How Education Companies Are Adjusting to the Coronavirus Threat

As the coronavirus upends community activities around the country, education companies are making changes to their outreach and service to school districts, in anticipation of disruptions that could last weeks or even months.

So far, only a fraction of the nation’s schools and districts have closed because of the virus.

But already, many education companies are re-calibrating how they plan to serve and market their products to districts in the time ahead. Companies are setting in motion the following:

  • Offering online versions of their paid products for free, in an effort to help districts where students are already working remotely or could be soon.
  • Streamlining the process for onboarding districts on how to use new products, in order to make sure take-up of those products is as seamless as possible.
  • Figuring out how to make up for lost opportunities to meet with district officials, and other vendors, in the wake of the cancellation of major conferences, such as SXSWedu, ASCD, and AERA.
  • Thinking through indirect disruptions to their businesses that could be caused by school closures, such as losing the ability to test products and product features.

The sweeping implications of the coronavirus were evident last week, when the organizers of SXSWedu–a huge gathering of both K-12 officials and vendors–announced the event’s cancellation, two days before it was supposed to begin.

In addition, ASCD’s Empower 20 conference, which had been set for March 12-16, was called off, as was the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. AERA officials said they are now planning how to hold much of the event virtually.

This week, the organizers of the ASU GSV conference, a huge gathering of education businesses and others across the sector, said they will postpone that gathering, which had been scheduled for the end of this month. The rescheduled event will occur Sept. 29-Oct. 1, when the organizers said they “assume the coronavirus will have abated.”

Many Budget Cycles Locked In–For Now

The inability to meet district officials face-to-face is likely to force vendors to seek other means of marketing to K-12 buyers–via e-mail, phone calls, webinars, and other online means.

The cancellation of SXSWedu, and the larger parent event affiliated with it, “blew the barn door open on conferences,” said Katie Topping,  executive vice president of marketing at NWEA, an assessment provider.

“When that happened, you pretty much knew the others would fall,” she said.

NWEA was planning to have around 5-10 employees at SXSWedu, and it was expected to send an even bigger group, about 15 employees, to ASCD, she said.

Not being able to attend trade shows won’t necessarily scuttle a lot of sales for NWEA, said Topping. When district officials end up purchasing NWEA’s assessments, “the good news is, it’s very rarely one touch,” but rather the result of several meetings, she said. “You wouldn’t look at one show and say, ‘We’ve lost sales.'”

The real downside in the cancellation of conferences was not being able to connect with existing district customers, and learn about their experience with products.

“You miss those. Those are hard to measure,” Topping said.

A number of K-12 education companies, and advisers to those businesses, told EdWeek Market Brief that overall, it’s too early to make a determination about whether district buying will be thrown off by the coronavirus.

But those vendors say they are bracing for upheaval, and trying to gauge how best to anticipate the needs of schools and districts that decide to shut down for extended periods.

To date, districts’ plans for making major product purchases have not been undone by the coronavirus outbreak, said Omar Salaymeh of Bonfire, an e-procurement company that closely tracks RFPs issued by school systems.

Even though children might be asked to stay at home, what it takes to operate a school district is related to much more than the children actually being there. There are all the peripherals and things you need to buy.Omar Salaymeh, chief client and product officer, Bonfire

The relative stability is explained partly by the process for issuing RFPs, which typically takes weeks or even months, meaning the bidding opportunities on the market today were set in motion some time ago, said Salaymeh, his company’s chief client and product officer.

In addition, districts’ fundamental need to make those purchases – for ed tech, supplies, construction, or other areas – will not go away. Districts know that even if they halted those purchases today, their needs would re-emerge in force months from now.

“It’s already in your budget cycle,” Salaymeh said. “Even though children might be asked to stay at home, what it takes to operate a school district is related to much more than the children actually being there. There are all the peripherals and things you need to buy.”

The wildcard is if there are large-scale shutdowns of districts that last months, in a way that disrupts budget planning, and the process of setting procurement in motion, Salaymeh said.

Neal Goff, the president of Egremont Associates, an educational consulting firm, noted that the pain that districts feel from major economic blows is usually delayed, because it takes a while for the impact of lower tax revenues and other sources of school funding to flow through the system.

The impact of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, for instance, did not show up immediately in district budgets, said Goff.

“School funding is not going to change this year by virtue of the coronavirus crisis,” Goff said. “That said, if it triggers a recession…tax revenues go down, funding suffers, and a year or two from now, the environment could look a lot like it looked in 2009 and 2010, which wasn’t very good.”

It’s possible some procurements may be postponed for a few weeks as districts’ focuses increasingly turn from business to health, Goff said. But those impacts likely won’t go beyond the crisis period — assuming the disruption is short term.

