Service Disagreement

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A lack of precedence on how to charge for ongoingsupport for technology purchases has created anunhealthy divide between vendors and educators.

Geoffrey H. FletcherWHAT WOULD YOU PAY to ensure thatthe technology in your schools works?

I posed this question to both technology coordinators and technology vendors as I roamed the exhibit hall at two recent events, the Florida Educational Technology Corp. conference and the Texas Computer Education Association conference. While saying that the future of technology and education depends on your answer is a bit over the top, I do believe this is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves and our vendors. I promised anonymity to all the educators and vendors I spoke with—neither group wanted to point fingers at the other.

One tech vendor made a point that I have long hammered on: We don’t spend enough money on professional development. “Educators give lip service to professional development, but they don’t spend money on it,” she said. She’s right. Spending on professional development has hovered between 5 and 8 cents of each dollar spent on the technology itself, according to Market Data Retrieval and America’s Digital Schools 2006. Yet, when the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center asked district technology coordinators to name their top priority for tech spending, 67 percent said professional development—by far the most common response.

But this is more than a routine “We don’t spend enough on professional development” tirade. More and more, schools are installing technology to manage student information, curriculum, content, and assessment. The software is powerful and complex. Software developers have worked hard to provide tools to make the systems work intuitively and easily; still, the technology is creating an entirely different way to teach in the classroom. Who is going to help educators learn how to do their jobs in a whole new way?

Everyone has a stake in ensuring that a technology purchase is successful. If educators do not use the systems and use them well, school districts will have wasted a lot of money. On the vendor side, districts will be less likely to renew a subscription or buy another product if the initial purchase fails them.

The real problem is that there is no accepted business model that outlines the service and support necessary for some of these technologies. One tech coordinator told me she realizes she needs help, and her vendor is the right person to turn to because “he has installed these products in other districts and has seen the changes the districts have gone through. The district tech coordinator can only give me tips.” Why doesn’t she hire the vendor to do just that? She said her bosses think the service should be free. “They said textbook publishers always give free training, [so] the technology guys should do the same.”

Businesses are beginning to “get it,” even if some educators don’t. I talked to a testing company and three management system providers that were trying out various approaches. One was going to raise its prices to cover the cost of ongoing support—in effect, requiring the district to buy that support. Others were going to offer support as an extra service at an affordable price. All agreed that districts need help beyond learning the features and functions of their purchases; they need help with implementation, and the sweeping change that can result. Acknowledging the need is a first step, but solving it continues to be a much more difficult hurdle.

—Geoffrey H. Fletcher, Editorial director

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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