Ed. Companies Learn How to Make Gains With Data at EdNET

Associate Editor


Companies that sell into the K-12 marketplace need to provide research to support their products’ value, give teachers and students more data so they can monitor educational progress, and look beyond U.S. borders for growth.

The marketplace isn’t always a friendly one. Education businesses face a sometimes “broken” procurement model, “abysmal” K-12 budgets, and questions about why they expect to make money for their role in providing products or services to educate America’s children.

Those were among the themes that emerged from the first full day of EdNET 2013, “Staying Nimble in an Evolving Market,” a conference that drew hundreds of stakeholders in education to learn and network this week.

Keynote speaker Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit working to improve schools through digital innovation, delivered a four-step “call to action” for the education company leaders: provide laser focus on measured outcomes, and not just through test scores; hone the ability to read data so educators can help students continuously improve; use basic research on learning to explain to educators why a product or service exists, and build in a “my data” button for educational technology so students can take charge of their own learning.

Diane Tavenner, founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools in Silicon Valley, Calif, echoed Cator’s view, saying, the marketplace does not offer “existing platforms and products that give us the type of access we want to data about how our students are performing.” She also identified a need for modular content—a collection of learning resources that can be used individually or in combination—across all subject areas, a learning management system or dashboard that would allow students to control their own learning, and operability on all devices and platforms, including mobile devices.

Drawing on the example of global positioning systems, Cator said it’s now possible using technology to create a “learning positioning system,” in which a map of learning progressions is developed to show, for instance, how a student could navigate his or her way using different math programs to master a specific concept.

Cator also said the current procurement system centers on an old model of buying print products that would have a five- to seven-year life span. “One of the things we’re working with is how can we fix procurement to better create systems” for the rapid iteration and continuous improvement digital technology offers, she said.

The educational landscape offers many bright spots, Cator pointed out, calling on education companies to spotlight “the ton of excellence” in education as they travel the country.

In another session, Scott Hines, who owns Hines Global Education of Palm Springs, Calif., said that his previous experience as a national supplemental education provider selling tutoring services to districts convinced him that he will never sell directly to districts again because the cost of sales is prohibitive. “I will market directly to teachers, to students, to parents,” he said. “Districts are in the way, and they don’t know what they’re doing.”

He said companies should be looking globally for opportunities, pointing to the number of attendees who traveled from countries like China and India to exchange ideas and find opportunities at EdNET. The Chinese market offers special opportunity for those who can conquer the language and cultural differences, he said. “Make sure you have really good copyright protections,” he added.

Hines asked Linda Burch, co-founder of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco based nonprofit that—through its newly launched website Graphite—reviews ed-tech products, to identify the “three hottest” apps or new media products. She recommended Toontastic for giving kids a chance to engage in digital storytelling using cartoons; Learn with Homer, a learn-to-read app for kids age 3 to 6, and a website called Design Squad, which teaches engineering to 3- to 8-year-olds.

Burch predicted that, in the future, teachers will be much more involved in the selection, discovery, and purchasing recommendations of what digital content to buy. “Giving teachers purchasing decisions is disruptive—and interesting,” she said.

Andrew Calkins, deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a nonprofit that accelerates educational innovation through applied technology, observed that many smaller app builders are already bypassing district procurement offices and marketing directly to teachers. “Five years from now, will they have to go to thousands and thousands of teachers intstead of hundreds and hundreds of districts,” he wondered.

Ash Mahajan, chief IT officer for Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado, described public schools’ challenge from his viewpoint: “K-12 has a lot of unique pressures that you don’t see in other vertical industries; for instance, the budgets are abysmal. You need heroes and martyrs to run a sector with these kinds of budgets.”

He cautioned about the possibility of overwhelming educators with big data, saying, “in the K-12 space, on the customer side, there’s not a lot of understanding of the value proposition of big data.” Other speakers agreed that providing data for the sake of data would defeat the purpose, but asking teachers what they want—and need—would be more likely to make the data collection useful in the classroom.

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