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Toward a Product Evaluation Framework
March 7, 2010 - 10:43pm

Part of the responsibilities I enjoy most in academic technology is the opportunity to make recommendations for campus technology purchases. Examples include the opportunity to review and evaluate providers of platforms/products/services for: the LMS, lecture capture, curricular content management, student/faculty collaboration tools, curricular media authoring, synchronous collaboration, mobile learning, simulations, and many more.

In my experience, the role of a learning technologist in product/company evaluation is seldom as the final decision maker, but rather as part of a team that develops recommendations. It is important that your recommendations are based on a strategic as well as a tactical evaluation. This proposed framework is designed to guide the evaluation process (as well as the writing of requirements), with a goal of moving away from features, design etc. (which will change) towards a more strategic method.

This evaluation framework is offered not as a final model, but as a route by which I can think through and share some of my ideas around this goal. Conversation, disagreement, and dialogue about this evaluation framework will only improve it.

The Framework:

1) Core Competencies: To what degree will running the application, platform or service require your institution to invest in skills outside of your core educational competencies?

2) Community of Practice: No matter how wonderful the application/platform/service, how great the company, or how attractive the price -- it is almost always a bad idea to be the only (or one of the few) schools adopting the product. Someone has to be first; it shouldn't be you. A critical mass of schools is necessary as we often rely on each other for best practices and fixes, and out of the user community comes the ability to influence the product road map and company support practices. In cases where your institution is determined to be innovative (first), it makes sense to do so within a consortium of peer institutions.

3) Standards: Is the companies products/services built on industry recognized and open standards? The last thing you want is for the core architecture of the product/service you purchase to become obsolete and unsupportable should your vendor be purchased or merge with another company. A system architected around some proprietary special sauce will be an evolutionary dead-end, as the state-of-the art of development moves along with common standards.

4) Customization: Any product or service that will require high degrees of customization to work with your current systems (authentication, SIS, etc.) is almost always a bad bet -- no matter how much the company promises to ease your integration path. Today's customization is tomorrow's supportability headache. Far better to live with looser integration and less features than a customized solution.

5) Lock-In: What happens when your institution wants to move from one vendors platform to another? Will the data transfer? Are files produced by the system standard files that can be stored and transferred to other systems? Will the content that has been produced by students and faculty still be available if the company should go out of business or you should decide to change companies?

6) Transparency: How transparent is the company in regards to their product road map, operations, and organizational structure?

7) Ecosystem: Is there an ecosystem of other vendors developing for and around the company that you are evaluating?

8) Longevity: How comfortable are you that the company will be around for as long you plan to be around? A great free (advertising supported) Web 2.0 platform might seem wonderful today, but may cause big problems down the road if you adopt the platform/service and it disappears down the road.

9) Business Model: Ask about the business model of the company that you thinking about partnering with. Any company without a rational business model today will not be around to support their product/service tomorrow.

10): Core Business: Is serving the educational market the core business of your potential partner, or is education a sideline?

Your evaluation framework may differ -- I'd be interested to hear what you think is missing from the list. What is important, however, is that you and your team develop a methodology for evaluating companies and products that can be consistently applied (and learned from) across evaluation projects.


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