Forward to the past: How technology is bringing back grassroots educational marketing

At the SIIA Ed Tech Business Forum in New York last month, one source of buzz was “consumerization.”  The term appeared a few days later in an  Education Week article focusing on Schoology and other “freemium” models. While I agree it’s an important trend, I demur on the new term.  These models don’t really involve the “consumer” at all (with some exceptions, but that’s another story).  Instead, they capitalize on online program delivery to revive a very old and proven way to sell into schools: start with the teacher.

In the “old days,” say up to about 10 years ago, a common way for small and scrappy start-ups (hereinafter SASSUs) to get around their lack of name recognition, huge salesforces, and enormous adoption machines was direct marketing to teachers (and librarians, and school Title I coordinators, and sometimes even principals – in other words, school-based educators).  Some SASSUs did it locally by hobnobbing with teachers and attending local conferences.  Some did it regionally or nationally with direct mail (later including email), national shows, and journal ads.  But the idea was always the same: Get a few teachers to adopt the product, use their experience to sell their peers in their own school or those nearby, and eventually build critical mass for larger and higher-level sales.

That strategy got tougher in recent years as it grew harder and more expensive to get responses from teachers (especially due to email saturation and decline in conference attendance), and especially as districts centralized decision-making and clamped their hands around the purse-strings.  But now two things are converging to bring the old model back, even better: a return to site-based decision-making, and online delivery.

Site-based decision-making means that in many districts, principals can once again spend their schools’ funds as best they see fit – as long as they deliver required results in terms of test scores at the end of the year.  Online delivery means vendors can provide products to lots of people a) cheaply, b) provisionally, c) with different features sets depending on needs and ability to pay.

Schoology, in the EdWeek article, uses one of the common strategies. Their single-teacher course-management system is free, but if schools or districts want an enterprise version, they pay a subscription fee – and get central management, advanced data analytics, and professional development resources.  (Schoology is also typical in another respect: Mr. Pomeroy, the district director of technology the article quotes,  had never heard of them, even though nearly 10% of the district’s students were using it through teacher-level adoption).

Another “freemium” strategy can be to offer limited features or content free, and charge users for upgrades and schools for even more features and administrative capabilities. One SASSU doing that is  Nearpod ; their story was presented at SIIA by my colleague Neal Goff, who works with them. Neal said in 6 months the product – which lets teachers push content to iPads in 1:1 classrooms – has spread to more than 50,000 teachers in 100 countries and is starting to generate schoolwide adoptions at a satisfactory rate.

Then there’s the (by now) standard model of the limited-time free pilot of the full product.  The problems with that model can be very low conversion rates (especially if the product requires much training or is very complex to implement); coupled with the low entry-barrier to accepting “free,” that means you have to generate an awful lot of trials to make a sale.  So you have to generate a lot of leads and be very conscious of Cost Per Lead and sales cost.  These problems can also apply in different ways to the freemium models, of course.

Advantages to what we might broadly call the “free-but” model (in its various incarnations) include that low barrier to trial, the goodwill that comes from offering help to teachers without payment, the potential to go “viral” and build referrals, and the ability to get quick feedback on a new product and change it quickly in the field to fit new intelligence about what the market needs.  The downside is that there has to be enough value in the upgrade to make users feel it’s worth paying for instead of just sticking with the “free.”  And at some point you still need salespeople to make the conversion, though it can help to have users in the school or district, so you can tell your equivalent of Mr. Pomeroy: “Don’t believe me – ask your teachers.”

To make this work, you do need to have a product with a relatively simple and clear benefit.  It has to help the teacher quickly enough and substantially enough that he/she is willing to go to bat for you.  Which means it’s really got to solve a problem, and help kids learn quicker, easier, and/or better.

But since that’s why we’re all in this business anyway – that really should be doable, shouldn’t it?

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The loneliness of the long-distance teacher

Some of the more interesting discussions at ISTE’s Leadership Forum last month revolved around social media.  Use (or misuse) of Facebook, Twitter, etc., by students has gleaned plenty of press attention and even legislation, but use by and between educators flies largely under the public radar.  Not so for some advocates of embracing the new technology to increase communication among the adult constituencies in K-12 education: teachers, administrators, and parents.

