Marketing Technologies in U.S. Public Schools*

The ways that high-tech vendors market their products just ain’t helping teachers.

Companies selling new hardware and software to  K-12 schools—over $18 billion was spent in 2013– have three serious problems:

1. Determining who is the customer.

2. Ignoring how teachers and students use devices and software in real time.

3. Marketers hype claims for achieving student outcomes that few teachers believe.

Who is the customer?

Apple, Dell, and software firms have a hard time figuring out who their customers are. They want to have students and teachers use their products but few sales representatives ever talk or listen to teachers. Instead, most companies market their products to school district IT  professionals, district office administrators, and superintendents. Why?

That is where the money is. School officers are the ones who recommend to boards of education what to buy and how to deploy devices and software. From start-ups to established companies, high-tech representatives rarely involve teachers or students in their pitches to district officers or school boards. So the paradox is that the end-users (teachers and students) have little to do with purchasing decisions.

There are two exceptions, however. First, most parents want their infants and toddlers to read early even before they set foot into kindergarten, much less first grade, the traditional gateway to reading for nearly a century. Ads claim that their software will give their children an edge in learning over other kids. And, second, marketers have targeted children because as one advertising exec said: “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product rather than going straight to the mom.”

Ignoring how teachers and students use devices and software in real time.

Market researchers in high-tech companies selling to schools seldom, if at all, look into actual classrooms to determine use. Instead, they depend upon the usual array of soft, quick, and dirty findings reaped from focus groups and teacher, student, and administrator surveys. These surveys are cheap, easy, and fast to do. But no direct observation of students working with tablets and software.

Without knowing how students actually use the equipment, it is all guesswork piled atop those unreliable results from surveys and focus groups. Of course, to do so is quite expensive and intensive labor on the part of marketers. There are academic researchers, however, who do such investigations, (see here) and even ones that work for for-profit firms who ask the right questions (see here). Seldom are their studies used.

Marketers hype claims for achieving student outcomes that few teachers believe.

Look at ads for software for schools and you will see words that promise student engagement and improved academic achievement (see, for example: Dell Computers: 2011-western-heights high school). Like hot dogs and mustard or Harry and Sally getting together, over-promising that software and new mobile devices will engage students, raise test scores of minority students and close the achievement gap are joined like Siamese twins. “Schools powered by (put in your favorite software company) report impressive gains in first year.”  Yet most of the evidence supporting such claims is missing in action.

Sure, there is the “novelty effect” where teachers and students in the first six months gloriously praise how iPads or Chromebooks have riveted students’ attention. But the “novelty effect” wears off and the hard work of teaching lessons every day, with and without new software or gizmos, kick in. The evidence of software and devices lifting academic achievement is, in two words, not there.

These three issues that marketers face in promoting software and hardware to public schools get at the heart of selling high-tech innovations to public schools.

What can be done?

In deciding who is the customer, the truth of the matter is that district officials, not teachers, parents, or students, are targeted customers. Admit the truth.

As for market research, please, no more Internet surveys and carefully selected focus groups. The reliability and validity of such instruments is incredibly low and untrustworthy. Randomly selected students, parents, and teachers (and paying them) make far more sense in using focus groups. Also, it is far more sensible to harvest well-done academic studies done by teachers and researchers about what actually occurs in classrooms.

Finally, no more over-the-top claims for products that promise outcomes for teachers and students that do not have a prayer of ever happening. So few people believe Hollywood PR blurbs about blockbusters coming to the local cinemas. Ditto for claims about new classroom technologies. Dialing back those over-the-top claims, reducing the hype, and even injecting a small dose of humility would be unusual. In my judgment, neither of these suggestions has much probability of materializing but it is worth saying, nonetheless.


A version of this post appeared February 23, 2014 on Janice Cuban’s marketing blog.


Filed under technology use

23 responses to “Marketing Technologies in U.S. Public Schools*

  1. Pingback: Marketing Technologies in Public Schools* | Educational Policy Information

  2. The dilemma you describe so accurately has remained depressingly resistant to change for well over fifteen years now, as the BBC radio programme below, broadcast only this week, demonstrates. Until professional teachers show a more sophisticated grasp of how deeply marketing practice has seeped into their work, even into the language they use, never mind the policies and strategies, then I agree that the situation isn’t likely to change. Try explaining, as I have done again and again, to marketing directors and sales colleagues that there is no evidence a given technology delivers educational benefits and see what response you get.

