How to Build Strong Relationships During the Edtech Purchasing Process - Digital Promise

How to Build Strong Relationships During the Edtech Purchasing Process

August 27, 2019 | By

This blog post is the first of a two-part series discussing relationship building in edtech selection and purchasing. In this first blog post, we’ll address how educators can build and maintain good working relationships with edtech developers. Part two will discuss how edtech vendors can return the favor to develop great working relationships with educators.

Whether you’re an educator or product developer, one of the key components to the educational technology (edtech) selection and purchase process is creating a mutually beneficial partnership. School districts should communicate their needs and give candid feedback to developers; at the same time, edtech developers need to meet the needs of diverse learners and educators to improve learning outcomes.

But as a district, when you’re in the middle of evaluating an edtech product, how can you make sure you’re taking the right steps to build a good working relationship with an edtech developer? We talked to both educators and developers to get tips for creating and maintaining good relationships before, during, and after the edtech purchasing process.

8 tips for educators to build strong relationships with developers during the edtech purchasing process

To help demystify the relationship-building factor of the edtech purchasing process, we identified nine ways to help educators establish a transparent, honest partnership between their schools and edtech vendors.

1. Rely on evidence to understand and communicate academic needs

Before you know what you want in a product, you have to know what you need. In the case of large, time-consuming, often expensive edtech purchases, that need should generally come from concrete evidence.

As Zach Desjarlais, Director of Instructional Technology at Vancouver Public Schools (VPS), puts it, “If there’s a need, a gap, or something to fill, we’d like that to be identified by data. [The request for new edtech] doesn’t just come from a want or a wish.” To help ensure there’s data to back up a request for edtech, Desjarlais says VPS has “a phenomenal researcher on staff” who will “conduct research on a product or pull studies from vendors or third parties” to verify the research alignment of any given product before moving on to next steps in the edtech purchasing process. That way, the district has taken the time to “clarify [their] needs and priorities first, then match them to a product.”

Superintendent of Elizabeth Forward School District, Dr. Todd Keruskin, agrees with an evidence-based approach to edtech purchasing, saying that before any purchase is made in the district, “we review data and look at curricular weaknesses. As we review products, we keep our data and curricular issues in mind.”

Takeaway: Starting from a place of concrete, evidence-based needs allows edtech vendors to better understand how they can work with your district specifically to solve any challenges associated with their product. It also gives you, as a district, concrete numbers and facts to point to during the purchasing process to address needs that an edtech vendor needs to meet.

2. Engage with stakeholders to identify and communicate context-specific needs

Unsurprisingly, fully understanding your students’ and teachers’ needs means engaging with them to identify the authentic and fundamental challenges they’re experiencing in the classroom. You should also engage school administrators, parents, family members, and any other party that might interact with an edtech product or be impacted by your edtech purchase to understand their needs, which you can better identify to vendors.

By getting subjective feedback from all key stakeholders, you can better understand how classroom needs might align with the needs you’ve already identified through hard data. You might also discover additional challenges any edtech product will need to confront if it’s going to work in your schools.

Desjarlais notes, “It’s really important to talk to the community because then people feel heard and valued in that process. If there’s no buy-in [from community members], you’re setting yourself up for a difficult implementation. The process of engaging all stakeholders creates shared ownership.”

Takeaway: Pulling as many voices as possible into your selection and evaluation process helps you holistically identify the needs an edtech product must meet in order to serve everyone in your district well. By establishing a clear understanding of your educators’ and learners’ unique needs, you will be prepared for meaningful conversations with product companies.

3. Ask about the learning sciences research used to design and build edtech products

Upon first reading this tip, you might react like Dr. Keruskin, who says, “We do not trust vendor research on a product!”

With the lack of clear standards in the current edtech marketplace and a history of widely varied research methodologies used to create edtech products, it’s not wrong to feel suspicious of edtech vendors’ research. However, in some cases, edtech products actually are designed with education best practices in mind.

Dr. Johnetta MacCalla, CEO of Zyrobotics, says, “We wish educators asked about the process we use to create our products. Our products are based on proven educational research methods and validated approaches for engaging diverse learners.”

Takeaway: While you should be a critical consumer of research behind any edtech product, it never hurts to ask about the methodologies used to create it. Think about asking some of the following questions when evaluating the research behind an edtech product:

  • What learning sciences research did you use to design your product?
  • How has your product attended to diverse learners’ needs?
  • Have any third parties conducted studies with your product? In what context were these studies conducted? What were the findings?

4. Set goals for the edtech you’re piloting and share the goals with the edtech product team

After you’ve determined what you want an edtech product to accomplish, decide how you’ll measure its performance against your goals. Knowing what you’re looking for out of a product in relation to your goals will give you a stronger background of information when discussing products with vendors.