Schools’ traditional goal of “parental involvement” – too often defined down as attending parent/teacher meetings and participating in bake sales – becomes instead “parental engagement” when social media help the school create ongoing conversations with parents.  With society – at virtually all levels of income and education – increasingly relying on digital media as their primary, not alternate, means of communication, in the words of principal George Couros “this is not optional anymore”.   Whether it’s a principal blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, emails or text messages from the teacher – dialog with parents is not only easier than ever, it’s more necessary than ever, because online conversations go on whether the school involves itself or not.

The important word there is “conversation.”  It’s not just about talking but about responding.  One presenter defined the difference between “networking” and “creating community” this way: “Networks are about me.  Communities are about we.

And the point about communities brings up the other key adult-adult communication that technology can enhance – educator to educator.  We’ve long talked up the virtues of “professional learning communities” but they often founder on the lack of time in today’s resource-squeezed school day.  But what if teachers could support and learn from each other with short but frequent interactions via social media on the tablets or smartphones most of them carry with them through the day?  There are various platforms that confine communications within a “bounded community” so the discussion stays within the appropriate group, just as secure as the teachers’ lounge.

This concept reminded me of my days as an English teacher and how lonely this profession can be.  The cliche about the teacher closing her door and doing whatever she wants emphasizes teacher independence – but it can equally be about teacher isolation.  In what other profession are professionals assumed to work so much in a vacuum?  As John Hattie says in his new book Visible Learning for Teachers, “This is how a profession works:…it aims to encourage collaboration with all in the profession to drive the profession upwards….Too often, we see the essential nature of our profession as autonomy…”  Hattie’s not talking specifically about technology there, of course, but surely technology is one way to foster that collaboration which is so difficult to achieve in the typical school day.

Is the primary advantage of new technology in schools communication, more than animations, content access, bells, and whistles?  Just wondering.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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ISTE Leadership Forum: How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Some 400-500 educators came to Indianapolis last week for ISTE’s inaugural conference focused on leading school change.  It was a solid first effort, illustrating ISTE’s growth over the past decade from a “techie” group to perhaps the most vibrant overall K-12 organization in the country.  Attendees included superintendents, district CIOs, principals, a good leavening of teachers; 40% new ISTE members, another sign of healthy mission expansion.

Presenters combined theory and practice; breakouts provided opportunities (though not enough, in my view) for peer discussions and networking; materials included a framework for developing an action plan, and tools, both paper and digital, to document and share it.  I expect attendees overall felt it was time well spent – the first reaction I’ve seen, from instructional technology director and speaker Steven Anderson, is a case in point.

Yet from the beginning I heard an ambivalence about where to focus, how to start.  Do we adopt new technology to drive school change, or do we adopt a plan for school change that includes technology?  Or is it both at once?  And, to reflect Yeats’ question (appropriately enough from the poem “Among School Children”), how important is it to distinguish the part from the whole, the beginning from the ending?

Educational change authority Michael Fullan, whose introductory and wrap-up presentations book-ended the conference, cautioned strongly that technology can be seductive and must not outpace pedagogy.  Yet he presented a model (slide #5 if you want to look at his first presentation) that shows pedagogy driving technology driving change driving pedagogy, in a continuous loop that implies the three elements are equal and must work together.

When asked the question directly, attendees seemed to agree: “You start with educational goals.  Technology is just a means to an end.”  If that’s true, is a discussion focused on “technology” even the place to start?  And is that the way most implementations are really happening?

In the breakouts I attended, it didn’t sound like it.  What I heard mostly from districts was schedules for introducing 1:1 devices to their students.  They had careful and well-reasoned discussions about what kinds of devices, whether to do BYOD, whether to start with all grades or just a few at a time.  But I seldom if ever heard anyone say: Here are specific pedagogical goals we need to set, here’s the specific technology that will support those goals, and here’s how we will introduce that technology along with instructional strategies to meet the goals.

