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The pandemic learning curve

Trevor Evans, MD at Consenna discusses the channel’s role in facilitating home learning and how partners can respond to the tech needs of the education sector

Trevor Evans, MD at Consenna had this to say:

How prepared was the Channel to respond to the shift in education created by the Covid pandemic?
One of the many positive facets of working with the Channel is its impressive ability to adapt and evolve. Those players who were already strong, got stronger and those aspiring to be strong, quickly learned how to overtake. Those routine and habitual players, however, remained just that.

Almost overnight, the messaging, content and value-add from some partners switched to “how do I enhance my value in teaching and learning despite not being able to meet in person?”

Indeed, some Channel players did this formidably well. Although it’s an overused expression, those in the Channel who are genuinely ‘customer-centric’ quickly proved this and overcame the obvious restrictions to serve their customers well. Those who merely like to think they’re customer-centric without truly being so, were out-manoeuvred.

This is what’s so compelling about the Channel; it’s the living embodiment of ‘customer first’ and despite the circumstances, many have thrived – those were the ones who view education as a value, not a sector.

How has the education Channel connected with students during C19?
There has been, and continues to be much focus on home schooling, highlighting the critical roles of teachers and parents/careers in this new environment.

In more ‘normal’ times, students collaborating directly with external EdTech providers is uncommon. To better understand this interaction and further enhance the proposition for a vendor customer, we undertook a process to access the ‘student voice’ at the exact time when it was most important.

Students thrive when they are empowered to engage in learning flexibly, on their terms. This promotes independence and greater personal responsibility. Indeed, feedback directly from students revealed mixed experiences as they adapted to learning from home.

Reduced teacher collaboration was evident in some cases as these quotes show:

“…Practical work isn’t the same and breakout discussions are tricky, so there’s definitely less interactivity.”

“…There’s less direct communication from teachers – a greater level of feedback would help address this.”

But there were many positive experiences too, and some students saw unintended benefits and adapted quickly:

“…It’s nice to register each morning with my form via Microsoft Teams.”

“…I actually feel less time-pressured now and I really find it easier to concentrate and work at home; contrary to others.”

We know young people are eager to have it confirmed that their learning is on track and how to improve it further. Teacher engagement for marking and feedback is crucial in this respect and it’s vital that the Channel should listen to students and respond accordingly. After all, they are the ultimate ‘end user’ for whom technology can improve learning. It must also respond to educators for whom there is huge responsibility for the delivery of this learning. Thankfully, I do believe that all parties can navigate a path through and achieve effective collaboration and share best practice.

What was the greatest challenge the Channel faced during the pandemic?
Without a doubt, it was uncertainty. Prolonged, confusing and frequently changing. In a tumultuous period when the government, local authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts, and individual schools were all attempting to piece together the critical ingredients to ensure the purpose of educating students would continue, partners were facing competing voices on a daily basis.

Added to this were the combined effects of an already constrained PC supply, vendors being caught in the firestorm, furloughed staff, new, different and ever-evolving restrictions – and all whilst trying to run their own businesses from home!

The lack of certainty was and remains, a daily assault course.

A former boss of mine once said when asked to define leadership, that it was simply ‘the provision of certainty’. Yet how could anyone deliver certainty in times of such uncertainty? In this respect, it’s clear some in the Channel navigated these very complex and trying times to the benefit of educators. They helped to enable the continuation of education, despite certainty being a rare commodity. Fulfilling the orders, in hindsight, was the easy bit. Enabling the dramatically different world of hybrid learning, was the area that distinguished the very best. This is the certainty that educators seek.

How about the OEMs/vendors? Their role in education had clearly grown in importance over time, but do you think that Covid proved to be a turning point for them?
Only time will tell if the pandemic was truly a turning point for OEMs and vendors. Schools and colleges reward their custom to those who deserve it, who’ve earned it and who support their objectives for teaching and learning.

There have certainly been different approaches from vendors in their pursuit of these goals. When the DfE calls wanting tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of laptops, this commands attention. Vendors have been endeavouring to meet this extraordinary demand whilst maintaining supply for the growing Channel demand. It’s a tricky balance to strike when supply is fixed and so many legitimate voices are asking for it.

One thing I do know is educators will continue to have needs when large central government purchases have been fulfilled – those educators will continue to reward their confidence to those who reciprocate. Vendors must see education as a value, not a segment and act accordingly.

Did the education community itself appreciate how vital technology would become and the support it would require?
Technology has facilitated learning for many years, however, the pandemic accelerated this in a way no-one could have anticipated. Adoption remains far from consistent, and educators will continue to seek support from partners who they trust and who understand their needs.

