LearnBop Community Blog

The Administrator's Guide to EdTech Purchasing

Posted by The LearnBop Team

Sep 25, 2015 6:03:00 PM

EdTech_Purchasing_coverAn Actionable Resource to Help Move EdTech Purchasing into the 21st Century

Created in partnership with Superintendent John Carver
Howard-Winneshiek Community School District of Cresco, IA


Who is this guide for?

This guide was created for school and district administrators of K-12 students who are considering a purchase of or already using Education Technology resources.

Want to download this entire guide as a PDF?

No problem! Get your free guide now.

What is the goal of this guide?

Every year American K-12 schools spend billions on curriculum, technology, and other class support. That’s a huge portion of their annual budgets, with a significant chunk of it going to education technology. And yet we still don’t have established best practices for purchasing education technology. 

This guide is a step toward establishing those best practices. In partnership with Superintendent John Carver of the Howard-Winneshiek District in Cresco, Iowa, we’ve created this action-oriented resource to guide your decision making and help take edtech purchasing into the 21st century. 

About Superintendent John Carver and the Howard-Winneshiek District 

John_CarverWhen we set out to find a partner for a guide to purchasing education technology, Superintendent Carver was our first choice. John was one of the early signers of the Future Ready pledge, and one of only 100 superintendents invited in person to the White House in November, 2014 to meet with President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan to participate in the Future Ready initiative. Howard-Winneshiek has been nationally recognized as a “District of Distinction” by District Administrator Magazine and was named “25 Districts Worth Visiting,” by Tom Vander Ark, CEO of “Getting Smart.” Follow John @johnccarver.  

Part One: Identify the problem your school or district is facing.


The very first step in identifying the edtech that's right for you comes before you ever consider any edtech.

Wait, what? Before I say more, let me show you what I mean:

Education technology is great, but the way we approach purchasing it is often the opposite of how we would usually approach problem solving in our day-to-day lives.

Let me give you an example. You’re on Facebook after a long day at school because you want to see if anyone commented on an article you posted about how to better support student learning. As you scroll down the comments, you see an advertisement for a new edtech resource that promises to help you improve literacy.

Now, literacy has not been a big problem in your school, but you click on the ad out of curiosity, and begin investigating the tool. The concept sounds neat, and it looks like the company knows what they’re talking about, so you start reading more, and becoming curious. You make a note to talk to the head of the English department about the tool, and sign off for the night.

But this is where I’m going to encourage you to STOP RIGHT THERE!

Because there are so many edtech tools, and each one has been tailored to address a certain need or issue that you might face, investigating tools as you happen upon them is like the blue jay who builds its nest from the shiniest, but not necessarily the sturdiest, materials.

You wouldn’t go to the hardware store just to see if they had anything neat, right? (Well, maybe you would, but you get my point!) In the same way, instead of letting edtech companies drive the decision making when it comes to identifying the challenge you want to overcome, you should approach edtech as a host of tools that can help you after your problems have been identified.

So, before you start looking around to see what kind of tools are out there, the first step in the edtech purchasing process is to identify the problems that you want to solve in your school or district.

What Challenges Are Your School or District Facing?
A Checklist

icon-pencilThis checklist is meant to help you identify the specific challenges that your school or district is currently facing. Keep in mind that these should be challenges that could be potentially solved by a smart edtech tool, and not problems that have to do with personnel (though we are working on a guide to improve district HR practices, so stay tuned!).

If someone keeps stealing your sandwich out of the refrigerator in the staff lounge, education technology is probably not going to be able to help you! But if you’re struggling with communicating with different stakeholders, or have students who are consistently failing in mathematics while your class sizes continue to grow—those are exactly the kinds of problems that a tool, or a handful of tools, might be able to address.

Challenges checklist:

1. Challenge # 1 ____________________________________________________

2. Challenge # 2 ____________________________________________________

3. Challenge #3 __________________________________________________________

4. Challenge #4 __________________________________________________________

5. Challenge #5 __________________________________________________________

Challenge suggestions:

→ The majority of my students need remediation in specific subject areas, but I don’t have the budget to provide extra instruction.

→ My teachers have large class sizes (35 + students) that make it difficult to provide 1:1 attention.

