EIA, in partnership with Digital Promise, is concluding a year-long initiative to identify and promote specific improvements in the purchasing practices of K-12 school district buyers and solution sellers, specifically with respect to digital solutions that support personalized learning . These can be simple or complicated purchases that involve multiple stages of funding, needs assessment, discovery, evaluation, and acquisition.
Our research, conducted by the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins University, is a rigorous examination of a cross section of school districts and vendors. Below is a sample of the key findings for your review. Detailed reports and data will be posted on the EIA website later in October.
Over the coming months, EIA will provide in-depth briefings for the industry and our partners that represent school district stakeholders. And EIA will introduce specific tools that will help providers improve their sales with school districts.
Meantime, our key takeaways:
- Funding is key issue for superintendents—In interview responses (not survey data), Districts seem to limit their purchases of software and hardware to their technology budget when making all edtech purchases, versus using the broader district budget for instructional products.
- Needs assessment is often non-rigorous and informal–Current district needs assessment processes infrequently align product choices to an instructional need/priority. Tech directors, followed by the Chief Academic Officer, is more often involved than end-users (teachers/principals). Systematic involvement of end-users is key but currently they are only moderately involved. That said, districts and providers alike overwhelmingly indicate that evaluation rubrics to judge the quality of products would be helpful to navigate their choices. Selecting higher quality products is linked to more careful upfront needs assessment.
- Discovery and evaluation are key hurdles for both buyers and sellers— Proliferation of niche solutions overwhelm districts’ capacity to find and sort potential solutions; thus districts fall back on peer referrals or established brands. Vendors often don’t research district needs and simply blast-market their solutions. It is best to “personalize the procurement” with targeted sales based on careful needs assessment and product alignment. Start ups can be great source of innovation but districts see them as risky or invisible
- Pilots are common entry point but are loosely organized—All parties agree that pilots are important strategies to gain visibility but most are loose demonstrations without clear goals (“hit or miss”) or methods of evaluation-therefore outcomes lack rigor. Buyers and Sellers believe pilots will be more productive with evaluation embedded into the design, with a clearer pathway to enterprise-wide contracting. Providers, especially startups, can use pilots to build better relationships and references, thus better-competing with established brands.
- Limited involvement of teachers in procurement—Survey data of districts shows only moderate involvement of teachers and principals in needs assessment and selection, while providers, especially newer vendors, report success with engaging these school-based practitioners.
- Smaller districts seem to have smoother procurement process–Overall, big and small districts share common problems of discovery and needs assessment, yet big districts have more stakeholders (cooks in the kitchen), take longer, with more people to say “no,” but they have more resources and sophistication. Smaller districts report smoother processes, better internal communication and are more inclusive–easier to navigate for vendors. On the vendor side, newer and smaller providers can be more agile and innovative while large established brands have strong district relationships with more salespeople in the field.
- Ambiguous role of evidence—Districts continue to rely on peer recommendations, but would value objective source of vendor product reviews. Providers can garner credible (3rd party) evidence when pilots are more formal, using data from teacher reviews, case studies, and small comparison-group designs.
- Formal & informal purchasing approaches are used to similar degrees—Both providers and districts report equal use of RFPs (competitive and formal) and informal (sole source) purchasing tactics. Districts feel RFPs yield better prices while providers feel RFPs are time consuming and may be wired. Districts seem to be less interested in purchasing cooperatives or piggyback purchasing because a district feels its needs are unique. Recommend increased use of RFI to generate new prospects.
EIA will soon host detailed briefings for our members, and technical assistance guidelines and tools will be developed in early 2015. For more information, please contact Steve Pines directly at firstname.lastname@example.org