In this respect, partners who understood there was a real student behind every order for a device, were rewarded during the pandemic and will enjoy long term loyalty in the years ahead.

Those who simply saw rows of numbers and the short-term financial gain, lost sight of what educators value. In fact, their time may already be at an end.

What are the most notable improvements that OEMs and their Channel partners have implemented over the past 12 months and how quickly would they have made these changes otherwise?

All well run businesses aspire for constant improvements. A restless nature and never settling, distinguishes those who ultimately flourish – indeed, it is in moments of heightened pressure, that lasting change happens.

Quite soon, the volume spikes seen in the early stages of the pandemic will reach their first anniversary. It’s unlikely anyone will want to see a YoY decline in any metric, nor will any OEM or Channel partner receive dispensation for any erosion.

When I look across the OEM and Channel landscape and how it has responded over the past year, it’s rewarding to see many notable improvements – desire for greater competitive edge and professional disruption amongst them. A greater focus on the ‘impact’ of technology in learning has been evident in the response by some OEMs and partners, but by no means all. Having an ‘education discount’ or other short-term promotion, is not a substitute for a well-defined, long term and articulated strategy. The pandemic has provoked legitimate questions for OEMs regarding their strategy and priorities in education. History and educators will judge their contribution as being far more than the provision of technology, or not.

Education is not a numbers game, never will be.

What role do promotions and incentives play in driving stronger relationships between vendors, the Channel and the education community?
If done properly, well considered and thoughtful promotions have a role. However, many schools remain suspicious of short-term promotions and the very notion of incentives can be provocative. Strong relationships are rarely sustained on short-term initiatives. Schools seek trusted partnerships and empathetic relationships – those based on consistency and mutual respect. This does not prohibit the use of promotions, but does mean caution and well-intentioned value, are pivotal. For example, in our work with OEMs, Channel partners and the education community, we broker focus groups with a wide range of stakeholders and use this feedback to steer future direction. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps validate a proposed strategy.

One such approach springs to mind. A group of 10 school and college leaders and IT directors was posed the simple question ‘What makes a reseller, the best reseller?’ The consensus was emphatic: The best resellers bring value, not technology; they make communications relevant; they help build the community; they both earn and offer loyalty; and, importantly, they care! Indeed, this last point was particularly well made. As the meeting was wrapping up, one IT Director stressed the point. He said the ‘best’ resellers uphold three golden rules when working with educators: ‘It’s personal; it’s personal, it’s personal’

That’s what drives stronger and lasting relationships. Full stop.

What core components are needed to deliver a successful sales promotion within the ed-tech sector?
Ask yourself, what is the promotion solving for educators, students or parents? All too often, what is being solved is related to the OEM or partner with value to educators being limited.

For example, where an OEM or partner is looking at stock clearance via an offer, the educator may benefit from lower prices, but do they really benefit beyond that? A lower price is not a solution, it’s a tactic. Is your only perceived value, the provision of ever lower pricing?

A Head of IT whom I’m acquainted with at a local Academy, tells me she routinely receives dozens of emails a day, all claiming ‘unmissable’ offers. Most are deleted without even viewing. Rarely, one will catch her eye, distinguished by its thought and care. The level of thought and care that is devoted to planning a sales promotion, in the eyes of the recipient, is directly proportional to its impact.

When the OEM and partner address at least three of the criteria previously mentioned, whilst making a promotion personal, it is far more likely to succeed. If that includes a lower price as an outcome, all the better, however it’s the end, not the starting point.

What does the future hold for the ed-tech space and the relationships that bind it together from OEM to Channel partners and on to the end users?
What binds the future is no different from what drove success in the past. If an educator can envision how a particular solution will help improve classroom outcomes, digital inclusion and enable better teaching, then a discussion will take place. This discussion with a selected partner who inspires confidence, trust and loyalty, will further cement the proposition. This will lead to a lasting relationship. Partners having discussions directly solving a challenge for educators, are seen as part of the team. Those partners become trusted and included in strategic planning and for anyone attempting to penetrate this relationship, they will need something even more compelling.

I was reminded very early in my EdTech career to “never forget there is someone with a thirst for knowledge using your solution. That is a great responsibility, to be discharged with care”. That early leader was right then and remains right now. What we do in education matters and we should treat it as such.

So, what’s next? Will the pre-pandemic style of teaching and learning make a comeback? Will hybrid learning disappear? Will new honed skills be lost? No, no and no. The role of OEMs and Channel partners is not to revert, but innovate; not to be nostalgic, but agitate; to drive classroom change to push outcomes up and eradicate digital inequality. Only then, will all parties be bound, realising the potential of every young person.

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