What are you Getting? Questions to Ask of Digital Education Contracts

The Key Questions

What questions should districts be asking of potential contractors to make sure that they get the best product and service for their students and aren’t sold programs that waste scarce resources, such as money and teachers’ and administrative time? There are four questions we think districts and vendors should be considering in any formal or informal contract for digital education.

  1. What drives the digital curriculum?
  2. What drives the digital instruction?
  3. What drives assessment and access to data?
  4. And what can vendors and districts do to make sure that commercial or political interests don’t trump students’ interests?

For example, who (or what) drives instruction in a asynchronous software based instructional program and is instruction adapted to students’ particular needs? Or, who maintains formative assessment data on students – the vendor and/or the teacher using the program in her classroom?  These questions provide a structure and strategy for demanding equal scrutiny of the vendors, programs and digital instructional spaces students increasingly see in their school experience.

Findings from Case Studies of Digital Education and Government Contracting

We have studied the role of vendors in three areas of digital education, digital curriculum, digital courses, and digital schools.  Based on this work, we argue:

  • Digital education can be an asset for public schools  including in the work of addressing educational disparities
  • But, the potential WON’T be realized absent incentives and regulations for digital education vendors, both for profit and not for profit, to commit the resources necessary to provide quality instruction to low income high risk populations
  • Evidence of a digital education gap linked to economic disparities despite promises that new technology “solves” problem of equal access to high quality digital tools
  • There needs to be a public dialogue that gets beyond the “make versus buy” discussion and focuses on how vendors and schools can find common ground towards bringing quality digital instruction to scale for all students
  • Absent this dialogue and informed action, commercial interests and policy politics trump the potential of digital education

Beginning the Dialogue

The following diagram translates these key questions and findings into a practical tool that districts and vendors involved in the contracting process can draw upon in determining whether a particular digital education program fits the specific needs of students. As reflected in Figure, each axes (instruction, curriculum, data and assessment) is an arena whereby vendors influence quality and access in instruction. For example, programs with a live instructor that drives instruction (situated in quadrant A in the figure) may work better for students with particular disabilities that need frequent adaptations and greater scaffolding for assignments. On the other hand, software-driven asynchronous programs (situated in quadrant B in the figure) may be a better match for migrant students that frequently come in and out of a district, and may not have regular access to the Internet. The diagram maps out the spectrum of each element (curriculum, instruction, data), as well as how the three interact to create very different digital instructional spaces.  These nuances are important in understanding how best to serve students’ needs and ensure transparency and accountability in program implementation.

Applied Examples: Critical Decisions towards Quality and Access in Contracting for Digital Education

Applied Examples: Critical Decisions towards Quality and Access in Contracting for Digital Education