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An innovative approach to the procurement of 'innovative' large scale educational technology programs?

Michael Trucano's picture
the tools available help determine what you create
the tools available help determine what you create
Around the world, there is no shortage of rhetoric related to the potential for the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to 'transform teaching and learning'. Indeed, related pronouncements often serve as the rallying cry around, and justification for, the purchase of lots of educational technology hardware, software, and related goods and services. Where 'business as usual' is not thought to be working, some governments are increasingly open to considering 'business unusual' -- something that often involves the use of new technologies in some significant manner.

One challenge that many countries face along the way is that their procurement procedures are misaligned with what industry is able to provide, and with how industry is able to provide it. Technology changes quickly, and procurement guidelines originally designed to meet the needs of 20th century schooling (with a focus on school construction, for example, and the procurement of textbooks) may be inadequate when trying to operate in today's fast-changing technology environments. Indeed, in education as in other sectors, technological innovations typically far outpace the ability of policymakers to keep up.

Faced with considering the use of new, 'innovative' tools and approaches that hadn't been tried before at any large scale within its country's schools, education policymakers may reflexively turn to precedent and 'old' practices to guide their decisions, especially when it comes to procurement. This is usually seen within government ministries as a prudent course of action, given that such an approach is consistent with the status quo, and that related safeguards are (hopefully) in place. As a result, however, they may end up driving forward into the future primarily by looking in the rear view mirror.

When considering the scope for introducing various types of technology-enabled 'innovations' (however one might like to define that term) into their education systems, many governments face some fundamental challenges:
  • They don't know exactly what they want.
And even where they do:
  • They don't have the in-house experience or expertise to determine if what they want is practical, or even feasible, nor do they know what everything should cost.
One common mechanism utilized in many countries is the establishment of a special 'innovation fund', designed to support the exploration of lots of 'new stuff' in the education sector. Such efforts can be quite valuable, and they often end up supporting lots of worthwhile, innovative small scale projects. (The World Bank supports many 'innovation funds' related to the education sector around the world, for what that might be worth, and the EduTech blog exists in part to help document and explore some of what is learned along the way.) There is nothing wrong with small scale, innovative pilot projects, of course. In fact, one can argue that we need many more of them -- or at least more of them with certain characteristics. That said, introducing and making something work at a very small scale is a much different task than exploring how innovations can be implemented at scale across an entire education system.

In such circumstances:
  • What is a ministry of education to do?
  • How can it explore innovative approaches to the procurement of 'innovative' large scale educational technology programs in ways that are practical, appropriate, cost-effective, likely to yield good results, informed by research and international 'good practice', and transparent?

For a variety of reasons, and for better and for worse, many governments are interested in exploring how 'public-private partnerships' (variously defined) can be helpful and worthwhile during the course of planning and implementing large scale educational technology initiatives in their country. That said, a big information asymmetry exists almost everywhere in the world between the related knowledge, experience and expertise in the private sector and what exists in the public sector.

Let's be honest: In many cases in many places, big vendors function as de facto, and often quite influential, advisors to ministries of education when it comes to educational technology stuff, for the simple, and in many cases understandable, reason that their employees are much more knowledgeable about, and current with, related topics, tools and practices than are the government officials in charge with articulating related policies and strategies, overseeing and coordinating related initiatives, and monitoring and evaluating the impact of project implementation. Like it or not, this is an observable reality.

This is generally true, I find, most everywhere around the world, but this information asymmetry can be especially acute in many middle and especially low income countries. (Vendors don't have a monoply on practical knowledge related to the implementation of large scale educational technology projects, of course; NGOs, academics and external funding organizations are also important sources of useful related insights and domain knowledge in many developing countries, and not all policymakers in such places are playing 'catch up' -- even if, in my professional experience, a good number of them are.) This state of affairs, where the advisor is also the group most likely to directly profit if the advice given is followed, can, and should, raise all sorts of red flags related to potential conflicts of interest (and worse). This isn't to impute bad motives to all such groups as they try to give good advice to governments. (It is possible for a fox to help guard the henhouse ... but we shouldn't be too surprised if at some point it gets hungry and decides it is time to eat. And of course most vendors aren't foxes -- even if, at least in my experience, many of them tend to be viewed as such within some ministries of education.) But: Figuring out how to implement greater transparency around interactions between the public and private sectors around educational technology issues is critically important if governments are to be be able to implement related policies and decisions that are practical, implementable, scalable, equitable, and have a decent chance of success, while at the same time being open and transparent in ways that can help reassure all stakeholder groups that there is no funny business going on.

A few years ago I was part of a team that helped a large developing country investigate, articulate and evaluate its available options and priorities as part of a planning process for a massive proposed project to utilize ICTs in thousands of its schools in ways that were 'innovative'. The education folks responsible for this effort in government were highly capable: experienced (both at home and abroad) and principled, with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. The key people had been involved with large scale education and technology initiatives in the past (as well as with a few initiatives at the intersection of these two fields). Some of these were successes, some were failures. The head of the project was very aware of her team's strengths and their weaknesses, and was wise and humble enough to admit what scared them the most: "When it comes to trying something new and innovative for the first time, you don't know what you don't know."