One district tech coordinator recounted how his superintendent, having proudly acquired iPads for all teachers, asked him to develop a plan to get the devices into use.  “What do you want them to do?” he asked.  She looked at him blankly.  “They’re iPads,” she replied.   The assumption that the thing in itself will automatically improve education would be laughable if we hadn’t heard that assumption so many times before – about whiteboards, projectors, calculators, computers, flexible seating arrangements…fill in the list from your own experience.

1:1 technology can certainly be a change agent.  One assistant principal told me that after going 1:1 the end of last year, her district this year simply threw out all textbooks and went “cold turkey” to a total e-curriculum from one of the major publishers.  Evidently her superintendent decided that the “burn the boats” strategy was the only way to get everyone to buy in to a new approach.  And maybe he’s right, in his situation; I don’t know.  I do know it’s a great way to encourage the sale of e-curriculum.  But is that the point of the exercise?

One thing this story illustrates is hunger for change, coupled with the absolute need for some structure despite, or during, or on account of, that change.  Publishers of e-curriculum stand ready with one type of ready-made solution; I’ve heard several similar (though less extreme) accounts.  For the increasing number of districts that seem to want to create, or at least assemble, their own curricula, the Common Core provides a structure but at the same time a host of additional requirements.  Solutions for some of those requirements – such as integrating writing across the curriculum or increasing non-fiction reading – that use technology should be in increasingly high demand.

For those schools or districts who want to think through Fullan’s pegagogy-technology-change model fully before pulling any triggers – what aspects of technology are most likely to support pedagogical improvements?  That depends, of course, on the pedagogy in any specific instance, but here are some possible answers: collaboration (among students, between student and teacher, among teachers), mobility (“Principals, get out of the office and into the classrooms; the urgent messages will find you on your iPhone”), immediate feedback, community creation (both inside and outside the school), interactivity.

Interestingly, almost all of these have to do more with technology as communication than with gee-whiz graphics or fancy effects.  One of the most effective implementations I heard described – from Nashville and the incoming president of ISTE – involved 1:1 computers, mobile technology, blended learning, a partially “flipped” classroom approach – but also hands-on science demonstrations and an entire classroom wall coated with whiteboard paint, inviting continuous dynamic but low-tech interaction.

There is a reason why ISTE’s name says “technology in education,” not “technology and education” or even “educational technology.”  Just because the “T” comes first doesn’t mean that’s the way we should plan or implement.  Maybe we need more services or tools that help planners distinguish between dancer and dance, while keeping in mind that they’re both essential to a successful performance.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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EdNET 2012: Situation critical but not serious

MDR’s annual gathering of ed tech leaders in Baltimore last week was surprisingly upbeat considering the challenges facing both marketers and their customers.  Anne Wujkic even reported in the closing “Catbird Seat” session that a recent survey shows increases in new district budgets of 3-4% – a long way from a recovery to pre-crash levels but at least the people in the hole have stopped digging.  And an encouraging number of new companies, products, initiatives, and investors appeared, showing willingness to make new bets that one way or another, the education market still has great potential.

That mood understates, however, just how much “the only constant is change” right now.  Two elements of the trend – rapid digitization of everything and the interconnectedness of everything  – are ably summed up in Frank Catalano’s incisive collection of “tidbits” for EdSurge.  (In case anyone thinks the pace of digitization is overstated: Two separate sources reported that in just the past 4 years, state spending on digital as a percent of overall content spending has gone from 4% to 20-30%.)

But technology is not the only driver of change in K-12.  In almost 2 decades in the business, I have never seen so many simultaneous changes as in the past 3 years.  Let us count the ways: Common Core, its infant cousin the Next Generation Science Standards, the new assessments (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) that will come on line in some fashion in 2014 (that’s school year after next!), teacher evaluations, STEM (whatever that means in a particular place and time), charter schools, mobile (and BYOD, which yes is happening), flipped classrooms, and of course at the same time the fiscal crunch.  Oh, and an alphabet soup of coming new protocols for using student data – LRMI, LR, and SLC (if these are new to you, see this explanation by the ubiquitous Mr. Catalano).  All we need to make a perfect catastrophe is a killer drought – oh wait, we had one of those too this year.

