30 January 2020 - Procuring edtech

Procuring edtech

Dean Phillips, Assistant Director, Digital and Information Services at the University of Aberdeen and ucisa Treasurer shared his views on the challenges of procuring edtech as part of a roundtable for Education Technology magazine.   His answers are given below whilst the full discussion,  which features responses from  representatives from the Crown Commercial Service, Nesta and Probrand can be found in Roundtable: tech it or leave it..


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

Whether you are in a teaching role or supporting edtech as a learning technologist, there are plenty of resources such as the Technology Enhanced Learning survey which shows what peers across the UK are using, along with case studies describing how they have been implemented.

IT professionals can assist with the evaluation of an edtech product or service too, whether it’s proprietary, open source or created in-house. If we take polling software for voting in a lecture as an example, as this will interface with the institution’s networks and wider infrastructure, IT staff will also 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 to considering 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.

Is there useful advice available (online, etc) in effective edtech procurement?

There is a lot of good general guidance out there to help people work through what their institution needs a tool or service to do. This is vital a part of the pre-procurement process. The VLE Review Toolkit is aimed at people who are evaluating their virtual learning environment, 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 (as well as the wider public sector) follow. This can range from a a small, individual one-off purchase of equipment up to a full-blown OJEU procurement exercise (for tenders over c.£188k 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 premise or in the cloud, and they can you establish the Total Cost of Ownership.

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

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.

I find interesting to look at trends in emerging technology and then 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, I need to be thinking not only about the current intake, but how future students will learn.

With budgets tight, how can colleges and universities ensure return on investment?

As I’ve indicated, the main point is to 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 which details what is to be achieved and how success will be measured.

Making sure that benefits realisation management runs through the implementation project and into post go-live is key. If it becomes apparent that the benefits aren’t going to be realised (which may include the Return on Investment not being achieved) then good governance will mean that the decision to stop a project can be taken in a timely and appropriate way.

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

They'll be looking for features that support their teaching; that are instinctive to use and that 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 for academic staff. 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. Historically, 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 (a requirement for final year projects and dissertations).

Academics, rightly, aren't interested in having to do things twice or construct 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.

Are there any common pitfalls or misconceptions around edtech purchasing?

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, 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 what their requirements are. 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 wish they had done differently.

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

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 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.

What if it isn’t, and you’ve just spent lots of money on it? Is there anything you can do?

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

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

It’s important too not treat the roll out of a product or service as the end point in the process. You, or your institution on your behalf, will want to have a support framework and/ or service level agreement in place.

You’ll also benefit from as a good working relationship with your supplier – make sure there are contact points through the year, not just when the bills need to be paid! If you have a business relationship manager unit in your institution, this is something they could do on behalf of your department or academic school.