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Acer America Corp. is a computer manufacturer of business and consumer PCs, notebooks, ultrabooks, projectors, servers, and storage products.


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September 8, 2021 |

Back to School: Opportunities in K-12 IT

The demand for technology to support remote learning exploded in 2020; now educators seek high-level expertise and solutions to improve learning outcomes.

ED TECH has never been an easy vertical to crack. The COVID era opened up opportunities in K-12 that were unimaginable two years ago, but the demands for expertise are higher than ever.

“”It’s the most dramatic change in education in the last generation,”” says Erez Pikar, CEO of Trox, an ed-tech provider based in Phoenix. “We see at least a three-year acceleration in what we call ‘digital education.’ A lot of the things that have changed over the last 18 months are here to stay, even if they need to be fine-tuned.””

Channel pros looking to make gains in education will need to reexamine the past 18 months, and rethink how they’ll do business in the future.

COVID, Class of 2021

As soon as the pandemic hit, schools tried to beat back the flames of infections and closures with a fire hose of technology. They bought devices for students, teachers, and administrators who no longer had access to classrooms and offices. Meanwhile, billions of federal pandemic aid dollars poured into school districts, catalyzing tech adoption.

“”Especially in K-12, the tech they were using was so outdated—if they had any—that the first thing they were thinking about was just how to get online,”” says Matthew Leger, research manager with IDC Worldwide Education Digital Transformation Strategies.

At the same time, schools leaned more heavily on vendors for technical help. Their own IT staffs weren’t physically accessible or sufficient to handle the massive increase in hardware and software, so they needed more assistance with planning, budgeting, and implementation. Moreover, they wanted devices and AV to work right out of the box, bundled with warranties and financing, says Pikar.

Leger says large vendors such as Dell and Cisco responded by providing more training, integration, and device-as-a-service offerings. They began handling everything from deployment to data management to classroom support. Many called on partners if they couldn’t fill gaps quickly enough on their own.

The Year Ahead

That demand for high-level service is here to stay. School systems are now looking for fewer providers who can handle and bundle more. “”One of the things that separate out the winners and the losers is, how much can you do for your customers?”” says Pikar. He also expects ed-tech budgets to keep growing.

That said, needs have shifted. With many schools getting back to in-person or hybrid learning this fall, the technology focus is moving from enabling remote instruction to improving outcomes no matter where students are. Leger expects to see more districts offering parallel, fully remote programs as permanent alternatives.

Serving schools will also require navigating factors such as local politics, infection rates, and varying levels of digital savvy among educators. As a result, channel pros will likely have to take a hyper-local approach to offerings, tailored to each district. And because COVID conditions can change so rapidly, smart providers should be developing an adaptable and responsive business strategy.

The New Tech Stack

With lessons learned, K-12 educators have clear ideas about future tech spending.

“”It’s so important to meet teachers where they are, what they’re looking for, and how can the tech solve the problem,”” says Stacey Roshan, a teacher, author, and education technology consultant in Maryland.

Here’s what she and other experts say educators are seeking now:

  • Devices. Schools simply need more. “”They’ve gone from nice-to-have to must-have, one-to-one, always on. Devices can’t go down, or a kid is effectively not in school,”” says Pikar.
  • Displays. Projectors are out; high-end multi-angle camera systems are in. Teachers’ flat panels are shifting from whiteboards to remote monitoring screens.
  • Audio. More sophisticated audio allows simultaneous talk and enables the teacher to control audio and be clear from wherever they’re standing, in class or home.
  • Video. Teachers are sold on recording lessons for asynchronous learning, as well as having students deliver assignments via video.

Technology to better serve special needs students and those with limited connectivity at home is in demand now too. Finally, schools that purchased too many apps, tools, and systems want to consolidate the “”technology sprawl”” that resulted from last year’s spending rush, according to Leger.

Help Teachers … Teach

According to an IDC survey of teachers’ biggest post-pandemic needs, engagement with students and parents is No. 1, followed by connectivity. That’s a reversal of what channel pros have come to expect.

Roshan says teachers appreciated what the rapid tech increase allowed them to do, but they’re more excited about employing the new ideas it sparked. For instance, they learned Zoom fatigue can be a challenge, but some students who’d sat silent in the back of the classroom suddenly had a lot to share in the Zoom chat. Now teachers want that capability inside the classroom.

In addition, high-end cameras help students better engage with teachers, while flat screens give teachers a better view of students’ engagement and challenges in real time. Roshan says video has turned out to be a powerful communication tool for reaching parents, too.

“”The educators themselves are in transition, so the demands are just extremely high,”” says Pikar, adding that ed-tech providers now must demonstrate such a high level of understanding about education that Trox is transitioning into a “”pedagogy provider.”” It acquired another company to help meet this goal, and now offers professional development courses for teachers, created by educators. In addition, Trox’s sales team has biweekly training that focuses on teaching, not technology.

Large technology vendors like the Dells and Ciscos of the world are increasingly relying on educators as advisers and implementation specialists to work within schools, according to Leger. There’s no reason channel pros can’t do the same.

Roshan, who frequently acts as a paid or volunteer adviser, says tech providers must be able to understand the teachers’ needs, but also bring useful ideas.

“”You can have the most amazing tool ever, and you won’t see the learning outcomes unless it’s integrated [with lessons] in the most meaningful way,”” says Roshan. In contrast, she says, “”You can have a simple technology that can be amazing when it’s integrated meaningfully.””             

Breaking In

Part of what makes K-12 such a challenging market is the nature of this mostly public sector. School budget processes differ dramatically from business budgeting, plus there are added concerns about using taxpayer dollars wisely and protecting student privacy. Many school systems also have procurement rules that restrict the suppliers they can use, sometimes excluding newer startups.

None of this is likely to change; brand-new providers face a steep learning curve.

“”The ones doing it successfully are those starting from the pedagogy side,”” says Pikar.

He suggests partnering as the best way to break in, by expanding a more experienced provider’s existing catalog of services, for example. Or if you’re a smaller MSP with experience in specific product categories that could be applied to education, a larger vendor may be interested in a partnership or even an acquisition. For example, Leger says, large hardware vendors will bring in a partner or acquire a company that’s good at data management or analytics if its own capabilities aren’t very robust.              

Channel pros already working in K-12 will have to make deeper investments in their expertise and offerings too. Roshan says they’ll be most successful by helping teachers wade through the sea of options or make sense of what they already have.              

“”It takes hours and hours of research, trying and failing and trying another tool,”” she says. A little bit of well-informed guidance from tech experts can jump-start sales and lasting relationships.              

“”Just a one-hour webinar can make all the difference for a teacher,”” Roshan says.

Image: iStock

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