'When Wooing Leads to Woes': Consulting Peers Before Buying Edtech

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I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons when I was growing-up because my mom used to tell me that Bart was a bad boy, so the few episodes I managed to sneak in have stayed with me for a long time. There is one memorable episode, in particular, in which the Simpsons’ small town of Springfield comes into a large amount of money and a sly con man convinces them to buy a monorail that they don’t need. The monorail represents the silver bullet the town needs to solve all their woes. Long story short, they waste their money.

Now before some Simpsons expert reads this and tells me I’m wrong about what the monorail represents, let me run with it because edtech leaders can learn a lot from this particular episode.

Ever since my small school district in the predominantly poor rural Mississippi Delta won a coveted Race to the Top grant to implement blended learning and go one-to-one, we’ve become quite popular around these parts. I find myself humming the Simpsons tune because the lengthy line of sales reps, consultants, and advisors that are constantly e-mailing, calling, and dropping into my office; it seems neverending. Sure, some of these edtech folks are wonderful, but many are trying to sell us products and services that we don’t need.

Back when I joined the Clarksdale Municipal School District seven months ago--right after the district was awarded the grant--I did not have a strong technology background. I’d worked in education for seven years and I was drawn to the RTTT Director position because I enjoy project management and felt like this was a real opportunity to show what’s possible for our kids in the Delta when we have more equitable funding. However, I was not exactly an expert when it came to discussing--or purchasing--edtech tools and services.

When your school, district, or CMO takes on a big technology project, there is going to be no shortage of suitors for your business and many of the big educational consulting companies, hardware manufacturers, or resellers will be quick to offer you a soup-to-nuts solution. Before you sign on the dotted line, here are a few tips that I learned along the way.

Connect with administrators in similar communities who’ve had edtech successes

My first week on the job, I got some great advice from Dr. Matt McClure, a forward-thinking superintendent from the rural Arkansas Delta who preaches about project-based learning and took his district one-to-one almost a decade ago. I asked him how he built his network and learned the things he needed to know to be successful in his job given his young age.

He told me that he asked around for who was the most knowledgeable and successful in different fields and then he tried to find an introduction or he cold-called them. The advice has, as they say in Mississippi, been a blessing.

Don’t be afraid to cold-call district experts

Trust me--it’s not hard to find out who is doing great work in blended learning, or knowledgeable about network infrastructure or professional development.

Don’t be afraid to call, email, or connect via LinkedIn with people who you believe have the answers. Nine times out of ten these one time strangers have been willing to talk me through an idea, answer a question, or point me in the right direction. There are many that I talk to all the time now.

It’s crucial to build your network, and not be shy to ask questions about those companies that are trying to get your cash. I’ve been super fortunate to connect with people like Ross Randall, Dr. Kameron Ball, and Bob Garst--individuals who have either overseen similar projects in other districts and/or have a vested interested in Clarksdale and our students.

Take your time and do your research on edtech companies who are wooing you

Let’s be honest--not all companies and edtech products are created equal.

In the past seven months, one of my greatest challenges has been figuring out who to trust. Who is genuinely trying to assist my district in providing awesome blended learning opportunities to our students, who is just trying to make a quick buck, and who may have the right intentions, but an inferior product? Even folks who have the best product around and seem to genuinely care may try to add on an extra service or component that you just don’t need.

Don’t be afraid to ask the companies for references and not just the ones who gave them quotes for their websites. If a big company seems like they’ve got it all planned out for you, don’t be afraid to ask for a list of the last five districts that they’ve worked with, and then call them to check them out.

When taking on a big technology initiative like upgrading your WiFi or going one-to-one, you need to reach out and crowdsource information from the people that walked this path before you. Not only will the advice be of tremendous help, but you’ll feel good knowing that we all have each other’s backs, and that one day you’ll pay it forward too.

Don’t buy the monorail; our kids deserve better.  

NOTE: This article is part of EdSurge's Fifty States Initiative (representing the state of Mississippi).

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