And district behavior is changing, maybe permanently.  Four district purchasing czars (from West Virginia to Texas) confirmed what we heard from others last year: They’re not taking anybody’s soup-to-nuts curriculum, they’re picking and choosing and writing their own.  Digital is the big enabler here, of course: It’s a lot easier to piece things together if they don’t come printed and bound under a cover.  Districts are not expecting to use all free content – but they’re going to be choosy about what they do pay for and they’ll expect anything they buy to play nice with everything else.

Oh, and the pendulum has swung back to local control to a considerable extent.  Texas, along with other states, has backed off rigid “adoption” requirements for spending state funds and now gives much more latitude to local decision makers – who, in turn, involve teachers in reviews and decisions much as they used to.  With all those decision-makers, and technology-enabled picking & choosing, you’d expect increasing variability, and you’d be right.  One industry presenter said that, in spite of supposed standardization from the Common Core, “The age of customization by state has hardly begun.”

So what’s a marketer to do?  One answer is to stay light on your feet.  States and districts are getting away from multi-year adoption cycles in favor of more flexible appropriations and quicker decisions, so multi-year product development schedules probably don’t make sense anymore.  And don’t expect all-or-nothing purchases.  Modular, chunked, learning objects, open source – all are good ways to think about developing, managing, and marketing content.  (Of course, keying on CCSS and NGSS is a must, and getting familiar with LRMI, LI, SLC wouldn’t hurt.)

Most important, keep talking to and listening to your customers.  Always a good idea but even more critical today when things are changing more quickly than even they may realize.  One of the nice things about digital presentation is you can change things fast – so getting out a trial version that changes fluidly as usage needs change, user comments come back, and – critically – results show how well things are working, can be a great strategy.

And finally, remember this wisdom from Marx – not Karl, Harpo.  He closed his autobiography – a remarkable work for a man with a 4th-grade education who never spoke on stage – with the words “Tomorrow? I think the sun will rise tomorrow.”  With all the changes, the schools will be teaching kids and they will be needing new materials and resources to do the job.  And increasingly, those will be digital.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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“The new abnormal” in K-12: Tactics are more important than ever

“Strategy” has become such a common term in business, many folks forget that it originated in war.  “Strategos” is the ancient Greek word for “general.”  So strategy really means the art of generalship: how the top commander directs resources against an enemy to achieve policy goals.

“Tactics,” also a military term, is often misused as if it meant the same thing on a smaller scale: how subordinate commanders direct their forces to win individual battles.  But in modern military theory – “modern” meaning since WWI or maybe even the Civil War – that’s really “operations.”  Tactics, strictly speaking, gets down to an even lower level: how individual units behave in the hour-to-hour, often minute-to-minute, manuvers and interactions in various battlefield situations.

To any pacifists reading this blog, apologies for the bellicose references.  But if we’re going to use terms we might as well understand what they mean.  Loose talk about the importance of “strategy” often overlooks two points:

  • “Strategy” differs from “business model” or “corporate vision” in one key respect: it’s about manuvering against competition.
  • Good strategy is important but good tactics is critical.  Determined, well-trained troops on the field have succeeded despite flawed strategy since the days of Julius Caesar, but if tactics fail, everything fails.

So what in the world does this have to do with marketing to K-12 schools?

The “battlefield” we all compete on has never been more rugged, and it’s not getting better soon – see my previous posts  about state financial conditions and overall school funding.  People talk about adjusting to “the new normal” but I think “the new abnormal” better describes the dislocated decision-making process that the national (and global) financial crisis has caused.  Funding crises force schools and districts into short-term thinking, often short-circuiting the usual months-long process of lead generation and closing educational marketers usually employ.  Money is still there but it’s often hidden,  moved around, reallocated at the last minute.  Local influences have suddenly rocketed up the scale of importance.

An illustration of this trend came in June from an unlikely source: the Census Bureau’s annual Public Education Finances report.  This voluminous, state-by-state report on the amounts and sources of funding was summed up by the Pew Charitable Trusts this way:

For the first time in 16 years, local governments picked up a higher share of the education bill than the states…Declining state revenues increased the distance between the haves and the have-nots…

So if we’re going to heed the classic advice “follow the money,” we need close contact at the local level – district and school.  Because both the money and the need for our products may have disappeared in one locality but abound right down the road.

