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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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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