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Planning for an edtech RFP: Technical vs. functional specs

Michael Trucano's picture

should she be more interested in ensuring that he meets her technical or functional specifications if this partnership is to work?ICT-related procurements in the education sector, especially large scale ones, are not easy.  A recent World Bank Internal Evaluation Group report noted that "ICT procurement has been highlighted as a major implementation constraint in several country and regional portfolio reviews and is a critical dimension of design." Rapid changes in technology mean that many ministries of education have a hard time keeping up with what's current in the market, let alone what might be coming next.

Even in places where anti-corruption measures are well considered and implemented, government auditors and external watchdog groups may be challenged to identify dodgy practices in some ICT-related areas.  (Have you ever read the fine print on large scale bandwidth contracts for schools? Such things are often not for the feint of heart.) It is not unknown to hear whisperings about vendors -- or consultants close to them -- providing 'assistance' of various sorts in writing a request for proposals (or certain technical specs that appear in such RFPS), and of course vendors often hope that their showcase pilot projects may inspire ministries of education to think in certain ways about what is possible, and even desirable. For many ministries of education, the line between 'influence' and 'undue influence' in such cases can be very clear in some circumstances, but rather hazy in others.  

As part of a very interesting Q&A period after a presentation at the World Bank a few years ago, mention was made about some of the challenges faced in a state in southern India which was exploring whether so-called thin client solutions might be worth considering in its schools. Essentially, the issue was this: Traditional practice when procuring computers for schools had focused on ensuring that each computer met a defined set of minimum technical specifications. In an alternative, 'thin client' set-up, it was possible to use workstations that had less robust specifications, provided they were connected to a powerful server whose processing power substitutes for that of the client computer. To oversimplify:

[-] 'traditional' approach: lots of pretty powerful computers
[-] 'alternative' approach: lots of relatively underpowered computers, connected to one very powerful computer

The point here is not to imply that one type of arrangement is on its face better or worse. Rather, it is to highlight that, if you write an RFP in a certain way -- in our example here, requiring that *every* computer meet a certain relatively high technical specification (processing speed, hard drive size, etc.) -- you may exclude proposals that feature non-traditional or 'alternative' or new approaches.

One way around this is to put more emphasis on functional specifications, rather than technical specifications, in certain components of your RFP. Not sure what this means in practice? When discussing such issues with ministries of education, I often point to an RFP at the heart of a procurement process in the U.S. state of Maine as a way to highlight an approach to procurement that is, at least in terms of most of the places where the World Bank works helping to advise education leaders, rather rare. While I am certainly no procurement expert -- thankfully we have plenty of very good ones at the World Bank to whom I can refer people -- I offer the comments below based on many discussions with ministries of education about their  challenges in this regard, in case doing so might be of any interest.

One-to-one computing in Latin America & the Caribbean

Michael Trucano's picture

unoA recent paper from Eugenio Severin and Christine Capota of the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) surveys an emerging set of initiatives seeking to provide children with their own educational computing devices. While much of the popular consideration of so-called "1-to-1 computing programs" has focused on programs in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australia, One-to-One Laptop Programs in Latin America and the Caribbean: Panorama and Perspectives provides a useful primer for English-speaking audiences on what is happening in middle and low income countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad & Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela.  (There is of course a Spanish version available as well.)

While some of these cases are becoming better known globally -- most notably those of Uruguay and Peru, where the IDB has not coincidentally been quite active -- I expect many people from other parts of the world will be surprised to learn about the extent of activity in the region. Indeed, a lot is happening in the region.  While the report does not aim to be comprehensive (indeed, ministry of education officials in a few Caribbean island nations have already noted that their 1-to-1 pilot initiatives are not included in the survey, and those knowledgeable about the field may note that there are, for example, programs from U.S. states that are not listed here), it does consolidate for the first time related regional information in one place for easy reference, while noting that "promising in concept, one-to-one initiatives thus far have had little implementation time and varying results".

The Maine thing about 1-to-1 computing

Michael Trucano's picture

these days Maine is internationally famous for much more than just lobsters ...A personal digital device,
at the point of learning,
as defined by the student.

The Magellan Plan in Portugal, Plan Ceibal in Uruguay and other various One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiatives around the world ... before all of these well-publicized large scale national educational technology programs came the 'granddaddy' of all such 1-to-1 computing initiatives: the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) in the northeastern corner of the United States.

The Maine Learning Technology Initiative web site catalogues a number of Maine "firsts" :

  • first state to seize the potential of technology to transform teaching and learning in classrooms statewide
  • first state with a plan to equip all students and teachers in grades 7 to 12 with personal learning technology statewide
  • first state to equip every 7th and 8th grade student and 7th through 12th grade teacher statewide with personal access to learning technology
  • first state to empower every 7th through 12th grade teacher in every school statewide with professional development and support to fully tap the potential of computers and the Internet
  • first state to provide the option of home Internet access to every 7th and 8th grade student in every school statewide

For those looking to learn more about the potential of and practical lessons from 1-to-1 computing initiatives for students, Maine is the longest-running and most-studied such program.