Watch out, Hal Friedlander is bringing transparency to the edtech procurement process.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
What better credentials than having been CIO of New York City schools, America’s largest school district with over 1 million students, 100,000 employees, and 1800 schools? Hal Friedlander (pictured, left) was that, and is now CEO of Technology for Education Consortium (TEC), a nonprofit bringing transparency, efficiency, and collaboration to K-12 schools engaged in evaluating and purchasing edtech products and services. His experience as CIO of New York City Department of Education provided the motivation to start TEC. “Procurement is impossible,” he says, “there are thousands of instructional technology products and almost no standard market information about them.” And that’s a problem. “There is almost no way for a technology leaders in a school or district to make good decisions about which products fit a districts needs and budget,” says Hal, who adds that district leaders are left to rely almost exclusively on marketing and sales info from companies. “Even when an RFP process is used, the districts rely on the submissions of companies – which are usually cut-and-paste marketing material.” Hal is passionate about this issue.
Imagine if you had to buy a car based only on an advertisement and with no way to know how much it will cost until you visit the dealer. That’s what buying edtech has been like for years.
“Imagine if you had to buy a car based only on an advertisement and with no way to know how much it will cost until you visit the dealer. That’s what buying edtech has been like for years,” he says. His group, TEC, has reported that school districts could save more than $3 billion if vendors charged customers at consistent, transparent rates. In this exclusive, Hal talks about this problem, his solution, the real challenge with transparency, the role of technology in education, and the future of education.
Alright, let’s start with: what problem in education were you trying to solve? (And weren’t there some other existing solutions out there that resembled your vision?)
Hal: Technology can be a powerful tool for educators but in order for them to pick the right stuff, they need solid information about the available products including price. There are many organizations looking to help resolve various problems with procurement. One of those organizations, EducationSuperHighway, is working on network and bandwidth product pricing transparency. TEC is the only organization working on edtech product pricing transparency.
What’s the real challenge with transparency in education these days?
Hal: Districts can’t forecast real costs. So they do a combination of buying less than they need and then impulse buy to lower surpluses at the end of the school year. The lack of transparency blocks districts from buying technology strategically and they end up with a hodgepodge of software that doesn’t work for them.
How does TEC platform and LearnPlatform come together, work together?
Hal: Learn has made a huge investment in building a robust edtech data platform. The LearnPlatform has over 4,000 products already cataloged. TEC has added a simple way for districts to enter pricing and other data about products and see national pricing reports.
What is the state of education these days?
Hal: People often speak negatively about education in this country and point to test scores as evidence. But everyday tens of millions of kids go to school. Most of those kids have a good experience, graduate high school and go to college. Many kids don’t have that same good experience. The challenge is to improve the experience of the kids who are struggling without taking resources from the kids who are doing well. Technology can solve that problem.
What is the role technology can or should play in education?
Hal: Technology should give educators and students tools they need to constantly reinvent education. One of the biggest problems we have conceptually in education is the bad idea that there is some ideal destination vs. the ongoing need to always improve, learn and grow. In most other domains, like medicine or finance, technology is used to discover and innovate not just to produce diagnostics.
What experiences from your background inform your current approach?
Hal: When I discovered that despite the enormous buying power of NYC DOE, we did not always get the most favorable prices. Other much, much smaller districts got better prices for smaller buys. Of course that same small district is paying much too much for other products. That kind of erratic behavior is a sure sign of market that is not working well for anyone.
What do you see in the next few years in regards to the platform? What’s the future there?
Hal: The platform will become a clearinghouse of procurement documents of all types like contracts.
Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning education, technology, transparency, the edtech sector, or anything else for that matter? Isn’t a few billion dollars something that some might wish to protect?
Hal: Most companies are rooting for us. They want schools to be successful and realize that price transparency is a big, big problem. They want to be transparent with their prices but can’t due to their own internal bureaucracy or fear of shedding their old school sales structure or distribution channels. They are all waiting for us to get the truth about their prices out in public so they can become more responsible organizations.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org