→ We don’t have the budget for technology.

→ My teachers need support implementing the Common Core/new state standards related to the Common Core.

→ My students need to improve their scores on state assessments.

→ Supporting personalized learning—how the heck do I create a flexible, adaptive structure to do this?

→ Others—??

Part 2: Identify edtech that can help you solve your problems

icon-lightbulbThe edtech landscape is huge, and as a result it can be intimidating to try and find a tool to solve a specific problem. But you are not alone. In this section we’ll cover strategies and specific actions you can take to connect with other administrators who have faced the same challenges you’re facing, and how to get actionable advice and tips on finding the right edtech for you.

At the end of this section we’ll share Superintendent John Carver’s “Three Trust Questions” that every administrator should ask a potential edtech vendor, to help you figure out what to do when you pick a vendor and want to approach them to see if they’re a good fit for your district.

Identifying tools

icon-step-incorrectAs big as the edtech world may be, there are plenty of other educators out there who have already tested the tools you may be considering, and who face the same challenges you’re facing.

The first thing you can do to learn from those who have already been there before you is reach out to administrators at districts or schools similar to yours to see if they’ve encountered the same challenges as you, and what, if any, edtech they used to overcome them.

How do I do this?

Here is a list of five tips you can use to grow your community of administrators at the school or district level, so you can learn from people who have faced the same challenges you’re currently facing.

5 Tips to Grow Your Community of Administrators


1) Sign the Future Ready pledge.

icon-bopThis is only for superintendents—so just skip on down if this doesn’t apply to you.

But if you are a superintendent, signing means joining a community of like-minded superintendents from around the country. There is absolutely no penalty if you sign and then face setbacks with implementation.

Here are some compelling reasons you might want to sign:

√ Signers get invited to regional summits, where they can learn from other Future Ready superintendents and from invited guest speakers.

√ Signers can participate in Leadership Network events.

√ Regional summit attendees may get free access to consulting services from leading information technology providers.

√ Signers get access to an online community of Future Ready district leaders.

√ Signers get access to the Future Ready planning tool, a growing network of resources to support superintendents in moving forward with technology and broadband implementation in their districts.

Check out the full Future Ready pledge—and sign it!—by clicking here.

Want to learn more about Future Ready? Download our free introductory guide.


2) Use word of mouth.

Reach out to admins in neighboring school and districts; meet with them at regional meetings; and make a point of trying to find and connect with administrators at regional and national conferences to share best practices and learn from them.

Though it may seem intimidating at first, most administrators will be more than happy to answer an email or phone call asking about their experiences with a certain edtech product, or about how they worked to address a certain challenge that you know their district has faced.

The only problem with this approach is that it can feel a little like a shot in the dark. That is, you can certainly reach out to neighboring schools or districts, and should, but there’s no guarantee the administrators there have faced the same challenges you’re facing (though they may have—but you’ll know this better than anyone).

So what do you do to reach people who have faced the same exact challenges as you? Check out the next three tips!

3) Collect information and contact admins in districts similar to yours.

Use the NCES database to identify districts in your or other states that are about the same size as yours, or use Title 1 funds listed at the Department of Education to identify districts in your state that receive a similar amount of Title 1 funds as yours.

à To get a list of districts in your state, go to www.nces.ed.gov; click on School Search in the upper right; select Public School Districts; and then select your state, leave all the other fields blank, and click Search. This will generate a list of all the districts in your state. To download the list as an Excel sheet, scroll to the bottom of the screen and click Download Excel File—this will give you a list you can sort by number of students, so you can find other districts in your state that have a similar number of students as yours. Use the zip codes provided to get more specific, and help identify districts in urban or rural areas.

Once you’ve found a list of districts to contact, just collect the contact information for that district online from the district’s website, and send an email to the admins you want to talk to. A subject line to use is “Question from a fellow superintendent,” or something along those lines.

As you may have experienced, most other administrators will be more than happy to share their experiences with you!

4) Use social media.

A) Use Twitter hashtags to ask questions of the education community.

twitter_icon-1If you don’t already have one, create a Twitter account (it only takes about two minutes), then shoot out a Tweet with your question, making sure to include a hashtag so that other educators will see it.