This may be one more reason why despite cutbacks in other areas, many ed marketers have been expanding their salesforces.  Whether field or phone, it’s the “ground forces” who develop the grassroots knowledge of what’s happening where, who needs what, and how to deploy a company’s always-limited resources to connect the schools’ needs with your solutions.

The great German general and strategic theorist Helmuth von Moltke is often quoted as saying “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  (He didn’t say it exactly that way but close enough.)  We might paraphrase it this way: “No educational marketing plan survives first contact with the schools.”  Moltke didn’t mean don’t plan, and neither do I.  I do mean to invest in plans and resources at the grassroots level at least as much as you do higher up, and stay flexible and mobile, to survive this “new abnormal.”

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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Tablets: Take them and call me in the morning?

At ISTE last week I was asked by a representative of a development firm, “Is it important that our curriculum products work on iPads?”  I replied: “Only if you want schools to buy your products.”  Like most flip answers, even correct flip answers, that one calls for some elaboration.

First, let’s stipulate that the iPad has been one of the most brilliantly successful new products since the cheese pizza.  Despite cost and relative fragility, schools are buying them at a rate that’s even more amazing considering that Apple originally didn’t even offer special school pricing, and that they were introduced into the teeth of the worst educational funding slowdown in recent memory.  I mentioned in my last blog entry one district from a western state that’s seriously strapped for funds – except their Title I concentration school had lots of money (which of course couldn’t be shared with the rest of the district), so they bought…iPads for every student.

Like any hot tech adoption, schools are not always sure what they’ll do with the iPads once they get them, but they know they want them.  And there are reasons to want them that at least make theoretical sense: increasing student engagement, accommodating the expectations for technology this generation of kids already come to school with, finally providing a 1:1 experience so materials can be customized, saving money on print materials…

A lot of these reasons are used as future justifications for a present purchase.  They can also be present justification for avoiding anything that might screw up a future purchase.  Hence my answer to my developer friend.  Whatever schools adopt right now, they want to know it won’t blow up when/if they try to run it on iPads.  And/or Android or Windows 8 tablets when they become a factor.  “Platform neutral” is the goal to work toward.  Painful, but not too different from the situation educational software people have always been in – we’ve always had to support whatever hardware the school had to run our stuff on, whether it was Windows 97 or Apple IIe.

But does that mean everything will really switch to tablets any time soon?  Not on your tintype.  My friend Lee Wilson just applied his usual keen analysis to the iPad adoption question, in a blog entry entitled Classroom Tablets Crossing The Chasm.  He points out: a) at most, 2.5% of kids in public schools have iPads, and it will be a long time before it’s anywhere near a majority; b) iPad content doesn’t exist to do nearly everything teachers need to do, and c) even in 1:1 iPad schools, kids often don’t have access to the devices with nearly enough flexibility for them to serve as the students’ only portal to textbooks or other instructional content.

So for the foreseeable future (a phrase that Strunk & White abhor with good reason) – digital content better be iPad compatible, but overall instructional content better be accessible in other ways too.  Such as ordinary computers, the web, and the extraordinary, renewable technology that originally made mass public education possible.


Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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ISTE2012: Where do we go from here?

This year’s conference sprawled.  Perhaps it was the venue – San Diego, next to the ocean, conference center wrapped around a huge quasi-outdoor “Sails” pavilion with tent roof like Denver airport.  Perhaps it was the ambiguous theme “Expanding Horizons.”  Overall, I found it hard to pin down specific big learnings.  I had a lot of good individual takeaways and many interesting conversations, some of which I’ll relate over my next few blog entries.  But which way are the prevailing winds blowing?  Not sure.

As a business venture, ISTE2012 indubitably succeeded.  Attendance topped 13,000 for the third year in a row, though the claimed “record” of 13,500 may have been inflated by the number of schoolchildren who came for different events, each of whom wore a registration badge.  Traffic on the extensive show floor (~500 booths) was good but unexceptional.  Most exhibitors I talked with put booth activity on a par with last year in Philadelphia (also claimed at a bit over 13,000).

