Edtech procurement processes are important because they pave the way for high-quality educational resources, enable personalized learning experiences, enhance student engagement, expand learning opportunities, and streamline administrative tasks. By procuring and leveraging the right educational technology, educators can enhance their teaching practices and empower students to achieve better educational outcomes.

K to 12 stakeholders have long debated whether teachers or central purchasing authorities are best suited to buying classroom technology. Some think technology should be bought by teachers, who see and understand their students’ needs in real time. Others think it should be bought by central authorities, who can take advantage of bulk-purchase savings and vet educational technologies for privacy and security flaws. Both approaches have challenges, but strategies can also be implemented in either context to help overcome those hurdles. ICTC’s recent study of Canadian edtech procurement found that most edtech in Canada is purchased centrally, at the school board or district level.

This article is part two of a series on edtech procurement. The first focuses on rapid solutions that procurement teams at school boards or schools can implement to solve common problems. This article focuses on the systemic benefits and challenges of centralized procurement and ways to maximize its positive impact at the district or provincial level.

How Does Edtech Purchasing Work in Canada’s Provinces and Territories?

In PEI and Nunavut, it is the province or territory that leads edtech procurement. Nova Scotia and Yukon have provincial and territorial-level procurement, but districts can also make purchases. Manitoba currently purchases at the district level but is considering moving this function to the province. New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Ontario, and Saskatchewan all allow districts to purchase their own edtech but require them to follow provincial or territorial purchasing rules. Finally, in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba,* and Quebec, districts not only purchase their own technology but can also draft their own rules.

What Benefits and Challenges Are Associated with Board or District-Level Procurement?

District-level procurement has many benefits. Since district-level procurement centralizes IT staff and decisions at the district (as opposed to school) level, it can enable more consistent implementation of privacy and cybersecurity policies and help ensure that new purchases are compatible with one another and legacy IT. Similarly, district-level procurement helps consolidate and broaden access to procurement professionals with (hard-to-access) technical knowledge and skills.

But district-level procurement comes with challenges, too. For one, if the province or territory doesn’t have an effective group-purchasing program, district-level procurement may prevent school districts from using bulk purchasing to reduce the cost of (often expensive) technology solutions.

District-level procurement also moves purchasing authority away from end users (teachers and students) and puts it in the hands of school districts. While district-level teams are usually well-versed in buying efficient and cost-effective solutions that meet IT standards, they might not have an education background, causing them to underemphasize indicators related to curricula and pedagogy. Without effective strategies for stakeholder collaboration, district-level procurement can reduce teachers’ ability to make independent technology decisions and tailor edtech solutions to local contexts and classroom needs. Ultimately, when not done well, district-level purchasing can lead to technology solutions that are disconnected from end users and classroom realities.

How Can We Improve Procurement Outcomes in District-Level Purchasing Systems?

In ICTC’s recent study of Canadian edtech procurement, interviewees from district-level purchasing teams identified five strategies for balancing the benefits of centralized and teacher-led procurement.

  1. Enable Capacity Building at the District and School Level: Capacity building programs for educators and procurement professionals can improve the quality of edtech purchases and standardize purchasing across schools without implementing strict policies. Capacity building programs can touch on a variety of topics related to technology, education, and procurement. For educators, such as teachers and principals, capacity building programs should focus on estimating edtech ROI, articulating technology needs, and assessing the value of technology purchases over their lifecycles. For procurement professionals, capacity building programs should focus on pedagogy, curricula, and classroom realities and needs.
  2. Promote Stakeholder Collaboration: Collaboration is perhaps the most important strategy for improved edtech outcomes. The composition of edtech purchasing teams ultimately depends on time and financial resources and local contexts, but some examples of who can be involved are end users (such as teachers, parents, and students), multidisciplinary experts (such as pedagogy, curriculum, cybersecurity, privacy, or technology experts), and representatives from diverse demographic groups (such as EDI [equity, diversity, inclusion] and accessibility experts, Indigenous students, Black students, and English language learners.
  3. Implement Group-Purchasing Strategies: Group (or collaborative or joint) purchasing enables multiple districts to engage in a single procurement process, irrespective of whether they are in the same region. Group purchasing can improve access to technical expertise and save time and resources by preventing duplicate procurement processes. Group purchasing works best when collaborators share similar contexts and needs (for example, two large cities in different provinces but with a similar number of schools, teachers, and students or similar broadband connectivity). In Canada, most provinces and territories only have one or two very large districts, highlighting the importance of group purchasing for school districts across provincial and territorial borders.
  4. Enabling “Opt In” for Group Purchasing: Whether edtech is centralized at the district, provincial, or territorial level, purchasing authorities should make group purchasing “opt in” for local districts and schools. This is because not all schools or districts have the same needs—some might have many student users, while others might have poor broadband connectivity. Letting schools and districts “opt in” to group purchasing gives them the flexibility to cater purchases to their own contexts while enabling them to take advantage of joint-purchase savings when needed.
  5. Implement Standardization Tools: Standardization tools help districts implement standards for edtech purchases without fully centralizing procurement. In the education technology context, standardization tools include things like privacy impact assessments, cybersecurity assessments, technology standards, and policies for technology interoperability.

For more detail on these topics, please consult the full report, Buying into Learning Outcomes: Educational Technology Policy and Practice in Canada.

*At the time of the study, some jurisdictions like Manitoba were considering a change of systems. It is important to consult the most recent provincial regulations on procurement in schools.