“Like any other purchase, some careful research—in the form of the right questions—will yield the best product for your students and the best use of your limited school funds.”
As a Library Media Specialist, I am approached by vendors and representatives all year long. Most of the time, they have a new product that they are featuring that will far outperform last year’s amazing product. And while I believe that most representatives are honest and most edtech companies are truly “in it” because they have a passion to help teachers with the tools they need to teach, a health dose of skepticism can’t hurt.
With funds for schools at critical levels, you need to carefully weigh purchases, now more than ever. But beyond the obvious questions about the pricing structure (Is it a “per pupil” cost? Can we get a site license? Are there any setup fees?), you should be looking more deeply at potential edtech products before taking the plunge. Here are a few of the questions you should be asking.
Search out the background of the people and team who have created it. What background and experiences do they have? If the leaders are not educators themselves, do they have an advisory team or a “brain trust” of some kind to bring practical classroom experiences to the table?
Is the contact information easy to find, or does it take way too much digging to find any useful information about the people behind the product? There should be a transparency about the whole thing. If you are left with more questions than answers after spending a few minutes on their website, it doesn’t instill much confidence in you as a potential buyer.
It is important to note, too, that while there are hundreds of edtech startups producing some great and not-so-great products, the big boys have also gotten in on the act. Major companies and publishers also create tools. While most are pretty clear that this is a supplemental product to work with their published materials, not all are as up-front. If you buy that product, are you then locked in to using only their materials? Especially in the case of personalized learning tools, this is going to inhibit the learner’s ability to interact with a diverse and rich set of resources.
When you call them, do you get someone helpful? Even better, can you get one of the creators on the phone and ask them to share their passion about the product they’ve created?
You need to have confidence that you will, during the life of the product in your school, be able to get help when there is a problem. If every phone call or email is a hassle or a run-around, this is frustration you don’t have time for. Or worse, if every interaction feels more like a sales call than a service call.
Ever try calling your phone company? I’m pretty sure they are working off a script that states: “Please make at least three offers of other products before letting the customer hang up.” When I have a problem and I call, I don’t want to be sold. I want to be helped.
Find out how much current research has gone into the design and function of the product. Be wary of the popular tag “Common Core aligned.” It’s too easy to jump on the CCSS bandwagon, and it is worth the digging to find out what they actually mean by that. What does that look like when I use this tool with kids in the classroom?
What other research has been done in the development of the product? Does it align with what you already know about personalized learning, or project-based learning, or flipped learning, for example?
And how much of the company’s budget goes into R&D? Look for companies that invest more resources into aligning with best practices, product testing, and overall development, instead of focusing most of their resources on fancy marketing strategies.
Nothing frustrates a group of teachers more than rolling out a new tool that is replacing one that they used last year. “Why can’t we keep using XYZ?” they ask. And you have to answer: “Because it no longer [fill in the blank.]”
While there is no crystal ball for how a product will look two or three years from now, any product that we purchase with this year’s funds should be flexible enough to handle the inevitable changes. Can we easily add a couple more classes of students, or delete some? If we change our Math curriculum next year, with this tool be able to adapt to that?
I especially love tools and products that are easy to implement on a small-scale as a pilot. A handful of teachers can try it out, see if it ‘breaks’, and then train and help their colleagues as it scales up to a full-school rollout.
Let’s be honest: sometimes, you want to avoid making a phone call or sending an email.
Does the product have a rich, helpful website with the answers you need? Are there tutorials to walk through both the basics and more advanced features? A full set of FAQs, and help for students? This information should be easy to find, easy to navigate, and frequently updated.
And this is more a question of function and usefulness, not aesthetics. The jazziest website with the prettiest graphics is no good to a teacher who is just looking for an answer to their pressing question. Just as much effort should be shown to the functional aspects of the site as were put into the marketing efforts.
With student privacy as a top concern for teachers and administrators, edtech companies need to be transparent about what they do, and don’t do, with student data.
For sites where a lot of student information is entered and stored, how safe it that? Is it encrypted, and password protected? Who is that information shared with, or how is it used for marketing purposes?
In our personal purchasing decisions, how many times do we look at testimonials and reviews before buying something? It should be no different with edtech products.
Are there testimonials or case studies on their website, or are they available on request? Feel free to reach out these people, too. If the IT Director was quoted somewhere, email him or her to ask if they would still recommend the product. Ask them how they’ve used it, and what problems and issues they’ve had. More important, ask them about what it’s been like working with the company.
You can also try a Google search for the company or product name followed by the word “review.” Of course, like any review, you have to evaluate the source or person reviewing it, too.
If there are no published testimonials, call the company and ask for the names of a couple of their customers. Try to find those who have a similar situation to yours demographically.
Like any other purchase, some careful research—in the form of the right questions—will yield the best product for your students and the best use of your limited school funds.
Author: Cory Peppler
With over twenty years of experience as an educator, Cory Peppler has served as a classroom teacher, library media specialist, and technology integrator. He writes about technology, education, and parenting.
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