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Key Take-Aways on EdTech Procurement Research

EIA, in partnership with Digital Promise, is concluding a year-long initiative to identify and promote specific improvements in the purchasing practices of K-12 school district buyers and solution sellers, specifically with respect to digital solutions that support personalized learning . These can be simple or complicated purchases that involve multiple stages of funding, needs assessment, discovery, evaluation, and acquisition.

Our research, conducted by the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins University, is a rigorous examination of a cross section of school districts and vendors. Below is a sample of the key findings for your review. Detailed reports and data will be posted on the EIA website later in October.

Over the coming months, EIA will provide in-depth briefings for the industry and our partners that represent school district stakeholders. And EIA will introduce specific tools that will help providers improve their sales with school districts.

Meantime, our key takeaways:

  •  Funding is key issue for superintendents—In interview responses (not survey data), Districts seem to limit their purchases of software and hardware to their technology budget when making all edtech purchases, versus using the broader district budget for instructional products.
  • Needs assessment is often non-rigorous and informal–Current district needs assessment processes infrequently align product choices to an instructional need/priority. Tech directors, followed by the Chief Academic Officer, is more often involved than end-users (teachers/principals). Systematic involvement of end-users is key but currently they are only moderately involved.  That said, districts and providers alike overwhelmingly indicate that evaluation rubrics to judge the quality of products would be helpful to navigate their choices. Selecting higher quality products is linked to more careful upfront needs assessment.
  • Discovery and evaluation are key hurdles for both buyers and sellers— Proliferation of niche solutions overwhelm districts’ capacity to find and sort potential solutions; thus districts fall back on peer referrals or established brands. Vendors often don’t research district needs and simply blast-market their solutions. It is best to “personalize the procurement” with targeted sales based on careful needs assessment and product alignment. Start ups can be great source of innovation but districts see them as risky or invisible
  • Pilots are common entry point but are loosely organized—All parties agree that pilots are important strategies to gain visibility but most are loose demonstrations without clear goals (“hit or miss”) or methods of evaluation-therefore outcomes lack rigor. Buyers and Sellers believe pilots will be more productive with evaluation embedded into the design, with a clearer pathway to enterprise-wide contracting. Providers, especially startups, can use pilots to build better relationships and references, thus better-competing with established brands.
  • Limited involvement of teachers in procurement—Survey data of districts shows only moderate involvement of teachers and principals in needs assessment and selection, while providers, especially newer vendors, report success with engaging these school-based practitioners.
  • Smaller districts seem to have smoother procurement process–Overall, big and small districts share common problems of discovery and needs assessment, yet big districts have more stakeholders (cooks in the kitchen), take longer, with more people to say “no,” but they have more resources and sophistication. Smaller districts report smoother processes, better internal communication and are more inclusive–easier to navigate for vendors.  On the vendor side, newer and smaller providers can be more agile and innovative while large established brands have strong district relationships with more salespeople in the field.
  • Ambiguous role of evidence—Districts continue to rely on peer recommendations, but would value objective source of vendor product reviews. Providers can garner credible (3rd party) evidence when pilots are more formal, using data from teacher reviews, case studies, and small comparison-group designs.
  • Formal & informal purchasing approaches are used to similar degrees—Both providers and districts report equal use of RFPs (competitive and formal) and informal (sole source) purchasing tactics. Districts feel RFPs yield better prices while providers feel RFPs are time consuming and may be wired. Districts seem to be less interested in purchasing cooperatives or piggyback purchasing because a district feels its needs are unique. Recommend increased use of RFI to generate new prospects.

EIA will soon host detailed briefings for our members, and technical assistance guidelines and tools will be developed in early 2015. For more information, please contact Steve Pines directly at spines@educationindustry.org

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Getting That First Date With a School District

For those of you that sell to schools, you know the incredible importance of customer references and using those relationships on which to build. This is especially true for emerging entrepreneurs. But how do you get that first date, especially when the marketplace has become flooded with new entrants with tools and content that are hard to differentiate? As a colleague said to me the other day, it is like deciding on which car to buy. You think about your preferences, make a budget and check consumer reviews. Then you narrow your choices and start going on test-drives. Then you start the actual purchasing process.

Selling in K-12 isn’t all that different. As you know, EIA, in partnership with Digital Promise, has been studying the buying and selling practices of edtech tools this past year with research conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research in Reform of Education. We are close to releasing final findings but I am able to give you a sneak-peek at some of the preliminary findings that are summarized below.

