Navigating the Vendor Exhibit Hall

by Jean Tower


This week on Wednesday and Thursday we have a big education and technology conference here in Massachusetts. It is co-hosted by M.A.S.S. and MassCUE, the superintendents’ organization and the MA ISTE affiliate, respectively.

Previously, each organization has had its own fall technology conference, and since joining forces two years ago the conference has grown become more successful each year.

In addition to the keynote speakers, who inspire and motivate us, and the breakout sessions where we learn about promising practices and benefit from the experience of our peers, we have a large and bustling vendor exhibit hall. The vendor area is an important component of my MassCUE conference experience, but teachers and other administrators have shared with me that they are intimated by the vendor hall and have no idea how to make the experience useful or positive, beyond picking up the occasional pen, block of paper, or squeezy toy. They say that the “tech staff” have more knowledge of the products and services and that they do the purchasing, so they are comfortable leaving it to them.

But, as a Technology Director, I am here to tell you I need the input of the educators and principals in my school district. There used to be an advertisement for a discount clothing store where the tag line was, “an educated consumer is our best customer.” In a way, this applies to faculty and technology. I want all the educators in my district to be educated to the options available to us so that they can advocate for the technology options that they think will benefit their students.

For example, the reading teacher can better evaluate the reading software and will ask better questions of the vendor than I might be able to. If they come back from the conference and tell me they are very excited about the possibilities of a piece of software, I can do my research into compatibility, cost, and whether we have other products that do the same thing. I can ask my colleagues what they use and ask the reading teacher to compare and evaluate the competitors. But the starting point – a teacher excited about the possibilities of something they saw at a conference is a great place to begin.

Faculty and administrators can help guide purchasing decisions by knowing better what the options are and what is new and exciting in their content area. When educators bring their ideas to the table with the technology department a richer conversation ensues, and usually, improved student outcomes.

In support of teachers who struggle navigating through vendor halls at conferences, I offer these suggestions.

  1. Don’t just race by booths. Stop and ask what they do and what product or service they offer. They should be able to tell you, in simple terms under one minute, what they are selling, and what the value proposition is to you.
  2. Ask what differentiates them from their competition. If someone says they have a great reading program and your school district uses Lexia software ask them what makes them better than Lexia. If a vendor is trying to supplant an incumbent, they have to have a compelling answer because switching costs money and time.
  3. Ask them to describe the benefits of their product from an educator’s perspective – if they can’t do this then maybe they don’t understand education as well as they think they do.
  4. Ask what they see as the challenges related to what they are selling, and the opportunities their product represents.
  5. If you are intrigued, ask them who else in your geographical area uses their product. You will want to talk to unbiased people you know and respect about their product.
  6. Ask what they offer for support, who can call, and what hours they are open.
  7. Ask about the size of the company and how many customers they have. You want to work with a company that is the “right” size – not so big you are lost in a maze of customer support, and not so small that you’re their second customer.
  8. Last, have fun and build relationships. Maybe your school is not in the market for streaming video this year, but next year they might be and if you already know a great product and had a friendly conversation with the vendors, you’ll be able to suggest that you can call them in to demo their service.

At the very least, by taking your time in the vendor hall and conversing with the people on the other side of the booth, you will be a more “educated consumer.”

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