E-rate, Data Privacy, Common Core Likely to Shape Market in 2014

Associate Editor

Companies in the K-12 marketplace have plenty of issues to keep their eyes on this year. Marketplace K-12 polled leaders for their views of what developments will be most important for decisionmakers in education businesses in 2014. Among their predictions:

Changes coming to E-rate: For companies whose products and services depend on online delivery, the outcome of proposed E-rate changes will be pivotal.

President Obama has asked the Federal Communications Commission to consider rechanneling and increasing funding through the program, with the goal of giving 99 percent of the nation’s schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Web connections within five years. According to a survey released last year by the Consortium for School Networking, which represents district technology leaders, 43 percent of school systems indicated that none of their schools meet the broadband goal of 100Mbps of Internet access per 1,000 students today, and 99 percent of districts need additional Internet bandwidth and connectivity in the next 36 months.

Concrete proposals for changing the E-rate are likely to emerge in the nation’s capital over the next six weeks, according to Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

“It’s going to become a lot clearer within the first two quarters of this year,”  he said. “If the FCC doesn’t make a decision by mid-year, the politics start to look harder because then it starts to become an election issue.”

Worries about data privacy: This issue will continue to be a contentious one in 2014.

“Educators want resources that meet the personalized learning needs of their students.  However, that requires innovative, data-driven tools that in turn depend on access to student data,” said Karen Billings, vice president of education for the Software and Information Industry Association.

“We need education and industry leaders to work together with legislators to address these concerns with information about the best practices and regulatory practices already in place,” said Billings.

Levin said it’s important for those in the industry to “self-police,” and develop best practices and a code of conduct akin to a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that ed-tech companies could pursue.

In the meantime, he predicts that businesses intent on marketing directly to teachers “are going to have a bit of an ugly wake-up call when they find out school districts—for liability reasons—will have to clamp down before any data about students are shared with vendors  … Ultimately school districts are going to need to get a handle on who is touching data for their students.”

Cautious approach to hardware, software purchases: After highly publicized problems emerged during Los Angeles’ rollout of its iPad program, and during Guilford County, N.C.’s Amplify initiative, some districts are likely to move cautiously in deciding how to make major investments in tech purchases.

“Dropping devices into districts won’t transform learning,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “Instead we need to build a new eco-system for innovation and build the human capacity for the digital conversion.”

Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, who serves as the executive director of its education program, agrees.

“It’s clear that starting with the device [is a mistake], rather than starting with the problem you’re trying to solve, coming up with a design for solving it, and thinking of the technology last. I don’t know if districts are going to get savvier, but it might be wise for providers—rather than selling a device and getting out of town—to be more consultative to help districts on the front end,” he said.

Districts aligning budgets with strategic plans: As state and local budgets improve, some see an increasing determination to set clear policy goals before they commit to spending money on ed-tech. 

“The economic recovery is good for schools. That’s a common theme across the country,” said Claire Hertz, chief financial officer of the Beaverton school district, in Oregon, and a director of the Association of School Business Officials International.  “Many states, including Oregon, are looking at school funding, because so much was lost over the past five years. They’re looking at how to restore it, and how to restore it in smarter ways to support student achievement.” The question will be, how to make use of the renewed funding in a way that improves outcomes.

More modular solutions: As schools move into blended learning, they are likely to want teachers to have more control over the choices they make about content, said Horn.

“Increasingly, they want more modular solutions, whether that’s platforms that provide ‘chunked-up’ content—by lesson, even—or ways of integrating multiple providers for content.”

Demand for help with Common Core standards, assessments:  “Common Core will continue to be a huge influencer of marketplace opportunities for instructional materials, pedagogy and also teacher training,” said Steven Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, which represents education entrepreneurs. “Assessments are the other piece of this picture.”

Interest in early education: Federal and state focus on pre-kindergarten may come with funding that will encourage districts to spend on curriculum, assessment, and teacher training focused on early grades, Pines said.

Outsourcing for special education and alternative education services: With increased pressure on graduation rates, schools will continue to look for partnerships with providers who can help keep kids connected with schools, Pines said.

Many policymakers see online learning as an important option for alternative education, whether delivered through special courses, or as a “full-school” solution, Pines said.

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