The Art of Procurement: Balancing Price and Performance

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 07/14/16

The learning environment is changing in our schools, and technology is playing a big role. How schools are acquiring their resources can be as affecting as the changes in instructional practices used by teachers. Better prices mean savings, and those dollars can be used to support a school’s other needs. But price isn’t the only factor to consider. 

Here are eight recommendations for school technology procurement:

1. Remember that purchasing and procurement are not the same.
Procurement is the process that leads to the acquisition of goods and services, which typically ends with purchasing — simply the exchange of money for those good and services. It’s important to focus on the procurement process first and not fixate on purchasing too soon. Doing so can sometimes make the purchase price too great a factor in decision-making.

2. Seek solutions, not equipment or software.
Understand the difference between commodity purchasing and solutions procurement. If you need 100 USB flash drives, one brand is probably as good as another, and a commodity purchase would be fine for almost any occasion. But procuring a literacy-intervention software suite or a device to support a 1-to-1 learning program can’t be easily distilled into a simple list of specifications. That is a solutions procurement, and you’re likely going to need to do a lot of research and potentially make a competitive bid.

3. Be descriptive, not prescriptive.
When issuing a request for proposal or information (an “RFP” or an “RFI”), use descriptive language to frame the challenge you’re attempting to solve. Use prescriptive language to establish the hard limits and requirements. Avoid setting minimum technical requirements when possible; instead, consider describing the successful outcome. 

For example, if you know you want students to be able to create and edit video, you know you want a device with enough storage capacity and processing power to store the content and manipulate it. While you may think you know how much storage space you need or how fast a processor your device should have, in today’s world of tablets, laptops, and Chromebooks, the ways in which these platforms solve for this task are very different. 

Instead, use descriptive language to explain the types of video creation and editing that you want students to be able to do, and allow the providers to propose a solution that meets the need you describe. Don’t solve the problem for the provider.

4. Language matters — a lot.
It’s important to use language that clearly lets bidders know what’s a requirement (e.g., “Provider must …”). But avoid ambitious language such as “Provider should….” Additionally, when describing the challenges you want your bidders to solve, include qualitative language and instruct them to be descriptive. Consider the difference between “The Bidder must include the capacity for student to ___ ” and “The Bidder must describe how it will provide the capacity for students to ___.”

In some instances, particularly for services such as repair or replacement of equipment, include quantitative language. It isn’t enough to ask for an easy process to get repairs completed. When time is critical, you will likely find that prescriptive language is better. For example, “The Bidder must describe how it will provide warranty repairs at no additional cost in no more than two school days. The process must be easy for school technicians to initiate and complete.”

Lacking qualitative and quantitative measures in your requirements may lead a bidder to respond, “We understand and will comply with this requirement” — a perfectly adequate response if you don’t ask for more.

5. Flexibility can allow for innovation.
Directing bidders to provide descriptions of their solutions and setting clear requirements is important. But it’s also important to include a way for bidders to propose innovative solutions that may not fit the expected description. When I issued RFPs for the state of Maine, part of our template included:

“If a Bidder cannot provide something as described in the Scope of Services section of this RFP, then that Bidder may propose something that is functionally equivalent, and provide an explanation of that equivalency. Functional equivalency will ultimately be determined by the Evaluation Team.”

This allowed a bidder to propose an out-of-the-box solution that didn’t strictly fit the requirements established, while clearly stating that the Evaluation Team maintained the final word on determining whether that solution was sufficient.

6. Data privacy trumps performance.
It’s critical that we consider data privacy. So much of the promise and potential of ed tech is the capacity to better understand what our learners know and need. With that knowledge comes great responsibility to ensure your solutions providers are good stewards of your learners’ data. 

Require that your providers disclose in plain language what they are and are not doing with student data. You can learn more about student data privacy and review in-depth privacy and security evalutaions at

7. Give structure to your price quotes to allow for easier comparison.
How you structure a pricing proposal and how you actually purchase can have a big impact on your overall procurement. If you don’t provide clear and explicit guidance to your bidders on how to provide you pricing information, comparing pricing between bids may be difficult. You want to ensure your price proposals allow you to do an apples-to-apples evaluation. If you intend to lease equipment, and you intend to buy the equipment at the end of the lease, then you need to know the lease buyout cost as well. Don’t forget the good work CoSN has done on Total Cost of Ownership.

8. Involve your users in the process.
Finally, gather information and feedback from the primary users of whatever it is you’re procuring — that usually means your teachers and your students. Without their input to help you determine the real needs, the day-to-day usage concerns, or the training and professional development needs for implementation, your RFP or RFI will be incomplete. It’s also advisable to include at least one teacher on your proposal evaluation team.

Procurement for the classroom has become increasingly complex because the solutions we seek for our learners are no longer limited to static finished products. Edtech solutions require the support of a multitude of departments in a school system. Take the time to involve your community in determining the needs. 

The crafting of procurement documents such as RFPs and RFIs are an opportunity to deeply consider how your teaching and institutional practices affect learners and teachers. They are also a way to express to the providers your best thinking on what’s needed to support learning. If no products or services fit your needs exactly, by issuing the RFP or RFI you let providers create and innovate to meet your needs. It establishes a dialog and a two-way street. In the long run, this is beneficial to all.

For more information about how to balance price and performance, please see the webinar, “The Art of Procurement: Balancing Price and Performance.”

Tough Tech Choices: Laptops, Tablets, Chromebooks, BYOD?

Practical Advice to Help You Find Your School’s Solution

  • This article originally appeared in THE Journal. Republished with permission.
  • By Jeff Mao 
  • 05/24/16

I began my education career right out of college in the fall of 1992. My first teaching job was at Brewster Academy, a small boarding school in central New Hampshire. That year, the school began planning efforts that led to one of the nation’s first 1-to-1 learning programs. Little did I know that, only a decade later, I’d be working in a small gray office cubicle in the Maine Department of Education, helping lead the nation’s first statewide 1-to-1 learning program: the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). 

