Noisy customers

By:

Aug 19, 2010

This week, Pennsylvania’s Sun Gazette reported here that Muncy School District has developed online courses at a cost of “pennies on the dollar” compared to buying virtual courses from a professional company. Similarly, a high-school principal in Washington State recently told me that his school plans to abandon its reputable online course provider in favor of a lower cost, lower-end alternative.

Muncy School District’s home-grown solution might be stellar. (Note, by the way, that Muncy may be comparing apples to oranges—the cost of a home-grown course versus the cost of a full-time virtual school. Apex Learning gives districts access to its course catalog for around $100 per student, for example.) However, the underlying attitude of securing the lowest-cost solution, while dismissing high quality as out of reach, is alarming. Even in the face of tight budgets, schools that over emphasize cost naively assume that they cannot afford high quality. In fact, with a little resourcefulness and extra effort, even the most budget-strapped programs can demand high quality in their online content and tools providers. Here are a few ideas:

1. Leverage size. When strategy consultants conduct a cost cutting study for a client, they typically begin by asking where the client can take advantage of economies of scale. Can dry cleaners across the region band together to cut a better deal with one chemical supplier? Can a network of doctor offices work together to secure a better deal on office supplies?  Similarly, schools can become more powerful purchasers of online tools and content by bandying together. Suppliers will work harder for the business—both in terms of lowering costs and offering higher quality assurances—if in exchange they get a bigger deal. Small schools and districts, home-school parent groups, and other small markets will especially benefit from purchasing collectively.

2. Set clear specifications. Smart purchasers define the performance requirements of the product or service they are buying, and then they measure carefully to ensure their purchase hits those targets. They build teeth into their contracts to penalize suppliers whose products do not fulfill their promises. The movement towards national standards—even international standards—is commendable to this end, in that such standards will help educators understand, and then demand, products that hit measurable specifications. Ideally, educators will consider their students’ emotional, social, physical and moral well being as well when considering what set of online and face-to-face experiences measures up. These features are essential—not just bonus add-ons if there’s enough money. Smart buyers will demand them.

3. Be noisy. Small customers are increasingly powerful these days, thanks to the Internet—blogs, emails, and website reviews. As purchasers of online courses and tools, schools are customers. School leaders should speak up, set the bar high, and complain when providers fall short. Which tools are working for which students, and in which circumstances? Track results, and then use the Internet to share results and search for better options for each category of learners.

Schools and parents can be strong, powerful customers. Instead of weakly opting for the lowest-cost option that limps into view, purchasers of online education systems and content can take control.

Heather is an adjunct researcher for the Christensen Institute and president of Ready to Blend. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools and co-founder of Brain Chase Productions, which produces online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for students in grades 1-8.