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Key questions to ask when looking to buy new technology

Schools need to be diligent and really question the benefits a new edtech purchase will bring before splashing the cash

Children working with 3D printer

In 13 years working as a head of design technology, six years as head of science and five years as a director of innovation across several schools, I’ve regularly tried to predict the future of education technology and how it could be used to enhance the education of students.

Of course, identifying the next useful technological tool or a new way of using technology was only the start of the process, the next stage is usually to write a budget proposal outlining the benefits to each stakeholder of the proposed purchased.

But with budget cycles, limited capital expenditure and a need to reduce risk all a staple of school procurement, making the case for new technology has to be considered carefully to have the best possible chance of success and there are some key questions to ask along the way.

What is the risk and reward of investing in new technology?

This tension between innovation and budgets means there are generally two approaches to buying technology in education: incremental and radical.

Incremental involves small secure steps with limited risk and a sense of following the herd, such as buying Raspberry Pi devices. Radical is higher risk but rewards are greater by pushing the boundaries of using technology in schools, such as teaching AI or buying AR and VR systems.

When considering this it’s important for schools to understand their own motives when pursuing a new technological solution – is it just to be seen as an innovative school, or to enhance the education of children by offering opportunities to use modern technology they will face later in life?

The latter should certainly be the guiding principle. By giving pupils an opportunity to experience this technology as it arises it affords them the opportunity to learn to adapt, to be comfortable with change and to never fear new ways of working or digital solutions. An emphasis on digital fluency rather than specific technologies is paramount and we should never lose that focus.

Holistic approaches to edtech acquisition

With this in mind, it’s worth considering the following formula when assessing new technology: ‘funding versus impact equals outcome’.

This is about understanding that the impact of a new technology is where the power lies. So you need to understand how much it enhances learning, and could that finance be spent more wisely on other solutions?

You should also be honest when assessing a new technology to ask if it only enhances one subject discipline, or could it be used across multiple subjects? Or can it be used outside of the classroom to impact on co-curricular activities or student home life?

Even if it could be used across all subjects it’s important to be honest about how often the technology will be used. And what happens if the technology champion who purchased the equipment leaves - will it still be used? All too often I visit schools and find expensive equipment in the corner covered in dust. 

Then you need to ask: For how long would this technology be useful and what was the product life cycle? How long until the direct replacement for this technology is released, and will it be significantly better than the previous version? Are we buying a temporary fad or the latest thing?

Testing before investing in edtech

If you are confident in your answers to these questions, then the next step is to try the technology out for yourself.

Most providers will give you a demo kit or come in and do a session for staff and students. Or you could talk to other schools that are slightly further down the road and have already bought into the technology and ask them to be honest about the pros and cons of their purchase.

You could also consider teaming up with other schools to purchase equipment, sharing best practice, and ensuring you maximise the potential of the equipment. The more students who use it, the more impact per pound you will receive.

Consider the benefits, and if you really need

And even if you are convinced by the benefits and see it in use in other schools in ways you want to emulate, you have asked whether there were other ways of having the same impact. Is there a cheaper, yet equally impactful solution you could use?

For example, everyone wants VR or AR headsets, with options ranging from single devices to classroom sets. As such it would be easy to spend thousands on this technology and feel you are providing a great experience for your pupils.

Yet any school that has iPads or mobile phones can experience these things for free already. While it is not as directly ‘immersive’ you can download Google Expeditions for free and use these devices to do the same thing. If your students have mobile phones you can buy cheap VR plastic headsets that phones fit inside and connect them all together for a ‘whole class’ experience.

There are numerous other examples of educational tools that are available online now, developed and implemented by schools and companies worldwide. These solutions are browser-based and often developed with company’s corporate social responsibility money.

While you may have to buy into a subscription for some solutions, it is always worth looking to see if there is anything similar (and possibly better) freely available online.

Make your case in a budget proposal

Once you have done all this, you should be at the point that writing a successful and supported budget proposal will be more easily accomplished and properly informed. 

You will be able to highlight many areas of curriculum consideration, show how each student across the school will be impacted by this technology and give a clear understanding of how their learning journey will be enhanced.

You will have a clear picture of what else is on the market and be able to justify why this technology is the best solution and satisfied the money spent would not be better used on an alternative technological, or non-technological, solution.

This should mean any money is well spent and benefits your pupils, which ultimately is the key goal.

Graeme Lawrie is partnerships director at ACS International Schools