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Education technology: the changing landscape

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When Steljes Ltd went into administration, it was the latest in a series events shaking up the education technology sector in recent months. Changes of ownership; changes of distribution partners; new entrants to the market – if thought that the changes triggered by the replacement of IWBs with IFPDs were over, nothing could be further from the truth. AV News unravels it all.

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Prior to BETT this year, the education technology segment of the AV business appeared a calmly successful place, with all-concerned quietly making money, striking alliances and developing new technologies as required – and comfortable with idea that escalating demand for IFPDs was sufficient to provide everybody with revenue growth, and to encourage new entrants at a manageable rate.

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Just six months after the BETT show, many of the assumptions that we felt safe in making about manufactures, distributors and even products are still up in the air. In the IWB era, the choice for resellers and their customers was a simple one, Promethean v SMART. This initial choice would determine everything – hardware, software and access to learning resources.

The arrival of the IFPD, and the subsequent success of Clevertouch (complemented by Hitachi, BenQ, CTOUCH, Geneeworld and iBoard Touch, has created an environment where vendors with touchscreen capabilities have identified the classroom as a target market. The CE vendors Samsung and LG have clear hardware advantage. Avocor’s VIVIDtouch ECOtouch from BVS Touchscreens have the further advantage of an education background. For a while, the rise of the IFPD seemed to wrong-foot SMART and Promethean, giving these new suppliers a foothold in the market for their differentiated solutions.

Speed of change

As Head of UKI and ANZ at Promethean, Alistair Hayward believes that the Steljes Ltd administration has accelerated changes in the education technology landscape. He draws parallels with earlier changes in the education technology paradigm:

“The speed at which IFPDs have significantly taken over IWB sales in the UK market has not surprisingly given rise to a number of new entrants – which was exactly the case in the early days of the IWB market growth. However, these new entrants have appeared at the same time as Steljes – a long established distributor in this space – going into administration. These factors were always going to create a lot of unrest in the market for resellers, but the impact on end-users is a little less clear, as they are not as close to the routes to market as channel operators.”

“That aside, when you look at the changes collectively, what we are seeing is a lot of instability and uncertainty. Because what has become increasingly apparent over the past few years, is that financial security is a critical success factor in being able to sustain a profitable and long term operation in IFPDs – because it is without doubt an expensive product to bring to market.”

Promethean has been through changes itself, which provides the financial support to grow its market and extend its product range. Now part of the larger NetDragon Websoft group: “Promethean can offer our channel partners, and end-users, the assurances that the company will be here in the long term. Whether that’s to fulfil any warranties, support technology growth or invest in future product innovation. Moreover, with the summer installation now upon us, it will only be a matter of weeks before we see which vendors come out on top.”

Compatibility

With significant numbers of educational buyers still undergoing the IWB to IFPD transition, a number of newer vendors have identified compatibility with content created in the SMART or Promethean environments as an important feature in minimising disruption. But if legacy content is compatible with other panels, does it actually matter which hardware customers buy?

Rahim Habib is SMART’s Product Marketing and Business Development Manager for EMEA. He believes that there is a fundamental difference between SMART and SMART-compatible hardware: “Our interactive displays are purpose-built for education using a programmatic approach. We’ve applied our 25+ years of experience to design touch and collaboration technology that, combined with SMART software, offer students and teachers a natural learning experience.”

“SMART software is optimised for use with SMART interactive displays.  When used together, it provides educators and learners with a complete collaborative and interactive experience. This stems from the combination of the SMART software with SMART drivers, and firmware working in unison with SMART interactive displays. It is important to highlight that purchasing SMART interactive displays is the most economical way to get SMART software.”

“Our IFPDs have unique features and capabilities that are of relevant pedagogical value: Silktouch, provides an accurate, smooth and responsive touch interaction experience; SMART ink for a natural, fluid and responsive digital ink experience; Pen ID allows two students the freedom to simultaneously interact with lesson content in the pen colour of their choice; and Object awareness offers an intuitive collaborative experience, by automatically detecting pen, finger or palm.”

