The sale of educational technology into schools has always been a unique challenge. The ability to get the attention of time-poor budget holders within the school is often the key to success. This means that established publishers have had the upper hand due to their brand recognition, large sales teams and existing relationships.
Vendors also face a cyclical market dictated by curriculum changes, long buying cycles and customer inertia. The investment of time and energy required to try something new is considerable, so the devil you know often wins.
However, as schools around the country face funding shortages, and with a poor track record of educational technology in schools, the sales challenge is about to get harder, even for the bigger players.
Our research into the experience of teachers using technology in schools has highlighted the need for edtech products to improve their lives. This has important commercial implications depending on your product.
For EdTech products serving the entire curriculum or school, decisions are made within the senior leadership team or at the multi academy trust level. This is the domain of the aforementioned large publishers who have the relationships, brand and sales teams required to convert the sale or renew a contract.
However, we spoke to teachers across the country from a range of schools and heard that schools have become dumping grounds for old and unused technology.
“There’s a general lack of availability of resources … there’s an interactive whiteboard but it’s broken and there’s no budget to fix it or to buy new equipment – also the projector doesn’t work properly, and the PCs are old and it takes too long to log-on.”
This can often be traced back to a decision taken at a whole school level to buy or subscribe to a product without consulting teachers in the classroom. As time poor as any other teacher, members of the senior leadership teams can rarely conduct thorough trials of products or assessments of a product’s impact. And neither time nor money is there for training, meaning teachers lack the confidence to start using the new technology. It is little wonder EdTech remains unused.
The result is a cycle of promise and failure; large publishers sell new product concepts to renew contracts, but those products fail to solve teachers’ real needs and go unused (or are unusable in the worst cases) until it is time for the contract to be renewed again and new promises are made.
Within schools, it is obvious that edtech products have not been living up to their promises for some time. Combine that with a difficult funding environment and you will find schools examining their spend more carefully. This is an opportunity for new, customer-centred edtech products that can provide compelling evidence of impact and usage. And larger educational publishers who fail to evolve into modern, design-led innovators, will begin to lose their grip on the whole school market.
The budget for single subject products is often held with the head of department. This decision maker will be a teacher who is exposed to the daily pressures of the job and acutely aware of the time shortages and burdens that their department faces. They are autonomous buyers (with smaller budgets, yes) but able to assess new product offers well.
This is a route in for new players, and the exposed flank of the big publishers. It is the heads of departments that bear the brunt of funding and teacher shortages and this presents acute problems for EdTech to solve. Smaller, design-led and customer-centric edtech startups can mould their products around those teachers to create exciting and compelling new offers that speak directly to their needs.
Despite EdTech’s problems, we spoke to many teachers who were excited about the future potential of technology in the classroom, even for the much-hyped potential of AI and VR.
“I’d love to see more tech, especially aimed at the lower ability students”
“Lessons can undoubtedly be made more engaging with tech when it works”
We are talking about products that offer more than just the promise of pupil attainment here. EdTech that succeeds will be the products that teachers realise they cannot live without. They will be the products that if teachers lost them, the school would be set back because they have become such an essential service.
You cannot create a product like this overnight. It takes a proximity to teachers and schools, a relentless focus on shaping it around their needs, fixing the little things that get in the way of delivery, and inching the key measures forward that tell you when you are finally satisfying the demands of the market.
To date, the big publishers have relied on their dominance in the market. But as schools reflect on the failures of tech in education of the last 10 years, and budgets are squeezed, they will become more discerning customers. The winners will be publishers and EdTech startups that truly understand the working lives of teachers.
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