For the last couple of years – at the very least since the resurgence in venture-back ed-tech startups – there’s been a steady drumbeat of complaints that the procurement system at the K–12 level is broken. It’s inefficient. It’s “dysfunctional.” I’ve heard the complaint from entrepreneurs. I’ve heard it from their investors, many of whom argue that the challenges of selling to schools is one of the things that makes education a difficult market to crack (and in turn ed-tech startups a poor investment).
There’s a lot that’s wrong with the process, no doubt – for starters, the hefty RFP requirements that almost by design tilt purchasing decisions towards the incumbent players and big companies. The folks who make the decisions about what to buy typically aren’t the people who are using the products in the classroom. (Here’s one history of ed-tech procurement – how Steve Jobs got the Apple II into schools – and how things changed from innovative teachers to district IT making these sorts of decisions.)
I’d add too that there’s not a lot of transparency in the procurement process; nor is it easy to find out afterwards which products schools bought or use – although that’s not something you hear companies moan about, funnily enough. (USC professor Morgan Polikoff’s research on textbook adoption has made this painfully clear. He’s sent FOIA requests to school districts, and in many cases they have been unwilling or unable to share their textbook data. And when they do, oh man, the mess that that data is in.) Although there's a fear of public scrutiny on the part of school administrators, that fear is shared by many entrepreneurs, I'd wager.
In the last few years, lots of consulting firms and organizations have offered their suggested solutions for fixing (what they see as) procurement problems. And Edsurge, for its part, has launched a “concierge” service in which it will help schools identify its tech needs and then buy things based on those needs (and then take a cut of the contracts, of course).
I’m watching Edsurge closely now as it expands from K–12 to higher education technology evangelism; and it wouldn’t surprise me if it offers the same “deal” to universities soon. Interestingly one of the first stories that it published with its new higher education editorial focus was on a procurement “solution” at UNC. Having watched the arguments about a broken procurement system be repeated incessantly in K–12, it’s not a surprise that the same folks are now going make them again and again for higher ed.
You know why education technology sucks? Procurement!, we learn from The Chronicle of Higher Education today. Go figure! It’s not really the fault of the companies who make shitty products; it’s the fault of the school system who buys them. And if we just make the process of buying stuff simpler, the products will (magically) get better. Or so the story goes.