Vet Your Vendors for Impactful Virtual Learning

By Amy Stevens, SNHU Vice President, Academic Resources & Technology, Executive Director of CBE Programs And Heather Tillberg-Webb, SNHU Associate Vice President of Academic Resources and Technology

Amy Stevens, SNHU Vice President, Academic Resources & Technology, Executive Director of CBE Programs

The pandemic highlighted the necessity of ensuring that academic technologies embedded in instruction are directly impactful to learners. Curating digital learning opportunities that take advantage of the best of the educational technology market requires knowledge of available vendors and selecting vendors that match the institution’s needs. Many of the same best practices we developed at Southern New Hampshire University before the pandemic have served us and our learners well and have helped us drive student learning outcomes. 

The range of digital technology options to support learning has never been more varied. From physical textbooks to interactive, bandwidth-hogging tools, today’s students experience the full spectrum of materials and platforms to support their learning, and many of those materials are provided by vendors in the publishing and academic technology space.    

While Southern New Hampshire University’s online program may be unique, we’ve learned several lessons over the years around working with our vendor partners on how to prioritize and give feedback that we believe can be applied to many other colleges and universities, no matter their size.   

Relationship Size

When identifying a vendor that provides a technology service that might meet your needs, set clear expectations for the level of commitment involved. Consider whether you are looking for a simple transactional relationship or a more strategic engagement where you have a high tolerance for learning while you grow together. Clarity on these expectations will help you and your team decide on where and when your feedback is both worth collecting, gathering and sharing, and if there are any expectations your feedback will have an impact.  

“When identifying a vendor that provides a technology service that might meet your needs, set clear expectations for the level of commitment involved”

For example, a “one and done” transaction may not warrant extensive feedback. On the other hand, for a more strategic relationship, a thoughtful and comprehensive review might be essential to growing a strong relationship, for both the vendor to understand how their solution is supporting specific learning needs and for your team to understand the limits of the vendor’s capacity for change or interest in adapting their product road map. In addition, on-going and regular meetings will help ensure that both you and the vendor are staying in touch about your collective priorities. 

Heather Tillberg-Webb, SNHU Associate Vice President of Academic Resources and Technology

Stay Focused on Learning Goals

Implementing an academic technology solution should emerge from meeting a learning need. When selecting vendors, stay focused on the learning outcomes that need to be supported. How will this new academic technology tool or publisher resource help learners gain practice that will help them achieve the learning outcome and perform well on the assessment you’ve identified? Does the vendor provide data or dashboards that will help you track the efficacy of the tool for the outcome you have identified? Once you have a sense of the data, then set benchmarks around adoption rates, learner progress within the resource or even help desk tickets generated.

Know Your Learners and Advocate for Their Needs:

And most importantly, throughout your selection and implementation of technology tools to support learning, stay focused on your learners and their needs. Partner with vendors that are thoughtful in how they approach issues such as accessibility and inclusiveness in their design. A challenge with providing virtual learning at scale is meeting the needs of a diverse group of learners. Meeting learners where they are at technologically requires an intentional approach to designing learning that measurably provides studentswith opportunities to improve their skills, demonstrate mastery, and progress towards their goals; all against the backdrop of wildly varying technology access, digital skills, and facility with media.

Some of the factors that must be accounted for in order to be accessible and inclusive, and thus viable at scale: 

• Bandwidth Requirements: Are there geographic or other barriers that demand low bandwidth options?

• Information Security and Data Privacy: How secure will your learners’ data be? Where is their data stored, how safe is it, and who will have access to it?

• Media Accessibilities: Has the vendor taken the initiative to pursue a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template)? Will the product’s current state of accessibility meet your learners’ needs?

• User Experience: Is the product easy to use, install, and instruct in? Will your faculty understand how to navigate, instruct, and assess with the tool?

Understanding the barriers your learners currently face can help guide this selection process. There are seldom one-size-fits all solutions but with some foresight on both the technology and the relationship you can find ways to bring the right resources to your students.

While vendors may be excited to show you all the bells and whistles, features and functions included in their latest release, we continue to find that keeping the digital technology simple allows us to make learning accessible.

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