    I’d like to deliver a programme for teachers that illustrates how this process works and that encourages them to take on the professional responsibility to challenge and counter the pressure that they have been under for years now to adopt practices and technology that have no educational value, other than that someone deploying marketing skill and technique has “sold” them.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for your comment. I heard the program earlier in the week and you are right: the process of marketing high tech devices and software that I describe is, unfortunately, alive and well in UK.

  3. Thank you for this incisive look at tech in the classroom. I would say the same goes for the SBAC computer test schools will be piloting this year. It seems very little thought was put into the interface with the student user.

  4. “The evidence of software and devices lifting academic achievement is, in two words, not there.”

    Too often it’s the novelty/coolness factor that drives tech purchases, I fear. Means (technology) mistaken for ends in and of themselves.

  5. Pingback: Marketing Technologies in U.S. Public Schools* | Educational Policy Information

  6. As a student of the history of educational technology, this post and the comments resonate deeply. For at least 100 years and probably back further to the introduction of chalkboards, the pattern of technology in schools being “oversold and underused” is clearly visible. Despite GB Shaw’s comment that the only thing we learn from history is that we cannot learn from history, scholars and concerned educators keep trying to cut through the veil of technology marketing hyperbole to schools. After years of working in this area, I recently prepared a presentation for colleagues in France that addresses this issue beginning with its title “The incredibly boring yet incredibly important history of educational technology.” Compared to the hype, the history appears boring but it offers real benefits to those who can put its lessons into practice. You can see this at: Even though we are outgunned by marketing budgets and profits, I hope we can keep trying to help teachers and schools get the most out of their precious technology budgets by putting teachers in charge of educational technology.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, David, for your comment and the link to your presentation “The Incredibly Boring Yet Incredibly Important History of Educational Technology.

  7. Suzanne

    Thank you for this column and all the comments.

    At my school, we (the teachers) are frequently chided for decisions involving a lot of money that were made, so to speak, ‘on our behalf’ but definitely without our input. Someone told the district administration that a modern language lab with computers, etc., would be just the thing, and a large amount of money was then spent on furnishing it. Why, the president of a nearby, prestigious university stopped by and marveled at how cutting-edge it was!

    But, as it turns out, my colleagues in the modern languages have various reasons for preferring an earlier technology for recording, listening to and assessing their students’ oral language production: digital, hand-held recording devices. To use these, they don’t even really need to take the class to the language lab. Apparently, it’s far easier to secure each student’s work this way, than to go through multiple steps on the lab computers to generate a digital file that can be sent to the teacher for playback later… Don’t ask me, I’m not really involved in this.

    But it is astonishing to hear the message, “We built this, why aren’t you using it?” How much more productive it would have been for someone to study the problem and present the possible solutions, and then involve the teachers (who will have to use the product, after all) in the selection.

    I think many people (in administration, in IT, etc.) see the teachers as a troublesome population that needs to be re-trained, directed to do things ‘the right way,’ etc.

    As a long-time teacher myself, I like using the technologies I’m deeply familiar with (specific books, written materials I’ve created, the white or blackboard) and have been working with for a long time. Every so often, it comes as a big revelation how I can tweak the written materials or the on-board presentation and achieve more success; that’s truly exciting, when that comes together for me and my students. A lot of thought goes into it, and perhaps it’s not as fancy-looking as using some new gadget would seem to be…

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Suzanne, for describing your experiences when administrators make judgments about buying and deploying new technologies without consulting teachers who are the classroom gatekeepers when it comes to high-tech devices.

  8. This is such a poignant chain of thought it genuinely saddens me. The main reason I left the classroom almost fifteen years ago was because I could see technology was about to have a huge impact on teaching and rather than being on the receiving end, I wanted to be on the design end, making sure what was done was educationally valid and significant.

    I had no understanding at the time of the scale or nature of the commercial problem. I do now. Yet exactly the same issues remain and like you Larry, I’m still struggling to get that message across, with the occasional success.

    The thread also reminded me of one of the favourite marketing ploys of the gurus which you have yourself identified in the past: the analogy between the classroom and the operating theatre. It is simply inconceivable that any business would attempt to design, build and test a new technology for operating theatre use without starting with experienced, skilled medical practitioners. I guess it’s easier to pass yourself as an expert teacher than it is an expert surgeon.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Joe, I read your report from 2010 and what Tom Bennett had to say about it. Sadly, we are on the same page when it comes to IT marketing and the marginalizing of teachers in the designing, buying, and deploying phases of classroom technologies.

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