“From a hardware perspective, the SMART kapp iQ interactive flat panel is specifically designed to deliver a complete, all-in-one classroom solution. It provides educators with the flexibility to deliver lessons across a range of learning and instructional styles, including whole-class, small group and individual instruction. Educators are equipped with simple, one-touch access to a full range of classroom applications for a fully integrated experience with student devices. They have seamless access to the applications they use every day, without the need to physically connect to an external computer.”

Budgetary considerations

But limited budgets are limited budgets, and some education buyers feel compelled to stretch their budgets by considering lower-cost options. Hayward argues that this can be a false economy:

“Hardware is one part of a modern classroom, alongside pedagogy and space. But hardware is only ever a delivery mechanism for content – whether that is software, educational apps or simply video content. A school should always approach its investment in IFPDs from a holistic perspective. Cloud-based content with educational apps is noticeably on the rise, but as we’ve seen time-and-time again with Academy Trusts upgrading their estates – there is still very high demand for ActivInspire.”

Conceived as an integrated teaching solution, Hayward says that the ActivPanel and associated ActivInspire software has been designed will the latest advances in pedagogy in mind. But the choice of teaching approach is left to the teacher:

“The advances in IFPD technology over the past year alone have taken it light years ahead of where IWBs broke the interactive teaching ground. No longer a passive display device, IFPDs have become an intelligent display system which acts as a collaboration hub within the classroom.”

He continues: “We’ve basically put the freedom and control back in the hands of the teacher. Teachers can choose what educational apps they want to use on it. Teacher can also choose how they want to use the technology to support teaching and learning – so for one, instant whiteboarding might be a key feature, while for another, being able to wirelessly mirror content from student devices to the front of class might be more of a prominent feature.”

Habib also contends that SMART solutions have the capability to support advances in pedagogy:

“Our end goal is to design and produce hardware and software solutions that are simple, natural, easy-to-use as well as being bespoke and mobile-ready.  We take a programmatic approach, based on our research and experience, in designing our interactive displays and software – the connection between pedagogy and technology being key as opposed to just a specification.”

Software continuity

Hayward says that the importance of software continuity should not be undervalued when transitioning a school to IFPDs and as such is an important sales benefit:

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“Let’s not forget that the ActivPanel is supplied with ActivInspire software. For some schools, making the transition from IWBs to IFPDs is made more seamless by the availability of ActivInspire, as it is a tried and tested teaching resource. For others, who may be moving straight to IFPDs, the instant whiteboarding and third party connectivity might be the natural progression into teaching technology. “

“Importantly, end-users need to be aware that ActivInspire is supplied with a free license for use with the ActivPanel – so no annual renewal costs. In the past we’ve seen cases where schools have been misled into thinking they can use existing ActivInspire software packages on other brands of IFPD. This is not the case; leading some schools to breach software license terms which ultimately damages customer relationships for channel partners. If a school wishes to use ActivInspire on any other IFPD, they must purchase a license.”

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With the momentum in favour of change, some of the new vendors entering the education technology market are questioning the value of sticking with the established software offerings. Clevertouch, for example, supports its users with a dedicated App Store. Avocor argues that teachers are just like the rest of us, using Microsoft’s Office applications for developing and even presenting teaching materials. So why not operate the IFPD within the Windows 10 environment? Furthermore, if the ultimate goal is to produce students to work in Microsoft and Google environments, why not teach them with software tools native to than environment?

Hayward believes that: “Again, this comes down to individual choice. With advances in IFPD technology, the school is free to choose exactly which software they wish to use – according to their own ICT strategy. This is why our design philosophy has been to build products which mirror the way users consume and use content. For example, the ActivPanel has an open platform which means teachers can choose to use the in-built apps or access any app store of their choice, whether that’s Google or Microsoft.”

Habib underlines the open nature of SMART solutions: “SMART software, specifically SMART amp, leverages Google Apps for Education (GAFE) to take co-creation and student-led learning and collaboration to a whole new level.  SMART amp brings the whole class, groups of students or individuals together in a shared space in the cloud to work on projects, add multimedia content and instant messaging.”

