Compare and Contrast
If school officials are lucky enough to be able to preview presentation equipment before they purchase it, the evaluations are usually made during a trade show or a brief vendor visit. But with districts investing more money in this equipment, the dynamics of how to choose the best equipment is also changing.
Debbie Tschirgi knew there had to be a better way. As the director of Educational Technology Programs for statutory regional service agency ESD 112 in Washington state, she was able to survey 30 districts in southwest Washington. She noticed that all of them were involved in technology grants, and often were buying the same kind of technology, particularly projectors.
It was then that she realized what the power of teamwork could do. If she pulled together a group of district technology directors to serve on an evaluation committee and asked vendors to bring their projectors all on the same day, the result could be an objective evaluation that could be made in hours, not weeks. "Everyone," she says, "was very supportive of the idea."
This kind of product shoot-out, where vendors bring their products to be directly compared against each other, has become a compelling way to do technology purchasing. Not only can it simplify the process, but also it allows districts to put products next to each other, literally, to fully evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. With presentation equipment, this can be especially crucial, since a sheet of specs and a vendor presentation don't always clarify what product will work best in a certain classroom or a specific school.
"When you see them side by side, you're able to have more insight," Tschirgi says. "Not all 1400 lumen projectors are created equally."
Big Time Benefits
The advantages to doing a shoot-out might be obvious to anyone who's had to schedule multiple vendor appointments and do testing. The shoot-outs save time, allow for direct comparisons, and give committee members a feel for what kind of equipment is in the marketplace. But there are also less obvious benefits, such as purchasing power.
Because the school districts that Tschirgi spoke with were all small, they were buying low quantities of presentation equipment. Having a shoot-out in a district that's only going to buy one or two projectors or a single interactive whiteboard wouldn't interest vendors. But when 30 districts band together, they have more purchasing power, resulting in lower prices and more attractive tech support deals.
After Tschirgi found out how interested the districts were, she set the shoot-out plan in motion by inviting eight vendors to bring in projectors. In the past, vendors would have made individual pitches and done demonstrations, but Tschirgi felt that it would be more efficient if the projectors were dropped off and the committee members set them up and ran them. To prevent relying on first impressions or manufacturer specs only, Tschirgi set the criteria before the shoot-out. In addition to looking at the educational pricing being offered, committee members also judged each projector based on specs, support, lamp life, durability, ease of use, warranty and other criteria. The focal point of the day wasn't to find the cheapest projector, Tschirgi notes, but rather, to find the best value for their money.
"It was important for us to be really clear about the intended use of the projectors," she says. "If a projector is going to be moved from classroom to classroom, certain features will surface as being absolutely necessary. However, if a projector is going to stay in the same room, other features will become cornerstones of the selection process."
Having the opportunity to use all of the projectors on the same day, in the same type of classroom, and evaluate ease of setup gave the committee a clearer idea about which projector met their needs. Because the shoot-out was so successful, ESD 112 organized similar shoot-outs for interactive whiteboards, document cameras, digital cameras and digital camcorders.
Since its first shoot-out, districts have learned how to set criteria and evaluate products based on the specific needs of educators. For example, during the interactive whiteboard evaluation, the committee found that the pen tool for the Promethean ACTIVboard was more intuitive than using a finger with another whiteboard. They also preferred Promethean's nationally based tech support to more local support offered by the other companies.
"I think this kind of event could help many districts," Tschirgi says. "It can benefit both large and small districts, because it helps them identify what products are right for them by seeing the equipment, not just looking at spec sheets."
Highs and Lows of Vendor Interest
Promethean's ACTIVboard won the interactive whiteboard shoot-out in Washington, resulting in a bulk purchase by the group of districts that had evaluated it. Promethean is eager to do more shoot-outs because, naturally, it benefits the company, but also because the company feels that it truly is an effective way to evaluate equipment, especially presentation products.
"I'll go to a shoot-out anywhere, because I find it thrilling to watch the reaction of committee members," says Lisa Dubernard, the company's director of sales and marketing. She says the event lets districts see how this kind of technology can benefit educational initiatives.
"It's obvious why purchasing and technology staff have to be there," she says, "but it's good to also involve teachers and principals so they can see beyond the spec sheet. Some of these boards end up as very expensive room dividers when they're bought based on the specs alone.
I think the shoot-out helps to give districts a better idea of how to integrate the technology with what they're doing."
Not all vendors are enamored of the shoot-out strategy. Mike Dunn, CEO of presentation equipment maker PolyVision, says shoot-outs only demonstrate which company has the most alluring pitch, and leads districts to choose products improperly.
"They're a bad idea," he says. "I think they're counter to any kind of good standards by which one would acquire any kind of technology product." He adds that shoot-outs tend to accentuate how many features each product has, rather than whether those features will be of benefit to a particular district. Also, since shoot-outs often include larger committees than those that evaluate products in a standard way, multiple opinions can be a hindrance.
Dunn says, "Group dynamics can be strange, and it can lead to people making the decision to buy something for the wrong reason." He prefers to loan products to school districts and have them put the equipment to use for a period of time. This strategy can uncover whether a product really works well within a district, or whether it's not a good fit. "If a school district has made the decision that they're going to a do shoot-out, we do our best to talk them out of it," he adds.
Plan of Action
Although PolyVision participates in shoot-outs with a healthy dose of reluctance, others who have shoot-out experience say the strategy can allow for more than just feature comparison. The trick is in setting up the day properly, and having a clear plan of action. Mark Rigsby, a consultant to school consortium TIES in Minnesota, says that inviting several vendors on the same day is a technique that can be used for a variety of software and equipment products, but that educators and administrators have to be careful in doing the planning.
"It's a different feel when you have multiple vendors," Rigsby says. "It can be more of a circus environment. Although users get a direct comparison, sometimes the evaluation process isn't as objective as you might think."
Vendors familiar with the shoot-out tactic sometimes know that there are certain advantages to having a "sexier" pitch, or even to going last in the line-up. "The advantage of being last is enormous, and vendors know this," Rigsby says. "They do everything they can to schedule themselves last. I know one vendor whose grandmother has died six times."
In order to minimize the possibility of holding a cirque du technology, it's important to understand the purpose of the day, and what the district hopes to accomplish. Tschirgi knew that a round of vendor presentations wasn't what the evaluation committee wanted, leading to the decision to have a vendor-free event. She says, "We didn't want sales pitches, we wanted to get our hands on the projectors and find out for ourselves which was the best."
At a similar event for the Denver Public School System last June, an interactive whiteboard shoot-out was handled by limiting vendors to hour-long presentations. Committee members met with the makers of seven whiteboards to differentiate the products from each other. Deciding on the length of presentation time, and the way that products are demonstrated can go a long way toward keeping a shoot-out from gaining three-ring status.
Tschirgi notes that with the success of the shoot-outs, she's been getting interest from other districts throughout the state that want to be part of the next round. "The shoot-outs have been very valuable," she says, "and I expect them to continue to be in the future."
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.