Top 5 Reasons You Aren’t Selling Schools

Market Insight
Hint: It’s not the “no money” excuse
LeiLani Cauthen

We all like to go shopping even when we might not have the money. When we do have it, though, we might be even more discerning and want to use our money more wisely. No matter what, though, we probably aren’t going to tell the store clerk as we walk in that we have $500 or $1,000 ready to spend. No, we’ll probably keep what we have as a real budget on the down-low.

The Learning Counsel recently surveyed schools executives in K-12 across the country and found that none of the top five reasons why they are prevented from adoption of digital curriculum and content had to do with money. Yep. It’s not what they tell you, as a sales representative is it? What they tell you is that there is no money—almost before you can introduce yourself.

The actual fact is that this nearly trillion-dollar industry has bigger problems preventing its transition to digital.

Top 5 Issues Preventing Adoption of Digital Curriculum and Content:

1. Classrooms pedagogy professional development

2. Teacher device use training

3. Lack of adequate computing devices

4. Digital curriculum systems training

5. Instructional design/curriculum design professional development

A whopping four of the top five are things you can do something about!

Number three (3) is a real problem, and that’s more of a problem for hardware sales staff than software.

Number five (5) is a problem for the publishing industry—if it doesn’t start minding the store a bit better.

One at a Time Please

Let’s address the top five issues one at a time—starting from the bottom up.

ISSUE #5: Instructional design/curriculum design professional development

A huge number of educators consider that they can and should “build their own” digital resources. This is great until they run into Issue #5 – lack of instructional design or curriculum design expertise. These industrious and well-intentioned district execs then want to train all their teachers in professional design techniques.

There are a number of issues with this, and the driver is the myth of “no money” accompanied by a myth of ubiquitous exceptional teacher expertise in all things education.

The “no money” myth concerning buying digital curriculum resources is patently false because schools have huge budgets for regular textbooks. It’s silly to consider they should do both things, and the one that should be sacrificed and built by non-professionals is the digital one. Did teachers build your paper textbooks before? Are they building original materials and not plagiarizing any source for new digital eBooks? Aside from the obvious questionable sufficiency of technological expertise that teachers may have in this field of digital and interactive materials, there is a mine-field of potential copyright infringement and irremediable non-professionalism here.

There’s a possibility that getting rid of highly crafted and examined core materials by the best-of-the-best trained instructional designers of the bygone textbook age, in favor of classroom teachers doing down-and-dirty spin-doctoring of digital lessons is going to marginalize the entire paid publishing industry, while simultaneously reducing quality of both teaching and learning.

Now that may have been a mouthful, but the point is simple: A district exec who allows this is potentially penny wise and pound foolish.

A Few of the Barriers
There may be a few teachers who are truly the exceptional ones who can build custom-coded games with App downloads and super-engaging content that embeds puzzles, sound, video, animations (beyond single-loop), uses intelligence engines to track patterns of mistakes and wins by the student, and adapts using pre-built algorithms for that specific student’s personalized learning. I sort of doubt it—it’s not their job—and they’re usually not trained in these areas.

Furthermore, how could the entire education industry possibly hope to scale with custom-built digital materials everywhere? Sharing is not what this market is well known for (trust me, I find the sharing of information at our Digital Curriculum Discussion Meetings to be one of the most valued commodities—executives get far too little peer information from around the country). So duplicative efforts are going to go on at a massive scale nationwide at a tremendous cost to taxpayers.

Yes, a few exceptional teachers might do some word documents pushed into the major Learning Management System (LMS) of their schools with some projects concerning that area of study with a PowerPoint or Prezi. But they’re not doing custom HTML or .Net or Ruby or JQuery or other programming. They are not animators building cool gaming interfaces with avatars or a former Hollywood producer with Emmys to their name (see No.

It’s a sure thing they are building valuable-to-them but low-on-the-ultimate-value-scale digital curriculum, so the “barrier” of needing higher level training in how to do instructional design is a real barrier—if the market continues to shunt professional publishers. Note that value will be defined in the use and utility, so digital resources that do accomplish teaching and learning can be low-level technologically, but perhaps not for long. In a competitive landscape, build-your-own is a cost at least in staff time and yet could be nearly instantly superseded by higher quality in the commercial world at a lower cost. Especially since it’s the industry’s job to build better, cheaper by a distributed cost model across large numbers of schools. That is decidedly not the job of districts or schools, at least per known State Constitutional language. It’s slippery, though.

Ah, but here is more to this barrier. The publishing industry through a delay in adapting—and, sadly, profiteering—has brought upon its head shame and blame. The wounded education world is loath to trust again.

So, the first thing you, as a publisher or vendor, must do is differentiate yourself from the “old” publishing world. Unless of course you are a long-time respected Publisher, and then your best bet is to put on a new marketing spin about transitioning while still serving up the textbooks some folks are still buying.

One more aspect of this barrier is that few people, even in the advanced publishing world, are the best-of-the-best in “user interface” and design. Doing digital instructional design is a highly, highly specialized skill area. Right now the best coders and web designers are paid huge salaries to make software that literally requires no user manual and is super intuitive.

Having staff who must first be trained in instructional design, and then in digital interface skills, in exceedingly large numbers quickly—well it isn’t going to happen easily in education. The estimation of the effort in doing it right and well is even a bit off with most companies.

The purpose and intention behind the “build your own” movement also has elements of “it’s not available commercially yet,” and some of this is true. You counter that with the fact that it’s increasingly not true now that there are more than 7,000 vendors, thousands of Apps and tens of millions of pieces of digital content and adaptive-immersive courseware systems available.

In summary, the best counters to barrier #5 are these things:

•  Instructional design training at scale so that all teachers have some minimal understanding, and district instructional designers have high levels of skill and understand digital user interface design is a star-high goal. We sincerely do hope you can do that, Mr. Education Executive, for the huge number of teachers you have with no time for all their students and homework assignments, much less new training in digital design. Really, good luck with that. (Okay, snarky sarcasm is probably not a good idea, but the rest of these are.)

•  It probably is available commercially.

•  Spending a little more time looking and finding is probably going to save enormous time in building and rebuilding lower quality stuff than is probably commercially available and better.

•  Consider the real cost of staff time, and keeping things current, for all time into the future.

•  You probably do have some awesome digital stuff, but what about all the rest you will need for a quality coverage model of digital materials to engage and edify all your students?

Human Nature
The truth is, all beginning transformations start out with every hand in the pot trying to stir. It’s human nature. Then eventually individuals are selected out to be “it,” the one responsible, and from there on the rest of the people turn back to doing just their jobs. The job of build-it-yourself was even there with the birth of the computing industry. In the earliest days you bought “kits” of computers and put them together yourself. That was also true of the car industry. Sears even sold house “kits” to people back in the day when housing was first booming in the U.S. Then companies were born who did it better and cheaper at scale.

We are living in a boom time in American education. A time when everyone is getting busy with a massive transformation. Now is the time for you, folks in the digital device and publishing industry, to sell your expertise and your value. These are simple things that had been lost in many of your sales techniques because you came from the last 100 years with an assumed role of being the experts. Now you are being questioned on this, the most fundamental thing of all—expertise.

Go tell ‘em what you’re made of.

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