Roundtable: tech it or leave it

How should educators approach edtech procurement, and ensure they are investing in the right products and services for their organisation? Steve Wright asks the experts

Leah Fletcher, Commercial Agreement Manager, Education Technology, Crown Commercial Service

Nancy Wilkinson, Senior Programme Manager, Education, Nesta (innovation foundation)

Dean Phillips, Assistant Director, Digital and Information Services, University of Aberdeen / Treasurer, ucisa (professional body for digital practitioners within education)

Sarah Baggott, Education Specialist, Probrand (marketplace and IT services)

Q. How can educators start to figure out what edtech is right for them? 

Nancy Wilkinson: Procurement can be challenging, particularly as schools in England are in quite a fragmented system. There are sites that can help navigate which tools might be good, like EdTech Impact or Besa’s LendED programme. 

When choosing edtech, schools should think about how different tools relate to their school’s development plans and priorities. It’s then important to think about what outcomes you are hoping for from the product – for example, improved student attainment or decreased teacher workload – and check whether there is any evidence of the tool having impact in those areas.

Leah Fletcher: This is where the education market can help. We suggest that customers list the technology and infrastructure they already have, and describe the issues they face. This approach can really help suppliers to innovate on their customers’ behalf, making teaching more effective and learning easier. Support from educational specialists provides customers with the reassurance that they can get assistance on any issues they have with their current technology.

Dean Phillips: Whether you are in a teaching role or supporting edtech as a learning technologist, there are plenty of resources that show what your peers across the UK are using, along with case studies describing their implementation.

IT professionals can assist with the evaluation of an edtech product or service, too – whether it’s proprietary, open source or created in-house. Take, for example, a piece of polling software for voting in a lecture: this will interface with the institution’s networks and wider infrastructure, so IT staff will look at how to configure it to the right information security and data protection standards. 

Alternatively, you may wish to approach this question from first principles. Rather than jumping straight into considering all the available edtech, there’s merit in first listing all the teaching and learning activities that need to take place at your institution. Filling out a capability model template is one way to do this.

Sarah Baggott: The success of technology in education depends entirely upon the context in which it is going to be used. For example, tablet technology might be a fantastic enabler for certain areas of the curriculum, but a really poor fit in other areas. We often see charging units full of devices that aren’t being used because they’re deemed to be too complex, or because the school is lacking the ‘champion’ required to drive the tech. Schools should understand that the ultimate success of any technology will depend on the staff ‘buy-in’, and on the quality of training provided to staff. 

It is important to find a company that will treat you as a partner. They should be able to introduce you to relevant manufacturers and to clients who have taken the same journey as you, and they should be prepared to work with you to carry out small-scale testing and proof of concept.

I always recommend attending trade shows to see what’s out there. While the likes of Bett and the Academies Show are the best known, it pays to keep an eye out for smaller events delivered directly by manufacturers or in conjunction with retailers. These events offer insights into future trends and emerging technologies, and you can usually get more quality time with manufacturers and products.

Q. Can schools find useful advice in effective edtech procurement, online or elsewhere?

LF: At Crown Commercial Service, we have a website that provides customers with details of all our agreements. Once the customer has found the agreement they are interested in, the page will display a breakdown of the lot structure and how to buy from it. They can also find useful advice and documents such as customer guidance, which contains key information about the agreement and how to run a procurement: terms and conditions, FAQs, and a template pack to help customers on their procurement journey.

NW: BESA’s LendED programme allows schools to trial products for free and read case study reviews, and EdTech Impact helps schools see what impact various products are having. Elsewhere, in May 2019, the Education Endowment Foundation published Using Digital Technology to Improve Learning, a guide to support senior leaders and teachers to make more informed decisions about the right edtech for them. But there is no denying that this is a difficult thing to get right. One of the best things that schools can do is be demanding with edtech organisations. Don’t be afraid to ask them about their evidence, case studies, and opportunities for ongoing support and training options.

DP: There is a lot of good general guidance out there to help people work through what their institution needs from a tool or service. This is a vital part of the pre-procurement process. Ucisa’s VLE Review Toolkit is aimed at people who are evaluating their virtual learning environment in particular – but the advice on requirements gathering, and ways to score different supplier options, could be applied to any edtech.

Although institutions have their own policies according to the scale of the investment, essentially there is a standard route that universities and colleges follow. This can range from a small, individual one-off purchase of equipment up to a full-blown OJEU procurement exercise, for tenders over £188,000 net.

My advice? Start speaking to the procurement professionals at your university or college as soon as you can – there may already be a framework or a call-off contract already in use in your institution or region. IT and procurement colleagues can also help you think about the implications of hosting your edtech on-site or in the cloud, and they can help you establish the total cost of ownership.

SB: A good starting point is to review the various frameworks that provide value in the education space, an example being the CCS Education Technology framework. Their platform includes a number of best practice procurement guides, and it also delivers access to a range of education-centred suppliers who are able to provide references, case studies and white papers – as well as savings on hardware, solutions and licensing.

