Michael E. Spencer is Founder and CEO at Global Expansion Strategies, an international investment and advisory firm that helps early-stage education technology companies expand internationally. He is a former co-founder & CEO of ASSIST Education, senior director of international business at K12, and senior vice president of The American Education Corporation. An ed-tech industry veteran, he has been president and founder of One2OneMate and vice president and co-founder of QuickPAD Technology Corporation and H45 Technology. At these and other award-winning Silicon Valley startups, he has led aggressive domestic and international expansions.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the world were forced to pivot and deliver their education entirely online. Students in some countries return to class, education is not the same as it was. I’m seeing a blended model that combines in-class instruction with online components. Where schools once developed their curricula for face-to-face instruction using online resources for support, this hybrid model is based on group instruction or individual study online, with in-class time focused on a one-on-one or small-group support. I’ve seen several international institutions make tremendous progress towards hybrid and blended learning, but what does that mean for the publishers and technology companies that are reeling from the onslaught of recent changes and trying to find their place in a transformed tech landscape?
Relationships Before Sales
When schools first closed, there was a concerted, industry-wide effort to move content online and provide teachers the tools they needed to keep the learning going. Many companies showed themselves to be good corporate citizens by offering their resources for free, while schools soon concluded that the balance of this year was going to be spent troubleshooting the new online model.
As we near the end of the academic year in the U.S, schools are starting to look downstream. I wouldn’t say they’re back in the business of looking at new technologies, but they’re starting to explore what might be available out there. Of course, this comes at a time when many schools in all parts of the world are facing daunting budget cuts, so it would be my highest recommendation to education companies that they understand not only how to sell their technology to a school, but also how to make it available in multiple blended learning models.
The goal is not to make a sale but to establish a relationship with that school, to keep the dialogue going. As an ed-tech provider, you have to be very transparent at this stage, and the most effective way to get buy-in from the decision-makers at the school is to go the extra mile to help them understand how your product or service fits into their hybrid/blended learning environment.
What Do Schools Need Now?
In this market, schools will be looking for SaaS products featuring content that can be engaging on its own, putting less of a burden on live session instruction while still moving each student down their learning path.
I also see the device business picking up. Chromebooks, notebooks, and tablets are an essential tool in blended learning. In essence, they serve as thin clients, Internet-enabled devices that students use to log onto the platform that houses the content they need to learn.
Addressing Digital Inequity
Whenever educators talk about online learning, equity is an issue. There’s going to continue to be inequality all over the world, be it lack of devices, lack of Internet access, lack of money to pay for other resources. However, what I am seeing internationally is a tremendous amount of corporate involvement from entities that provide communications, Internet access, devices, and even publishers in getting content, devices, and access to those populations that didn’t have access in the past.
They’re doing so to provide a philanthropic resource to the schools, but they also know that, at some point, these resources won’t continue to be free. The calculation they are making is that if they grow their user base and create goodwill now, there will be a larger base to pay for their products and services down the road.
“Free for now” is a legitimate business model, but with schools facing tremendous budget cuts in the coming months, there’s potential for a considerable disconnect there. It’s something edtech companies will have to be cautious and tactful about.
Diversifying Revenue Streams
In my work with edtech companies looking to move into the international education market, I see tremendous opportunities outside the United States for online content. Companies just need to understand what they need to do—often, it doesn’t take a lot of heavy lifting.
The sales cycle is a year to a year-and-half, just like in the United States. But in the international space, you have less likelihood of getting to the end of that sales cycle and being told there’s no more funding or hearing other various versions of “no.”
In the United States, the decision-making is fragmented. In my experience, the more people involved in a decision, the better chance that one of them will be unwilling to leap into working with a new company or technology.
In the international space, by contrast, the decision-making is usually led by a very small team, which gives edtech providers a better chance to establish that all-important relationship and offer a comprehensive vision of what they can offer. When we take products internationally, not only do we present the value proposition to the entire management team at the school, but we also talk to them about economics and academics. In a time when not only budgets but the very structure of education is in flux, extolling the features of your product just won’t cut it. You’ve got to be ready and eager to explain how everybody that touches it—teachers, students, parents, administrators—will benefit.