Educators and vendors often report friction in their interactions. We hope to dig deeper into those feelings, facilitating discussion and generating ideas for innovation. This piece kicks off a series of conversations among key players in K-12 purchasing.
The moderator is Nicole Neal, CEO of Noodle Markets, the nation’s only national marketplace and purchasing platform exclusively focused on K-12 education. Participating are Dr. Thomas Ralston, Superintendent of Avonworth School District in Pennsylvania, and Colette Coleman of Zinc Learning Labs, an online literacy platform for middle and high school students.
NN: Thank you so much for your time today. When we talk about advancing K-12 educational systems and outcomes, we have to know the people involved, their goals, what takes up their time — especially when their effectiveness is a lever for student success.
You both have jobs that run the gamut of responsibilities. What has today brought you so far?
TR: Well, you said it! I wear many hats as superintendent. I just stepped out of a meeting, actually, with two teachers helping them design a project that we hope will lead to the building of a food truck. I love to be involved in the daily operations of schools. That’s my passion — supporting engaging learning opportunities for kids.
NN: Tom, do you have a typical day?
TR: My day is never typical. I’m pulled in a hundred different directions, whether it’s representing [the district] at regional events, putting out fires, or researching best practices.
I also have interactions with vendors. Lately, I’ve been looking for personalized learning or competency-based education resources. That said, I try to spend most of my time in classrooms and in school buildings. Less time on the phone or trying to clean up issues, more time looking at myself as the lead learner in the district.
NN: Colette, tell us about your typical day. What fills up your time?
CC: I have to agree that there isn’t a typical day in my field, either. Even though I work in sales, what some might not realize is a lot of my time is spent with customer support and community engagement. This summer we integrated into the College Board SpringBoard Digital platform which means that we’ve added a couple hundred thousand new users. So, we have all of these students, teachers, and administrators coming back to school with a new product they want to use, but don’t necessarily know how to.
I also lead marketing efforts, [which includes] applying to speak at conferences, writing blog posts or trying to get featured in articles. We try to attract customers to us, not just hound people.
NN: Is it fair to say that customer support is your biggest focus, after your sales and marketing responsibilities?
CC: They are intertwined. Let’s say that I helped somebody six months ago … if something comes up, there is a dedicated support person, but they reach out to me first, because I’m the one that has the relationship.
TR: If I could interject, that word “relationship” is really important to us. I want to develop a relationship with people that we’re working with. We have to feel like there is trust — and that we are working together for a common goal. It’s not just about a business relationship.
CC: I think that is what happens. Our clients will come to me with really technical questions, and sometimes I don’t know the answer. But I’m the one they trust. I work to make sure the problem gets solved.
TR: That responsiveness is really important.
NN: You both talk about the importance of relationships and trust. So, why do you think, Tom, that there is this friction that often exists between educators and vendors?
TR: Educators don’t want to feel like we are just a sales opportunity. We want to feel like we are working with someone who has a common goal and has an investment in what is best for kids.
This past spring, we were out at the ASU/GSV conference in San Diego. Just walking up to the vendor area was so overwhelming for me. I was looking for products that would assist us with our goals, but it was overload. There was so much to see, and I was just trying to process. I didn’t walk away with anything helpful, because there was so much.
NN: It sounds like some of the frustration isn’t with actual vendors. It’s more with processes. Colette, where do you think the friction comes from?
CC: I agree with Tom. As a human being, I hate being sold to. But I think that in any field, there can be a few bad apples who ruin it for others. I think most people who choose to work in ed tech and ed sales choose education, because they genuinely care. But there are a few who just care about money.
NN: Tom, what do you do when you get the feeling someone is just trying to make a sale?
TR: I pull back, obviously. I quickly evaluate if this is a person or company that’s worth a relationship.
After my first year as superintendent, I saw that there were some aspects of the IT department in-house that just weren’t working well. We luckily found a great local company. For us, responsiveness was key.