There is a wealth of useful information available directly from manufacturers. Microsoft, Google and other major brands have education-specific microsites that offer advice, demonstrations and discounted products and services. Schools can also take advantage of views and advice from their peers via platforms such as ANME, EduGeek and the ISC Digital Strategy Group.

A good starting point is to review the various frameworks that provide value in the education space, an example being the CCS Education Technology framework – Sarah Baggot

Q. Is there a basic list of essential edtech that every school should start from, or do needs vary widely from one school to the next?

LF: Every educational establishment has their own individual needs and requirements. However, once again, this is where the education market can help by providing customers with assistance on their overall requirements and by providing a solution that will fit customers’ individual needs.

NW: Needs vary from school to school, and it’s important for each school to think about exactly what they want each tool to achieve. Tools will require different kinds of hardware, so you need to stop to think about how edtech products can be integrated within the context of your school. For our EdTech Innovation Fund, Nesta is supporting a range of tools to improve and grow over a two-year programme. They have been specifically chosen for their potential to tackle teacher workload, focusing on challenges such as formative assessment, essay marking, parent engagement and timetabling.

DP: The needs vary – perhaps your students do a lot of field work or placements, or you have a medical school. Maybe your institution is moving away from the traditional virtual learning environment (VLE) and embracing a Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) consisting of a portfolio of different collaboration tools.

It’s interesting to look at trends in emerging technology, and then to think about the impact they will have on higher and further education. EDUCAUSE, ucisa’s equivalent in the States, has some well-respected research on this. After all, we need to be thinking not only about the current intake, but how future students will learn.

SB: Whilst tech needs among schools may vary significantly, a robust infrastructure is fundamental to developing and delivering an effective learning environment. Pupils and teachers will be unable to leverage modern learning resources without a consistent and reliable infrastructure. Prior to deploying any learning tech, schools should ensure that they have fully evaluated the quality of their estate. Key considerations might include: is my broadband provision reliable and fast enough? Will my wireless network cater for future growth? Are my servers capable of supporting the increased data load? Do we need anytime, anywhere access to resources? Can we leverage cloud services to reduce costs and increase efficiencies?

edtech procurement

Q. With budgets tight, how can schools, colleges and universities ensure return on investment (ROI)?

LF: Return on investment in an educational context may not be merely a financial consideration: customers may also be looking at how pupils and staff use the technology over time, and will want to understand and measure if it is fit for purpose. But having a technology plan will ensure future-proofing for staff and pupils.
The support of a reliable educational specialist supplier which can support that plan can give budget reassurance. Leasing is always an option if budgets are tight and, once again, this can be set out in a plan so the customer is aware of the cost and timescale they have on each product. 

When customers are looking at buying technology, whether services or products, the best way to ensure best value and fitness for purpose is through a further competition.

NW: To make sure you’re not wasting your money, research whether the tool will work in the context of your school and check to see what evidence already exists. Edtech organisations should be able to demonstrate the impact of their product on teachers and students. Often edtech might work really well in one school, but if it doesn’t fit with your existing systems or hardware then it won’t have the same impact.

DP: Work out what you want to achieve before you get anywhere near a procurement exercise. Whilst not all purchases will warrant a detailed procurement exercise, everything should start from a business case that details what needs to be achieved and how success will be measured.

Ensure that realisation management runs through the implementation project, and into and beyond go-live. If it becomes apparent that the benefits aren’t going to be realised (which may include return on investment not being achieved), good governance will mean that the decision to stop a project can be taken in a timely and appropriate way. 

SB: Measuring ROI has always been tricky. 

We often find that schools fail to consider the indirect costs of investing in edtech – such as professional development, ongoing technical support, and the effort it takes to transform pedagogy. 

Prior to investing in edtech, we would recommend careful consideration of the required outcomes of your investment. What are your long-term goals? 

Be mindful that your desired outcomes will be hard to achieve without short- and medium-term goals.

A short-term goal might be to ensure that your teaching team is trained and fully onboard with the tech you are looking to deliver, with teacher approval key for long-term success. Medium-term goals might encompass a change in culture, modification of staff responsibilities, effective monitoring and encouragement of staff and student feedback.

Lastly, understand that these achievements may take a year or more to accomplish, and be realistic with your desired outcomes. 

Q. What specific features are educators looking for most from their edtech? 

LF: We’ve spoken to many customers about this and they have consistently given us the same message: they need to buy quickly and easily. They don’t want to shop around because they are often time-poor. 

So, with all of that in mind, Crown Commercial Service, in collaboration with the Department for Education, designed our Education Technology agreement. 

We believe it can help save time and resources when it comes to buying technology goods and services, because they can be bought through one agreement. We also provide an online catalogue for quick purchases too.

NW: We have recently been looking through school and college applications for our EdTech Innovation Testbed, a programme to trial edtech tools in schools and colleges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, school staff were really interested in how technology could reduce workload. This is an issue that technology is well-placed to tackle, from simplifying administration to supporting assessment. What’s most important is that school staff start to have a really clear idea of the specific problem they are trying to address, and then identify the features that would be most useful to them.