For instance, when Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) was refreshing their high school’s 1:1 devices, they created an evaluation rubric to help focus their needs. The rubric included metrics such as up-front cost, total cost of ownership, reparability, and the price of a power supply. Using the rubric gave VPS a points-based system to evaluate all their hardware options so that up-front cost wasn’t the only deciding factor in their edtech purchase.

Dr. Keruskin advocates for in-person evaluations to better evaluate an edtech product, as well: “We love to actually see a product being used in a school and talk with the educators and principals about the effectiveness of the product.”

Takeaway: Know what you want an edtech product to accomplish for your district, decide how you’re going to evaluate its effectiveness before you start your pilot, and communicate these needs to vendors. Use proven tools from the Edtech Pilot Framework to assess a product’s performance. Using these tools, you can better communicate with edtech vendors about where and how their product falls short or—best case scenario—exceeds expectations.

5. Be straightforward about what’s working and what’s not

Creating an open, honest, and candid feedback loop between your district and an edtech vendor is always best practice; edtech vendors want their products to be successful in your classrooms, and without communicating openly about what’s not working, they won’t know you have a problem in the first place. As Kathy Bloomfield, Director of Operations at ReadWorks, says, “It’s just as helpful for us to get feedback when we’ve got it wrong as it is to get feedback about where we’re succeeding.”

Providing this feedback doesn’t have to be negative or relationship ending. In fact, you can use these conversations to suggest how vendors might improve their product or whether it’s possible for them to tweak their product to meet your needs.

Bloomfield says, “When teachers say, ‘I wish you had this,’ or, ‘We love this feature. Here’s how we use it. Could you support our process in that way?’ that’s all useful feedback about how we can make our product better.”

Takeaway: Deliver the good, the bad, and the ugly news to vendors. Be honest, especially about where their product fails to meet your needs, and be specific about why and how it falls short.

6. Be specific about how the edtech tool was implemented

Letting edtech vendors know exactly how you’re using their product in the classroom is priceless feedback.

Ben Grimley, CEO and co-founder of Speak Agent, says, “Educators are always thinking about their students, so we hear a lot from educators about how their students interact with Speak Agent. But we would love to learn more about how teachers themselves interact with the platform and how it impacts their teaching.”

With a focus on continuously improving Speak Agent, Grimley would love to know things like whether his company’s product has changed the way educators teach or if it creates new barriers or disruptions that his developers didn’t anticipate.

Takeaway: Sharing specific feedback gives vendors a better understanding of what life in the classroom is like, and how a product can be improved for various contexts.

7. Update developers about student outcomes

Product teams want to make sure they’re doing all they can to improve their tool to better meet students’ needs. Keeping this in mind, consider being detailed and specific about how the use of an edtech product has impacted students in your classroom.

Dr. MacCalla of Zyrobotics, says, “We wish educators would provide more metrics on the learning outcomes and student engagement from using our products in the classroom. This would allow us to better refine our products for customers at a more rapid pace.”

Takeaway: Consider sharing anonymized student performance data you’ve collected during your product evaluation with edtech vendors to demonstrate whether using the product resulted in improved learning environments. As an educator in the classroom, note your own observations about how students interact with an edtech product. If possible, set up a method for students to directly communicate about their take on a product.

8. Create a plan for implementation in collaboration with the edtech product team

Before finalizing your new edtech product purchase, make sure you know what you’re going to do with it and how the product is going to be rolled out to your classrooms, and be sure to ask about the professional learning or training opportunities offered by the vendor.

Making sure that educators are prepared to integrate a new tool into their lesson plans and curricula goes a long way when it comes to the success of the product. As Mary Beth Hertz, an art and technology educator and technology coordinator working in the School District of Philadelphia, says, “It’s important to take the time to do the planning that goes into these implementations and purchases. Many districts deliver new technology and say, ‘Aren’t you excited for this?’ But they have no plan for how to use the technology or why.”

Takeaway: Take the necessary steps to make sure educators are prepared to use new edtech in their classrooms. If you’ve already included educator voices in your decision-making process (because you followed tips #2 and #8!), creating and sustaining educator buy-in for implementation should be much easier.

Work with educators to build edtech training into planned professional development sessions. Clearly articulate why you’ve decided to purchase this product and how it will improve student learning. Working with your educators to create buy-in also helps edtech vendors better separate problems with their product from problems with the implementation process.

Educators and edtech vendors are on the same team

At the end of the day, you want to do what’s best for your students, educators, and district community—and so do responsible edtech vendors.

By articulating your needs clearly, evaluating edtech products fairly and objectively, communicating openly, and making plans for future success, you can ensure that both your district and the edtech vendors you work with come out of the edtech purchasing process better than when they went into it.

Learn more about the edtech selection and purchasing process

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