Outsourcing our IT, initially we had some bumps, but the company’s responsiveness told us that even though we are a small district, they are committed. This company is in other districts that are 5 or 6 times larger than Avonworth, but they always see it through for us. Five years later, here we are. That relationship is stronger than it ever has been.
NN: What are some of the other characteristics that make you say “Great!” when you think about a particular vendor?
TR: Well, customization is really important. We are a small district. We don’t have a huge budget so usually when I see something that is intriguing, I’ll ask, “Is this something we can pilot on a small scale before we decide that we want to go all in on it?” We appreciate the willingness for the company to customize things to our needs. The most successful relationships we’ve had, we’ve worked with vendors who say, “Yes. Let’s talk about different ways to make this work for you. You tell us your needs, and we’re willing to see if that works for us.”
NN: The desire for pilots definitely seems to be intensifying. We hear this often from school purchasers, and I had the same thing during my time at SchoolNet. In our early days, that was not easy, because pilots are very expensive–both in time and money– especially when they don’t end in a sale. For most people, you think, that’s the cost of doing business. But for small, innovative edtech companies that can really hurt the bottom line.
CC: Well said. We’ve been lucky to be able to do a lot of pilots for schools, but one frustrating experience came after completing a large scale, 12-week pilot. I spoke to the ELA coach once a week with check-in calls. Teachers loved the product. Students loved the product. They saw growth.
Then, the school couldn’t purchase the product because we weren’t on a list of approved vendors for their district. And the way to get on the list is through an RFP that is only released once a year. It didn’t make sense to me. If students benefitted, and the school had a positive experience, why is there this red tape to keep them from our product?
TR: I definitely see the battle that some newer companies have. Our district was happy to take part in a cool initiative locally, supported by the Sprout Fund. It builds relationships between tech startups and school districts, creating a feedback loop for the two — focusing on how to improve products. A lot of these startups were run by young people, and they had great ideas, but they didn’t know how to market or present to schools.
Something else that helped was support Digital Promise provided for us developing feedback loops between our school stakeholders (teachers, parents, students, administrators) and ed-tech companies, namely eSpark and Digital Dreamlabs. This was a Gates Foundation-supported program that was very successful in getting all parties talking.
NN: Colette, have you taken part in any initiatives that make you hopeful?
Well, it goes back to this idea that nobody likes to be sold to. I don’t like a product pushed on me. I’m really excited about programs that are acting as middlemen, to connect educators to tools that are a good fit for them. One example is iZone’s Short Cycle Evaluation Challenge, which we are currently participating in. NYC is a pretty overwhelming district to get into, but through this program, the teachers are able to first select us from other products and do an organized pilot with feedback.
I think Noodle Markets is a great initiative as well, because educators are explaining their needs and then alerting vendors they are interested in. As a vendor, I’m just seeing exactly, “Oh this school needs this. Is it a match for me?” If it is, great! If it’s not, let’s move on.
I’m also really excited for initiatives to have teachers and other stakeholders involved in the purchasing process, whether it’s exploring a marketplace or just having more of a voice. Ultimately, innovation here will eliminate this need for people pushing things on people that they don’t really want.
NN: So Tom, what’s your hope for the future?
TR: Overall, we just want to find people we can rely upon, and be able to say, “This is what we’re looking for. This is how we’re building our program and maybe what we want to do is very out of the ordinary.”
We have relationships with companies who are willing to customize and be responsive. These are people who aren’t trying to nail us down with commitments until we’re ready with research to show that a product is useful. Those relationships matter.
NN: “Relationships matter.” Great final words. Many thanks to you both.
Colette Coleman is the Director of Marketing and Community Engagement at Zinc Learning Labs. A former Teach For America and international school teacher, she’s an active observer of ed tech and writer on trends in this sector.
Dr. Thomas Ralston is the Superintendent of Avonworth School District, a Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools District. Prior to becoming Superintendent, he served as principal of the Avonworth Middle School for six years. During his tenure as principal, the middle school was named a Pennsylvania Donald Eichhorn School to Watch in 2009 and 2012. Dr. Ralston was also named the Pennsylvania Middle School Association Administrator of the Year in 2010.