A new “digital divide?”

At EdNET 2011 in Denver last week, there was huge energy, many new ideas, great success stories. But one big thing was missing, so big we didn’t notice it at first. Textbook publishers.

One of the school people – curriculum director from a mid-size Georgia district – said it first.  “This is so great, all you people listening to what we need and trying to accommodate.  Why aren’t all my curriculum publishers here?  I’m going to call my [publisher’s name redacted] rep on Monday and tell him they should be at this conference.”

I looked around and thought, “Huh.  She’s right.  The only representatives of the ‘Big 3’ or ‘Big 4′ here are from their tech ghettos – I mean, departments.  With all the changes going on in education, which affect everyone, why isn’t everyone at the same table discussing what to do about them?”

The easy, smug answer would be “Oh, they’re just textbook people – trapped in the old paradigm of selling into adoptions and delivering paper by the boxcar full.  Comes the revolution they’ll be in the dustbin of history.”  But that’s not fair.  Everyone in the industry can see the changes and knows the trends: Millennials’ demand for engaging technology, districts’ need to reduce costs, everyone’s desire for more flexibility and individualization, the explosion of mobile, etc.  There isn’t a publisher of any size that isn’t addressing the “digital textbook” in one way or another.

But is that just the problem?  Schools aren’t asking for a “digital textbook” any more than early buyers of automobiles were looking for a “horseless carriage.”  They’re both contradictions in terms.  “Textbook” inherently carries forward a lot of implications that may or may not be relevant to the challenges facing schools today.  So, in a way, does “curriculum.”

Is that why, with all the good intentions in the world, traditional ed publishers and their “digital” counterparts are, increasingly, talking to each other across a widening chasm?  And if that’s true, which cliff are the schools standing on?  Or are they down in the valley wishing we’d all come down and join them?

Mike Baum Sophia Consulting LLC

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why conferences still make sense as sales venues

People have been reporting the death of conferences, or trade shows, at least as long as the web has been around.  But as Mark Twain said, the reports always turn out to be greatly exaggerated.

Just back from a regional conference in Dallas, in an area of education where most of the get-togethers happen in the summer because the educators can’t get away during the year.  That alone tells you a lot about the availability of discretionary money in this niche.  Attendance was down about 40% from last year.  But exhibitors on the floor reported better traffic than last year, higher interest, more quote requests.  This not the first conference this year where I’ve heard this, funding situation notwithstanding.  Huh?

Could be that fewer attendees mean better qualified attendees – people more likely to have budgetary authority, to have compelling reasons to come to conferences, to come with focused ideas of what they’re looking for.  Whatever the reason, it’s clear that conferences are still what they’re always been: a great opportunity to meet a lot of people self-selected for interest in what you provide, in a very limited time.

Of course conferences are a big expense, in both money and time.  And of course you can return with not much to show for them except sore feet and a big buildup of unanswered emails in your inbox.  But savvy ed marketers profit from them by remembering the following:

  1. The point is leads, not just flying the flag or talking to people you know.  (“Exposure” usually results in only a head cold.) 
  2. On leads, follow the Baby Bear rule: go for “just right.”  Don’t scan people indiscriminately just for volume, or capture only people who agree to a quote or a pilot (the latter is like trying to get dates with a pre-nuptial agreement).  Give people a short benefit statement and if they’re interested, scan, and…
  3. Follow up.  Promptly.  On everyone.  OK to temper the level of followup to the level of interest as you perceive it, but don’t write people off based on intuition from the brief contact at the booth.  If they were interested enough to listen to your pitch, and if they’re in a role where they can at least have leverage with someone with a budget, they’re worth at least a basic followup

And do wear comfortable shoes.

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ISTE 2011: We have met the future and it is us?

If anyone needed proof that technology is the future of education – and a good deal of its present – they needed look no farther than Philadelphia last week.   ISTE (formerly NECC) again proved  it’s the most vibrant conference in K-12.  While others are shrinking, it’s holding its own or growing.  Attendance exceeded 13,000 and may have reached as high as 15,000, in an era when such conferences as the International Reading Association’s have dwindled from 20,000+ historically to maybe 9,000 today.

