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.
Sophia Consulting LLC