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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?
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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?
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.

Textbooks of the future: Will you be buying a product ... or a service?

Michael Trucano's picture

tell me again why we didn't buy the digital version?The World Bank is currently working with a few countries that are planning for the procurement of lots of digital learning materials.  In some cases, these are billed as 'e-textbooks', replacing in part existing paper-based materials; in other cases, these are meant to complement existing curricular materials. In pretty much all cases, this is happening as a result of past, on-going or upcoming large scale procurements of lots of ICT equipment.  Once you have your schools connected and lots of devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) in the hands of teachers and students, it can be rather useful to have educational content that runs on whatever gadgets you have introduced into to help aid and support teaching and learning. In this regard, we have been pleased to note fewer countries pursuing one of the  prominent worst practices in ICT use in education that we identified a few years ago: "Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware."

At least initially, many education authorities in middle- and low-income countries seem to approach the large-scale procurement of digital learning materials in much the same way that they viewed purchases of textbooks in the past.  On its face, this is quite natural: If you have tried and tested systems in place to buy textbooks, why not use them to buy 'e-textbooks' as well? (We'll leave aside for a moment questions about whether such systems to procure textbooks actually worked well -- that's another discussion!) As with many things that have to do with technology in some way, things become a little more complicated the more experience you have wrestling with them.