A white man placing a piece of inadequate duct tape over a massive crack in a wall. This is a metaphor.

Procurement aka the crack in everything that lets the bullshit in

I’ve been thinking and writing and talking a lot about edtech procurement recently.

In fact I’ve been thinking and writing and talking about it for years but it feels like in this moment it might just be getting a little more traction. It might of course be because I’ve had the pleasure of thinking and writing and talking about it with Brenna Clarke Gray who is very smart and eloquent. Or maybe it’s that the combined force of two women who will not be silent and sit down gets harder to ignore. Or maybe we just wore out all the more interesting topics (*more* proctoring anyone?). In any case, here we are.

Today the procurement of educational technologies is fundamentally flawed both as a practice and a process.

Institutional processes such as procurement tend to be rather absent from conversations about digital education, often acknowledged as problematic but also outside our sphere of influence or domain of expertise. So why do I think edtech procurement is a problem? and why should learning technologists and academics care? Why should universities care?

Here’s my short take on it, from my perspective as a time served learning technologist and now a senior administrator in a Canadian university. I have longer things to say, and those will appear in time as book chapters, websites, presentations, and maybe papers, and hopefully they will continue to help me refine and clarify my thinking, along with any feedback folks feel kind enough to offer me (hint).

I’ll start by framing up some problems with edtech today (not exhaustive!).

Edtech is big business. A lot of money rides on the successful procurement of edtech and can drive institutional investment and adoption. This could be speculative market making activities by VC backed vendors (we’ve all seen the proctoring scaremongering) or it could be institutions hoping for increased revenue through digital transformation programmes. There are a variety of vested interests influencing the technologies we use.

Edtech is not a tool. Pedagogy and technology are not mutually exclusive; they are entangled and mutually shaping. This is a fancy way of saying learning and teaching can be bent out of shape by technology and we can bend technology out of shape for learning and teaching purposes. For good or bad outcomes. The technologies we use are matters of quality.

Edtech is not neutral. Never more so commercial edtech which in the last 10 years especially seems to have at once embraced a de-humanised vision of learning at scale, combined with many of the logics of carceral tech. Lovely. Platforms can obscure off-shored precarious labour, or the owners of edtech companies can behave in ways that stifle academic discourse and legitimate enquiry, or educational technologies embody racism and bias, or all of the above. The technologies we use are political.

Edtech is killing us. The futures of edtech that are being constantly sold to many of us increasingly stand in stark contrast to a planet in crisis. AI fuelled socio-technical imaginaries¬† promise a future of more personalisation and efficiency. But it’s increasingly uncertain that there will even be a future, and more technology may not the best option for ensuring there is. Our use of technologies needs to be sustainable.

All of the above being true (and I believe they are) then how we procure technology comes sharply into focus as it’s the main conduit through which edtech finds it’s way into our institutions, and I think it is broken as a practice and a process because in my experience it fails to account for all of the above. So what should we do? I have some thoughts, and some questions, but this remains a work in progress.

  1. The procurement of edtech fundamentally needs to be re-framed as issue of educational quality assurance since it has a material impact on digital education. Re-framing it in this way will open up a number of questions about process including who is involved, how procurement strategy is determined, what is evaluated. It can also help recenter our thinking onto what matters most and cut through some of the vested interests issues.
  2. We need to plug the ethics / standards gap in edtech procurement. We’ve done this already for other kinds of procurement (buying fair-trade foods, excluding modern slavery from supply chains etc) so it’s clearly possible. There are frameworks already which can help, and interesting ideas emerging, including the idea of licensing schemes.
  3. We need to keep asking the fundamental question of whether we need to do as much of it as we do? Is more edtech the answer? Or would we as institutions be better to investment in people and help to support the design of creative digital pedagogy in an environment of technical restraint?

Beyond all of the above, which to be honest seem like quite doable things right now if we have the will to do them, I think there’s a bigger issue still lurking.

All procurement activities are complex entanglements of the values, purposes, and contexts of multiple groups in the academy – students, teachers, technology professionals – and we are all forced to distill all of this complexity into a set of functional and commercial requirements that can be scored and weighted. These can only ever be imperfect proxies for what we are really trying to evaluate. We do this because public sector procurement processes are designed to be “transparent” and “fair” to ensure that there is competition between vendors and that we can be accountable for how public money was spent. The rationale for this is generally one of minimising risk to institutions (being sued for anti-competitive behaviour, being penalised for poor management of public resources). However, based on my experiences over 20 years in the edtech space I think our procurement practices are introducing new risks by not attending to the issues of quality, ethics, and sustainability (being sued by our students for harming them, being sued by edtech companies for being critical of them, or an inability to sustain in the face of a resource constrained future), and I have concerns that the current processes for distilling complexity into a set of convenient proxies may not be adequate to the challenge.

Fundamentally, I think we are losing sight of the purpose of good education in these processes. How can we recenter that?

2 thoughts on “Procurement aka the crack in everything that lets the bullshit in

  1. I have been heavily involved in ed tech procurement activities for a number of years and while I don’t have any solutions, I think that this is a hugely under-researched and poorly understood field deserving serious research. This operational/practical stuff can have a massive impact on how well learning and teaching with tech is supported yet it is virtually never even acknowledged by the so-called big names in ed tech discourse, beyond generalised hand-wavey ethical questions.

    One thing that I would say is that I suspect that some educational leaders see new ed tech as a silver bullet for cultural and capability problems tied to learning and teaching practice and go down this path rather than the far harder and more politically risky one of developing people and practices. The hope that new tech will fix things on its own without an equally large measure of change management is our greatest challenge.

    1. Thank you for such an excellent and thoughtful reply! I agree entirely that this is an under-researched space and a colleague here has been talking to me about Dorothy Smith’s work on institutional ethnography as a possible approach one could take to that. I think there’s also a bit of a chicken and egg scenario in here for our colleagues who work in the edtech research spaces that unless you’ve been “privileged” enough to be involved in these processes, they’re probably rather opaque and out of sight – just part of the operational stuff of a university. That’s why I think it’s so important to reframe this as a quality assurance issue because it brings it into clear sight and drives a different critical engagement.

      And you nail it exactly on the tech silver bullet issue – we can probably all find examples of folks who’ve drunk the marketing Kool-Aid. As someone who just completed official ProSci change management certification I can attest to the value of proper change management. Ultimately, any technology change that doesn’t also take on the required work of people and process change will fail and is a big fat waste of cash. Public sector institutions should be looking askance at anyone who promises technology alone as a magic unicorn solution.

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