More important, is what we hope to do with some of these findings, especially to make it easier for a vendor to become “discovered” by a potential customer. There are important opportunities to support this “courtship” process that will benefit vendors (of course!), schools and lead to advances in student achievement.

This is exactly what defines a trade association; providing direct member service that allows that organization to grow and prosper. EIA will develop new programs to support to its members in a manner that will help them to become better discovered by potential customers. This will be part of a multi-prong strategy to support our members’ business development, including members that have a consumer-facing business. Of course, you have to be a member in good standing to receive these benefits, so I encourage readers of this column to join EIA if they are not yet a member. Here is where to act: Join EIA!

Now, here are some of the preliminary findings* that are emerging but the final report, due in another month, will add new insights and conclusions.

In a study sample of 53 school districts and 47 vendors that represents the distribution and characteristics of buyers and sellers, we found that:

  • Most district respondents are generally satisfied with current edtech procurement processes; among providers, they are overwhelmingly dissatisfied.
  • Districts are mostly concerned with product discovery challenges (finding potential partners/tools) while providers also agree that being discovered is a serious challenge along with the district’s purchasing process.
  • District staff and providers viewed the Curriculum Director and the Technology Director as the two most involved district stakeholders. Multitude of stakeholders inside the district can prolong the process and allow more people to exercise a veto.
  • All respondents agreed that districts reply on recommendations from other school districts in deciding what to buy.
  • Districts desire evidence of effectiveness in sorting among vendors, yet they distrust vendor data and generally under-utilize the evidence they do get. Providers don’t believe districts have the capability to understand data.
  • Providers agreed that their product costs would decrease if districts could become more streamlined and efficient in how that buy. Districts said that would be an incentive to improve internal processes.
  • Central office staff and providers agreed that they preferred centralized purchasing, while stating that the recommendations of teachers and principals were very important.
  • Data security and student privacy were rising issues for districts and providers.
  • RFPs are time-consuming, expensive and may be too formal for many edtech purchases–need to develop alternative buying tools.
  • All parties sought specific guides/checklists on best practices for conducting pilots, RFPs and contracts, and among providers, they seek more information about the  districts’ buying priorities and cycles.

EIA believes that the challenges and opportunities identified by this study, underscore that specific steps can be taken to the dating-game among buyers and sellers. We intend to help the membership with these challenges while leveraging our deep relationships with stakeholders across the K-12 ecosystem.

*These highlights are based on initial survey data. The final report will be available late-September, 2014 when additional data from interviews and other surveys will have been analyzed. For more information, contact Steve Pines, EIA, at spines@educationindustry.org.

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Education Start-ups: A New and Transformational Frontier for Education . . . and for EIA

When EIA, in partnership with 1776, An Estuary, and the Education Technology Start-up Collaborative, organized the recent Washington, DC EdTech Demo Fair as part of the 2014 EIA Education Industry Days Summit, I thought it would add a nice new wrinkle to our annual policy conference, and perhaps draw some DC-area educators.

What resulted instead, was what EIA Board Chair, Joseph Olchefske called the “official arrival of EIA’s future.”

Here was the scene:  entrepreneurs managing edtech start-ups; teachers and educators their products and services are intended to help; and executives with established and mature education companies who are experienced and knowledgeable about education policy and procurement.

The participants were wildly enthusiastic, and in our follow-up survey, almost all said they would recommend a future EIA EdTech Demo Fair to their peers and colleagues.

Together with our launch of EIA-U earlier that day, the EdTech Demo Fair truly reinforced our mission statement – EIA: The home for preK-12 entrepreneurs to connect, learn, share and grow.

Perhaps Greg Collier, CEO of Flexible Learning Systems, said it best:  “EIA has become an invaluable tool to me. With its last two conferences (EDVentures 2013 in Dallas and the 2014 EI Days Summit), EIA has become an asset — not an expense. Each session I attended was directly related to the challenges we face operating in the K-12 market, both as a startup or as a mature company.  I hope we continue along this trajectory.”

To Greg and all other education entrepreneurs out there, I can assure you that EIA will more than continue along this trajectory!

Speaking of which:  stay tuned for more on EIA-U and on EDVentures 2014, in July in Newport Beach, CA.

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Tech Education for Educators: An Invitation to the First EdTech Demo Fair for the Washington, DC-Area

EIA is adding an exciting new component to our 14th annual Education Industry Days conference next month – and we want to make the Washington, DC-region’s educators a big part of it.

