How District Leaders Make Edtech Purchasing Decisions

Imagine being a district leader tasked with selecting the ideal educational technology tools from a sea of thousands of options. The stakes are high: The right choice can transform classrooms, while the wrong one can waste precious resources. How do you decide?

At the heart of this challenge is understanding how districts approach their edtech procurement decisions. In 2022, the Decision Lab (TDL), an applied behavioral science research and innovation firm, interviewed and surveyed over 225 edtech decision-makers in K-12 school districts in the United States. Based on the data, TDL mapped out the edtech procurement process, including multiple steps that these decision-makers cited. The research revealed that complex behavioral and structural barriers factor into purchasing decisions within a district. To better understand this issue, let’s examine the four key stages of the procurement journey, what each stage entails, potential barriers to success and tangible solutions districts can leverage to overcome those barriers.

1. Needfind: Identify Edtech Needs

At the initial “needfind” stage, the district identifies a specific need for an edtech product. This typically begins with the district scoping the gap between its existing edtech and identified needs for teaching and learning. After articulating what’s needed, district decision-makers conduct market research to see what products are on the market, often by searching online, attending conferences or asking peer districts.

One concern that arises during the needfind stage is the needs assessment itself: Are districts critically examining their existing products and how they might help meet identified needs? Districts oftentimes have more edtech products than is optimal and would be better served by reducing the number of products they have. Another barrier is the limited awareness among decision-makers about the full range of available products and the quality of potential solutions.

To overcome these challenges, districts can utilize engagement data from existing products to determine which tools are redundant or underutilized. Additionally, feedback from teachers and students can provide insights into the effectiveness of current tools and identify gaps in the current edtech suite. Also, educator networks can be a way to expand market research, and professional organizations have conferences with expo halls that provide decision-makers with opportunities to directly connect with edtech product providers, such as at the annual ISTE conference.

2. Evaluate: Assess Product Quality and Efficacy

During the evaluation stage, districts review potential edtech solutions and scope their ability to meet the identified needs. This includes narrowing down a shortlist list of possible products to review, ensuring that products meet essential integration, privacy and technical requirements, reviewing fit to the needs identified in the needfind stage, and determining the primary users.

Potential barriers that arise during this stage can include choice overload, ambiguous evaluation criteria set by the district preventing straightforward evaluation, non-standardized evaluations, and confirmation bias, which occurs when district leaders and teachers favor product providers they are already familiar with, thereby preventing them from looking for other potentially better options.

When evaluating potential solutions, decision-makers should reference relevant curriculum and district or state standards to ensure alignment and best fit with student learning outcomes. Additionally, decision-makers can include multiple viewpoints, such as curriculum leaders, instructional coaches and classroom teachers, in the evaluation process to provide different perspectives. Evaluation frameworks — for example, the Teacher Ready Evaluation Tool, which focuses on teacher usability — can help standardize the evaluation process or provide a common starting point for evaluation discussions.

Validated information from trusted third-party sources illuminates key areas for consideration when exploring and vetting new tools. The Edtech Index provides validated information on quality markers such as alignments, badges and certifications about edtech accessibility, efficacy, interoperability, privacy and usability to help decision makers find the right edtech products for their schools.

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Key stages of the procurement journey

3. Pilot: Test Products and Gather Feedback

The pilot stage involves a deeper examination of a narrowed-down list of products through demonstrations, program samples and pilot programs implemented in actual classroom settings. This stage is crucial for gathering first-hand feedback from end users — students and teachers — who will ultimately use the tool.

The primary barriers during this stage include a lack of sufficient time to properly test programs, unstructured methods for collecting feedback and the zero-risk bias, where districts hesitate to discontinue a program after initial trials. This often leads to the continuation of suboptimal programs due to the sunk-cost fallacy, where districts continue with an edtech solution simply because of prior investments of time and resources.

To mitigate these challenges, districts could adopt a more systematic approach to collecting and analyzing feedback from pilot programs. This can involve structured surveys, interviews and observation techniques that provide clear, actionable data. For situations where a complete pilot program is not feasible, decision makers should ensure that product demonstrations are consistent across different tools to enable fair comparisons.

4. Purchase: Establish Standardized Procurement Processes

This final stage entails the rigorous vetting of an edtech product before its purchase and widespread implementation across schools in the district. Challenges during this phase often stem from inadequate evaluation processes and the influence of non-essential factors on the final decision. Once a decision is made on which product to purchase, additional barriers may include groupthink, a lack of buy-in from key stakeholders or resistance to change.

To enhance decision-making, districts should develop a standardized procurement process and use a detailed product assessment rubric. This ensures that decisions are consistent and based on clearly defined criteria. Additionally, fostering strong collaborations with edtech providers can help tailor professional development programs for teachers, ensuring they are well-prepared to integrate new technologies into their classrooms effectively.

Ultimately, navigating the edtech procurement process requires a systematic, evidence-based approach to ensure the selection and implementation of high-quality products, and expanding one’s understanding of the edtech procurement process can reveal opportunities for improving decision-making along the way. The four key stages of the procurement journey, from identifying needs to making the final purchase decision, highlight the importance of thorough evaluation, stakeholder engagement and strategic decision-making. By leveraging the strategies and resources detailed in this article, district leaders can tackle some common barriers they experience and adopt high-quality products.

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