One of my responsibilities as Maine’s coordinator of education technology was buying the technology and associated services for the MLTI. To say that I’ve been responsible for buying a lot of computers (and tablets) is an understatement. It’s from this perspective that I share some thoughts about the selection and purchasing of students’ primary learning devices.

Choosing a Purchasing Model: BYOD vs. District-Purchased Devices
There are generally two purchasing models: The district pays, or families pay (bring your own device/BYOD). In some instances, I’ve seen a cost-sharing model. 

BYOD has its supporters and opponents. On page 72 of the 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP), the U.S. Department of Education shares some issues for districts to consider when looking at BYOD, including three key concerns: 

  1. Economic disparity
  2. Instructional burden, and 
  3. Privacy and security. 

Many BYOD programs have attempted to mitigate economic disparity by budgeting district funds to buy devices for families that qualify for free and reduced lunch. However, I argue that doing so can jeopardize student privacy and security. By using district funds to buy devices for these families, the district makes visible which students have means and which do not. Districts should seriously consider whether this practice violates student privacy.

Another option, a district-purchased device for all students, also has its challenges, but I believe those are outweighed by the benefits. Economically, a BYOD program means less spending by the district because spending has been shifted to the family. However, the district-purchased option can be less expensive overall to the community since districts qualify for educational discounts. Depending on the size of the district, competitive bidding and subsequent negotiations can be a significant cost saver to the community as well. 

A district-purchased program also tends to lead to a standardized device. I learned from the mission statement of my second school, the Allendale Columbia School in New York, that “structure should liberate, not confine.” While some in your community may want the personalization that BYOD affords, the device you select should be a proverbial Swiss Army Knife. Personalization shouldn’t focus on variations in design, color, brand or operating system so much as the capacity to shape how an individual interacts, creates and consumes media with the device. 

Defining the Education Goals of Your 1-to-1 Program
This leads to one of the most critical considerations: What do you envision students and teachers doing with the devices? If your conversations have been dominated by gigabytes, screen size, operating systems and cost, then you should ask yourself: “Am I choosing a device based on my education goals? Or are my goals being defined by my device?” If you believe that structure should liberate, not confine, then seek a solution that solves for your educational goals, not the other way around.

Use the SAMR model of technology integration developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura to help guide discussions about how the technology will be used — how it will change how teachers teach and students learn. You can use Common Sense Education’s quick video introduction to SAMRalong with videos and blog posts written by Dr. Puentedura; also, the MLTI iTunes U page hosts an excellent podcast series by Dr. Puentedura himself. An additional benefit to using this or another model is it will provide a common vocabulary for your school community to discuss technology use. Broad terms such as “integrating technology” are better defined, and, as a result, discussions can be more meaningful and useful.

With a model like SAMR in hand, you can define your educational vision and goals. This will help you better determine your device needs. As you go along, note who is involved. Including students and teachers is important. Remember: Your students outnumber the teachers by a large margin, and they’ll be the most common user of the device. Never assume what they want or what will be easy or hard for them, and don’t project your perspective on student-facing tools. Otherwise, you’re allowing what I like to call Adult Paradigm Paralysis Syndrome (APPS) to drive your thinking. Go ask a student. 

Additional Questions to Drive Your Planning
Finally, let’s get to the more nitty-gritty aspects. What about tablets versus laptops? Or a Chromebook versus a traditional computer? These are some questions to consider.

What age are the students? I mentioned the benefit of a standardized device, but in a real-world context, that may mean one standard for early elementary students, which differs from that for upper elementary, middle or high school students. Your students’ developmental needs are an important factor. 

Which devices do the teachers need? Whichever device you select for students you should also distribute to the teachers. That may mean teachers have two devices. Teachers’ needs are different from students’; institutional realities may mean compatibility and productivity needs that aren’t met by the student device. However, if the teacher doesn’t have a student device, how will she be able to fully understand the student experience? How can the teacher test that the resources she creates or curates are fully compatible on the student device?

What type of software is needed? The software you use is as critical as the device itself. Productivity software is still highly leveraged by students and teachers. Don’t ignore it, but also don’t fixate on it. Beyond the productivity suite are tools that facilitate communication, collaboration and creativity. Additionally, consider visualization, modeling, simulation and gaming. You may decide you don’t need all these tools, but it’s better to at least consider them than discover later that you need them.

How much storage space will we need? Increasingly, schools are leveraging rich digital content. Much of this content is accessible over the Internet but is often stored on the device itself. For storage of content and space for creativity, don’t skimp on storage capacity! Even when content is accessible online, remember that not all students will have ready access to high-quality broadband outside of school.

What can we afford? Delay looking at cost for as long as you can. Seek the solution that suits your needs, and then try to find a way to pay for it. If you quickly rule out options purely on cost, you’ll likely settle for a solution that doesn’t really meet your needs. I always prefer to justify the cost of a solution than to try to justify why students or teachers can’t do what you agree to be educationally sound and desirable. 

Though the cost of computing devices has fallen in recent years, you will still find that inexpensive devices can come with hidden or indirect costs. Those costs aren’t reason to avoid inexpensive devices, but you want to make sure you have accounted for the total cost of ownership (TCO) as best you can. What you may save in cost of the device may be spent on bandwidth. Or, more expensive devices may have a longer lifetime than less expensive alternatives.

For more on this topic, watch the webinar “Laptops, Tablets and Chromebooks? BYOD? Practical Advice to Help You Find Your School’s Solution