The ed-tech buying process in K-12 districts is more decentralized than it once was. In some ways, the division of power is changing and this has very real implications for how technology companies create and market their products.
While CIOs and technology managers continue to make decisions about core technology like infrastructure broadband and hardware, teachers and school level employees are more involved than ever in choosing student-facing technology—and those are the tools that tend to have the biggest potential to create positive learning outcomes.
“Teachers, school level folks, principals and department chairs are making purchasing decisions on apps, curriculum and software to support students,” says Sarah Glover, Outreach director for Panorama Education, a Boston-based data analytics company focused on the K-12 market. “A lot of schools have been moving towards decentralizing budgets so schools have more discretionary dollars to make these purchases.”
Traditionally, all purchasing decisions have been made by top level school leaders and while titles like CIO and superintendent or purchasing director may sign the district check, often it’s lower level employees who are doing the influencing now.
“From our perspective, the teacher is really the key to success for technology. What we see increasingly is that administrators would not even deploy technologies without having support from the teachers,” says Gregor Freund, CEO, Versal, a platform that allows educators to make engaging online courses.
The New Influencers
According to Freund, this trend plays out in two different ways. He says more companies are marketing products directly to teachers. Often these products are free for instructors to use or at least feature a price point low enough that teachers will reach into their own pockets to fund it. For example, take a look at the popular LMS Schoology. A teacher can sign up for free, track student grades, post assignments, etc. Once one teacher has success with the product, other teachers in the building follow suit. Eventually, administrators see how valuable this tool has become and how easily it facilitates collaboration. The district then invests in the paid enterprise version of the software to make additional features like custom branding, extra storage space and advanced analytics available district-wide. The district ultimately makes the purchase, but the teachers are the driving force behind it.
The other scenario Freund sees is a bit more formal where “a panel of teachers evaluate technologies and help administrators make smart decisions. This is particularly true if the technology is something students interact with,” he says.
This idea rings true for Mike Jamerson, director of Technology, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation. When asked if teachers are influencers in the ed-tech buying process he says, “absolutely.” He then shares his district’s recent experience with the purchase of an LMS as an example. “We had 18 educators on a panel and only three of them were tech people. The rest were building leaders, instructional technology and teachers. We used those folks to identify requirements, evaluate solutions and reach a consensus,” he says.
According to Jamerson, technology directors should work closely with classroom level employees, especially those in charge of curriculum, to gain an understanding of what they need and what the requirements are for any technology that may be purchased. Then Jamerson has to make sure the district can support it. The buying process is collaborative in nature. Although Jamerson’s department ultimately handles district purchasing orders, it doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum. It relies on the expertise of educators on the ground.
Behind the Trend
There are few things driving this trend towards decentralization. One is access. There is a wealth of information on the Internet about ed-tech products. Many teachers routinely participate in Twitter #edchats and attend educational conferences where they hear about new tools and news ways of teaching. When they see something they like, they try it. Another factor is the adoption of state standards like Common Core. Everyone is looking for tools to help students prepare and there is no end to the digital resources available to anyone who looks.
“Teachers and leaders are being pretty aggressive in trying to stitch that stuff together,” Glover says.
The same is true of BYOD and 1:1 learning environments. As schools continue to implement mobile learning initiatives, educators will continue to look for high quality resources that supplement curriculum and enhance classroom instruction. If ed-tech companies are smart, they’ll realize the great potential of a wider audience to market to—that’s if they haven’t done so already.
“There’s a closer connection between the buyer and the user,” Glover says. “The user is the teachers and the teachers are influencing the buyer.”