Finding the Right Purchasing Solution
School administrators are faced with a wide variety of choices and a huge market when it comes to products and technology. According to a report issued in March by market research firm Compass Intelligence, school districts spend over $18 billion annually on IT-related purchases, and the market is projected to grow to nearly $21 billion by 2015. The thousands of choices from a wide and ever-changing array of companies present both an advantage and a challenge: More selection allows administrators to find a solution to meet the specific needs of their districts, but narrowing the field can seem like an overwhelming task. "Such a dynamic and ever-changing market is certainly a challenge," says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN). "It takes a smart CTO to find how to leverage the best of what's available."
Len Scrogan, director of instructional technology for the 29,000-student Boulder Valley (Colo.) School District, says the result can often be a purchasing process that is less than ideal, whether in a large urban district or a small rural district. "On one end of the spectrum, you have districts buying things basically on a whim, with very little thought put into it, or based on one person's preference, or by someone influenced by being 'wined and dined' by vendors, which are all very poor ways to make decisions," says Scrogan. "On the other end, you have districts with very restrictive buying policies set by their board or central office, which can make it far too difficult and bureaucratic. The key is to strike a balance." Between these two extremes, what is the best process to ensure that administrators make effective product and technology purchasing decisions?
Administrators and experts agree that the first step often has little to do with a specific product, technology or vendor, but instead starts with an initial research phase examining the needs of the district, which can be vague at first. "Start with verbs, not nouns," says Karen Cator, who was technology coordinator in the Juneau (Alaska) School District prior to becoming director of educational technology in the U.S. Department of Education. "What do you want to have your students or staff doing? Researching? Writing? Sharing and collaborating? Producing, composing or creating? Focus on functionality first, and that will lead you to the type of product or technology to fulfill that functionality." Krueger agrees. "The most important thing is to start by asking what educational problem we are trying to solve," he says. "Don't go racing off because some exciting new technology trend is the latest buzz."
Scrogan agrees that every purchase should begin with research focused more on functionality than on a particular product or technology. "Sometimes you begin a research phase without even knowing what you need to purchase," he says.
In Boulder Valley, Scrogan says the purchasing process he helped develop over his 19 years as an administrator is rigorous but not cumbersome, and the first step is both the most time-consuming and the most important. "No matter what the initiative, you have to begin with a research phase or you risk going in the wrong direction." Scrogan describes his district's recent decision to purchase 1,400 new classroom projectors, which entailed an initial research phase that lasted a full year, as having the longest such period they have needed.
Frank Pileiro, technology coordinator for the 1,000-student Linwood (N.J.) School District, takes advantage of a few approaches to address this challenge. "We ask all of our teachers to come to us with any new ideas they might have," he says. "We also attend conferences and workshops to talk to vendors, and I'm part of a professional learning network in our county of other school technology leaders, where I can ask around and explore what products other districts are using to address similar issues to what we're facing."
As this research phase progresses, the field will narrow down to a general class of product or technology that will address the needs of the district. "At this point, your next phase is the 'building requirements phase,' where you identify what qualities you need in the product and rank them in order of importance," says Scrogan. For example, Boulder Valley considered long bulb life a top requirement at this stage when the district was considering new projectors.
Committees and focus groups are useful tools in this phase, and they are most effective when they are as diverse as possible. "When we form committees to determine our requirements in a large initiative, we'll often include not only teachers and technology staff but school board members, current and former students, parents and other community members so we can get a cross section of feedback," says Pileiro, who says the Linwood district recently created such a committee to determine which computers to implement for special education students. "That committee included special education teachers, assistive technology specialists, administrators and IT staff. The more diversity you have, the better, because each member can bring perspectives to the issue you might not have thought of," he says. Scrogan typically will form committees or focus groups of different sizes and configurations, depending on the size of the initiative, with committees being more crucial the larger the purchase. "You want to have the technical and education sides represented, using IT staff as well as teachers and administrators, since nearly everything we do has an impact on student learning," he says.
In the 9,000-student Barrington (Ind.) 220 School District, administrators formed a committee called the Technology Leadership Team (TLT), which meets every month to review requests and ideas for new purchases. "In the TLT, we focus on how the project meets our curricular goals, how it will support student achievement, and if we can sustain it," says Patricia Haughney, director of information services, who adds that including the district's curriculum director on the committee is vital to ensuring these goals. "Having our curriculum and technology departments working together is a great partnership that takes advantage of the knowledge, experiences and skills of our entire administrative team in making these decisions," she says.
Roderick Matthews, director of information technology of the 27,000-student Recovery School District in New Orleans since 2007, says he has learned the importance of specifically involving the eventual end user in the group that is compiling and ranking requirements, a strategy that sounds intuitive but can often be overlooked. "If it's classroom technology, I involve teachers in addition to other administrators. If it's an infrastructure product, like the Internet content filter we recently purchased, I make sure my IT staff can try it out during the decision-making process, as they're the end users," he says. "You have to have buy-in from those who will be using the product every day or you risk spending money on something that doesn't end up being utilized. Let them be part of the decision, and don't make a unilateral decision as an administrator."