Still, given the usual drop in attendance for remote locations like southern California, just staying even year-over-year counts as growth.   As usual, show management provided a rich array of presentations, workshops, poster sessions, meetings of Special Interest Groups, and social events without apparent hitches, and with a professional polish often missing at educational conferences.  There’s no reason to believe that ISTE won’t continue to be the best-attended conference in education for some years to come.

One reason ISTE grows while other conferences shrink is that technology has become a sort of common denominator.  Across grade levels, subject areas, and job functions, technology is increasingly the means of choice to access and deliver educational content, assessment, and services.  Besides which, technology is fun.  Kids aren’t the only ones who show higher rates of “engagement” when material is delivered on a screen.

But it’s a general rule in communications that when you aim at everybody, you connect with nobody.  In my admittedly unscientific survey of educators I met, fewer enunciated clear goals for the conference than I used to hear, other than “seeing what’s available for iPads.”  On the other hand, some clearly articulated hungers were going unsatisfied.  Little on literacy.  More on writing than in previous years but still not much.  The hot topic of STEM – seemingly an obvious “technology” theme – unrepresented by either a strand or a Special Interest Group.  One “birds of a feather” session on starting a Science SIG garnered about 10 attendees, even though science teachers are the largest single discipline represented in ISTE membership.  Keynotes, which usually focus on a theme, seemed oddly unfocused.  The opener, for instance, featured Sir Ken Robinson, expert on creativity.  Fascinating for about 10 minutes, after which he was joined by a panel that broadened the discussion to cover digital natives vs immigrants, education initiatives from a (sponsoring) mobile carrier, and how a TV actress was inspired to earn her PhD in neuroscience.  Contrast last year’s opener: an intensive review of brain research as it relates to childhood learning.

Maybe it all reflects the times.  So much is changing at once in education that no one really knows which way to jump.  Budgets are in doldrums; textbook purchases this year are estimated at $2.3 billion vs $3 billion 5 years ago, and there’s increasing pressure on staff salaries – though one impoverished district I encountered just bought iPads for one entire school because it’s a Title I concentration school and the funds had to be spent.

Preposterous as that contrast may seem, it does point out one clear trend from ISTE (and elsewhere).  iPads are definitely happening.  Schools may not be sure how they’re going to use them – similar to the way they acquired interactive whiteboards a few years ago – but buy them they will.  Anyone developing digital content had better make sure it runs on IOS – and it won’t be too long before schools will be looking for Android content as well.  And that platform agnosticity will serve developers in good stead as more schools adopt “bring your own device” (BYOD) – another trend that has gone from inconceivable to undeniable in a bit under 2 years.

The Doonesbury comic strip used to feature a TV news anchor whose vapid commentaries always ended: “One thing is certain. Life goes on.”  Maybe that’s actually a serious takeaway from ISTE2012.  13,000 working educators came, hoping to make sense out of change, and seeking new ways to get on with their business of helping kids learn.  Schools will reopen in a couple months despite funding cuts, political debates, crowded or diverse classrooms.  And those educators will look to technology for the help they need.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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hoping for crocuses at ISTE

In San Diego, site of this year’s ISTE conference, they probably don’t know a lot about seasons.  Their climate is pretty much spring year round.   But here in the upper Midwest we’re used to cycles where things bloom and die, then bloom and die again.  Sometimes that happens several times in one week, during what we call spring.

The unsung hero of Midwestern spring is the crocus – a small, hardy, optimistic flower.  It’s usually first to poke its head up after winter, looking around with a somewhat furtive expression, like a geek at a biker bar.  Often the outcome is similar and the crocus gets clobbered by the next snowstorm.  But crocuses keep popping back, and sooner or later their confidence is rewarded: spring really comes, and a thousand flowers bloom.

The national education conferences I’ve attended this year have all felt like a Midwestern spring.  Exhibitor attendance is down, or at least downsized – not so much fewer booths as smaller.  But educator attendance is up.  Science teachers in Indianapolis (NSTA), math teachers in Philadelphia (NCTM), reading teachers in Chicago (IRA), game developers in Madison last week (GLS) – all healthy crowds, all larger than the year before.  That makes this the first year without year-on-year decreases since the Great Recession hit.

