How schools can avoid expensive edtech disasters

Schools buying costly edtech should ask if they can try before they buy - so they know the product is up to the job

Dan Worth

Staff look at a screen in a school

In a perfect world, everything you ever bought would be exactly what you needed and work as required.

But, of course, the reality is quite different: items are the wrong size, don’t work as promised, are missing key parts or just don’t meet the need for which they were purchased.

Where the purchase is for a small household or isn’t mission-critical, it’s not the end of the world. But where your purchasing decisions will affect hundreds of teachers and pupils, getting it right is vital.

Schools frequently come up against this issue when making large-scale IT purchases – but there is a way to reduce the risk factor. Using proof of concepts and testing potential purchases can often avoid major IT headaches and ensure that what’s being purchased is fit for purpose.

Edtech: Testing IT equipment

Neelam Parmar, director of educational technology, digital learning and innovation at Ashford School in Kent, is a big advocate of this approach. “You should never buy anything straight up, you need to test and trial everything," she says.

She adds that it may well be the case that too many schools don’t think to ask to see equipment in action before buying it, perhaps not realising companies will provide this service.

 “I think many don’t know that – it’s that concept of if you don’t ask you don’t get. And, of course, if a company says they will let you do that you should take them up on that offer.”

At her school, this has involved testing and staggered deployments of things such as interactive screens and new tablets to ensure they fit teaching requirements, so that staff could uncover issues as they went, rather than after a mass rollout.

How to test edtech before purchsing

Claire Budden, IT operations manager at Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, is another who has seen the benefits of this first hand as part of mass deployment of HP devices for staff and pupils and using HP For Education’s proof of concept service to do this.

“We got in at least one model of what we were considering buying to ensure it was suitable for our network and for the applications teachers and students need to run and so forth – we are spending a lot of money on these purchases so we know it has to be right,” she says.

“The evaluation programme is great with products delivered to your door and you can install all hardware as if on your network to get peace of mind that it is the correct choice, and you can extend the evaluation period and get feedback on issues, too.”

Practical considerations for edtech purchasing

And as she notes from this testing, it’s not just about ensuring that technical capabilities are up to purpose, but often discovering more practical issues, too.

“We were going to buy a certain screen size but we discovered the stands we had were not adequate to support the weight so that would have been a very expensive mistake if we had not caught it,” she says.

“We also discovered that the security cables we were going to purchase to lock the devices did not actually fit so that was another good thing to learn.”

For Budden, these issues are a perfect example of why doing a proof of concept and getting devices in to put them through their paces in their working environment is key.

“There could always be hidden things we haven’t thought of so it’s better to be caught out on one machine that you are evaluating rather than the 200 that turn up.”

She says that IT staff or school leaders can overlook this and just assume everything will be fine, often through overconfidence, but that, as the above experiences outline, is a foolhardy approach.

“It’s easy to think things will work together [and] it’s understandable maybe if you’re busy and think you know the products and assume that it will definitely work. But it’s just good practice to get stuff on site and test it out because you just never know.”

Software services

While these tests are focused on hardware issues, it’s also important that any software is put through its paces in an educational environment, explains Tony Fox, head of ICT at Bolton School.

“We tested a lot of tablets before making a choice but the MDM and web filtering software that the provider was selling with it just didn’t work – once we got about 10 devices online, it just fell over,” he says.

In the end, the school changed provider due to this issue to someone that actually delivered on their promises. “This shows why it’s so important to pilot and test products – salespeople will sometimes just tell you what you want to hear, but you have to test," he says.

Fox continues: “You have to evaluate stuff to death really – it’s part of the job. If we’re spending tens of thousands of pounds on devices or systems we have to ensure it works and fits with our systems.”

To this end, he adds that even when a decision is made and implemented and all seems well, IT staff have to keep tabs on this in case anything changes and go through testing all over again.

“Sometimes you can have everything integrated and then a manufacturer will make a change or update something and it might not be compatible, so you have to always be ensuring what you are using is doing the best job it can.”

Of course, to some the advice to test things out before buying may seem obvious. But the reality is there are probably plenty of people out there who can recall a rushed purchase – whether professional or in their personal lives – that caused some awkward conversations and unnecessary extra hassle.

Working with suppliers that provide this service upfront can help schools. But schools also need to be prepared to be pushy, to demand the best and to be willing to walk away if they want to avoid buyer’s remorse.

Find out how  HP for Education helps schools maximize budgets, supports the purchase of additional software, services, training and assistive provision

Testing IT equipment before buying new tech for the school

Dan Worth

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