How resellers can cash in on school tech turmoil

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This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of CRN magazine.

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How resellers can cash in on school tech turmoil

The massive, federally funded student laptop rollout unveiled in the early days of the Rudd government has well and truly come to an end. This is driving an important shift across Australia, as schools move to BYOD. But many have discovered that it isn’t as simple nor as cheap as it might first appear. 

As the Digital Education Revolution program – perhaps better known as ‘computers for schools’ – ended in June, schools face myriad choices. What sort of style of BYOD? Which devices: Windows laptops, Chromebooks, iPads or other? How will their networks cope? Who will support and manage their IT infrastructure? All of this creates both challenges and opportunities for resellers. 

A lot is at stake. Some say business slowed due to the wind-down of the National Secondary School Computer Fund (NSSC), under which hundreds of thousands of laptops were supplied. Without that money, some worry schools will move to cheaper devices like Chromebooks and resellers will take a hit. However, others say opportunities still exist. IT providers report interest in everything from interactive projectors, app development and managed services. When it comes to sales of computers, some say the business is still there; it’s just that the schools are not necessarily the ones spending. 

Microsoft called the upcoming Back to School period as “like no other [education] buying season in history”. 

“There are significant changes in the market including a shift to BYOD, a growing move away from institutional purchase towards students buying devices from retailers, and the devolution of the decision-making from systems to schools and parents,” wrote Microsoft education industry development manager Ray Fleming in a blog.

Talk to the PC vendors and you get a rosy picture of what all this means for partners. Lenovo’s education industry lead, Paul Hutchings, says this could be a big opportunity as decision-making shifts to the individual schools. While state schools still have access to funding programs, they don’t have the money for the kind of wide-scale student laptop rollouts that they did previously. Individual schools are increasingly making the decisions about which path to take. With such a dispersed customer base, the channel should come into its own.

“Potentially 9,000 schools over time [nationally] will be making 9,000 independent ICT divisions,” Hutchings tells CRN. “Our ability to scale and influence 9,000 individual contracts is exceptionally challenged. The opportunity for us is to work with strategic education partners to advise. We’ve got a fantastic opportunity because these schools are not necessarily sure of the best model to take.”

Hutchings says that roughly a quarter of all devices in the education system are Lenovo devices (based on IDC data), which he equates to roughly 100,000 units annually. Customers include St Mary’s College in South Australia and Sydney University.

 


Read more: Four hot products for education resellers


 

Also seeing an opportunity is Jason King, national sales manager at reseller ASI Solutions, which supplies Lenovo, Acer and Apple. “Vendors can probably support one government department with a big order. But they may struggle to supply PCs to 2,300 individual schools [in NSW],” he says.

He says direct contracts between state education departments and vendors meant ASI Solutions sometimes didn’t get a look-in in the past. Now he anticipates dealing directly with more schools.

“There’s not going to be such big money, but the schools seem to be making their own decisions on who they work with, which is a good opportunity for us because we can work on a per-school scenario rather than a state-wide contract,” he says.

ASI Solutions has taken advantage of this trend by creating a purchasing portal for each school. The system was created in late 2013 and a number of state schools are using it. “This is all new to state schools; they’ve never done BYOD programs for parents,” King says. “We see it as a growing part of our business.”

More opportunities

Audio-visual systems are another opportunity. PCS Australia supplies AV presentation systems, including projectors and LCD TVs. The company’s CEO, Syd Borg, has also struck a deal to deploy presentation technology in school halls. Interactive and touch LCD screens get the thumbs up from Borg. “In my opinion, the life of the old electronic interactive whiteboard has almost died. They’re a pain in the arse. They’re always needing calibration, they’re unreliable.”

Dell sells interactive projectors, such as its Dell Projector Solutions S520. “A lot of schools, even though they’re not spending on PCs, may want to update the classroom,” argues Dell’s general manager, end user computing ANZ, Jeff Morris.

Networking is another boom area, particularly wireless infrastructure. The education sector was an early adopter of 802.11ac, with integrators telling CRN it has been a hit across Catholic schools, independent schools and universities.

However, closing these deals takes time. “These contracts don’t just pop up and you win them. You’ve got to spend a lot of time with these organisations,” says Morris. “This is not easy when the money is running out, and there isn’t really one size that fits all. There are a lot of stakeholders involved in the decision-making process.”

Borg concurs that it has not been easy going. “There is no doubt things have slowed down at a great rate of knots in educational institutions. We’ve heard of no new projects in the last three or four months. There has been a significant turnaround for the negative, from my perspective,” he told CRN back in June.

While vendors may tout opportunities for partners, Borg isn’t convinced. “It’s gets tougher. Every little dollar gets stretched further, and that’s going to invite the major manufacturers to do deals direct because they don’t want to lose the business at the end of the day.”