This isn’t because there are more geeks than readers.  The preponderance of ISTE attendees are focused more on the “ed” than the “tech.”  In several dozen conversations with educators I didn’t find one traditional “programmer” or “systems administrator” type.   Attendees were teachers, principals, curriculum directors, professional development specialists.  Even the people with “tech” in their titles were looking for specific educational outcomes, not tech for tech’s sake.

Technology is mainstream now.  If there is a boundary between educational technology and education as a whole, it’s getting harder and harder to see.  More and more states are removing the funding distinctions between curriculum (“textbook”) and technology, and often throwing in professional development too.   What counts is finding the best solution to reach educational objectives, and increasingly that solution will contain – or consist of – technology.

This does not mean text is going away.  Not everything is animation and avatars.  The first “R” is still reading, not robotics.  Witness the transformation (in some places, at least) of “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, math) into “STREAM”: science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math.   “The fundamental things apply,” so ed tech companies must pay attention to the elements educational publishers have always been supposed to include: Sound pedagogy, valid content, standards, scope and sequence, measurement, feedback.

And guess what, ed tech?  That means you’re not in the sandbox anymore.  You’re playing with the big kids.   Now that technology is the common language of education, everyone speaks it, including traditional educational publishers.  “Textbook” companies face indubitable challenges changing their delivery and business models, but they are all aware of that.  Many of them have huge resources, both educational and monetary.  At least one of the “Big Three” unveiled a digital textbook platform that might enable a relatively smooth transition from paper to “pads.”  Removal of barriers between textbook and technology funding cuts both ways – you can go after theirs, but they can go after yours.

That’s why the question mark in my Pogo-inspired headline.  If you think of yourself as “ed tech,” the bright lights and bustle of ISTE may have created a false sense of superiority.  It’s really all about education.  Technology is just the means, available to anyone, and we forget that at our peril.

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summer fooling around

This is in no way connected to education business, or any other kind of business, but with the excuse of the first day of summer, here’s a recreational venture into irrelevancy.

On the way home from Chicago Monday morning we were passed by a Chicago police car with two phone numbers on the rear: “9-1-1 for emergencies” and “3-1-1 for non-emergencies.”  To my warped mind this implied a continuum like the pain charts at the doctor’s office:

  • 3-1-1: No emergency
  • 4-1-1: Mildly uneasy
  • 5-1-1: Getting a bit upset
  • 6-1-1: Really hot under the collar
  • 7-1-1: Is anybody paying attention, here?
  • 8-1-1: Oh %@&!
  • 9-1-1: Emergency, already!
  • 10-1-1: If anyone would ever listen to me these things wouldn’t happen, but no…

I could try to link this to the way the states got into their current funding predicament, but why spoil it?

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Reading & tech

The temperature was hot, but the market wasn’t, in Orlando last week at the International Reading Association’s annual conference.   About 8800 attendees despite the pull of Disney World, about the same as last year in Chicago, and barely more than the math conference managed to attract to Indianapolis (Indianapolis!) last month.  Even though the exhibit floor occupied one of the smaller halls of the sprawling Orlando convention center, there was still an expanse of concrete the size of a little-league field between the last exhibitor and the concessions on the far wall.  Ghosts of companies past – or yet to come.

And ed tech was conspicuous by its absence.  Not total, but nowhere near the virtual tech saturation at NCTM, where practically every booth had something digital.  Most of the tech applications were assessment or intervention; very little mainstream.  Not even many Interactive Whiteboard vendors or applications.  New programs, yes, including several new writing curricula – but all print.  (Even though nobody writes with a pen or pencil anymore!)

I have nothing against print.  I practically grew up in print shops, learned keyline/pasteup with a T-square, triangle, and frisket knife, and still don’t even own a Kindle (though I’m tempted every time I try to find a place to store the latest books I’ve bought).  But technology really can help teachers in so many ways.  Teaching elementary reading is not that different from teaching elementary math – why the gap?

Or is the tech gap related to the attendance gap?  With respect to budget dollars, reading is about 50% bigger than math, and the same ratio probably applies to teaching staff.  So when a reading conference in Orlando fails to outdraw a math conference in Indianapolis, and also fails to draw educational technology – are these both symptoms of the same malady, or malaise?  After so many years in the national limelight, is reading just tired, and taking a back seat to the fuss over STEM?