Along with co-sponsors 1776, An Estuary, Inc. and the EdTech Collaborative, EIA is pleased to invite K-12 educators from throughout the Washington, DC metro area to the area’s first EdTech Demo Fair on Thursday, February 20 – after school from 4:00 to 7:30 PM at the Liaison Hotel on Capitol Hill. The event is complimentary, and will feature not only the latest education technologies, but the opportunity for educators to provide insightful feedback to companies about what will impact your classrooms for the better.

Who:

Public and private school teachers and administrators from the District of Columbia, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Prince William Counties who want to learn more about education technology products and solutions, and take part in demonstrations of blended learning and technology integration.

What:
• Hands-on demonstrations of cutting-edge education technology products and solutions (please bring your own device for a more personalized experience).
• Networking with fellow education professionals from throughout the region.
• Opportunity to earn .5 CEU by participating in an optional Johns Hopkins University School of Education workshop on “Evaluating Education Technology Products,” as well as digital professional development badges through An Estuary’s Sanderling platform.
• Networking reception featuring refreshments, food and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic).

When and Where:
• Thursday, February 20, from 4:00 to 7:30 PM (arrive anytime, but please note that the Johns Hopkins School of Education workshop starts at 4:30 PM)
• The Liaison Capitol Hotel – 415 New Jersey Avenue Northwest, Washington DC 20001 (a short walk from Union Station or Judiciary Square (Red Line) Metro stations, or paid parking; directions here)

Register Today:

Please visit EdTech Collaborative for more information and to register for this free and informative event, shoot me an email at spines@educationindustry.org, or call at 703-938-2429.

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EIA Partnerships that Promote Your K-12 Sales and More!

EIA is evolving and adapting to new market conditions and opportunities–just as many of you are as successful entrepreneurs! In a post-SES environment that calls for new business models and approaches, EIA has sought out constructive working relationships with school districts, their leadership and their local boards to cultivate a climate that is more welcoming to the private sector.

We believe that mutually respectful relationships between EIA and national associations of local education stakeholders will translate into positive business opportunities for EIA members as you engage with districts and principals to help all students achieve their very best.

This does not mean we will not have policy differences at the federal and local levels; I am sure there will be such instances, but EIA will remain on the moral high-ground and fulfill the values embodied in our campaign’s tag line: private ventures for the public good.

Here are some examples in action today.

We have launched a long-term Procurement Initiative to fix a system that is virtually broken or dysfunctional in many school districts across the country. We see no justifiable reason for bids-to-contracts-to-implementation to span 12-18 months! Teaming up with AASA-The School Superintendents Association, the League of Innovative Schools (Digital Promise) and The Parthenon Group, EIA is about to launch a national survey of districts across the country that will identify common chokepoints and promising solutions to streamline the purchasing process.

This same initiative will highlight effective selling practices that vendors should use. I realize that many of you consider yourselves experienced and successful K-12 sales professionals, and that’s great. But, are you satisfied with your current results? And I am sure there are other readers of this column that have a great educational tool, product, or service but lack real knowledge concerning how to sell into the public school market.

EIA’s Procurement Initiative will produce practical solutions useful to both buyers and sellers. We are aiming high. And we are working in full partnership with school district leadership.

Building upon the success at the last Education Industry Days Summit that featured presentations from leading school superintendents who discussed changes in their systems, EIA will continue our focus at the upcoming EDVentures Conference and beyond. It is critical that our conversations about education reform and best practices to support students and schools include our customers–our partners. In Dallas, we will ask representatives of large urban and suburban districts to describe their buying priorities and best practices for interacting with vendors. This format will continue as we report out the results of the national procurement study.

For those of you with an annual marketing budget of at least $12,000, we recommend that you consider applying to the AASA’s School Solutions Center. This brand-building and advertising strategy essentially promotes your solution to more than 9,000 superintendents, and includes an implicit endorsement from their national association. It’s is not for everyone but it can be a powerful complement to an organization’s sales campaign. To listen to a recent conference call held with AASA officials discussing the opportunities of marketing through the SSC, click here.

One of the solutions to local purchasing woes is through local purchasing cooperatives that connect neighboring districts to issue a common RFP. EIA is taking this solution to the national level through a new partnership with the National Joint Powers Alliance (NNJPA) that is described in detail in another article in this newsletter. This is most beneficial for companies with a national sales strategy. Just imagine competing in a single RFP at the national level for a host of curricula, ed-tech, and instructional services desired by schools. And if you are awarded a national contract by NJPA, your sales team simply conducts business development with local districts using the national contract, obviating the requirement of local RFPs.