Some say the IT providers that succeed will be those that understand how something called pedagogy is influencing schools’ technology decisions. In a nutshell, schools think first about what students need to learn and what is the best way to teach them. Replacing textbooks with digital versions won’t necessarily lead to better results in the classroom. Tablets might be effective for younger students, but less so for year 12 students, compared with laptops. Some teachers might want to loosen the reins on students’ use of technology, whereas others might opt for a more prescriptive approach.

The lesson is that resellers shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, says Joseph Sweeney, advisor at research firm IBRS. “You may have a classroom full of students who have laptops at home, but you may have a classroom of students who are lucky to get breakfast, so asking them to bring a laptop is not going to work. Your discussions are going to be very different on a school-by-school basis.

“You can’t approach this in a perfectly centralised manner. It will not hurt you to get on recommendation boards, but at the end of the day we’re going back to a purchasing model that is more like the 1990s than the 2000s,” he adds.

IT providers are making more offbeat inroads into schools, beyond hardware sales. ASI’s King says one of the biggest challenges in education right now is tackling teacher effectiveness. The company has invested in development of an app called Verso. It has been designed to expose students’ thinking by allowing teachers to pose questions in the form of ‘flips’, which might include a YouTube video or link to an article. Students can only see other students’ comments by first submitting their own anonymous comment, encouraging them to participate. Teachers can see who is and isn’t participating and look at the comments to help tailor lesson plans.

At time of writing, Verso was preparing an enterprise version, which would provide a real-time view of students’ engagement across the school, a bit like a Twitter feed showing which questions are being asked. The app tracks teachers’ progress, showing which teachers are emerging as ‘leaders’, the number of responses, as well as the top five trending flips in the school.

“If a school has bought 1,000 iPads, there’s half-a-million dollars worth in investment. We don’t know to what extent they are being used,” says King. “Technology can put 30 apps on a device, or per type of student, but we don’t know what or who they are being used for. Verso Campus shows you where the questions are being asked.” The app was launched in late 2013 and is used in 1,700 schools in 95 countries, according to the Verso website.

Behind the scenes

For many, the real opportunity rests with the infrastructure behind the device. For instance, Melbourne reseller Source Central Partners has had success with a new school that chief executive Brendan Redpath dubbed a “cloud school”. The school is only using Google apps for education and running a virtual server in Amazon Web Services. With approximately 120 students “all they have purchased to begin teaching is one Xirrus wi-fi array, one switch and a printer,” says Redpath.

Servicing the networking needs of BYOD-heavy schools is driving JB Hi-Fi’s commercial ambitions. When the retailing giant moved into the business channel through a controlling stake in education-centric integrator Network Neighborhood, the crown jewel was NN’s contract with the Victorian education department. In fact, it was only after the Victorian government renewed Network Neighborhood’s contract to supply technicians to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development that JB Hi-Fi acquired the outstanding 49 percent of the company.

Since then, JB Hi-Fi has revealed plans to rebrand the division as JB Hi-Fi Education Solutions and launch a BYOD notebook portal for parents. “The brand is very strong and it’s got a fantastic reputation,” says Network Neighborhood managing director Brett Armstrong. “We’re leaning on the back of that, particularly when it’s a parent-funded model when they don’t have any [product] recommendation from a school.”

Other outfits are building cloud platforms for schools, like Brisbane’s Smile IT. The company recently expanded its operations with the acquisition of Sunshine Coast Apple partner Local Experts in Schools and Computers (LESC). Smile’s directors told CRN they saw opportunities as schools exhibit more discretionary spending. “In reality, delivering a platform that is device agnostic is where the opportunity lies,” says director Ralph Steven-Jennings. 

Smile has built what he describes as an “end-to-end solution” combining cloud, on-premise and managed services, which was being piloted with schools at the time of writing. This also includes a helpdesk; while the school might have its own internal IT department for level 1 support, it can go to Smile IT for level 2 and 3 support.

Some are imagining a future where more responsibility for IT is put into the hands of students, leaving schools to focus on class content. Back in 2012, an IBRS report predicted that in the future, “schools will be more like an ISP”. 

“Schools will provide access to the internet, some basic services such as email, calendaring, cloud storage, a learning management system, and content. In fact, schools may not even need to offer a network, as many students are bringing their own 3G connections today. We may just end up being a provider of education services across the internet, into the home and into our school grounds. That would be the pinnacle of BYOD. We would minimise costs on non-core activities – like ICT – while remaining totally focused on what really matters: educational outcomes.”

It seems this trend, forecast in 2012, is increasingly a reality at schools across Australia. However, pushing IT provisioning out of the institutions and into the hands of families is not without its perils. 

“Some work needs to be done around device ownership,” says Steven-Jennings. “But how it’s implemented, whether it’s implemented by schools where they instruct people on what to buy – it’s up in the air, nobody really knows. Everybody’s scrabbling around, figuring out how to do this.” 

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