ON-Lion Letter

"Do we know what software tools school systems actually want?  Demand-side analyses typically reflect the loudest voices in the market that companies are eager to please -- in the case of education technology, the largest urban districts with the largest technology budgets.  But half of the nation’s 48 million public school students attend approximately 3,700 small- to medium-sized school systems," begin Julia Freeland and Alex Hernandez in a July report from the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF) in Broomfield, Colo., and the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in San Mateo, Calif.  "These school systems face some of the same struggles as large districts in delivering high-quality blended learning and running effective and efficient central offices.  They also face distinct challenges in the marketplace, as they find themselves unable to afford large enterprise solutions or powerless to push suppliers to customize to their particular needs."

Freeland is an education-research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute.  Hernandez is a partner at CSGF, where he leads its "next-generation" schools practice focused on personalized learning.  The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee substantially supports CSGF.

"To answer the question of what these school systems want, we surveyed education leaders in 30 small- to medium-sized public school systems that each serve between approximately 2,500 to 25,000 students to shed light on developing education technology trends and desires," continue Freeland and Hernandez in Schools and Software:  What's Now and What's Next.  "Many of these 30 school systems are operating at the leading edge of technology integration.  As such, this sample does not reflect the status quo across all systems of a similar size, but rather points to where we think such systems are headed as technology inevitably improves and becomes more affordable and accessible.

"K–12 software has long been a source of aggravation and disappointment," according to their report.  "But many of the school systems we surveyed believe software can be used strategically to improve student achievement and overall organizational performance.  More and more, school systems are hiring technology for sophisticated jobs like blending learning environments, supporting data-driven practices, and recruiting and supporting teachers.

"Looking ahead, the gaps identified in this paper reflect key market opportunities," they conclude.  "Enterprising developers and existing companies should build new solutions to fill these gaps.  Investors should likewise pay attention to the current inefficiencies hindering school systems and fund companies that not only show growth potential, but also promise a better-integrated user experience for students and teachers.  Finally, school systems should proactively inform vendors about how they use software and hardware on a day-to-day basis; for smaller school systems, this may mean pooling their demand to yield products that fit their specific needs.  If supply and demand can better align in these ways, we just might be able to match the software to the school."

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