RFP
Before any of the RFP was written, district administrators took a step back in their proposal creation. In 2003, they had drafted a document detailing how the district used technology, including laptops, and what educational results were expected from the integration of technology with curriculum.
Titled Technology and the Learner, the 39-page document describes expectations for students, teachers and administrators. For example, teachers are asked to include technology goals in their learning plans, and reminded not to "assess students on their ability to use technology, but rather, [to] assess the learning that takes place with the technology."
Such distinctions create a nuanced glimpse of the district's aims, says curriculum coordinator Todd Wright, who served on the RFP committee. Just as notably, these goals highlight the district's desire to have a range of technology rather than deal with a single vendor. Although the schools in the district have been predominantly Dell-based, York has found that it wants to bring in a wider array of desktops, laptops and devices, and it emphasized that move to vendors.
"We wanted vendors to understand that student achievement drives our efforts," Wright notes. "One size wouldn't fit all and we wanted technology partners that could apply their knowledge and expertise to the task of integrating technology into our curriculum, not just selling us laptops."
The district description was handed out to vendors during another significant part of the process, the pre-RFP presentations. During a series of meetings, vendors were told about the district, its needs, and its potential technology environment for the future. They were asked to come back after having read Technology and the Learner, and propose a vision for York that showed they understood what the district was trying to convey.
Several vendors got knocked from contention for failing to do what every student in the district knew was imperative: your homework.
"About four out of eight showed that they 'got' what we were saying by echoing the goals of the document," says Wright. "The rest didn't bother, and we felt that said something about how they would approach being a partner to the district."
The vendors that did absorb the district's lesson came back with an array of proposals that was striking in their creativity, Wright notes. York had asked for a vision of what a technology-enabled classroom would look like. Some vendors provided actual drawings of where computers could be located, complete with laptop docking stations, and diagrams of how students would move within those environments.
Other vendors used text to create descriptions of what students would accomplish with the technology, and just for good measure, included a wealth of research that it had obviously taken time to track down. Basically, when asked to think beyond just selling equipment, the four vendors rose to the challenge and provided new ways of thinking about York's classrooms.
By being clear about their expectations and asking vendors for more research than they had done for past RFPs, York guided the process rather than having the vendors do all the driving. Together, the district and vendors began creating a strong program, rather than having one side working against the other.
"We were blown away by the work they put into this," Wright says. "The drawings and text were right on track, and in many cases, they helped us to refine what was going into the RFP."
York's RFP had four main elements to address both the equipment and support aspects of what was needed:
1. Technology that included desktops, notebooks, tablet computers and servers.
2. A self-maintenance program that involved vendor-supplied training of the district's technicians so they could service much of the equipment without having to call the vendor for support.
3. An enterprise-level service program with a direct line to support and service, a technician coming to the district when needed, and delivery of parts as necessary.
4. Value-added services encompassing areas such as professional development for educators, and ideas about how to incorporate technology from different vendors while still maintaining interoperability.
Vendors receiving the RFP were made aware that York established internal departmental partnerships between its Information Technology Services, Curriculum & Instructional Services, and Purchasing Services departments. "The collaborative working relationships modeled by these departments ensure that [York] monitors and manages the return on their technology investment, whether it is instructional or administrative," the RFP notes.
"We made it clear both in the presentations and in the RFP itself that we were looking for much more than just low prices on computers," says Bennett.
A major factor for vendors to consider when drafting proposals was the implementation of a new wide area network, currently being constructed at York. The network will mark a significant infrastructure advance, the RFP notes, which is expected to change how the school district deploys and manages both administrative functions and educational initiatives.
"Already, we've made large strides with the network, and we expect our vendor to be aware of how it changes our future," says Vansickle. "If they can put together a proposal that makes full use of the network and offers a customized approach to meeting our goals, that's very exciting to us."
In addition to requesting services and support, the RFP is also strikingly specific about the technology the district wanted, and clear distinctions are made between machines used in the elementary schools as compared to the upper-level schools.
For example, desktop configurations in the elementary schools will have CD-ROM drives that are removable, but secondary schools need CD/DVD readers to access more multimedia effectively. "Primary students have different needs than intermediate students," Bennett says. "We thought vendors should do the research into what would best benefit each group, and making distinctions through the RFP helped to accomplish that."
As York discovered, creating an RFP that goes beyond just a description of necessary equipment and challenges vendors to do some legwork in terms of research and potential service arrangements, can help to establish a district's technology vision. It also shows which vendors are in it for the long haul.
Although it might seem like vendors would flinch at being asked to put so much effort into their proposals, many districts might be surprised at how eager companies are to roll up their sleeves and do the work.
"When we see an RFP that is really about meeting larger educational goals, we love it," says Kathy Thomas, Dell's manager of education strategy. "It challenges us to be a partner, not just a vendor."
What was unusual about York's request was that it addressed how the district would measure success, Thomas notes, and how it wanted a cohesive approach to purchasing, service and integration.
In creating RFPs, being able to differentiate vendor offerings from each other is particularly valuable, given the extensive laptop and desktop programs offered by companies like Hewlett Packard and Apple.
Apple, in particular, has been aggressively promoting its "one-to-one learning" program, which provides school-issued laptops to every student as well as its mobile computing labs. The company notes that it has seen more RFPs that include requests for teacher training and more extensive support two areas that Apple is eager to accommodate.
Just as eager to fold services, support and training into their proposals is Hewlett Packard, which also offers one-to-one programs and other mobile computing options. HP adds that security has become a new trend for RFPs within the past few years, as schools work to keep data safe while still encouraging collaboration.
No matter which vendors are approached with an RFP, there are key elements that can be especially effective, says Thomas.
"From the beginning, districts need to lay out an educational plan, and articulate how they see technology helping to achieve those goals," Thomas says. "They also need to include criteria about how success is measured. Those three elements are vital."
Although such elements can create a solid base for proposals, districts can also benefit greatly from tailoring their RFPs. Sometimes, districts have a tendency to use an older proposal, or even borrow a template from another district and just "cut and paste" their equipment needs.
But by doing this, they could be missing out on the chance to get some creativity flowing among their vendor candidates, and even spark new ideas about how to integrate technology into their classrooms and administrative offices.
"RFPs don't usually make me smile," says Thomas. "But when you see a district really passionate about integrating technology [with] their curriculum, and challenging vendors to get just as enthusiastic, that's always fun."
York had not chosen a vendor by press time. When it does have a proposal, the district knows that it will have a partner, and that brings a great deal of comfort that its technology objectives can be met, notes Vansickle.
"We're confident that our vendor will be just as involved with the district's technology as we are," he says. "To say that's valuable is an understatement."
Elizabeth Millard is a technology writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.