If so, it would be a great pity.  Just as in business “nothing happens till someone sells something,” in education, nothing happens till someone reads something.   Maybe it’s time for a tech revolution in reading and language arts.  Maybe that will inspire the new generation of reading and English teachers.  How about writing – kids are writing all the time on their cellphones and blogs, why should we struggle to make them write on paper in school?  What about some reading fun that isn’t just phonics games?

Maybe there will be more at SIIA in San Francisco – I can’t make that this year.  Have to wait till ISTE…

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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Comes the revolution…

ISTE’s Learning & Leading magazine just published a “Point/Counterpoint” item on “Will the iPad Revolutionize Education?”  I’m the author of the “no” stance in the piece.  You’ll see my reasons if you click to the article.

But…while I still believe what I said when I wrote my essay (essentially: just one piece of technology isn’t going to “revolutionize” anything as complex as education)…there is a tech revolution going on.  And the latest conference I attended – NCTM – drove that home to me like an 8-pound sledge.

NCTM was pretty well attended, despite the downturn and an unglamorous location (I like Indiana a whole lot, really, but the most memorable “fun fact” about Indianapolis they displayed at the opening session is that it’s the only major American city not built on a river).  And a very extensive show floor with a lot of interesting new stuff.

And it was all tech.

If you hadn’t seen “National Council of Teachers of Mathematics” over the door, and hadn’t happened to notice that all the vendors were selling math products, you’d have thought it was CoSN or ISTE.  Even the “textbook publishers,” both large and small,  were mostly showing their latest tech offerings.  If you hunted real hard you could find conventional textbooks, but no one, including the exhibitors, was very interested in them.

This was emphatically not true at ASCD in March.  There was still plenty of paper there, though lots of tech as well.  So one thing I’m looking for at IRA next week is…what’s the balance today in the curricular area where 50% of the money gets spent?   And where are the crowds?  Stay tuned.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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Successfully fishing the 6″-deep river

Can you catch fish in a stream with an average depth of six inches?  You can if that “average” includes some areas that are three inches and some that are 12 feet.  And if you find the 12-foot parts where the fish live.

Two things crossed my fish-finder in the past 24 hours. 

  • Thing one: The second half of Nelson Heller’s  “Navigating the Downturn” column where I and various other ed marketers opine on whether the current level of education business constitutes a “new normal” and what to do about it.  Our general conclusion: Things are going to be slow in recovering so be cautious, keep your powder dry, don’t expect miracles. 
  • Thing two: A friend of mine in a specialized area of language arts who just emailed me that his business is up more than 30% so far this year.

The difference?  My fellow sages and I are looking at the average depth of the river.  My friend found a 12-foot section where a lot of big fish were getting pretty hungry.

At the risk of beating a dead fish let’s continue the metaphor.  My friend is in a niche (I won’t identify it for fear all the fisherfolk will rush there) where things are starting to warm up countercyclically.  He has proven fishing tackle: Quality, unique products that have been effective in several states and districts, allowing him to judiciously parlay that success in selected new geographic areas.  He is also continuing to add and improve tightly-related lures – I mean,  materials – that enhance the offering and keep it up to date, as well as giving him good stuff to sell to existing buyers.

Rule 1 in fishing: Go where the fish are.  Do you know where there might be deeper pools for what you already have – or maybe a slight enhancement of what you already have?   Rule 2: If they’re biting on something, give them more of the same.  Have you identified what one or two investments in new product are most likely to pay off in the next 18-36 months?

Off to IRA to see how the fishing is at that end of the lake.  Next entry I promise a report and no more fishing metaphors.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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Educator effectiveness

A new movement affecting public schools and many vendors that supply them is the radical rethinking of teacher evaluations.   It’s a complex issue with both educational and political ramifications that go way beyond just issuing teachers “report cards” to quote some media references.  Renaissance Learning has just published a policy brief I authored for them, entitled “Using Short-Cycle Interim Assessment to Improve Educator Evaluation, Educator Effectiveness, and Student Achievement.”  This paper treats a narrow, though important, aspect of this issue.  I’ll be posting some additional thoughts on the subject in the next few days but I hope this piece can start some thinking and dialog now.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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Borrow your crystal ball, buddy?

