Conferences Showcase Contrasting Visions of How to Serve the K-12 Market

Senior Editor


A lot of fledgling companies today are convinced the best way to serve the education system is to disrupt it, and by doing so, improve it.

Others would rather work within the system as it exists, and embrace innovations when they think there’s a market, or some kind of demand for new products and ideas.

It’s an oversimplification, for sure, but it’s also one way of summing up the two contrasting views of the education marketplace on display at a pair of recent gatherings that brought together players in the education industry. One of those events is underway in Washington this week.

Earlier this year, I attended the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit, a once-obscure gathering now touted as one of the places to be among education entrepreneurs, publishers, ed-tech companies of all sizes, investors looking to fund good ideas, and startups trying to convince those investors that their product or plan is a winner.

Much of the talk at that summit, held at a resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., focused on all that ails K-12 systems, described by some as bureaucracies resistant to change and hamstrung by rigid collective bargaining agreements and purchasing rules.

Presenters offered visions of disrupting, even revolutionizing, those systems through the power of daring ideas and transformational technologies. Some suggested it was only a matter of time before K-12 bureaucracies were compelled to accept innovative ideas and products in technology and other areas.

One of the marquee speakers at the April event, AOL co-founder Steve Case, aptly observed that a lot of the attendees at the ASU/GSV event regarded themselves as “attackers,” challenging K-12 systems and attempting to overturn established ways of doing business.

Case, who now leads an investment company, Revolution, cautioned attendees that they needed to understand the complexities of school systems, and persist, “so you’re alive when the opportunity for [a] revolution happens.”

The rhetoric is noticeably more restrained this week at “Content in Context,” a conference held in Washington by the Association of Educational Publishers and the Association of American Publishers’ school division, which represent some of the most established companies in the industry.

Early sessions at the conference focused on questions about how the K-12 landscape is shifting, and offered fairly detailed speculation on how that is changing the products schools need. Among the major shifts in school systems that were discussed:
• The academic, financial, and technological demands the common-core standards are placing on states;
• The continuing financial constraints states and school districts face, even as their budgets improve; and
• The pressures put on commercial providers by “open-education resources,” and how they might respond.

Other sessions delved into the nitty-gritty of how products end up in the hands of students, or teachers. How many districts have, or are at least considering “bring-your-own-device” policies? (65 percent, by one estimate.) When teachers buy tech products, what factors guide their decisionmaking? (Recommendations from their peers, and the demands of instructional standards are among the biggest considerations, while Web advertising and direct contact with sales staff are not, one presenter said.) To whom should companies be marketing their tech products? (Some analysts in attendance said that parents, not just teachers and administrators, are a growing customer base.)

On one obvious level, the difference in tone is hardly surprising. The publishers’ conference drew some of the biggest and best-established names in the business, not those trying to break into it.

But the contrast also reflects the questions hovering above the K-12 landscape. Will education technology lead to breakthroughs in productivity—meaning gains in academic achievement, or reductions in costs—as it has in other fields? Or will it simply result in new spending on digital instead of print materials?

And how receptive will states and school districts be to ed-tech products that disrupt the norm? What factors, and which voices—teachers, parents, students—will have the greatest say in influencing their decisions?

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