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BELLTONES: The Technology Purchasing Process--Caveat Emptor!

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Sep 1, 2012
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Times are hard. There’s no denying that. Maybe the economy is picking up a bit, and we can all hope for continued recovery. But it has not yet trickled down, oozed over, or otherwise made much difference for people in education. While it is true that there seem to be fewer faculty layoffs than there were last spring, that is likely because faculties have already been cut to the bone. People are taking on added responsibilities and duties that heretofore were spread out between several individuals. Sad accounts abound of schools with little or no budget money for library books or equipment. I choose to believe that times will get better. I hope that we have for the most part hit bottom and can hope for a gradual but real improvement in coming years.

In hard times, people have to do more with fewer resources both at work and at home. Every purchase should be closely investigated to be sure the buyer gets the very best quality and price and that the expense is justified. Hard times are not times for impulse buys. I know in my own life, it is a lot harder to get me to part with a dollar than it was several years ago. If I need to buy something, I seek reviews, comments online, and personal recommendations, and I do not buy nearly as many gadgets as I did in the past.

This is the way it should be in schools at all levels, of course. But I am not 100% confident that smart buying is always a priority. Librarians know how to stretch dollars when buying books and have policies in place about reading reviews before purchasing. I am not convinced that equipment purchases are universally vetted in a similar fashion, perhaps because I have heard of too many bad decisions being made in which hardware was bought and then used very little, if at all. Surely in these hard times, decision makers are being extra frugal, or so one would expect.

However, on listservs such as EDTECH and LM_NET, I often see postings where people ask what to do with new equipment once it has arrived on their campuses. This gives me pause: Did they not know the equipment was coming? Were the potential users not given a chance to join in the decision making? Was the equipment piloted in small purchases before moving ahead with buying in large quantities?

Hard times notwithstanding, there are schools and districts spending money on technology these days. One popular choice right now is the iPad. In fact, it was questions via listservs about iPads that prompted me to write about this topic again, having visited it 3 years ago in better times. My concern about such questions prompted me to wonder whether the decision to buy had been to address real needs or just to get on the bandwagon. It made me think a little bit about another popular item from several years back, the interactive whiteboard. I love the boards to the point of writing my dissertation about interactive whiteboard use back in 2000. But even I would think twice about the need to have one in every single classroom, which has become the norm in many districts. In my own building, I know there were teachers for whom the boards held little or no attraction.

A Snapshot of Current Purchasing Practices

I decided to take a look at current purchasing practices, particularly, putting the spotlight on one new and one older popular product, the iPad and the interactive whiteboard. I conducted one of my online surveys of library and technology listserv members, seeking information about the type of preparation done before making big buys. As always when I ask colleagues across the country to participate in a survey, I got a wonderful response, with 162 people taking part at the time this article was submitted. Most were librarians, but technology specialists and classroom teachers also responded. I believe that the time is coming when funds will start to be more accessible and people will begin to have more purchasing power.

One thing that worries me is that once a little money is available, people will succumb to the temptation to make quick and poorly informed choices in an effort to “spend the money before it goes away.” This problem is common in grants, where recipients have a set time when they can buy. It can also happen with institutional funds where schools, departments, or grade levels compete for funds. Another common scenario is for a principal to tell a librarian, “Quick! I need to spend $2,000 in 3 days or we lose the money!” The way to prepare for those calls is to have wish lists ahead of time, both for books and for equipment.

So what did I learn from the survey? After questions about demographics, I asked who had input into purchasing in respondents’ schools or districts, with multiple answers allowed.


This article is available in its entirety in a variety of formats — Preview (free), Full Text, Text+Graphics, and Page Image PDF — on a pay-to-view basis, courtesy of ITI's InfoCentral. CLICK HERE.

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