With the supply in the edtech market booming, what do we know about edtech demand? Our latest publication, in partnership with the Charter School Growth Fund, “Schools and software: What’s now and what’s next,” dives into what school systems at the frontier of technology integration want software to do for them.

The white paper synthesizes data from interviews with 30 small- to medium-sized school systems—both districts and charter management organizations—serving between 2,500 to 25,000 students. Our sample focused on early adopters of this size, or school systems that have made a concerted effort to pursue blended learning in their classrooms and build strategic technology infrastructure in their central offices.

We wanted to understand how exactly these school systems are using software across the enterprise. We also wanted to identify what gaps or pain points they are experiencing in implementation. To this end, we documented current usage trends and pain points across these school systems, including software maps showing the specific products that they have chosen to use, and how those disparate tools do and don’t connect.

Some of the most profound pain points that schools talked about are common across school systems of all sizes, particularly those implementing blended learning. For example, schools had trouble reliably sorting academic software for quality, integrating a wide range of tools, or getting actionable data out of software programs. Other challenges, however, like a lack of affordable operations and HR software and difficulty convincing vendors to customize to their needs, reflect tradeoffs and challenges unique to small- to medium-sized school systems.

Takeaways? Looking for better information and integration
You can read a summary by my co-author Alex Hernandez of five of our key takeaways today on EdSurge. For me, the most powerful takeaway is that the market is not sorting in a manner that optimizes for school systems’ priorities. There is a stark contrast between how school systems actually use software products versus the features, functions, and fidelity that the supply side of the market tends to emphasize. Many vendors fail to design for the particular use cases and circumstances that schools face and instead try to build one-size-fits-all products suited to all students, with an emphasis on a very precise model that schools should adopt in order to implement such products with fidelity. In reality, however, schools are turning to numerous tools for different purposes, depending on their students’ and staff’s needs, even within a single subject matter or department.

Good information is also hard to come by because of the lack of integration among different products, which in turn contributes to a dearth of actionable data coming out of such programs. As a result, educators’ trust in software products waivers, which makes software implementation an uphill battle for school systems attempting to spearhead new technology efforts.

Better information on how software is actually used—or how schools actually want to use it—and in what cases it is successful, could dramatically shift the edtech conversation. We could move from calling for the ever-elusive information on “what works”—full stop—to more realistic, precise, and useful information about “what works, for what students, in what circumstances.”

Looking ahead
In addition to taking a snapshot of current software use across these 30 school systems, we wanted to look ahead in the edtech market—using what these early adopters are doing, what disruptive innovation theory tells us, and what new products are emerging on the horizon—to make predictions and consider opportunities. To this end, we also provide our own “what’s next” analysis of what we think is coming next in the academic software, operations software, central platforms, data integration, hardware, and IT management markets in the years to come. For example, we anticipate the growth of tools that solve for software integration—either through third-party integration and analytics tools or better-integrated software platforms that unify content from a variety of providers. We also see a compelling space for lower-cost integrated back office software to market to school systems of this size.

The bad news is that solving for some of the information gaps and cooperation issues in the edtech market will be challenging. The good news, however, is that we have a pretty clear sense of what a strong set of early adopters would like to see, and we’ve highlighted a number of opportunities for entrepreneurs, existing companies, and investors to address. Our hope is that this paper will show vendors and investors a new perspective on the realities of technology procurement and implementation in school systems of this size, as well as surface common software needs across such school systems that might band together to make their demands better known.

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