Last Friday, ed-tech sage Nelson Heller published comments, from me and others, on the subject “Navigating the Downturn: Are We There Yet?”  I said, essentially, no.  The “end” of the recession just meant the economy stopped getting worse, but it stayed real bad, and it will take a while before it gets a lot better.  And it will be even longer before any improvement really helps education funding.

How confident am I that I’m right?  Well, let’s say 95%.  Which means, statistically speaking, that if we lived through this year 100 times, 95 of those times I’d be right and 5 of those times I’d be wrong.

What, you have a problem with that logic?  It’s the same way the meteorologists base their forecasts!  It’s the way life insurance premiums are calculated!  Sadly, it’s not very useful – because unless you’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, you only get to go around a particular time frame once.  And the one, single future each of us gets might be one of the 95 in which funding is really horrible, or one of the 5 in which it’s not.

There’s still more bad news about fortune-telling.  Even knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do about it.  (How do you react to the highway signs “Look out for falling rocks”?)  Suppose funding is flaccid as I’m predicting.  Suppose school product spending falls 20% this year.  Does that mean you should immediately take 20% off your normal revenue projection, slash 20% of your advertising budget, fire 20% of your staff?

Heck, no…particularly the last two.  I could make an argument you may want to increase your advertising budget at least a little; at least, make sure you’re not passing up good opportunities to communicate with your best customers.  As to your staff, assuming you’ve been prudently managing overhead so far, they may be your best resource for continued survival.

Market condition is only one of the factors that determine company outcomes.  Unless your company is so huge that it resembles a “statistical universe” – like an index fund is supposed to be, where all the small variables cancel each other out and all that’s left is the macro trend – you have almost as many opportunities to score successes in overall rotten conditions as you did to generate failures in good times.

Based on the half-dozen or so recessions I’ve lived through, I’d say they’re like Dr Johnson’s comment about impending hanging: they concentrate the mind wonderfully.  They demand that you scrutinize each piece of what you’re doing: each price, lead cost, sales closing ratio, positioning statement, product, service.   You shouldn’t expect that each piece will be perfect – because your crystal ball isn’t any better than mine – but at least that it’s as good as you can reasonably expect.  And that there’s enough diversity among your different sources of sales that strength in one area can help offset weakness in another.  (If you don’t have any diverse sources of revenue – that may be a place to make some judicious investment.  Don’t think “now is not the time” – because “now” is likely to last a couple more years.)

Fact is, we never really know what’s coming.  Anyone who’s read The Black Swan should have that well in mind.  But keep in mind, too, that there are still white swans.  It’s just important that we look closely enough to tell the difference.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

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What’s new in education – really?

 Spent a tiring but interesting couple of days this month at the TCEA (Texas Computer Education Association) annual conference in Austin.  All the buzz was about iPads and other mobile devices, which are actually going to proliferate in schools pretty fast, looks like.

But sorry to say, I saw few examples yet of mobile applications that do much really new in terms of improving education.  Mostly they’re just another way to get to 1:1 computing, so far.  Not that this is bad, but surely such revolutionary technology can do more?

The same week, ISTE’s publication Learning & Leading  asked for submissions on whether iPads will revolutionize education.  My article arguing “no” will appear in a forthcoming issue – I’ll post it here when it appears.  But that got me thinking: “When does technology ever really change education, as opposed to just shifting old material to a new medium?”  And walking TCEA I think I found one example where it does.

Herff Jones/Nystrom, a map publisher founded in 1903, decided they needed an online offering.  But they had the imagination and nerve not just to post HTML or PDF versions to the web and say “OK, now we’re online,” but to really think through how technology could add value.  So they aligned with Google Earth to make the maps 3D, interactive, collaborative, layered, and loaded with content.  They call the result StrataLogica.  Kids can spin the globe, drill into any area for rich details about history and geography, then share their discoveries with other students in their classroom and beyond.  StrataLogica uses the computer and the web to deliver a new experience that will actually spark much more learning than any flat map.  If this application doesn’t pop up in social studies classrooms pretty quickly, I’ll be very surprised.

Let’s give educators better reasons to buy and use technology than the “wow” factor, or even than “It’s cheaper than paper.”  Buying nothing new is cheaper still.  Give schools and kids learning improvement that only technology can create, on the other hand, and you might just see adoptions even in this climate.  It’s not easy, but it’s possible – a century-old map company figured it out!

Mike Baum – Sophia Consulting LLC

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