U.S. Dept. of Ed. Unveils Free Online Tool for Rapid Evaluation of Edtech Products

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“Procurement.” In education, the mouthful term often evokes fear and frustration. For many schools and districts, it refers to a long, laborious process of finding and selecting technology, curriculum and other resources—oftentimes spending millions of dollars in the process. And not all procurement leads to products that produce results, because it’s difficult for districts to track that effectiveness.

Last year, Richard Culatta and his team at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (Office of Edtech, for short) issued a Request for Proposal for a better way to help schools evaluate edtech tools before making a purchase. “[We want to] establish a standard for low-cost, quick turnaround evaluations of apps, and field test rapid-cycle evaluations,” Culatta wrote in last year’s call-to-arms.

Fast-forward to now, and the Office of Edtech is unveiling a solution that policy research organization Mathematica created with support from the government. On Oct. 25 at the iNACOL conference in San Antonio, Texas, representatives from the Office of Edtech offered a preview of the beta version of the Edtech Rapid Cycle Evaluation (RCE) Coach, a free, online, openly-licensed platform that takes districts and schools through the process of evaluating and choosing the best tools for their individuals needs.

“The need to make good decisions based on evidence, as opposed to relying on marketing hype or the buzz among a small group of peers, is critical,” wrote Katrina Stevens, deputy director of the Office of Edtech, in a blogpost announcing the tool.

The RCE Coach takes users through the following steps: First, a school or district selects an edtech tool—from Google Apps to DreamBox to a completely new tool that’s fresh on the market—that they want to evaluate. Then, the RCE Coach offers resources to guide educators along the process of “defining their desired outcomes, designing effective pilots, conducting their own evidence gathering, and analyzing results to make evidence-based purchase and renewal decisions,” Stevens explains.

Those “resources” include case studies about districts who’ve used particular products, a page for comparing student data, and a space where users formulate a research question about a tool and its potential outcomes, shown below.

Stevens has high hopes that the RCE Coach can ease the procurement process, but her team wants to get feedback in order to refine the tool before its full launch in January of 2017. Anyone interested in giving it a test run and leave feedback can do so on each page of the site by clicking on the "Feedback" tab. Stevens’ team is particularly looking for districts or schools that want to pilot the RCE Coach; interested parties can indicate interest by visiting this page.

The procurement process isn’t easy or cheap, Stevens said at the conclusion of the tool’s unveiling at iNACOL. But she is optimistic that the tool can help schools and districts save time and also think more critically before making a purchase.

“The way we make procurement decisions is so difficult and so awful. Sometimes, a district gets into a crisis and just throws something at the problem,” she said. “But you want to step back and ask, ‘Wait, is this the right solution?’”

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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