Throughout college, I worked as a sales associate at a popular big-box electronics store. The company had a unique compensation model for the industry. They paid a higher than normal hourly wage but they did not give commission in any form; no bonuses, no percentage of accessories, no SPIFF for adding on an installation service or warranty...nothing. They simply expected their employees to be highly educated on the products and services they were selling, and they expected us to share that information in a non-threatening, non-pushy way with customers. It made for a great working and shopping environment. The job was fun and the lack of pressure to sell add-ons (they didn't even track individual sales in any way) was a welcomed change from other retail positions I had held previously.
In a normal experience, I would engage a potential customer, ask what brought them to the store, and try to assure them that I was available if they needed any help or had any questions. Most of the time, they would respond with "just looking" and then eventually tell me what really brought them in. They would be shocked when I would suggest an appropriately priced product to meet their stated needs. They would buy and leave. However, about once a week we would have a different experience. A customer would come in with what we dubbed "their 'smart' friend." In this situation, the paying customer, leery of the lack of expertise or detrimental motives of the sales associate, brings their smart friend with them to advise on their purchase. Sometimes this worked, but the vast majority of the time, the smart friend wasn't actually all that smart. Instead, he (it's almost always a guy) was just the "smarter" friend--as in, smarter about the product than the customer, but not actually an expert in the product they are shopping for. This presented a tremendous challenge.
In one such instance, as the department manager for digital photography, I suggested a particular Digital SLR camera to a lady because it was on clearance for $549 and was a steal. It had the ability to do everything she wanted and it was upgradable in case her needs changed in the future. It was a great brand and I had full confidence this was the best option for her. After I shared all the reasons this was the best option and demonstrated the features that she specifically requested, her smarter friend chimed in, "You don't want to buy that. That's a terrible camera. I saw this (other camera) in a magazine on the plane last week. It's the best camera on the market. It's going to be what you really want." I cautiously rebutted, "That is a great camera, but it is a professional grade camera and I don't think you need all of the features you would be paying for." I explained the differences and pointed out that as a brand new model, she would be paying more than three times as much for a camera that would likely drop in price in the next two months. After looking at her smarter friend and consulting one more time, she left with the other camera and a $1,700 charge on her credit card!
Unfortunately, I see this waaaaaaaay too often in education. District and school level leaders with buying power often represent the undereducated customer when purchasing ed-tech. That's understandable (sort of) but what is truly alarming is that their "smart friend" is often the sales associate that banged hardest on their door. These are usually commission-based salespeople who are not interested in stretching the buyer's budget. They are interested in landing a big contract. This isn't necessarily dirty on the salesperson's part, but it causes a tremendous amount of waste of ever-tightening education budgets. In 2008, I wrote my Master's thesis on why interactive whiteboards were a colossal waste of money. Then the iPad came out. Simply put, if you are still paying $6,000 to have an interactive display in classrooms, you are wasting substantial amounts of money.
With the recent explosion of education technology, it has never been more important to be an educated consumer. You can't rely on your smart friends wearing a golf shirt from the product they represent. If you have buying power, you really need to do some homework and make sound purchasing decisions. I am going to list my reviews of several ed-tech items in my next post, but please understand that this list will only stay valid for a short time. As quickly as the tech climate changes, you can't rely on year old tech reviews to make the most informed decisions. I propose the following purchasing process:
Start with the salesperson, I guess
As sales people present technology solutions to you, learn as much as you can about the actual function of the tech. Ask questions about how teachers and students use it, how substantial is the learning curve, and what is the product lifecycle (how often do you need to upgrade).
Shop for consumer (non ed-tech) products
Once you know what functionality you need to solve a particular problem or enhance a particular activity (or set of activities), be creative and start shopping consumer-level technology. Many times, you will find that consumer tech offers many of the same features at a fraction of the price (see my review on iPads streaming to projectors through Apple TV or Chromebooks using Chromecasting -- saves as much as $4,500 per classroom).
Talk to the right teachers
If you look hard enough, you will find teachers who have already taken it upon themselves to start trying the tech (or a version of it) that you are considering purchasing. Before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in ed-tech, ask practitioners how often they actually use it, what they use it for, and how difficult was it to learn--if an early tech adopter had a difficult time applying a particular device in their classroom, it is likely that a begrudging adopter will never learn to do so.
Don't be afraid to pilot
I understand that many times budgets dictate that funds be spent within a particular time frame. That is why it is so important to research early and plan ahead of time so that you can pilot new tech in a few locations (choose different demographics of students and teachers) before rolling it out across an entire school, district, or state.
Don't be a sucker
At the tech store, we sold extended warranties for everything...seriously, EVERYTHING. Why? They are considered to be 97% profit because of the limited number of customers who take advantage of them. It's easy to convince a customer they should buy the $200 3-year warranty on their shiny new $1,800 refrigerator. The catch? Refrigerators have an average lifecycle of 17 years. It's practically free money for the store and it's almost a guaranteed waste of money for the customer. This happens in ed-tech ALL the time! Need an example? Here, you can buy a 24 iPad charging station for $1,950. You could purchase an additional 10 iPads for that price! Do you really need a rolling, lockable, all-metal charging cart? I don't think so. I taught in a 1:1 iPad school with more than 350 iPads...we had exactly zero charging carts. They're the extended warranty of the ed-tech market!
In my next post, I will highlight a variety of ed-tech products with my personal reviews of these items in terms of their value in a school setting. Additionally, I will offer a variety of creative solutions to reduce the amount of money needed to achieve the same (or similar) results from popular ed-tech items.
And yes, for a reasonable fee, I am willing to consult and be your actual smart friend when you are considering edtech :)
Cleveland Rotary Club
Innovating Education Through Community Partners
NEA Foundation The Promise of Public Ed
Leveraging Teacher Leadership to Increase STEM Education
US Senate Briefing
The Need for a National Organizing Body of Digital Fabrication
NACCE California Symposium
Scaling Innovation through Partnerships
Volkswagen eLab Ribbon Cutting
Why Digital Fabrication can't be an Option
NSTA STEM Leadership
Developing, Incubating, and Implementing Public/Private Partnerships that Matter
Chattanooga Fab Institute
Revolutionizing Learning through Digital Fabrication
HCDE Future Ready Institute Launch
Developing PBL Units with Business Partners
STEM Fellows Celebration
Community Partnerships for Teacher Leadership
Scaling Innovation in Schools
Remake Learning Days
Dig Fab in the Community
Public/Private Partnerships Panel
Digital Fabrication in the Modern Classroom
Redesign for Student Success (San Diego)
Scaling Innovation through Digital Fabrication
GE Leadership Summit
Leveraging Innovative Technologies for Learning
Texas Open Innovation
Emerging Innovations in Education
FFT Leading & Learning
Connecting Global Ed
reMake Education Summit
National Governor's Asc.
Coding with Governors
US Dept of Education
Round Table with Secretary John King
K-12 Pathways for CS
K-12 Education Panel
Reducing the Racial Gap in Computing
Boston Museum of Science
Teaching with Toys
US Dept of Education
MSP CS Proposition