Note: Using hashtags is very important for this approach. Without a hashtag, if you don’t have a following then no one will see your question. A hashtag, such as #edchat, is a unique identifier for a certain topic.

Here are a few examples Tweets:

♦ “Superintendents out there—Have you tried [EdTech Resource]? What did you think? #supchat”

♦ “Anyone have suggestions for how to support students in large math (35+) classes? #educhat”

♦ “Looking for an #edtech tool to help with math remediation—can anyone recommend something? #blended learning #edchat”

Pro Tip: Try to make sure your hashtags are relevant to the message you’re sending, and avoid using more than two or three. If a tweet is littered with hashtags, many people will ignore it instead of engaging. The more targeted you can be, the better.

o   Here are a few different hashtags to get you started with targeting different types of education-related audiences.

  • #edchat
  • #educhat
  • #edtech
  • #blendedlearning
  • #edtechchat
  • #supchat

For more information on hashtags, and a list of suggested hashtags broken down by categories, check out this thorough TeachThought blog post on Twitter hashtags for educators.

B) Use Twitter chats to reach people at specific times of day regarding specific topics. These topics could be regional and topical (such as the Florida Math Chat), or just one or the other.

How do I participate in a chat? Each chat works differently—some take place during a certain window of time, while others are ongoing. To take part, just Google the chat and read about when it happens, and then—and this is the crucial part—make sure to use the hashtag associated w/ the chat so that people will see your question or comment. Hashtags create the possibility for unique conversations on Twitter, so that users can see only those Tweets sent out by people who use the hashtag associated with the chat.

Check out the list below of Twitter chats to see if there is a chat in your region or on your topic(s) of interest. Also, just Google the topic (for ex: “Michigan Twitter math chat”) and see if you find anything.

→ Education Chats, a calendar of chats with hashtags, dates, and times

 13 Great Twitter Chats Every Educators Should Check Out, a blog post by The Journal

Pro Tip: Many Twitter chats have been archived, so if you want to scan them to see if you find anything of interest, especially if the chat is highly specific to your challenge(s) (such as “CA Math Remediation” chat, or something like that), this could be a helpful resource. Here is a list of archived chats, to help you get started.

C) Use LinkedIn groups to contact other admins in your state, or nationally.

linkedin_icon– If you don’t already have one, create a LinkedIn account (this only takes about two minutes).

– Use the search bar to find and join groups that correspond with the community you’d like to engage.

Some examples of such groups are:

Of course, there are many, many more groups you can find. For a longer list of groups that might be of interest check out this LinkedIn post, this blog post on the top 25 LinkedIn Groups for Teachers, or simply search for the topic you’re interested in using the LinkedIn search bar (ex: “EdTech for Literacy” or “K-12 Literacy Remediation”).

Once you’ve found and joined these groups, post your questions in the group and see what people have to say. This is just one more way to tap into the collective experiences of thousands of other education professionals.

Pro Tip: In addition to posting questions, if you come across resources such as articles or blog posts that you’ve found useful—or if you’ve written some resources yourself—share them with your group. This is a great way to give back, and will only serve to increase your connections in these new communities.

5) Search databases and indexes of edtech resources to find those that most closely math your needs.

Some high quality, useful indexes are:

Want more resources? Here are some blog posts that list top edtech resources, in case you’d like to check out the most highly recommended ones immediately instead of sifting through all of them:


The Three Trust Questions

John_CarverAs you’re identifying the edtech that you want to check out, here are three trust questions you should ask the vendor, written by Superintendent John Carver.

If the vendor can’t answer these questions, then you probably don’t want to waste your time talking to them.

Note: This article originally appeared in eSchool news in April, 2015.

Three Trust Questions to Ask Every Vendor

The education technology procurement market is enormous: $13 billion is spent annually. Just last year a historic $2 billion of investment capital was pumped into edtech startups. As an educator, how do you know who to trust when it comes to meeting your district’s technology needs? Do you trust the established companies fighting ever harder to keep their market share? Can you trust their overpowering marketing machines? Should you trust the new, innovative, and exciting start-ups? Do they have bandwidth and capacity to keep us “online?” 

