The Edtech Buying Process Is Broken. ISTE Says Teachers Can Fix It.


The Edtech Buying Process Is Broken. ISTE Says Teachers Can Fix It.

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Mar 12, 2019

The Edtech Buying Process Is Broken. ISTE Says Teachers Can Fix It.

At North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury Schools, a room in the central office showcases 3D printers, virtual reality headsets and a variety of iPad apps. Educators can stop by at their leisure to experiment with the tools, which have been vetted and approved by the district’s technology department.

This is Rowan-Salisbury’s “edtech playground,” where teachers can try out the latest technology, offer feedback to district leaders and determine whether the products would be a good fit for their classrooms.

“In this space, the pressure of buying doesn’t exist,” says Andrew Smith, chief strategy officer for the district. “Instead, teachers get an open space that allows for thinking creatively and purposefully about the products. Does it meet students’ needs, or is it just really cool?”

The edtech playground is one of a handful of case studies featured in a new edtech buying guide released by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), a non-profit organization, and Project Unicorn, an initiative to improve data interoperability in K-12.

But according to the guide, examples like Rowan-Salisbury are few and far between. Most districts do not have a clear or effective process for purchasing educational technology products and services, especially when it comes to establishing clear communication channels between educators and district leaders, says Joseph South, ISTE’s chief learning officer.

“Educators have so many options. There are literally thousands of apps and tools that they could purchase,” South tells EdSurge. “They’re coming at them in every direction,” from the expo hall of teachers conferences to the urging of their friends and colleagues.

While districts typically have a standard procurement process, where they vet each product for quality and compliance with state and federal laws, educators are rarely involved. Some end up bringing a new app into their classrooms without notifying or getting approval from the tech department. As a result, districts today are using an average of 548 edtech apps per month.

“It speaks to this lack of coordination between what educators want, what they need, how they’re acquiring solutions and how the district is acquiring solutions,” South says. “What we advocate for in the buying guide is a deeper, more formal partnership between classroom and district leaders.”

The guide outlines five key areas for both district leaders and educators to consider before making a purchase. Each section outlines the role educators and district leaders can each play and provides a school- or district-level case study.

Alignment with students learning goals and standards

What do students need to learn, and how will the tool in question help them get there? In a case study for this section, the guide details how a curriculum specialist at Richmond Public Schools in Virginia went about requesting and getting approval from the state education department to purchase littleBits to support STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) activities.

Importance of research and evidence

A recent survey of more than 1,100 teachers, district staff and school administrators found 91 percent of educators used general web searches to find information on a particular edtech product, and 48 percent said they review vendor research. The guide suggests resources from the Mathematica Center for Improving Research Evidence, the What Works Clearinghouse and ISTE as alternatives to internet queries and vendor-provided information.

“Popularity is not the same thing as effectiveness,” says South. “It’s really important that educators … are equipped to take a deeper dive and really look at those solutions, see whether they are based on principles of learning science or if there is third-party verification of their efficacy claims.”

Another option, South suggests, is to pilot a tool before committing to the purchase. This can often be the best indicator of whether a tool is the right fit, he says.

Data interoperability and student privacy

How does this tool integrate with the district’s existing products? How does it collect, share and protect student data? Survey data from Project Unicorn reveals that 88 percent of districts consider interoperability in their procurement decisions, meaning that how well products integrate with each other—and, by extension, how much time and how many headaches they can save—can influence whether a district signs on to a tool or not.

Another important part of this, the guide explains, is the privacy and security of data. In addition to checking for compliance with state and federal privacy laws, educators should take a look at the “about us” section and review the privacy policy of each app to ensure it meets school and district standards.

“A lot of educators will click straight through the terms of service and not even read it,” South says. “That can put them at risk, and their students at risk, of sharing data inappropriately with a vendor or bringing advertising into the classroom inappropriately.”

There are a number of organizations, such as Common Sense, that read, review and rate education companies’ privacy policies.

Challenges of implementation, use and ongoing support

Certain people, policies and resources are essential to implement and use learning technology to its full potential, the guide explains. Is there adequate infrastructure to support the tool? Do school staff have the capacity to take this on? Educators and district leaders can leverage their unique perspectives and expertise to increase chances of a successful implementation.

ISTE Essential Conditions

Educators as purchasing partners

The guide provides sample questions for each step in the purchasing process, from pre-purchase (“What problem are we trying to solve?”) to vendor conversations (“What standards for data interoperability, safety and security does this solution adhere to?”), from purchasing to piloting and implementation (“Is the solution moving us toward our definition of success?”)

The case study for this section features Keleen Kaye, a digital learning manager at Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin, who created a “teacher-friendly procurement process.” Educators can check the district’s pre-vetted database for a ruling on already-reviewed tools. For new tools, they submit a short request, and the digital learning manager approves or rejects the product within 48 hours and updates the database with her decision.

Sun Prairie’s new vetting process is optional for now, so not all teachers use it. But it’s gaining traction, Kaye says.

“I think teachers are slowly getting on board,” she says. “They don’t love that they have to explain themselves to me, but they also appreciate not being liable for any concerns about data or privacy.”

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