Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Prove Your Concept First!

This article is cross posted at the Technology & Learning Advisor blog.

There are many blog posts, articles, and debates going on among colleagues around the idea of whether education, as a whole, should be run more like a business or not. I have seen people on both ends of the spectrum on this issue as well as some with no real opinion. But, I really believe that this is worth discussing within the context of educational technology. Especially since school districts are investing so much money in their technology programs and are expected to infuse it throughout their curricula. So, a wise "business" model is a good idea.

Being in the position of technology coordinator, I have to play both sides of the line on this topic since my job requires that I be part educator and businessman. I am an educator first and, for the most part, look at the educational value of a technology before I look at the cost. If its value to the students and teachers is great enough, which means it can improve on teaching and learning, than it is worth the investment (if we have the funds). With that said you still have to do your "homework."

Besides the obvious research on-line and sales representatives coming to your school to give you their presentations. Educators really should look at the value that the proof of concept model can bring to their experience. In the economic climate that we are in educational technology vendors are clamoring for your business and, for the most part, are willing to let you "test drive" their products for a period of time at no charge.

I know that, for the most part, this is easily done with software and the ubiquitous 30-day trial version. But, doing this with hardware is of even more value and can really let you know if the technology is right for you and your students before you make your decisions. Plus, it can save your district money.

For example, my school district was looking to purchase about fifty laptops, and assistive technologies, under a federal grant for our special needs students. When approached with this project I assembled a committee of stakeholders that included teachers, administrators and technology staff. We contacted vendors and let them know our needs and usage requirements. We also attended workshops about assistive technologies and researched software and hardware solutions to gain a scope of knowledge to make an informed decision. Each vendor was of course very interested in our business. So, I felt comfortable enough to ask for some products to prove our concept and their use in an adaptive technology situation. One was a PC vendor who sent us two different model laptops to keep, for free, to test out with our students and staff. The other, Apple Computers, allowed us to take advantage of their Mac Integration Program (MIP).

We were very hesitant about bringing in a large quantity of Macs into our PC based network and had a lot of questions as to how they would integrate. So, the MIP was the best thing to do to prove our concept not only for the IT staff on the networking side, but also the most important end users, our teachers and students. The MIP program gave us a server, with an engineer to install it, as well as computers to test out for a period of one month. They came in gave us some training, and also spoke to our committee about what the computers could do for our special needs students, for no charge.

Through this experience, we were able to prove our concept that they would not only work on our Windows network, but that they had enough assistive/adaptive technologies built into their systems that we would actually realize a cost savings due to the fact that we would not have to purchase additional hardware or software. So, we really learned a lot about our choices and proved our the concept that we can make the Apple computers connect and function on a Windows-based PC network.

Since then we have repeatedly tested products under the proof of concept model and have been able to get better instructional technologies and save our district money. Our teachers are happier, more effective and learning is improving. Also, via this model we have realized cost savings by finding out that sometimes a product is too much for the actual need and a better result was achieved through a different, or less expensive option.

Case in point, we were buying $700-$800 document cameras. We are now buying $70 document cameras that give the teachers the results they desired for a fraction of the price. This allowed us to purchase more of them and get them into the classrooms faster. The teachers are very pleased and so are our taxpayers!

The moral of this story is that you really should not be afraid to ask vendors for products in order to see if they are going to work for you or not. Most will really go out of their way to help you out. You don't have to be a technology coordinator or administrator either. You are their customer and your students deserve to have instructional technologies that will best help them learn.

Now go out there and ask for "stuff," to prove your concept. You will be pleasantly surprised as to what you will find out.

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