Education is an odd place in some ways, particularly the schools market. It's often very into all things digital - interactive whiteboards, whole-class software, virtual learning environments, collaborative working - but is also cautious and even reactionary. In the UK political arena, we had e-learning credits, BECTA, Building Schools for the Future. But e-learning credits stopped years ago, and the new Government has abolished BECTA and cut short the BSF programme. Education budgets are stretched so tight that you can hear every penny squeak as it's spent.
The problem for digital products is that ‘the schools market' conceals a wide range of interest and ability among both teachers and learners. The learners are in many cases growing up with a computer in their bedroom, an HDTV and Playstation in the living room, and a smartphone in their pocket. They're always-connected digital natives, whereas some of the teachers can just about cope with chalk on a blackboard. For better or worse, digital is a significant driver for this market even among those who don't actually like it themselves.
So, how do we as publishers create digital products that satisfy the needs of our customers? Who, indeed, are our customers? Are we selling to the mainstream subject teacher, the IT coordinator or the Head?
Teachers, generally, want their lives made easier. Digital means that the publisher can respond quickly to changes in syllabuses or government advice by adapting their materials to suit. Above all, digital means materials that are both useful and discoverable. There's no point our producing the best resources in the world if the teacher can't find them when they're doing their lesson planning!
The IT coordinator wants to maximise the usefulness of their investment in computers and supporting gadgetry while minimising the burden of supporting that investment. So, digital means resources that push the boundaries of what's possible while working on the old PCs that still lurk in dark corners and forgotten supply cupboards. Digital needs to be impressive enough to justify all the expensive new PCs that they bought last year, but not so demanding of resources that the elderly laptop in class 3B won't display them.
The Head wants to keep their staff costs as low as possible. Actually, they want to keep all their costs low, of course, but the major cost is always staff. So, digital means enabling teachers who aren't subject specialists to cover lessons during absences, letting teachers deal with larger-than-normal classes, avoiding the need for staff to cover extracurricular learning, streamlining end-of-year reports or providing cheap staff training. Above all, for the Head, digital is a means to save money in the long term.
It's pretty clear that no one product or system can possibly address all those needs. Indeed, no one company will address them all. For the next few years at least, we're going to continue to see companies opening up successful niches in the marketplace by offering excellent services. We'll also continue to see established players, both old and relatively new, overtaken when they become complacent.
Digital gives us real opportunities to produce better products than we ever have in the past. The challenge is commercial - schools are perennially short of money, and never more so than during a recession. It will be particularly interesting to watch, over the coming months and years, which digital products are compelling enough to carry on selling into schools and which good ideas actually bring in the money.