Surveys can also be useful in this phase by involving many more participants than could realistically join a committee. Administrators in the 2,300-student Teton County (Wyo.) School District issued a voluntary online survey to all district employees in November 2009 as part of the process of determining which new email system would meet their needs more effectively than their existing system. The survey asked staff to identify their most common email problems, how satisfied they were with each aspect of the existing product, and what specific features would be most important to them in the new solution. Out of 438 full-time employees, 164 completed the survey. The district plans to send out a follow-up survey after a year of using the new system to gauge its success. "This was the first time that we used this formal evaluation process," says Matt Rodosky, the district's technology and finance director. "Since then, we also used this methodology for selecting a data warehouse and upgrading our absence and substitute management system. It's hard to get people to join a committee, so we've found that a survey is the best way to get feedback from all stakeholders involved."
The process of identifying the most important requirements helps to narrow the field of vendors by eliminating products that don't meet the needs of the district. "When we started the process of considering projectors, we had a list of 54 models," says Scrogan. "As we developed our list of requirements most important to us, the list shortened to 13." Then the final step can begin, where a district discriminates between vendors in this smaller group in a "competitive phase" using a variety of methods. "In this phase, we call vendors in for in-person demonstrations, call references at other districts, conduct a 'shootout' between candidates, and eventually get to competitive bidding to get the best price out of the final list," says Scrogan.
"The longer you wait in the process to decide on the specific vendor and product, the better," Cator advises. "Technology changes so fast, you want the final decision to be as close to the actual purchase time as possible."
In the Linwood schools, Pileiro says the competitive process can include additional research beyond the product itself. "Particularly if we're considering a brand-new technology, we research the financial health of the company, see how their sales are, what the stock price is. We might sit back for months or a year to see how they do, because you don't want to be in a situation where you buy a lot of something and the company suddenly goes out of business," he says.
Krueger also believes this patience is important. "Often, some of the most innovative solutions are from new entrants to the field, but unfortunately, they may not be around for the long term," he says.
Ironically, even at the competitive phase, the price of a product is often not necessarily a top consideration. "The upfront cost is usually toward the bottom of the list," says Pileiro. "I think that's because our ultimate priority as a school system is improving student learning, and we try to look at long-term value instead of initial purchase price alone, no matter what we purchase. Schools are not businesses, so it's not just about keeping costs lowest, but instead it's about impacting learning for students effectively, and costeffectively. Obviously, you want to be wise with taxpayer dollars, but the cheapest option is not always the wisest."
Cator agrees. "Price is definitely important, but it can be difficult to make it a top consideration," she says. "Because there are so many different pricing models and different ways of defining costs long term, the price ends up becoming more of a judgment call that administrators have to make, taking into account the product's performance, value, effectiveness and other requirements important to them."
Once administrators have gone through this long process and narrowed the field to a handful of competitors, what criteria are most important to decide between them? "Definitely look at how intuitive the interface is," says Cator. "If you think about consumer technologies, they don't need professional development, but many of those in education do. The 'how you operate this product' question should require very little training. 'How do I make the best use of this product?' is the part worthy of professional development time."
Matthews in the Recovery district agrees. "Ease of use and minimal training time are very important," he says. "That goes for the user side as well as the support side. It's important that our IT staff can support things easily." He adds that flexibility is also a crucial factor for the Recovery district because of its unique makeup, with a varying number of schools that changes year to year, fluctuating enrollment, and dozens of independently operated charter schools, which are all supported by central office IT staff. "Each charter has its own goals and makes decisions about what to implement," he says, but the district technology department helps it decide and supports whatever products and technology the school uses. "So flexibility is extremely important to us," he says. "We decided on a content filter, for example, that enables each school to be independent and allow or block sites as it sees fit, while still giving us centralized control and support."
Given the rapid pace of technology, however, it is also crucial to have an eye on the future and to think about purchases as long-term investments. "It's critical for districts to take into account the fact that technology will inevitably become obsolete," says Scrogan. "Smart district purchasers are looking toward the future with what they buy," he continues, noting that Boulder Valley's projector purchase included 3D capabilities, that although unused today, might be of use in the future. "Look at the value long term, the total cost of ownership, what you could be doing years down the road," advises Pileiro, who says the Linwood schools are researching which tools they can implement today to facilitate a bring-your-own-device environment at some point. "The flexibility and adaptability of the product, the ease with which it can be updated, upgraded or improved over time is very valuable," adds Cator. "Try to anticipate your future needs when making purchases."
Matthews agrees. "We try to make decisions that meet our needs now as well as what we think we'll need in the future, to keep moving forward and looking ahead," he says. "I tell my staff to always remember that technology is like a race, but one without a finish line."