Carefully planning a shootout means making sure all products are comparable, says Clarke County (Ga.) School District’s Paul Sims.

Jul 22 2008

Tech Shootouts at a Glance

Shootout model helps districts exert buying power and identify optimal tech solutions.

Shootout model helps districts exert buying power and identify optimal tech solutions.

The typical school CIO might groan at the prospect of a large-scale tech investment. Although these projects promise to reinvent teaching and learning, they pose hefty time demands on tech staff, administrators and teachers. Researching options, meeting with vendors and visiting schools to view technology such as interactive whiteboards or handhelds in action also gobble up precious time and funds. Frustrated with the status quo, a number of districts deploy a different model: the technology shootout.

The basics of the tech shootout are simple. The district schedules multiple, customized, onsite product demos in a back-to-back or side-by-side configuration. Educators and administrators cycle through for test runs and provide input about the pros and cons of various options. The shootout model accelerates decision-making, but it is not a passive endeavor.

No two shootouts are alike, contends Paul Sims, assistant superintendent of technology in Clarke County (Ga.) School District, but sticking to a basic formula sets the stage for a successful shootout and tech implementation. The process includes four components:

  • Needs assessment
  • Request for proposal (RFP)
  • Shootout
  • Decision-making

Conduct a Needs Assessment

Like a road map, the needs assessment guides the entire shootout process. Steve Spofford, chief operating officer of Carrollton City (Ga.) Schools, describes the shootout process as an exercise in problem-solving: “We pose our problems to experts who are smarter than us. The vendors [should] understand the problem and the solution.” Stakeholders define the educational problem or needs in the needs-assessment phase.

Clarke County (Ga.) School District asks vendors to respond to a list of desired features, such as providing the average bulb life for projection systems.

“Districts need to define exactly what goals or problem[s] a product will address. Otherwise, they can misfire by looking at the solution first,” explains Sims. Administrators tend to look for affordability, and tech staff place a high priority on ease of use. Teachers, on the other hand, put classroom needs first. Spofford learned an important lesson when he tried to sell teachers on low-maintenance, budget-friendly flat-screen televisions. Teachers balked, pointing out that TVs don’t allow data projection or visibility by all students. Keeping the lines of communication open helped the district avoid investing in a product ill-suited for its teachers’ needs.

The Clarke County School District needs-assessment process consists of surveys and focus groups to help match products to district goals and to determine desired specifications. CIOs use the data to craft the list of needs to steer the evaluation process. Depending on the team and project, top needs range from reliability to cost-effectiveness to ease of professional development.

In some cases, the needs assessment reveals a lack of readiness. “If we realize we don’t have the information needed to develop specifications, the district takes a step back before issuing a request for proposal,” reports Sims. During the breather, the district gathers information about the technology via conversations with colleagues, sales demonstrations, market research and looking at RFP documents from other organizations.

Develop an RFP

After the district defines its goals and specifications, it can transfer the information into an RFP. Districts may model the RFP on a standard proposal, adapting the document to the specific items defined during the needs assessment.

Before the vendors visit the district, Sims and his team write a script for the shootout. “In order for the shootout to be effective, we need to compare apples to apples,” explains Sims. For example, each vendor might be asked to show specific types of tests and reports during an evaluation of an assessment system.

Host the Shootout

The actual shootout requires coordination, organization and finesse. Typically, districts invite three to five vendors to the campus. Other players include a home team that represents a broad constituent of administrative, technology and classroom stakeholders.

Spofford sees shootouts as a mini trial run; the district purposely invited both tech-savvy and tech-phobic teachers to its whiteboard shootout. “We let teachers experiment with technology and make some mistakes, which provided insight into the learning curves associated with various models.” The combination of multiple players with different perspectives and the quantitative aspect of the rubric leads to better decision-making, says Sims. “The decision isn’t based on which salesperson is the funniest or makes the flashiest presentation.”

During the Carrollton City Schools shootout, each whiteboard vendor brought a different solution to the district. The district committed to purchasing at least one system from each vendor. “Because the shootout is customized to the district’s needs, it takes time and money on the part of the vendors. We want to recognize their efforts,” says Spofford.

Decision Time

Decision-making is rarely easy. A shootout requires structure to synthesize feedback from all participants. Otherwise, the road map, or needs assessment, may be blurred by a bevy of backseat drivers. Rubrics offer a way to standardize responses and keep stakeholders on the same page; however, districts don’t always opt for the highest scoring product.

“[After reviewing the rubrics] the shootout becomes a discussion about the needs of the organization rather than a discussion about a specific technology. Then we look at which product best fits those needs,” says Sims.

After its whiteboard shootout, Carrollton City Schools decided the vendor with the simplest solution worked best, and it deployed Promethean Activboards in every K–12 classroom.

In some cases, the team completes a cost-benefit analysis after one system rises to the top to determine if a higher-priced product merits the extra cost. Clarke County School District opted for a higher-priced fund accounting system because it offered customization capabilities that fit its needs. In contrast, the shootout team determined that extra software features did not merit additional cost for its interactive whiteboard project.

Selling the Shootout

Shootouts represent a different model for some districts, but those that have used it agree they are worth the effort. The model depends on a high degree of stakeholder involvement, enabling districts to invest with confidence because a well-designed process ensures that the solution meets the needs of the stakeholders. Broad involvement also correlates with increased buy-in because teachers are involved in the decision-making process.

Secrets to Multivendor Success

Multiple-vendor projects add a layer of complexity to new deployments. Steve Spofford, chief operating officer, Carrollton City (Ga.) Schools, notes: “Success hinges on more than connecting the parts and pieces. It’s important to connect the vendors, too.” Savvy CIOs share strategies for getting the multivendor formula just right.

  • Taking the time to establish good working relationships among vendors builds a foundation for a smooth project, says Bill Driskell, technology director for Union County (Ga.) Schools. Driskell assigns a local project manager to coordinate all contact from shipping to training. “There’s one person to call with any problem, which reduces finger- pointing.”
  • Spofford insists on three face-to-face meetings with all vendors and district tech staff, scheduling meetings before to the launch, during the installation and after the completion of the project. That way, everyone hears the same messages.