Education Technology Vendors in Higher Ed: Friends or Foes?

Education Technology Vendors in Higher Ed: Friends or Foes?

During recent interviews with education technology decision-makers at institutions of higher education, I was struck by the sometimes extreme views formed about vendors during the process of procuring tools to support teaching and learning. Company representatives are anathema to some, yet indispensable partners to others.

Yet all higher-ed institutions need and use technology, and most rely on external developers rather than develop their own tools. As a result, like them or not, relationships with vendors must be developed and sustained.

So what makes a particular product or company more “trustworthy” than others? That was a major question we explored at the EdTech Efficacy Academic Research Symposium in Washington D.C. last month. The most common factors, according to our research, include the company’s capacity to deliver high quality products at scale, track record, product roadmap, financial stability, and quality of partner relationships.

Below are a few higher-ed perspectives and suggestions on how companies can improve on these relationships.

Vendors as a source of edtech information and influence

Vendors serve as an invaluable source of knowledge on edtech products and trends for higher education decision-makers, cited as an information source in 80 percent of our interviews. That ranks second only to learning by word-of-mouth from colleagues (96 percent). The study also identified around 20 edtech companies and 25 edtech business individuals as opinion leaders, changemakers, and innovation leaders whose words and opinions carry considerable weight. (See study report for details.)

There were, however, several complaints about the overload of edtech information and “cold sales reach-outs” from vendors, especially via social media and online communications.

More than a few interviewees were skeptical about the reliability of vendor-provided information, publications and research. They argued that vendors sell products as opposed to a process or an idea, and often fail to address a real pedagogical need. Yet surprisingly, more decision-makers relied on vendors than on scholarly reports or journals for research on edtech products. Overall, there was an expressed preference for research that is methodologically sound and independently conducted to avoid bias from undue vendor involvement. But such research on specific edtech products is rare.

Proliferation of edtech tools and services

Increasingly, vendors are approaching individual faculty members or academic departments directly, inviting them to experiment with and purchase products. There are pros and cons to this shift away from centralized acquisitions. Faculty members gain freedom of choice and avoid lengthy, bureaucratic procurement procedures. But the result can be a redundancy in functionality among acquired tools; one interviewee described how students at his school carry up to four different clickers as a result of the faculty getting to choose whatever tools they wanted.

Other concerns include products that are unable to be supported by the IT department, along with the security risks that arise when users accept licensing agreements that do not conform to regulations on critical issues such as data privacy. One big red flag was whether vendors are taking adequate care to safeguard students’ personally identifiable information. As one interviewee noted:“None of us, as far as I know, systemically looks at whether the vendor does indeed curate, manage, and protect data that well. I think that is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Finding ways to standardize and streamline the procurement process, and to reduce redundancy among supported tools, are certainly major priorities for higher-ed institutions. Vendors would do well to heed this need.

Importance of transparency

Transparency is an important characteristic for building trust. Initially, the buyer needs to know what the edtech tool does now, not what the vendor aspires to deliver in the future. Several interviewees expressed frustration that product demos are often a lot of window-dressing, especially when the company’s funders are pushing to release products to market quickly (and perhaps prematurely). Product roadmaps are certainly of interest to decision-makers who plan to use the tools long term. They are often willing to wait for features and functionality—as long as they know they are really coming.

Higher-ed institutions are also populated by demanding, inquisitive, and often research-oriented users who want to understand the “black box” behind a product. For example, what are the algorithms behind an adaptive learning platform, or how does a “big data” early-intervention product assign students to high, medium, or low-risk categories? Vendors that are afraid to give their playbook away sometimes end by giving up on contracts.

Partners in research and development

Tech-savvy users may also want to help tweak products to better serve their needs. Such interests can be incompatible with the interests of a for-profit company that wants to guard proprietary information and minimize the need for expensive customization. But university-based researchers can help to improve products and advocate for a company among their higher education colleagues.

In a few cases, a vendor and an institution in our study collaborated to conduct and co-publish research on an edtech product. The outcome can be a win-win: faculty members are able to fulfil their need to publish, and vendors can provide prospective customers with rigorous evidence of product effectiveness.

How vendors can build better relationships with edtech decision-makers

The good news for vendors is that many interviewees noted that while costs are often a consideration when choosing edtech, it is rarely the most important. If there is evidence that a product or service can help achieve the decision-maker’s goals, there is likely to be wiggle room in the budget. There is a lucrative market here, but it needs some special attention. Here are some recommendations for vendors seeking to work with higher-ed institutions:

  1. Do your due diligence on the school and tailor your pitch to its specific needs, priorities and pain points.
  2. Transparency around products is critical. Be clear about what is currently functional and what is aspirational. Help decision-makers estimate total cost of ownership.
  3. Aim for mutually beneficial relationships with “partners,” rather than simply offering a product to “clients” or “customers.”
  4. Work to build trust by following the advice of one interviewee: “…understand our need, empathize with the front lines, be able to explain [your] product in a way that would be compelling to non-technical people like end users, convey a sense of shared purpose and connected destiny. Be responsive to questions, be willing to criticize [your]selves—no product is perfect—and make commitments that sound reasonable and realistic.”
  5. To build long-term relationships and customer loyalty, be prepared to customize your product to meet user needs.
  6. Stay open to the idea that researchers in higher education may have an intellectual and non-commercial interest in opening up the black box of products and helping to improve them.
  7. Consider a pro bono exchange with schools for edtech research. For instance, a company can provide the tools and support, while the faculty can do the kind of research that higher-ed decision-makers care about and publish the findings.

Of course, this is only one side of the story here. It would be enlightening to interview and ask edtech vendors what they think about working with higher-ed decision-makers. After all, partnerships have to be two-way relationships.

Fiona Hollands (@EdResearcher) is the Associate Director and Senior Researcher at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE) at Teachers College, Columbia University

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