Smoother Sailing

Beware of edtech procurement’s sirens: four ways to navigate around them.

GUEST COLUMN | by Edwin Wargo

CREDIT 3rdQuoteBuying stuff. That’s what we like to do as a people. It’s our economy. Sorry baseball, Facebook, and the Kardashians. You’ve got stiff headwinds on how we like to spend our time. It makes sense why marketplaces have popped up all around us. We can find, review, and buy stuff more quickly using topical marketplaces. We also want our stuff right now. Speaking of now, Amazon, Uber, AirBNB get all the press because they have in part perfected Johnny-on-the-spot service. But there are others. Lots of others.

We need to look at the real-world trends around us and we need to look at the current state of edtech procurement.

Before the swell of marketplaces, we used Google to find stuff to buy. We’d search and search using this keyword and that keyword (thank you high school media specialists for giving me these skills!) But it was and still is laborious. The results are dependent on optimized keywords and rankings. Then folks realized we could easily use technology to play matchmaker connecting buyers and sellers.  Google has noticed this shift launching their “buy buttons” that will soon appear in search results.

Where does edtech fit into all of this? Interestingly, the marketplace concept that is making waves in many other sectors hasn’t fully reached the edtech procurement shores yet, albeit there are some docks that are promising. It’s curious on a number of seemingly disparate levels that need to be connected. As a country, we spend about $20B per year on edtech. Moreover, for our students we invest a lot of time talking about being Future Ready and 21st Century Skills. In order to connect these dots, we need to look at the real-world trends around us and we need to look at the current state of edtech procurement. Not an academic exercise, for sure, but one of real student impact.

On balance, edtech purchasing is still at sea in search of a marketplace port where schools can find and buy edtech. This has real impact. Beware, though, there are Sirens out there singing their beautiful songs. There are four buoys that are needed to steer edtech procurement into port. This global trend of marketplaces is sure to reach edtech. Let’s take a look at the Sirens and buoys. Argh, matey!

  1. Identify the EdTech Procurement Process
  2. If You Build It, They Will Come? Human Nature
  3. Seeing the Benefits
  4. Understanding the Reality

1. Do we need a map even though we can see land? Identifying the Edtech Procurement Process

We need to establish a community language around this process. Those of you in the edtech business may say, “Thanks, Captain Obvious!” It is through seeing this end-to-end process that we know the best way to model the edtech marketplace.  Without it, it is easy to look at the land far away but get hung up on a sandbar right in front of us.

As a former K-12 teacher and district tech administrator this has been the process I have observed:

  1. Discovery – Finding the right solution
  2. Vetting – Making sure it’s the best
  3. Pricing – Learning how much it will cost.
  4. Decision – Yes, no, or maybe with stakeholder input.
  5. Review – Sharing your experience with others.

The $20B question is whether technology should imitate the process or if the process can be changed using technology? We have seen the emergence of sites like Graphite, EdNak, BidNet, and Learntia that are good starts towards marketplaces but don’t yet provide the end-to-end experience for schools and providers.

I think the answer is a hybrid of both scenarios dependent upon the one constant in all of this — the human element.

2. If You Build It, Will They Come? Human Nature

We humans are an interesting species. We need not look further than our world – the world of education and technology. The change arc we embrace doesn’t always follow the available technology. Just look around. The current edtech procurement process and marketplaces are good examples of this. Adoption rates are slow.

Marketplaces are only good if buyer and seller humans actually use them. This applies to brick and mortar as well as cloud-based marketplaces.   Changing ingrained behavior that has nearly crystallized over many years is hard to do. We humans have to see the benefits of using a technology and going a different route before changing course.

3. What’s In It For Me? The Benefit

In his book Change Function, author Pip Coburn talks about technology adoption. He contends users adopt technology when the total pain of adoption is less than their current pain. In other words, if pain is high and the new technology is easy to adopt, people will use said technology.

The same can and does hold true for edtech marketplaces. The benefit has to be clear for schools and solution providers. Edtech marketplaces have to be real about their audiences.

4. Reality Element

There are two distinct parts to the reality of edtech marketplaces.  The first is a reality bubble. The second is about practice.

I think we are in the midst of an edtech bubble but not the economic kind. It’s a reality bubble. There seems to be a disconnect between what we think is happening and what is really happening. School and district decision makers are extremely busy people, I know, I have lived it, given their wide range of responsibilities. Edtech marketplaces need to be designed with this daily reality in mind.

For example, the discovery process has to be made easier. It should allow a busy tech coordinator or principal to find a solution using their language and thought processes. Having another flat directory that provides some reviews doesn’t match the reality.

Here’s a real example. There are great tools that sync student information systems with a school’s Active Directory. Try that in a Google search? And for a busy administrator- that may not know such a thing exists – it’s hard to simply articulate.

We collectively spend a lot of time talking about 21st century and preparing students for the future. There are a lot of great educators doing great things. Here’s the irony: The very tools that we are leveraging to make students ready for the world are found in such archaic methods. We just need to look at how we are buying stuff outside of school.

As long as buyers are buying and sellers have stuff to sell, marketplaces are here to stay in the world around us.  As schools and their providers dip their toes in the water of edtech marketplaces, we need to step outside our bubbles, considering the Sirens out there, which can delay the true benefit of them. We need to dive in the water leading with the reality in schools and humanity. Otherwise, it will be like a cannonball – a lot of splash but no grace.

Edwin Wargo is CEO and co-founder of 3rd Quote. He is a former K-12 teacher with a Masters in School Leadership who has held district and school technology coordinator positions. Write to or follow him @edwinjwargo with any comments or questions.

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