It will be interesting to see how ISTE compares to these trends.  ISTE has been the one conference the past few years that’s growing, not declining, with attendance numbers last year pushing 15,000.  Just guessing, I don’t expect numbers like that this year, if only because southern California is always a “down” location due to travel distance and cost.  But if ISTE even holds its own, it will be another indication that winter is winding down.

Don’t get me wrong.  In many parts of the ed market the ground is still frozen.  Layoffs are still happening even at well-managed firms.  Districts are delaying purchases, making do with old stuff or just doing without whatever they can do without.  State funding is still down and not going up soon (and the latest report on state pension liabilities doesn’t augur well).

But like the crocus, educators are starting to look up and say, “You know, it will be spring eventually.  And we have growing minds to tend in the coming year, and the year after that and the year after that.  Let’s start putting out some shoots and see what’s out there to help us.”

And the patient educational program provider needs to be right there with the seeds, bulbs, fertilizer, tools, and gardening advice.  Your customers may only plant a little cold frame to start with, but if that works out they’ll be putting your stuff all over the back 40 when the growing season really starts.

Just think of yourself as a crocus.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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games, learning, & a ghost

I spent most of last week at the 8th annual (“8.0”) Games, Learning, & Society conference at University of Wisconsin Madison.  Attendance –  educators, researchers, game developers, geeks – set a record, and the energy was palpable.  But I think I sensed, hovering over the elegant rooms of UW’s Memorial Union, the ghost of Adam Osborne.

Osborne, who died in 2003,  introduced the world’s first portable computer in 1981.  Also among the first to demonstrate the high mortality rate of innovative tech companies, he went from $70 million in annual sales to bankruptcy less than 2 years later. But he changed the world in the process, and along the way, he demonstrated keen insights into how new technologies are really adopted.

Osborne commented once on the ’80s vision of the “smart home”: a house where all systems (heat, lighting, security, etc.) would be controlled by a central home computer.  Nonsense, he retorted.  The many home appliances using electric motors, he pointed out, are not all powered by belts running to one big motor in the middle of the living room.  Instead, each appliance has its own motor specially designed for its task.  Osborne predicted that smart appliances would house small specialized computers.  “The future lies in designing and selling computers that people don’t realize are computers at all,” he told Time magazine in 1983.   And he was right: that’s how the world became “digital.”  There were signs at GLS 8.0 pointing to a similar future for educational gaming.

Most in the gaming space would assert that games, or a gamelike environment, provide advantages over traditional learning or teaching approaches.  But few would maintain that all learning can be a game.  Even those calling for a total revolution in the structure of school (see Disrupting Class) hesitate to predict total “gamification” as the way to get there.  But games  and gamelike simulations are popping up in many corners of schools.

Attendee BrainPOP, whose animations are widely used as interventions and supplemental materials in math, science, social studies, and elsewhere, is adding more pure games to their offering, including “You Make Me Sick” (a primer on contagious disease) from fellow attendee Filament Games.  Filament itself recently received innovation awards at the SIIA’s annual education conference in San Francisco, thanks to programs like their Game-Enhanced Interactive Science series.  And from the smallest to the largest: Microsoft was in attendance with a number of initiatives, such as its Kodu game programming language that teaches kids how to create games – and the skills of planning, reasoning, design, and attention to detail which are integral to successful game development.

Games are also coming in through the back door, as it were, in the form of assessments.  New standards like Common Core, which call for increased emphasis on performance and reasoning skills, may be best assessed by having students make decisions in structured, hands-on situations – which is another way to say “games.”  And even games not explicitly intended as assessments can generate reams of data on student behaviors and competencies; several groups of researchers are plumbing those data to learn how to extract reliable measurements.