These are the questions I ask as superintendent of Howard-Winneshiek Community School District in northeastern Iowa. To help answer them, I have developed three baseline questions that have been essential in building trust with the vendors we work with. They have served my district well through myriad procurement cycles, including a recently launched one-to-one Apple device initiative.

1) Does the vendor understand our core business?

Our core business in schools is learning. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s really obvious John. And next you’ll tell me, ‘Iowa has corn, too!’” But it’s surprising how many educators and vendors forget this. Profits, commissions, and shiny features can be placed squarely ahead of learning. Does this sound harsh? Maybe, but considering it happens more frequently than anyone wants to admit, it is essential this question is asked first and not overlooked.

Whether it is an LMS, professional development provider, hardware or software, we listen to whether vendors truly focus on learning. We establish this early on in our conversations with vendors. “How will this solution positively impact my students and the teachers that support them?” we ask. Trust is built with those that do.

Trust is also built with those that don’t toss out a stream of buzzwords hoping something sticks. This is especially true if one of the buzzwords is “change.” Knowing education really means knowing change. Students need 21st century schooling to succeed in our 21st century world. Systemic change—known as Second Order Change (SOC) —is the only way we will get there.

Does the vendor know and understand things like: flipped classrooms, differentiated instruction, STEM, and competence-based education? Lastly, can they articulate how their solution/product enhances/supports these modalities? If you are unable to answer that question about a particular vendor, it might be time to cast a wider net.

2) Do you have a laser sharp focus of your district’s direction?

We schools need to define our educational direction and priorities first. Then vendors can be engaged. Exclusively relying on vendors to identify our local needs is not productive.

Once defined, trust points are earned with vendors who work laterally to implement change along with us. If you do not know where you are going, valuable resources—money and time—could be wasted relying on a vendor to chart this path for you.

How does this trust look and to whom do we apply it? This trust can be developed from the initial sales call through the final proposal stage from vendors of all stripes and disciplines. From this and our other two questions (core business and pedagogy), we can determine whether we can mesh the vendor’s technical solution with our journey of learning transformation.

We are delighted to work with vendors who approach change as a journey, being our technical sherpas when necessary. But as with any journey, creativity can be a necessity to arrive at the destination. We look for this creativity in vendors.

3) Does the vendor put technology before pedagogy?

Our mantra in Howard-Winn is: technology should not determine learning; pedagogy should determine learning. After all, pedagogy’s Grecian roots mean to “lead a child.” Technology is a great delivery vehicle but a terrible leader. Teaching and learning should be driving, while the technology is simply along for the ride.

This is our basis for being technology agnostic. No matter what the tool is, learning is defined by the pedagogy. When evaluating vendors we listen closely to the emphasis placed on pedagogy over features. Does the vendor inquire about our district’s learning approach and how we teach?

The vendor’s solution must compliment our approach to learning. We don’t need to be told-and-sold how we need to change our pedagogy to use their production/solution. That is why having a laser sharp focus is so crucial.

Our focus on pedagogy has made us realize that we can’t take a 21st century tool and place it into a 20th century structure and expect our students to be Future Ready. We need to have a forward-thinking environment ready, and in place, to best use these tools. Vendors who willingly partner with us on this pedagogy-first journey earn our trust.

Trust runs through our veins in schools. It is something we take seriously. Every day parents and guardians trust us with their children. They want to know their children are safe, nurtured, and that we are doing everything possible to prepare them for the world. This preparation, in part, hinges on the trust we place in vendors. The technical nuances and procurement of hardware, software, cloud services, and data may seem esoteric and far removed. But asking these three questions fosters trust where it really counts—with the students. 

Part 3: Evaluate, purchase, and implement the edtech identified in a systematic manner.

icon-measurementWhen it comes to evaluating edtech, the process can be time-consuming and labor intensive. This is why you want to make sure you’ve already thoroughly vetted the edtech tools you’re considering—Steps 1 and 2 above—before you dive into a trial, pilot, or actual purchase, so that your community gets the most out of its investment of time and resources.

Trials and Pilots

When evaluating any edtech, it’s crucial to do a small trial or pilot with a select teacher or group of teachers to see how the technology integrates with the practices already in place in your district.