DP: They’ll be looking for features that support their teaching, are instinctive to use, and work alongside what they are already using.

Whilst supporting the pedagogical approach of the institution is important, other benefits such as reducing workload (by making it easier to mark or give feedback, for example) are also significant. 

It’s essential to make things as easy as possible. A good interface helps, but educators also need edtech that aligns with their current working practice. For example, some VLEs were built for the schools market, and so didn’t take into account that more than one person would need to be able to mark (for example, during university final-year projects and dissertations).

Academics, rightly, aren’t interested in having to do things twice or constructing workarounds. 

So, for example, when marks are being inputted into the VLE, they should be pulled straight through to the student record system. A technology like lecture capture is most successful in institutions where it’s automated and the lecturer doesn’t have to do anything for it to begin. Of course, some lecturers then choose to go on to edit or refine their materials, but for everyone else, it needs to be seamless, with little or no effort required to use the technology.

It’s essential to make things as easy as possible

– Dean Phillips

Q. Are there any common pitfalls or misconceptions around edtech purchasing?

LF: Procuring technology is often seen as a daunting, complex task, but it does not have to be. Products are easier to procure than services, but you should still consider how to future-proof hardware and software. Customers also need to ensure that purchases line up with the organisation’s wider strategy – moving to the cloud, for example. They should also consider any ongoing support that might be needed.

Procuring services can be more complex, and there can be pitfalls if this isn’t carefully planned. It is unwise to outsource a problem as you are likely to just get the problem back, plus a bill. Ensure that the needs of the end user are considered and built into your specification, and keep your requested service levels and service credits realistic – if they’re too onerous, they will result in increased costs; if too basic, they won’t do the job.
Build in a governance or change process to support a good working relationship, and ensure the risks and liabilities associated with the service are correctly assigned to both the supplier and your organisation. 

Finally, always ensure you consider the exit management plan when procuring new services: this is easier to agree at the start than when leaving. 

NW: There is often a perception that the shiniest technology will act as a silver bullet. In fact, it’s more about compatibility. You need to start with the problem you’re trying to solve, instead of just buying something because it’s new to the market. Work backwards from there to research which product will be best suited to the specifics of your situation.

DP: Don’t underestimate the importance of what needs to be done to introduce a change of process and/or technology within an institution. Not putting time and effort into this would trip anyone up.

You can have the best tool in the world, but it will be worthless if it is not known about and understood by staff or, worse still, not liked by academics or students. 

You can mitigate this by involving academics and students (and professional services staff) early on, and ensuring you know their requirements. Once you have purchased, make sure you communicate the benefits well.

The good news is that this sector is incredibly collaborative and open to sharing, so you can learn from what others have done well – and what they would have done differently. 

Q. How and when do you know that edtech is working for you? 

LF: It depends on how the technology is going to be used, but the technology should start to benefit teachers and pupils by making learning and teaching easier and more reliable. When using an agreement, the customer will have a contract with the supplier where there will be key performance indicators in place to ensure the customer will get the best out of the supplier and the products or services. These are important, because they can demonstrate when the technology is not working for you and trigger support from the supplier and the agreement owner.

NW: Ideally, you could carry out your own evaluation of what’s working. This could be by collecting some data before you start using the tool, and then comparing that with data after the edtech product has been introduced. Evidence could focus on pupil engagement, attainment, teacher workload or any other outcomes you are hoping for. Nesta’s EdTech Innovation Testbed will support schools and colleges to carry out trials of edtech with an independent evaluator to gather more robust evidence.

DP: A flippant answer would be when your students and academics are using it and are giving you good feedback!

Starting with a clear and well-understood idea of what it is that you are trying to achieve, and why – rather than concentrating on the service or tool itself – will help you measure and evaluate your edtech.

Metrics can be easy to apply, and they can be useful, but they don’t tell the whole story. You may have implemented a new lecture capture system and seen a high take up by academics and students, but you would need to do more research to see how this might have affected your institution’s student outcomes.

You need to start with the problem you’re trying to solve, instead of just buying something because it’s new to the market – Nancy Wilkinson

Q. What if your expensive edtech just isn’t working for you? Is there anything you can do?

LF: From a CCS perspective, certainly. When customers have chosen a supplier, they ensure that a contract is in place which provides guarantees on the technology delivery and the overall performance and management of the supplier throughout the contract. CCS is here to help and support customers throughout their procurement journey, right through to the end of their contract. Each agreement has a dedicated commercial agreement manager who will support the customer with any issues with the supplier, contract or products.

NW: Many edtech products operate a subscription service, so you can always start small with just one class or year group before scaling up to the whole school.

DP: If it really isn’t working and you are unable to resolve problems, a benefits realisation review will help you decide whether to continue.

Hopefully, however, your institution will have ensured that markers and milestones of success have been built into the supplier contract, so that you can address things quickly if something isn’t working as you would wish it to.

It’s important not to treat the rollout of a product or service as the end point in the process. 

You, or your institution, will want to have a support framework and/or service level agreement in place.

You’ll also benefit from a good working relationship with your supplier. 

Useful resources