Wednesday, November 3, 2010

5 Guidelines to Keep from Making Unwise Software Purchases

One of the most important decisions administrators can do is regarding what software is purchased. I have know many well-meaning administrators who have spend hundreds of dollars on software, only to have it sit idly on some lab computer or laptop on a teacher’s desk. I’ve often wondered how many schools have expensive software packages installed in their schools, and no one is using them. That is a tremendous waste of money and resources. What exactly can an administrator do to maximize the purchase of software for schools? Of course, the easiest way is to pass this task to someone who knows and then trust them to do the right thing. But it is a much better solution to have administrators who neither foist unwanted software on teachers, and who can be involved in making sure scarce technology money is spent wisely. Here’s six things administrators can do to be more involved in making decisions about software purchases in his or her building.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Who will be using it? For what purpose? What kind of licensing options do we have? These are only a few questions an administrator can ask. There are certainly more. Administrators can both protect their schools from getting scammed from great sounding sales pitches, and also make sure their teachers are getting the appropriate tools for their classrooms by not being afraid to ask the hard questions.

2. Be wary of salesman bearing major promises and benefits. I am a skeptic through and through, and that means when someone tells me a benefit for a product, they had better show me the money. For example, saying a software program is user-friendly is one of the most common sales pitches. User friendly to whom? Let’s face it, the word “user-friendly” is meaningless. The only way to find out if something is user-friendly is by allowing the users who will be using it to try it out. They’ll tell you whether it is user friendly or not. Sales pitches make a large of boasts. Before I will buy hundreds of dollars of software, the salesman better be able to demonstrate those boasts.

3. Consider the software from the users perspective, not your own. How many times have we seen a piece of software demonstrated, and thought to ourselves, “That’s fantastic!” The temptation is to go ahead and sign on the bottom line and make that purchase based on our personal experience. It might look useful from an administrator’s perspective, but if you are purchasing it for classroom teachers, you need to get their take as well. You may find yourself either having thousands of dollars of software sitting on computers without users, or forcing teachers to use it, which is never an effective practice. Still worse, you may find yourself with thousands of dollars of software and some teachers in a lab somewhere are forcefully subjecting students to a product that is actually killing their desire to learn rather than enhancing it. Both are good reasons to get the end user’s perspective before making that investment.

4. If salesmen is making promises about things such as increased academic gains, ask him or her to show you the studies. If they are making such claims, then there should be peer-reviewed independent studies backing those claims. If they offer testimonials to support their claims, check with those testimonials and ask to see the data. Never purchase software based on testimonial alone, especially when a software company is making boisterous claims of academic achievement increases. If their product raises student achievement, then make them prove it to your satisfaction. Remember, your school is the customer. They need to convince you.

5. Test the software’s utilitarian use versus the amount of labor and training it will take to utilize it. How many times is software purchased without any consideration regarding hours of extra work it adds to an already busy schedule? (And I would be skeptical of promises too!) Any software you purchase should not force users to become inefficient and expend greater energy in its use. If its use can’t be seamlessly integrated into the school’s routine, then perhaps it’s utilitarian value is not greater than the headaches and labor that must be expended to use it. Software should enhance the school environment not complicate it.

There are quite a few companies trying to get us to purchase their product, and they may actually have something that will help us raise the academic achievement of our students, or help make our jobs easier. But in these very tight budget times, we need to be very careful on the products we purchase. I provide these 5 guidelines in the context of software purchases, they could, just as well, be used for purchases of any instructional product or program.

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