“This is all done using student devices and while tracking contributions from each student. It means educators have insight into who is contributing and the type of content it is. For students, they experience collaborating using devices in a Google environment.  SMART amp is optimised for use with SMART interactive displays. It is important to emphasize that our software roadmap is dedicated to cloud computing for ubiquitous, anywhere/anytime access.”

Classroom hub

Hayward believes that comparison with other solutions, based purely on the role of an IFPD as a front-of-class display, is to miss the point:

“We need to move the conversation away from talking about the IFPD as an isolated piece of kit. As an intelligent classroom system, it is much more than a display device. To achieve the maximum return on the investment made, the IFPD needs to be assessed in the classroom environment and school ICT infrastructure as a whole.  For example, the ActivPanel can act as a wireless hotspot for up to 5 student devices, which can translate into cost savings elsewhere in the ICT network.”

Whichever software environment the customer chooses, it important to make sure they are aware of the financial implications. Hayward explains: “Software licensing is also a major consideration. Buying an ActivPanel means the purchase of a one-time ActivInspire license (supplied as part of the ActivPanel package) – so no annual renewal fees nor any plans to monetise in the future. By choosing any other IFPD, the school would have to purchase a separate software license at an additional cost.”

Choosing a supplier

When customers put their faith in a particular brand of hardware or software, the quality and technology cannot be the only consideration: “Perhaps most important, is the financial stability of the company. Long established in the education market, the Promethean brand brings proven pedigree and peace of mind that we’ll be here in the future should a warranty ever need to be called upon.”

Of similar importance, is understanding true total cost of the chosen solution. A key part of the cost-justification of the CTOUCH solution is that the price includes the total package, not just the IFPD. The recently introduced ECOtouch range from BVS Touchscreens (an associate of Go Education company) includes an installation kit, and so no extra costs. Hayward concurs, saying: “Essentially, we’re trying to educate the market that cost of purchase is not just the cost of the IFPD itself. Factor in all of the seemingly peripheral elements because as a holistic package this is where the long term value lies.”

Warranties and support arrangements can also be critical, particularly when a school has limited access to tech support. On changing its distributor from Steljes Ltd to Midwich the new distributor both added to its credit facility for partners selling SMART (to the tune of some £30 million) and has set up a dedicated interactive team. Headed up by Richard Bovingdon, the new team will offer resellers dedicated product management and internal and external sales specialists. They will they will also support and work alongside SMART’s channel management team offering additional support and resource to all SMART customers and the wider AV/IT channel.

Bovingdon explains: “As per our existing interactive value add, we will be able to offer demonstration services and actively work with SMART’s end-user team who are extremely proactive in supporting partners at end-user level. The team within SMART are from teaching and enterprise backgrounds and have a wealth of knowledge within their respective verticals. The interactive team will shadow and offer additional support as we learn how SMART solutions are enabling better teaching and learning outcomes within education and improving business efficiencies within the corporate space.”

For Promethean users, Hayward explains: “We have experience of the common pain points in the unfortunate event something does go wrong with the technology. We know that a warranty can’t just be a return to factory – schools need minimum downtime which dictates an on-site warranty. Again, the ActivPanel comes with an on-site warranty backed by a financially secure company who will be here to honour it in the future, should it be needed.”

Advice to end-users on making a wise choice

In what has the potential to become a bit of a minefield for schools, Alistair Hayward recommends a top line checklist for schools extending their investment in education technology:

  • Verify the financial stability of the manufacturer – you need to be sure that a 7-year warranty can be honoured if
  • it is needed in 7 years’ time.
  • Understand the software licensing terms surrounding any software you wish to use on the IFPD. Software used on previous IWBs does not necessarily transfer over to an investment in a new IFPD.
  • Explore the longevity of the hardware investment. Check that it can keep pace with advances in computer processing power for at least the next 3 to 5 years.

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