School districts can get help wading through many ed-tech options and gain negotiating power when states assist with procurement, according to state education officials who spoke at the Future of Education Technology Conference here Tuesday.
The conference, which is expected to attract 9,500 attendees from the U.S. and abroad this week, featured a session on school purchasing as one of many workshops and sessions on its opening day.
In Wisconsin, the state’s virtual school is emerging as a procurement agent for districts. “It’s becoming mainstream what they’re able to provide leverage on contracts” through the virtual school, said Janice Mertes, the assistant director for instructional media and tech/digital learning in the state’s department of instruction. Besides that, Wisconsin is working to help districts better understand interoperability, she said.
Tennessee will be releasing an RFP for learning management systems, and ultimately will sign contracts with a vetted panel of about five LMS options from which districts can choose. The state’s approach will be to identify what problem its educators are trying to solve with the ed-tech system, what their instructional goals are and then identify a suite of technologies that support those goals, said Cliff Lloyd, the chief information officer for the Tennessee education department.
‘Really Good’ at Collaborative Procurement
The selection process will involve discussions with other states about their experiences with LMSs, and using pilots to test products, Lloyd said. The state expects to “impose strict conditions on all vendors around interoperability and standards support,” he said.
States are “really good” at helping people come together for collaborative procurement, said Tracey Weeks, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), in another session. “We’ve done it with broadband and devices. Why can’t we do that for furniture and architectural services?” Whether building a new school or renovating existing space, Weeks said some education communities are being creative in where they position broadband connectivity—such as on exterior fences near multi-family housing where some students live without wi-fi access—to creating maker spaces in libraries and hallways.
Wisconsin district leaders are trying to figure out “return on student learning” with their ed-tech purchase, said Mertes. Other questions Wisconsin districts are asking: What is engaging student content? How much do we have to buy from one place? And what about open-ed resources?
“Some people get devices before thinking of those things,” said Mertes, whose state is forming a group of chief academic officers and chief information officers to create a collaborative network that addresses questions like these.
Learning ‘Vendor Language’
“Our biggest concern with districts is that they don’t know the language of vendors,” Wisconsin’s Mertes said. Districts understand the value of consortium work, and they’re wondering how to leverage it for purchasing.
In Tennessee, Lloyd is leveraging his experience as a former director of enterprise information systems at Walmart in Bentonville, Ark. In his three years in that position, Lloyd said he became accustomed to seeing vendors walk into negotiations with 20 percent profit margins on their products, and walk out with 3 percent margins after hard negotiations. That experience will be part of what Tennessee brings to its “hard negotiations” for an LMS and any other ed-tech offerings.
The LMS is “probably the single hottest commodity today,” he said, and he expects to have the LMS providers compete “aggressively against each other for the benefit of districts.” The state will also “insist on equity,” and not accept a scenario where Sheldon County, which is where Memphis is located, pays one price and Johnson City gets a different price. “We are not 47 different customers. Please don’t think about us this way,” he said.
Schools also need to understand the power of negotiating prices, price transparency, shared purchasing and utilization, or, “How do we get the most bang for the buck?” said Tom Murray, who is director of innovation for Future Ready Schools.
A school he worked in was once able to reduce the cost of some subscriptions from $150,000 annually to $40,000 a year when they began procuring as a county and by looking at utilization, he said. One software product costing $30,000 a year only had 2 percent utilization, so his school paid for individual subscriptions to the teachers who used it, but eliminated the bulk of the cost.
Murray also said districts can compare purchase prices by getting involved with the Technology for Education Consortium, which does price comparisons.