When designing and implementing a pilot, it’s important to create a model that corresponds to how the tool will actually be used if adopted. If you’re looking for a tool to help teachers support growing class sizes, then it’s important that the pilot be used in a crowded classroom; if you want a tool to support remediation or RTI, then have teachers who are supporting those populations use the tool and report back.

Include students too! It’s crucial to include the two parties most impacted by the edtech selected—that is, not just teachers, but students as well should be included in the dialogue and trial evaluation.

The devil here is in the details. While it might sound obvious to pilot a tool for the thing you ultimately want to use it for, when it comes to the actuality of use we know that things can get busy, and the pilot or trial period can get pushed back on the list of To Dos by more urgent daily tasks.

But if you truly want to push your district forward and address the challenges you wrote down in Part 1 above, it’s crucial to maintain regular communication with the teachers conducting the pilot, both to understand how they are using the tool in question and to make sure they are doing due diligence in testing the tool.

Many administrators suggest a weekly standing meeting (or multiple meetings per week, depending on the length and goals of the pilot) to check in about how the pilot is proceeding. If you’re a superintendent evaluating a math edtech tool, you may have your math coordinator meet with the teachers and report back—but however you structure the check-ins, what we hear across the board is that it’s important to have them.

Need some guidance on how to conduct an effective pilot? Check out this resource from Digital Promise: Kicking the Tires: A Pathway to Better EdTech Pilots.


Five Steps to Move Technology Purchasing into the 21st Century

John_CarverAs one of the early signers of the Future Ready pledge, and the head of a district that has thoroughly incorporated edtech into its day-to-day workings, Superintendent John Carver has a deep level of experience with the edtech procurement process.

Note: This article originally appeared in eSchool News in February, 2015.

Here is John’s article, Five Steps to Move Technology Purchasing into the 21st Century:

Choosing and buying the right technology can be a daunting process, especially if you don’t know where to begin.

With marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, Google Marketplace, AirBNB, and OpenTable, it’s quite conceivable to think purchasing educational technology for the 116,000 schools across the United States in a $12B market would be as easy as buying a toothbrush online. Point. Click. Buy.

Rather the opposite is true. Edtech procurement is a very analog process in a very digital world. I have seen this as Superintendent of the Howard-Winneshiek Community School District (Howard-Winn) in rural northeast Iowa. Investments in edtech companies reached historic levels rising to $2 billion in 2014. The choice and innovation is great, but finding and buying even simple things can tax our resources.

As Superintendent my goal, like that of my colleagues across the country, is to ensure we have the most up-to-date technology in the hands of learners—kids and adults. Historically, it’s been inefficient to discover the right products. There are many vendors and sales people. Deciphering the best solutions to even begin conversations can be daunting.

We believe it is critical that 21st century students have 21st century tools that will empower them to think, learn, and create. In that sense, it seems that current procurement practices within our industry are working against us.

Our district’s technology coordinator, Harold Jensen, has seen this first hand during an outdoor WAN project implementation this past year. It was tough to find qualified providers without a vetted marketplace or any true exchange of information, so countless hours were spent trying to find and vet a solid answer.

Once reserved for graduate school finance classes, school procurement is entering mainstream conversations. Recently, there have been three organizations pioneering the study of school procurement: Johns Hopkins University released a 170-page report (see our recommendations below). Digital Promise, a congressionally-mandated nonprofit and the Education Industry Association (EIA), an industry trade group, are also doing pioneering work. The basis of this work is fixing an antiquated system.

Two years ago, I had the honor of leading one of Iowa’s first K-12 one-to-one tablet and laptop initiatives. This put a digital device in the hand of every student. Iowa has one of the highest density of such programs in the U.S., second only to Maine. To excel at both digital learning and one-to-one, procuring the right tools effectively and efficiently needs to be a cornerstone.

Here are the five steps we followed to take educational technology purchasing into the 21st Century for our students:

1. Get student involvement in technology purchasing decisions

In our district, students are included in the initial evaluation of a solution we are considering. We believe students need to evaluate the technology first-hand. Student input is weighted heavily and has proved nothing short of successful. It’s all about the kids.

