Taking a bite out of Education markets

Many Canadian students may soon be studying in Internet nirvana. Miss a class? No problem: Watch a recorded version of it on the course Web site. Didn’t get yesterday’s homework assignment? Not to worry: Just pull it up online.

Thanks to technology, the world of education is changing — fast.

Selling into the education market today isn’t as much about hardware and software as it is about integrating technology into the curriculum to improve the students’ learning experience.

Resellers should understand the education market is highly competitive and requires special skills and knowledge — but it’s also full of opportunities. Schools are among the fastest adopters of wireless technology. Mobile computers, combined with wireless networks, allow schools more flexibility — teachers can move computers from classroom to classroom, for example, and students can collaborate on projects over a network from anywhere on campus.

It’s also a market where resellers may come up against big-name vendors that sell directly to schools. IBM Canada, for example, told CDN it is moving toward a direct sales model in the education market. Although some campuses still have resellers, which IBM continues to support, where it doesn’t the company sells directly to students and faculty. Apple Canada sells direct in the K-12 space (using campus resellers in higher education), while Dell also competes against the channel for business in the education market.

“”It’s also a market where a lot of white-box builders play,”” says Frank Haid, vice-president of sales at Tech Data Canada. But he says resellers can benefit from this if they sell components to the builders themselves.

So while the education market offers big opportunities, resellers have to find out when and where these opportunities arise — and how to win business. Not only do they have to offer compelling solutions, but also aggressive pricing.

“”It’s a very competitive market,”” says Haid. “”With schools — and the government sector in general — price is pretty important.”” He says the education sector is traditionally frugal and careful in its technology choices as well.

“”Resellers should have solid knowledge of the programs available to them,”” he says. Vendors who sell through the channel in the education market usually offer specialized programs and pricing; Tech Data’s Web offers a list of programs and pricing for this market.

Haid says resellers should leverage off their partners — distributors, for example, can help with logistics such as configuration and rollout. “”We act as an intermediary to help access the right people within the vendor community,”” he says.

Staying competitive against big-name vendors — and other resellers — is a matter of offering cost-efficient, objective and integrated solutions, according to Michael Quartarone, national director of software solutions at reseller NexInnovations Inc. “”We bring value through solution consulting and end-to-end service,”” he says. This includes providing the infrastructure as well as training.

“”Government customers do not want the added expense of keeping their people certified,”” he says, so they turn to resellers for this type of expertise. “”We make a big investment in on-going training and certifications, and the curriculum covers a wide range of business and professional development courses and technical courses.””

He says organizations that sell to the federal government need to have the capabilities to respond to large, complex, multi-volume RFPs. “”An efficient process must be in place to respond to these RFPs and provide the burden of proof,”” he says. “”There are a lot of rules and regulations that govern procurement and it is important to work with government customers, taking a more prescriptive approach in terms of requirements.””

Like any customer, you need to understand their needs, lay down all the specifications in advance and put a change management process in place that will allow you to identify risks and manage them effectively, he adds.

So what are schools looking for? The biggest trend in education right now is mobility — fast becoming the status quo in the Canadian school system.

Concordia University in Montreal, for example, is rebuilding its network with technology from Cisco Systems to deploy wireless connectivity and IP communications across campus. This will provide a foundation for services such as IP telephony and IP videoconferencing. The university says it will rely heavily on videoconferencing for instructor-led classes, allowing professors to record lectures and video-stream them on course Web sites.

Video distribution and content management is an emerging trend, according to Brantz Myers, national manager of enterprise marketing with Cisco Canada. “”A huge opportunity is the ability to store and retrieve that video,”” he says. If a student misses a class, for example, it can be pulled up on his or her laptop for viewing later.

While laptops and tablet PCs are becoming more common in the classroom, the opportunities for handhelds seem limited for now. In a recent report, Helping with Homework: Handhelds in Education, research firm IDC says handhelds offer pricing, portability and collaborative advantages, but widespread use won’t become more prevalent until software and textbook publishers customize content for handheld functionality — and faculty are trained how to use the devices in classrooms. Until then handhelds will continue to be seen as a complementary technology — though they have the potential to break down significant price barriers in cash-strapped school systems.

While the public sector has the same basic needs as the private sector — save money, improve services — it’s less focused on profit than reaching a specific outcome that will satisfy its clients: taxpayers.

Governments are constantly being challenged to do more with less, says Myers. The biggest challenge for vendors and resellers is showing school boards that spending money can save them money — and provide a better-quality learning environment at the same time.

“”With the public sector, price is very important,”” says Michael Parkhill, director of the academic sector with Microsoft Canada Co. He cites one example of a Canadian school, where 92 per cent of its budget goes toward teachers’ salaries. The rest pays everything else — from the electricity bill to IT. “”And we’re asking for a piece of that budget,”” he says. “”It makes it tough.””

He says the sale has to be tied to improving ROI, which in this case is not about profit but about improving the quality of education. “”It’s got to be a political agenda or a school board initiative,”” he says. “”Our customer is school boards, their customers are students and parents.”” Microsoft uses Authorized Education Resellers (AERs) to sell into the education market since most school boards want to buy from local companies, says Parkhill.

Studies show that student achievement increases 10 to 15 per cent if parents are involved in their child’s education, so Microsoft has a pilot project in place that will allow teachers, students and parents to participate in the education process.

Teachers can e-mail parents, for example, and parents can go online to see what their child is learning and how he or she is doing in class. Students can bring up homework assignments online and even write tests at home if they’re sick.

This technology offers opportunities to tie in business intelligence — to see, for example, if one curriculum is achieving better results than another.

Over time, Parkhill says textbooks will be delivered electronically so teachers can order relevant units instead of entire volumes. “”It hasn’t taken legs yet because publishers are still reluctant,”” he adds.

It all comes down to pervasive

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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