Some of the most practical commentary at GLS came, as one might expect, from an actual K-12 practitioner.  Jeremiah McCall, who with a PhD in Ancient History is not your stereotype of a gaming geek, has taught high school history for 12 years and believes strongly in the use – the proper use – of games.  His keynote presentation constituted a report from the trenches on teaching with games.  He started by demolishing several “myths” about educational games, including:

  1. All students love them [actually some prefer lectures and papers]
  2. Students learn to play games effortlessly [in this like all things, the teacher has to work for results]
  3. Games do the teaching [Jeremiah is in constant motion during classroom periods:  checking for challenges, probing for insights, encouraging reflection on learning]
  4. It’s all about fun and play [games can be hard work, like all learning]

Jeremiah made a number of other excellent points about game-based learning, of which I’ll select two.  One is that some learning objectives lend themselves to games much more than others.  There is a place for learning facts, linear procedures, precision, and single outcomes.  Such material is better learned conventionally.  But a game (or simulation) may be the best tool if the objective is to learn to make meaningful choices, practice procedures, test alternatives, or experience varied outcomes.

And to that last point, another key aspect of true games: they embrace failure.  Failure, even repeated failure, must be possible or it’s not a game.  But for optimal learning, failure must be non-devastating, instructive. and surmountable.  The role of the game designer and the teacher is to help the learner find the learning and the path to success from the experience.  Good games seem to offer free choices, says Jeremiah, but elaborate structure and constraints are hidden behind the scenes, and that’s crucial to a successful experience.

Games and learning.  Games as learning.  Games as learning experiences aimed at goals.  The possibilities are multiplying in a way I think Adam Osborne would appreciate.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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K-12 school funding outlook: Behind the numbers

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) just published the latest in a 3-yr series of surveys on the impact of the recession on school districts.  More than 500 administrators, mostly superintendents, responded.  Behind the political elements to be expected in a report from a lobbying organization, there’s food for thought about how districts are allocating their dollars – and how they think they’ll allocate them in the future.

First the overall funding picture.  Any good news there was, is over.  The only good news is: the bad news is not getting worse as fast as it was.

  • Bad news: Federal ARRA funding will be totally spent this year, and that’s been the main prop for district financing since 2008.
  • “Good” news: On the state/local level – where 90% of the money for schools has always come from – budget shortfalls so far are projected at “only” $44 billion for the next fiscal year, compared to more than $500 billion total for the past four years.
  • Good news: State revenues increased 8% in the past year
  • Bad news: At that rate, it will take till 2019 to get back to pre-recession levels.
  • And the rate was 8% only because revenues were recovering from such a low level – states haven’t sustained that high a rate since the 1960s.

So no matter what happens to federal education spending in this election year, the underlying funding for schools will, at best, not get better any time soon.  Even more importantly, educational decision makers don’t think it will – and think it may get worse.  What does that mean for educational marketers?

One thing it means is that top-level buyers are just plain distracted.  80% of their budget goes to staffing, and they’ve devoted a lot of effort to avoiding layoffs, for both political and practical reasons.  In 3 years of budget distress and concern, districts have cut only 5% of positions, and only about half of those have been through dismissals.  Conserving staff like that hasn’t been easy.  So buying educational material has not been top of mind.  At least 50% of superintendents deferred textbook purchases, reduced instructional materials, and deferred technology purchases last year, and more are planning to this year.

Administrators always hunker down in times of funding uncertainty, and defer even purchases they know sooner or later they’ll have to make.  Eventually, for instance, they will need new textbooks, supplemental material, and technology.  But they’ll delay as long as they can, or until finances look like they’re getting better.   At the very least, that means the remainer of this school year, and into next year till after the election at earliest, we’ll have to make pretty compelling cases for the added value our products will provide.

And that means, among other things, that this is a good time to be mainline.  Unless you have a product that clearly has unique appeal to a particular dedicated stream of funding – accessibility to special ed students, for instance – the wider the usage, the better.  Superintendents are cutting summer school (approaching 30%), interventions (approaching 35%), and instructional initiatives (approaching 50%), even closing or consolidating schools (a third are at least considering it).  This is not a time for niche marketing.  It is a time to be comprehensive.  Also, work on extending usage of adopted products to more educators and more schools, and keep demonstrating effectiveness as broadly as possible.

But don’t give up.  Materials that work for a large number of kids, and help teachers cope with new challenges, will still be needed.  When districts settle into the “new normal” they’ll be buying again.  But it will not be easy, or quick.

Mike Baum, Sophia Consulting LLC

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