Sage Advice from Learning Group Experts at SXSWedu

AAP PreK-12 Learning Group at SXSWeduThe AAP PreK-12 Learning Group organized a session at SXSWedu featuring Michael Jay (Educational Systemics), Randy Wilhelm (Knovation), and Chris Willig (McGraw-Hill Education). The well-attended Industry Talk, “Creating and Delivering What Teachers Really Want,” offered advice on successfully bringing products to market in today’s education resource space. The session focused on four areas:

1. Defining Customer Needs

Willig began with a warning against the “My Baby Syndrome”—if you love your product like it’s your child it becomes impossible to judge it objectively. Her solution? 

“Be more in love with your customer than you are with your product.”

She encourages her staff every day to ask themselves how their work will impact teachers and if their research supports the product development decisions they are making. 

“Don’t decide because your solution works in two schools that it’s going to scale to thousands of schools. There are a lot of questions to ask in between those two marks and research is critical for that.”

Wilhelm agreed, adding that as a smaller, tech-based business, Knovation approaches product development from an agile perspective. This gives them the ability to iterate quickly, test new features with smaller focus groups, and push out those that resonate with their user base more frequently.

2. Business Models

Wilhelm reflected on the fact that in the current marketplace many education companies are finding creative ways to monetize their products and services—free, freemium, and premium as well as business-to-education, business-to-business, and business-to-consumer. He related the decision Knovation made last year to pivot the positioning of half of their business into a B2B model whereby partners will integrate Knovation’s content curation services into their education products. The other half of their efforts will continue to go toward selling to and supporting schools.

Willig agreed that shifts are taking place even within McGraw-Hill, a company traditionally seen as a textbook publisher. 

“The old business model for a textbook was to [drop] a carton of books on the doorstep of a district office or a school and to walk away,” she said. “So much has shifted in the environment. Education is changing and so are we. We are developing more and more [software-as-a-service] business models, service business models, account management, implementation services, interoperability services—all kinds of approaches to the marketplace in service of what we’ve always been about, which is unlocking the potential of each learner.”

Willig also pointed out the complexity of selling into K-12 schools.

“Often if you’re working with school districts…it’s more business-to-government than you think. There is a hierarchy in schools that must be satisfied in order to drive your business forward… It’s not over until the school board approves the purchase. Anything can go wrong throughout that whole cycle. And by the way, it does.” 

She concluded by saying it requires tremendous patience, persistence, and resilience.  

3. Addressing Curriculum Standards

Willig emphasized that the importance of alignment to curriculum standards cannot be understated.

“There’s no question that in almost every subject area…the first thing on the top of the list that surfaces from every district administrator as well as every teacher is fidelity in alignment and integration with their state approved standards. You ignore that at your peril.”

Michael Jay added that simply rebranding a product as Common Core-aligned does not make it Common Core-aligned. He pointed out that part of what the Learning Group does is to ensure its members understand the different ways learners learn and the types of engagement that are intended by the Common Core. 

4. Leveraging Technical Standards

All the panelists agreed that interoperability is increasingly important in today’s educational resource landscape for several reasons. First, it allows different companies to focus on their core competencies.

“You don’t need to be the all-around application anymore. You need to be really good at the part of the application that you’re good at, and then through interoperability and technical integrations you can plug that into other entities and become a better solution to the market overall.”

Second, it makes life easier for teachers. If all the platforms they use on a daily basis can talk to one another, that’s less time teachers have to spend logging in and out from one system to the next or entering the same data into multiple systems.

As Willig put it, “closed systems are not the systems of the future. If we…can embrace consistent standards then we will solve a big problem that is impacting the ability for digital uptake in schools.” 

The session at SXSWedu was the inaugural event for the Center for Innovation & Digital Learning, a new initiative by the PreK-12 Learning Group to promote a steady influx of new ideas into the industry and support the development of next-generation educational technology.

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