Education Businesses Take On K-12 Market Complexities

Associate Editor


A complex and challenging K-12 marketplace will get even more so, education company executives gathered here are learning this week, as they try to position their businesses for the opportunities of the future.

From new federal legislation to a changing assessment landscape, from the education interests of large companies like Google and Facebook to challenges in getting ed-tech products to work together, about 125 attendees at the Education Industry Symposium are talking about the threats and opportunities as they chart their paths forward.

Sponsored by the Education Technology Industry Network of the Software & Information Industry Association, the event includes panel discussions in addition to working groups to come up with recommendations to “build the ‘Next Gen’ learning ecosystem”—one that makes it easier for districts and schools to successfully use the products companies offer in a combined “ecosystem.”

Here are just a few of the speakers’ observations that caught my attention:

On interoperability: 34 cents of every instructional dollar are spent on the cost of integrating technology, according to Troy Wheeler, president of the Ed-Fi Alliance. “We’re working with IMS Global to drive that friction out of the market.” Earlier this month, the two organizations announced more details of their collaboration to unify broader standards across the K-12 market in rostering, assessment and outcomes data.

On the demand for “real-time” data from assessments: Educators want data, and they want it now—not months between the time when students take assessments and the results are returned to schools. “States are looking to purchase assessments that can help districts understand what’s going on” in a timely fashion, often with tools and analytics to make the data more useful, said Larry Fruth II, executive director and CEO of the Access 4 Learning Community.

On the ed-tech industry solving issues together: Watching the involvement of huge companies like Facebook and Google in education, Bruce Umpstead, a managing partner at ScaleUp Education Partners, asked attendees how they are prepared to address the competitive challenge. For instance, AltSchool—which is fueled by a $133 million investment by Mark Zuckerberg—educates students at $21,000 per year. If that cost can be reduced to $10,000 a year, the AltSchool proposition could be to use that platform in public education, he said.

On changes from the Every Student Succeeds Act: Signed into law last December, ESSA puts more decisionmaking into the realm of state education agencies and districts. State ed-tech directors are meeting now to sort through the many questions that arise, according to Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “States that have adoption processes are on a five- or six-year adoption cycle, and for digital, waiting five or six years might not make a lot of sense,” she said. With a shift to approving digital materials, “at what level do you stop the vetting process?” she asked “Are you curating packages of materials? Individual lessons? And when you pull in free and open content, are we holding all materials up to the same quality or vetting standards?”

On the fact that delivering simple analytics can be difficult: “It is really hard to simplify analytics for end users,” said Andrew Herman, CEO of Alma, an ed-tech provider. One reason is that there are “a lot of different applications that have relevant data that cannot talk to each other…no two companies hold the data in the same way.” That means it takes what he calls “a huge amount of work” to provide teachers, students, and parents with analytics that are actionable.

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