The move to online learning in 2020, brought about by COVID-19, created massive challenges for educators and learners alike. Those responsible for buying the edtech to facilitate this form of education delivery faced challenges of their own; suppliers bombarded institutions with unsolicited solutions to their newly arrived problems, at a time when universities in particular faced a significant drop in earnings. Thankfully, communication between procurement departments has helped to create a purchasing roadmap.
Working up an appetite
Educators are increasingly keen to learn from their peers when it comes to establishing best practice in the pandemic, according to Dominic Norrish, COO of the United Learning Trust. “The appetite of educators to understand ‘what works’ in similar contexts is considerable and has only grown as the 2021 lockdown has gone on. This reflects the pace with which the profession has had to adapt to new methods in pursuit of the thing they care about most: their pupils’ learning.”
The educational survey company Edurio carried out analyses of schools late last year to look at patterns of use and to try to identify the impact of edtech during the pandemic, and Dominic recommends this as a useful, quantitatively-focused place to start.
Tweeting teachers thrive
Dominic has identified numerous informal sources of information – such as Twitter’s thriving teaching community, as well as relatively new comparison sites like edtechimpact.com, which are driven by teacher reviews of products, enabling people to easily find solutions that are valued by peers in similar contexts.
“Thousands of teachers and leaders are drawing on capacity from edtech experts in other schools, through the Department for Education’s ‘Edtech Demonstrator Programme’,” said Dominic, referencing an initiative that allows schools to receive close support for within a priority area, whether that’s defining their digital strategy or figuring out how to use specific aspects of Microsoft Teams to support effective live lessons. A good example of this can be found in the YouTube webinar below, delivered to schools around England by one of Dominic’s United Learning colleagues.
Pitch and toss
Like many other institutions, Staffordshire University has experienced a marked rise in approaches from edtech suppliers during the pandemic. Alison Phillips, the university’s director of digital and technical services, believes it’s important to consider only those meeting their specific requirements, discarding all others. “We have seen sales calls and emails increase by approximately 200%, mainly prefixed with “We can solve your COVID <insert problem here> with our product(s).” This can be overwhelming, so it is important to focus on your business needs first before looking for suitable solutions.”
Procurement of technical equipment to support students’ distant learning has been critical for supporting Staffordshire’s students – especially for those facing hardship and lacking access to equipment to continue their studies at home.
“Fortunately, our budgets around educational equipment have not been cut,” said Alison. “The university has actually made additional investments and has sought funding to support students.”
The university’s digital services team has made loan laptops available, handing out hundreds of computers to students since March 2020. Following the more recent school closures (officially enforced from 5 January, 2021), laptops are also being provided to the children of students to support home schooling. Staffordshire University has also supplied more than 2,300 Adobe licences since last July, giving students home access to software traditionally accessed on campus.
Share and share alike
The university engages in dialogue to establish best working practices. “We are interested in what our peers are doing, in particular the successes but also the unsuccessful elements to inform our learning,” said Alison. “The collegiate nature of higher education enables sharing of experience and lessons learned to add value to many conversations, through Jisc, ucisa and Advance HE.”
Solutions for the future
Local authorities should be more actively engaged with vendors in terms of the services and solutions institutions need, according to Instructure’s senior director of sales, education – EMEA, Sam Blyth, “We were already seeing a change in edtech procurement, even before COVID. The last 12 months will have undoubtedly expedited those changes.”
Sam believes there is a growing movement away from running large, formal procurement based on a long list of functional requirements towards a more ‘solutions for the future’ approach where groups of schools work with technology partners, like Instructure, to build out specifications based on key stakeholders’ user experience, for staff, children, parents and senior leadership teams.
Sam thinks edtech companies should, “absolutely”, take on more responsibility in advising institutions in the technology they need. “This is where I see some of the ‘silver linings’ from our collective experiences throughout the global move to online education.”
“We have seen sales calls and emails increase by approximately 200%, mainly prefixed with “We can solve your COVID <insert problem here> with our product(s).” This can be overwhelming, so it is important to focus on your business needs first before looking for suitable solutions” – Alison Phillips, director of digital and technical services, Staffordshire University
As the pandemic took hold, Instructure focused firstly on supporting thousands of institutions to move millions of students online, in some cases in a matter of days. Those experiences brought a range of tips, tricks and advice, strengthening how Instructure supports their schools, parents and young people to navigate changes. “We see our role as trusted advisors,” said Sam.
The member-led professional body for digital practitioners within education, ucisa, has a Working Party on Transforming Procurement Practices and also a Software and Procurement Special Interest Group, both of which have addressed how the pandemic has impacted the purchasing of edtech.
They have identified the single greatest difficulty being the sudden increase in demand for edtech at a time of income uncertainty; universities have lost revenue in accommodation fees, expected spend onsite, and conferences and events revenue, as well as reduced income from international students.
Meanwhile, costs have increased to enable an infrastructure for remote learning at a quick pace, which has included professional services and a business-critical change of systems. In essence, investment and digital strategic change planned to occur over years was accelerated into the space of a matter of weeks.
Quantity over quality?
Additionally, there has been demand for laptops, tablets and other mobile technology pieces to support remote working for students and staff. The dramatic orders placed by governments across the globe for entry-level devices has created bottlenecks in the supply chain, at component level and with finished product.
Some ucisa members have expressed concerns that some of these government orders have been placed without due consideration of the quality of the equipment being bought, or the level of specification, leading to suggestions that the principal aim has been to create headlines regarding the volume of orders placed rather than the usefulness of the end product.
IT and tight timescales
The second most significant problem has been the need to rapidly source new solutions within the restrictions of rigid procurement timescales. The negative publicity surrounding PPE procurement has detracted from some of the excellent work in procuring large tech orders in a compliant manner in a very short timescale, but this is one area that could be addressed in future through changes in procurement regulations.
Application of Dynamic Purchasing Systems to IT services would benefit universities in carrying out quicker, compliant procurement events not limited to a closed set of suppliers. Edtech changes very rapidly, and public sector procurement rules often follow, only very slowly.
ucisa members have also experienced some issues with routing supplies directly to end users’ home addresses, but this has been manageable.
Unsurprisingly, edtech purchasers have responded flexibly and dynamically to the demands of the pandemic. As with so many aspects of life, the procurement process will have been changed permanently, often becoming more forward-looking. Institutions must be praised for sharing best practice to give all institutions the best chance of emerging from lockdown ready to once again welcome their learners.
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