Podcast: Choosing a Learning Platform with Mark Parlier
Mark Parlier has spent 25 years working in education and describes himself as a utility-infielder. He has worked in both public and private schools. He's served as a teacher, professor, coach, dean, principal, STEM coordinator, IT director, and most recently as a purchasing manager. During his purchasing manager tenure the CARES Act was passed leading to new school funding in the form of EANS and ESSER money. Navigating these new funds and regulations, including discovering qualified vendors, is what led Mark to found his own company: Better My School. Better My School helps school administrators and purchasing managers connect with vendors and maximize their funds.
In this interview we discuss how schools can choose the correct software learning platforms and save as much money as possible - while still providing a great learning experience for students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
What Should Be the Top Concern When Choosing a Learning Platform?
According to Mark, many school decision-makers start with three questions:
How much is it?
How much does it cost?
What will we have to pay?
Joking aside, cost is a major concern for school administrators - especially when committing to something long-term like a learning platform. Mark acknowledges cost is important (and discusses how to negotiate a better price), but argues that schools should start with this question:
What are our learning needs and objectives and what software platforms are going to help us achieve those ends?
Here is a short list of some other critical questions education administrators should consider:
Can it be tailored to fit different curriculums and different student needs?
Will it be easy for both IT teams and teachers to manage?
Can it be scaled and rolled out to multiple schools?
How does it integrate with our existing software and curriculums?
What metrics are we tracking that will indicate success?
Does the software allow us to measure these indicators?
Does it make reporting (for state requirements) easy?
Step #1: What are you measuring?
You can't know the success of a program if you don't know what to measure and then gather that data before you start something new. Mark says it's critical for school administrators to determine - before purchasing any learning platform - what their educational goals are, how to measure progress against those goals, and what the current state is.
Many schools will use metrics from state testing requirement or tools like NEWEA’s MAP testing where they do one assessment in the Fall and compare those results to a Spring assessment.
Keep in mind there isn’t a one-size-fits-all learning platform that’s going to work for all grade levels, curriculums, and learning environments. This means district level administrators are likely to have a variety of different goals across their schools - and likely even within individual schools. From Mark:
You may have … one school [that] is a Title I school where students usually perform lower, versus a magnet school where students may be gifted. It’s harder to assess a student who’s at the top of the scale because there’s not much room for them to grow … versus a student who’s lower, you can really see the growth.
In other words, do your homework! Spend time understanding your educational expectations before purchasing anything.
It's a Serious Commitment
Usually when you bring something new in, it’s going to take at least two years to see what the results are.
This was an eye-opening quote from Mark that illustrates the level of commitment schools and districts make when purchasing a new learning platform. It takes time and effort to train the tech team, teachers, and students. Then there is more time & effort to implement your curriculum, work out bugs, and measure performance. Mark says it's probably a minimum of two years to get everything up and running smoothly. So this is not a decision to make lightly.
Vetting Potential Learning Platforms
Given the effort and time commitment to a new software platform, how can you make the right decision?
We've already talked about the prerequisite to determine your educational goals before any selection is made. Assuming you have that in place, here are a few more tips to evaluating a software platform:
Get teachers involved early! Many teachers have experience at other schools or have friends that teach elsewhere. Have them tap their network. Teachers are the front line users of this software. Ask them what they want!
Put together a committee (made of teachers & administrators) to evaluate different systems.
Have your district & school administrators talk to other district administrators for their experiences.
Get demos from various software providers to see what they can do. Don't go into these demos blind. Make sure you know what you're looking for and really get the most out of these demos by drilling down to your specific needs.
How well does a new platform play with existing platforms at your school? Mark told a short story about one school he worked at with10+ software platforms for all the different learning needs. If you're not careful, you may be asking teachers and administrators to manage 10 different logins! So make sure you consider compatibility with your existing infrastructure.
Negotiating Pricing & Contracts
Now it's time to talk pricing. Or, more specifically, how to get the best value for your money. Mark suggests asking vendors for pricing on two, three, and five-year agreement since the easiest way to save money is to commit to a longer contract period. Considering the fact that it can take a couple years just to start evaluating a system's effectiveness, committing to a longer time period for better pricing may be an easy "concession" to make and a good bargaining chip. The next big bargaining chip is the number of licenses you're purchasing. Often, each student is a license so the more students you add, the more savings you can get. Make sure the different schools in your district are coordinating on this decision. But be careful with this tactic. Make sure you're not signing up for extra licenses and forcing students (and teachers) to use software of minimal or no benefit to them. Remember, even within a district, not all schools and students need to be on the same software package.
You should be evaluating multiple software platforms and make sure to let the sales reps know that. Nothing encourages better pricing than the spirit of competition - so make them compete. Look for extra perks. Maybe the sales rep is at their rock bottom price, but that doesn't mean they can't throw in some extras to sweeten the deal. These would be things that are very low cost or even free for them to give but have significant value to you. For example, ask if they have any companies they partner with that you may be able to leverage. Maintain the relationship after the sale because there could be ongoing benefits. For example, and this isn't from Mark but from our personal experience at TechUnwreck, when vendors sponsor or participate in conferences, they often get extra passes to share with customers. Ask about these kind of benefits. Another idea from Mark is to ask for extra training or technical support. See if they can offer quarterly training or on-site tech support.
To sum up Mark’s advice while negotiating: consider your long-term strategy and all your potential needs. Then ask for them!