IT Infrastructure & Management

Group Probes Ed-Tech Pricing, Buying

By Sean Cavanagh — March 29, 2016 6 min read
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A new nonprofit organization has set out to help school districts compare the prices they pay for education technology and examine the fairness and logic of their procurement practices and contracts with vendors.

That organization, the Technology for Education Consortium, has come out of the gate swinging—having released data that questions the prices that Apple is charging districts for a popular model of iPads.

The consortium says its research, based on surveys of 40 districts, shows that the prices those systems paid for iPads with the same features and design ranged from $367 to $499. That gap can’t be explained by the volume of the purchases or related factors, the organization argues.

Filling a Void

The consortium’s evaluation of iPads is the first it has conducted and released publicly. It chose a big venue to unveil its data: the South by Southwest Education conference, an annual event held in Austin, Texas, earlier this month that drew digital providers and educators from around the country.

Apple, a giant Silicon Valley tech manufacturer with a major presence in schools, responded to the consortium’s data by saying that without having more details on the prices paid by specific districts, it couldn’t know if the cost figures are accurate, or skewed by unknown factors.

The consortium will soon produce other evaluations of ed-tech pricing, including one focused on what districts are paying for Chromebooks, said Hal Friedlander, the consortium’s CEO and co-founder.

Friedlander knows something about the pressures districts face in buying technology. He used to serve as chief information officer for the New York City schools. Harold Levy, a former chancellor with the school system, is board chairman of the consortium, which has received initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Every year American K-12 schools spend billions of dollars on education technology,” the organization says on its website. “Until now, they didn’t have the tools to know if that money was being spent effectively.”

The consortium intends to fill that void by collecting data from individual districts about their ed-tech purchases and sharing it with members.

The value of the consortium will depend partly on its ability to collect and share information among a large enough stable of districts to make its conclusions about various K-12 ed-tech products and policies both relevant and accurate, said Steven Ross, a professor of educational research at Johns Hopkins University.

“The fewer that are involved, the more bias there would be,” Ross suggested.

But given the pressures district administrators face, and the lack of objective data they have to make big buying decisions, Ross said the goals of the consortium are appealing.

Right now, “people don’t have information,” Ross said. “I don’t see where it hurts having more of it available.”

The organization, which launched earlier this year, focused initially on the price districts are being charged for Apple iPad Airs. In an effort to compare the same devices across districts, the consortium said it focused on iPad Airs with 16 gigabytes and the same standard manufacturer’s warranty.

The group says it found that the price for the same iPads varied in different districts from about $370 to nearly $500 per unit. The data showed that the prices did not follow any pattern consistent with the size of the 40 districts, which included some of the nation’s largest, and relatively small systems, such as one with less than 8,000 students. The price was also not connected to volume, or the numbers of units bought by those individual systems, Friedlander said.

The consortium released its data in aggregate, and did not reveal the names of the individual districts, or what each of them paid. Friedlander said the organization’s rationale is that it did not want to embarrass school systems saddled with heftier costs than others, but rather to provide them with useful comparisons.

But as a service to the districts, the consortium will provide them with national and regional pricing data. It also expects to share pricing data between administrators in comparable K-12 systems, with their consent, Friedlander said.

Apple officials, in a statement to Education Week, would not comment in detail on the consortium’s findings, saying the data were not specific enough for them to judge individual districts’ prices or what factors may have shaped those costs.

But the company argued that a number of factors could potentially alter the results. One of which is that the price Apple charges for iPads—as with many products in the market—tends to be highest when products are initially released, then falls after that. It was not clear from the consortium’s data at what point individual K-12 systems bought the iPads, and what prices they paid, Apple said in its statement.

In addition, Apple officials also said that even if districts evaluated by the consortium were using the same devices, it was possible that the company negotiated to provide those individual K-12 systems with other products attached to the devices, such as software or professional development. That could have affected the cost, the company said.

The company forwarded a previous statement from its CEO, Tim Cook, in which he spoke of the company’s desire to “create products that are a whole solution for people—that allow kids to create and engage on a different level.”

Friedlander was skeptical of Apple’s explanations. He said the consortium’s data do not show any pattern of districts paying less if they bought the iPads at a later time.

He also was not convinced that other features or services were attached to districts’ iPad purchases in ways that would have raised the devices’ costs. Those additional features and services would likely have been broken out by the districts, and noted by the consortium’s researchers, he said.

Eliminating Silos

The consortium hopes that administrators from districts participating in the study will share information with each other. Some districts could use the data to negotiate better deals with vendors on their own. Or districts could use the information to band together and make cooperative purchases, Friedlander said.

When he was a school administrator, Friedlander said he would often speak with other chief information officers around the country, “all having the same frustrations.” He hopes his organization will ensure that more of those discussions take place.

For most chief information officers, “there are a lot of fires to put out every day,” he said, and many administrators “operate in silos.”

Ross agreed, noting that K-12 officials buying ed-tech are often forced to make decisions about buying technology that is constantly evolving—often faster than academic researchers studying it can keep up—and as state and local academic standards shift.

Partly as a result, district officials rely on word-of-mouth recommendations about ed tech from other K-12 system administrators. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though efforts like the consortium’s project could bring valuable structure to the peer-to-peer information sharing, he said.

“School district administrators are really overburdened these days,” said Ross, and they need information about ed-tech quickly: “They don’t have the luxury of being researchers.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Group Probes Ed-Tech Pricing, Buying

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