High-Speed Onboarding

Many companies are already trying to reach out to schools that have been shut down for health reasons, through e-mail and online messaging, offering to provide various online academic resources for free.

One such company is CENTURY Tech, which uses artificial intelligence and an adaptive learning platform to deliver lessons to schools.

The British company says it is working in more than 25 countries and last week onboarded at least 50 schools that closed due to the coronavirus threat in different regions of the world.

Six or seven of those schools the company is working with are in the U.S., including in Washington state, Massachusetts, Illinois and New York, said Charles Wood, the head of CENTURY’s international operations.

The coronavirus has spread methodically throughout states across the country, though its impact has varied enormously. Many communities have been barely touched by the epidemic, while in others, the effect has been more widespread. In Washington state, for instance, 46 schools or districts are closed, or have been shut down at some point, and Gov. Jay Islee has said the state will act aggressively to stop the spread of the disease.

“Even though schools might not be shut, they’re starting to make contingency plans,” Wood said, adding:  “We’re committed to making this available for free as long as schools are closed. As different regions shut down, we will support them.”

Because the company’s product is cloud-based, it hasn’t been difficult to add large numbers of students to the platform and scale up, he said. Schools can incorporate CENTURY into their operations using virtual platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, he said.

CENTURY typically has a detailed and lengthy onboarding process for customers. It’s had to scramble to simplify the way it brings on new schools and students, in the wake of those affected by the coronavirus, said Wood.

That has meant streamlining the process to under three hours to onboard an entire school. It has also created a series of short instructional videos and planned webinars to help educators understand how the program works, to get tips and hints and get up and running quickly.

“It’s very different from our usual onboarding process,” Wood said.

Are Companies Ready With Online Products?

Another of the many companies announcing that it would offer its products for free at schools affected by the coronavirus is Kahoot!, a provider of game-based learning.

In a blog post, Kahoot! said that it was providing free access to Kahoot! Premium for schools and colleges affected by the virus.

The company directed the public to an online form to begin the process of signing up for access, through Google, Microsoft, or via e-mail. Kahoot said the product would give teachers access to formative assessment tools with reporting on student progress, allow them to assemble banks of educational games, and collaborate with other educators.

“It’s our hope that Kahoot! Premium’s online learning features will help teachers engage and motivate their students during this difficult time,” the company said.

Some Kahoot! products, such as a self-paced challenge that allows students to participate in game-based learning, and a basic version of Kahoot!, were already available for free, the company said in its post.

Steven M. Ross is a senior research scientist and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. His group works with school districts and vendors, and he and his team are in regular touch with companies.

None of those clients have told him to this point that they’ve seen any changes that would affect their business models.

We rely on partner districts. We don’t like to release things until we’ve had our power users vet them. If they’re not able to do that, it would slow our ability to develop features and products.” Walter Sherwood, CEO, ThinkCERCA

“I don’t think anything has trickled down or bubbled up to [district] procurement yet,” Ross said. “That’s a slow process.”

Over time, the coronavirus outbreak would most likely give companies with online-focused products an opportunity to prove their value to districts scrambling to deliver meaningful lessons to students, he said.

One company that believes it is in good position to help companies is ThinkCERCA, an online provider of literacy products.

That’s because all of the company’s lessons for students and teachers are delivered online. And, the company’s entire professional development for teachers can be done online, said Walter Sherwood, the Chicago-based company’s CEO.

“We’re a digital product,” Sherwood said. “We can use a blended learning model. We’re situated well, if there [is] a desire to move away from face-to-face instruction.”

Students and teachers can use ThinkCERCA using various online communication platforms, such as Zoom.

To date, he said, “we have not seen any kind of an uptick in online sales. But that could change quickly.”

Careful Messaging

Sherwood said his company wants to be sensitive about how it markets its products, as worries about the coronavirus unfold. It wants to make sure districts understand the benefits his company can bring, but it doesn’t want to push them too hard to make a product purchase.

“It’s delicate, right?” he said. “The way we approach it is, if students are not able to attend their schools, they need to need to be able to access academic materials.” His company believes it can offer resources at a fair price and produce positive results. “The reality is students still need an opportunity to learn,” he said.

With the recent cancellation of major conferences and the likely disruption to future shows, ThinkCERCA has probably lost some opportunities to network with other vendors that are potential partners, and potentially with district buyers, too, Sherwood said.

If more schools shut down, one of the indirect consequences for ThinkCERCA would be that it would potentially lose access to some school districts the company currently uses to test new features and products before bringing them into the market, he said.

“We rely on partner districts,” he said. “We don’t like to release things until we’ve had our power users vet them. If they’re not able to do that, it would slow our ability to develop features and products.”

Image by Jian Fan/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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