2. Do your homework on the vendors you work with. Trust is important.

Vendors and schools need to be on the same page with technology and implementation. Having the “trust conversation” early with a vendor leads to optimal success for student learning (see my article above in this guide on the “Three Trust Questions”). The focus needs to be on the students, not the technology. Learning needs to take center stage, with the technology living more in the background. Trust and due diligence goes a long way. A recent post from Digital Promise goes in depth on this topic as well.

3. Think jets, not steam trains; think digital, not analog.

To get 21st century outcomes, we need think in 21st century terms. Leasing is a good example of this. Leasing our Apple products ensures we have the most recent hardware, updated every three years for students, while retaining the residual value of it. Marketplaces such as 3rd Quote can help reduce the noise and ensure schools can find and vet products quickly based on other schools’ reviews and efficacy. Additionally, it is a great platform to exchange information about providers and the effectiveness of products. This efficiency, in turn, allows the focus to be on students and learning.

4. Break down the silos.

Schools need to move away from silo-based kingdoms to working in collaboration on procurement with school districts in their local area. This can also lead to other forms of resource sharing. Reaching out to other districts has huge advantages with educational technology procurement. Area Educational Agencies (AEA)—like our local Keystone AEA—are great resources for procurement beyond the siloed kingdom.

5. Establish business partnerships.

Taking a look beyond the school campus to business and industry gives valuable insight into the skills and technologies needed to prepare students post graduation. Developing these partnerships early on in the decision-making process—to help guide procurement decisions—will yield huge dividends for learning and student success.

To new and even established superintendents, I offer these four additional tips:

  1. Reach out to me at Howard-Winneshiek for “lessons learned”, connect with us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter.
  2. Network with other superintendents. See the “Five Tips
  3. Discuss EdTech purchases with stakeholders, and especially students.
  4. Make decisions that serve children best.

There are a myriad of vendors and options to match the needs of not just the district, but, most importantly, the students. As a champion of digital learning and student success, we are taking big strides in digitizing the procurement of educational technology.


Funding—Finding more, and using what you have better.

  1. The ConnectED initiative makes a commitment to bring broadband to 99% of American students by 2018. The schools and libraries universal service support program, commonly known as the E-rate program, helps schools and libraries to obtain affordable broadband. Check out this in-depth advice on E-rate funding and how to make smart broadband purchasing decisions that save time and money.

  2. Digital content and devices. ESEA Title I, II, III, IDEA, and other formula grants can be used to fund the transition to digital learning. This letter from the OET details the exact steps to take to use federal funds to pay for technology. Also, we’ve created this list of grants for education to help you identify other possible funding sources.

    —It’s a common misconception that implementing an edtech or blended learning program has to be costly. Many teachers use blended learning models without having a 1:1 program in their district simply by having students watch videos on core instruction at home (even in less affluent areas, the majority of students have access to some kind of device at home that allows them to view online materials). The implementation of technology to support individual student learning can often be supported by a shift in mindset rather than a shift in budgetary priorities.
John Carver says, “The money is there: realign your priorities. Be creative and think outside the box. One time “seed money” is NOT GOOD! You need to have a perpetual funding stream. At Howard-Winn we lease everything. The thinking is that, like a new car, you drive it off the lot and it depreciates. With a lease, we can refresh and walk away in three years. This provides for a competitive market, same platform, not tied to one vendor.”

Here are some resources from the Office of Educational Technology (OET) that may be helpful in looking for funds, and how to spend them:

Want more resources to help with the purchasing process?

No problem—here are some additional resources, already vetted by us for quality, to help you navigate the edtech purchasing process:



Take the Future Ready pledge!

Are you a superintendent who wants to make a commitment to your students’ future?

As described by the Office of Educational Technology, “Future Ready is a free, bold new effort to maximize digital learning opportunities and help school districts move quickly toward preparing students for success in college, a career, and citizenship.” Click here to learn more, and to take the Future Ready pledge!

 Thanks so much for reading our Administrator’s Guide to EdTech Purchasing!  

Want a PDF of this guide?
It's all yours—Just click on the buttton below.



Topics: Resources, Leadership, Innovation, Connected Educators, Educational Technologies

backbone_and_learnbopThousands of K-12 students use our automated tutoring system to improve math proficiency.

Try LearnBop for Free


Want to learn more about how LearnBop's step-by-step system supports math learning?

Attend a Webinar

EdTech Update