We will continue to identify pragmatic and high-value and –return services to EIA members whether you sell to schools or to private-pay families. Look for an upcoming announcement of a benchmarking study of learning center business metrics. We will also continue to convene operators of schools (proprietary and charters) to share best practices. And for emerging companies, EIA will re-double its support using mentoring, evaluation services from Johns Hopkins University, and assistance from accelerators.

I encourage all of you to let me know what you think of these new EIA initiatives. One thing’s for sure: this is not your “grand-father’s” EIA!

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Is Your Program “Safe and Effective”?

During EIA’s recent (and very successful and well-attended) 2013 Education Industry Days Summit here in Washington, DC, there was much discussion of the confluence of three related trends: (1) tighter K-12 education budgets nationwide; (2) state and local education procurement policies with ever-higher hurdles for would-be contractors; and (3) a growing focus on education program effectiveness and accountability.

How should EIA members and other education companies respond to the current state of affairs – one expected to be with us for some time?

While certainly not the proverbial “magic bullet,” one step EIA members can take – also discussed during the EI Days Summit – is to invest in objective, third-party studies that validate your organizations’ outcomes and the impact of your solutions. And this doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming.

You probably have a “gut-feeling” that your product/service is effective and works well. You also have an emotional and financial investment that drives you to market to schools and/or consumers. So why would you not want to truly know that your product/service works; under what conditions it works; and what you could do to improve it?

Featured at the recent Education Industry Days Summit, Dr. Steve Ross of the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) told attendees he’s ready to tailor study designs balancing budget and rigor considerations for EIA members. When conducted by an independent group like the CRRE, simple and low-cost case studies, surveys/interviews, or quantitative control group studies, can produce very useful reports for the company. Dr. Ross said studies of this kind can be produced in short order, especially when researchers have direct access to the cooperative customers of the education company.

Dr. Ross added that when you engage CRRE, the study and its findings belong to your company; unless you choose to do so, the study will not be independently published in an academic journal.

The bottom line for education entrepreneurs is this: the buying strategies of public school administrators have become more sophisticated and competitive, and ever mindful of scarce resources and effectiveness, they are looking at evaluation data more than ever before to support their procurement decisions.

I encourage you to read more about Dr. Ross’ presentation, and my column on education company evaluation, in the current issue of Enterprising Entrepreneurs, now available on the EIA website: http://www.educationindustry.org

Happy researching and evaluating!

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The 2013 Education Industry Days Summit Takeaway: Leadership Will Lead to Success

The 13th Annual Education Industry Days Summit here in Washington, DC (February 20-22) was, in my considered opinion, one of the most informative and substantive conferences we’ve ever hosted. Our topics, speakers and attendees were all first rate, and I thank them all for their participation (If you couldn’t make it there, please take a peek at #EIDays13 on Twitter to get a flavor of our discussion).

Together, all of those interesting sessions produced what I believe will be the enduring value of EI Days this year: The impression that public education needs and wants our services and products, our innovation and commitment, more than ever and that K-12 districts and administrators are looking to the education industry for leadership on how to make that happen.
Here are my takeaways:

1) Systems and policies governing procurement of education services and products must be improved – We heard this time and again, from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, from senior executives with the National School Boards Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and from current and former district superintendents. Even in – and perhaps because of – these tight budgetary times, procurement at the state and district levels is dysfunctional at best. Their message: help us clean it up!

2) The education industry has the opportunity to establish a framework that marries performance standards with greater opportunity – Jim Shelton, who runs the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, was unequivocal with his advice: education businesses should be flexible and creative in developing and agreeing to performance-based programs and contracts.

3) Education companies should embrace third-party, objective evaluation to achieve greater levels of success winning contracts and business – Dean David Andrews and Professor Steve Ross from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education – echoed by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and senior Connecticut education official Steven Adamowski – produced evidence of the wisdom of education companies producing their own evidence.

“No Child Left Behind” and supplemental educational services (SES) are largely behind us. NCLB waivers, “Race to the Top,” I³ grants, “Common Core,” and tighter state and district budgets are the order of the day. This can, and should, mean opportunity for individual education businesses and for the education industry writ large. But, according to the experts at EI Days, only if we lead on procurement, performance standards and evaluation.

So I say let’s lead – together.

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