Within this operating context, here's how they proceeded:

1. A request for Expressions of Interest (EOI) was published, inviting companies, non-profits, and academic institutions to provide inputs into the related planning process.

2. The EOI request presented a general set of objectives that the government wanted to see achieved and sketched out a very general sense of what it thought might be done to help achieve them.

3. A notional (and quite large!) budget envelope (at the time, this was, to my knowledge, the largest proposed educational technology project in the world) was announced to help give a sense of the order of magnitude of what was desired, and what could (potentially) be funded.

4. Groups were given a deadline to respond, proposing what could and should be done, together with evidence (research, experience) to support their suggestions.

5. By mandating that responses include specific citations to research and experience, both domestically and internationally, the government hoped to tap into and benefit from international and local know-how, experience and expertise.

6. Groups were encouraged to self-organize into consortia as they developed their recommendations (and individual firms and organizations were free to participate in submissions from more than one consortia – or to go it alone).

7. Groups were informed that their responses would be made publicly available, both in order to aid transparency, and also to make sure that good lessons and promising practices would circulate quickly -- including to the key decision makers in government. To aid in transparency and the sharing of knowledge about what different groups knew, and proposed, a number of the groups who put together the best EOI documents were invited to make half hour presentations describing what they recommended be done, the evidence base that informed their recommendations, and what everything might be expected to cost.

8. The government said that the eventual requests for proposals (RFPs) that would be issued as part of the process to procure related goods and services would draw heavily on these EOI documents.

9. In order to incentivize groups to participate and share their knowledge and ideas (something which usually many organizations might consider to be trade secrets of a sort), the government had a budget and process for providing monetary awards for EOIs that were used to help to build the eventual RFPs that would be issued. Groups were further encouraged to share what they knew about what was possible and recommended because, in the likelihood that what they proposed ended up in the eventual project design, they might be in good positions to compete for the resulting contracts.

10. Based on government objectives; what local and international industry, civil society, academic institutions and stakeholders thought was possible, feasible and practical; and a notional budget; the government utilized this collective input, together with other knowledge and supplemental advice from other local and international experts and actors (note: as advisors, my team fell into this group), to build a project outline which would inform the drafting of related requests for proposals. One constituent model that I worked on as part of a very large team during this process was affectionately, if somewhat cheekily, called a 'Frankenstein', because it borrowed parts from many different places as a way to create a coherent whole. Rigorous risk assessments, financial projections and value-for-money analyses of this model were done as an input into related government decision making going forward. The goal was to flag potential problem areas up front and offer potential ways to mitigate a variety of related risks.

The model, and process, was much more complicated than what I've attempted to describe quickly here, but hopefully I was able to convey some general information about what was attempted, why and how.

Might this sort of process be relevant to governments in other countries exploring potentially 'innovative' approaches to the use of informational and communication technologies in their schools? I don't know. But the goal in briefly sketching all of this out here was to offer one practical, real life example of how one government methodically, and seriously, explored what it considered to be a new and 'innovative' approach to planning for the procurement of ICT-related goods and services across its education system. Along the way, it sought to tap into knowledge and experiences that government itself did not have, and to engage publicly with a multitude of vendors and stakeholder groups in ways that were open and transparent.

In the end the project did not happen -- in large part because of what was learned in the course of the process I've outlined here. Whether or not the project happened in the end is not my point in relating all of this, however. The point is that, when faced with a status quo that was not considered to be working, a government wanted to explore potentially new and innovative approaches to use information and communication technologies to help meet a variety of educational objectives. Looking forward, and acknowledging the rapidly changing nature of the technology world, it didn't want to assume that it knew what was possible, or practical, nor what a related project should cost. Instead of trying to trying to do related research, perform due diligence and conduct consultations in secret, relying only on its own internal manpower and consultants, it 'thought aloud in public', along with many of the groups whose participation would most likely be necessary to implement what the government might propose to do.

When considering doing something new and innovative, the government explored a sort of 'business unusual'. Whether this sort of thing is relevant to governments in other countries planning for the large scale introduction of 'innovative' educational technology-enabled projects: I don't know. But hopefully what is described here will help provide some useful food for related thought.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:   
Note: The image used at the top of this post ("the tools available help determine what you create") comes from the Wikipedian Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


Submitted by Joe Nutt on

Serendipitously, I have just been looking into the UK's fairly new Public Contracts Directive which seeks to improve a number of aspects public sector procurement. This includes a new, fifth award procedure, the Innovation Partnerships Procedure. This specifically encourages a number of suppliers, to bid to enter into an innovative partnership with the contracting authority to develop a new product or service. Sounds very much like the process you describe but much more streamlined. The suppliers are gradually whittled down as the requirement becomes better defined. There have been some procurements through this procedure in the health sector but I could find only one in ICT and education. Sadly, it displays all the same weaknesses that have plagued this sector for decades, techno-zealotry and "vision" running completely counter to, and against, educational quality and pedagogical sense.

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