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International Sales: Boulevard of Broken Dreams Undergoing Road Repair

In my last column, International Hotspots Make the U.S. Look Tame,” I reported on substantial educational technology initiatives around the world, highlighting programs in the Russian Federation, Malaysia, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Turkey, whose reach far exceeds more celebrated large U.S. programs—such as Maine’s statewide 1:1 laptop program and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad project. (For example, under Turkey’s FATIH Project, which aims to upgrade the country’s educational ICT infrastructure, the government plans to distribute between 6 and 15 million tablets to students and teachers and some 600,000 interactive whiteboards to classrooms.) Drivers behind this educational ICT wave include boosting global competitiveness and economic development, the rapid spread of cloud and mobile technology, growing availability of low-cost high-tech devices, expected savings from replacing printed with digital textbooks and, with increasing recognition of English as the global language, a desire to access the growing store of digital ESL resources. On the other hand, readers familiar with doing business in international educational technology markets often consider them a “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” where tantalizing opportunities morph into quagmires of snags that lead only to disappointment and loss. Read on to learn about the problems that have plagued earlier international initiatives by U.S. firms and why that picture is changing to a more promising one.

Some of the Bigger Landmines of Selling Internationally
International educational technology sales are not unique in the risks they present compared with domestic markets, but the scale of issues has often swamped U.S. firms’ efforts to share in the bounty. Among the biggest hazards have been:

  • Political and Short-Term Thinking – Advocating or launching major educational technology initiatives has been an attractive political gambit by both candidates and incumbents who see it as a quick and highly visible boost to education. It hasn’t been hard, either, to win support from top education officials too often starved for leverage to improve their systems. Such top-down programs are prone to great gaps in buy-in by critical stakeholders, such as intermediate and building administrators, teachers and parents, without which the equipment goes unused and scarce funding is embarrassingly wasted. As one example, a major 1:1 laptop program in Peru initiated with much fanfare left proponents shamefaced from lack of an intelligent long-term plan and adequate resources to carry it out.
  • Big Money – Major technology initiatives generally promise substantial government funding. In an extreme example, a recent tender for Brazil’s Sao Paulo state represented about $2.7 billion over ten years (see here for more about the project and its postponement). As such they can be prone to local and insider deals and corruption of the bidding process. Corruption can come in many subtle forms, especially when financial supporters of important politicians are connected to competitors. Sometimes domestic firms are explicitly or covertly favored over foreign suppliers, or foreign firms are required to have local partners.
  • Devices Alone Aren’t Enough – Supplying schools with equipment is often the easiest part of the program, but viability requires ongoing technical support, maintenance, infrastructure upgrades, professional development, relevant digital educational materials, political encouragement, community buy-in, and savvy change management, to mention just some of the more critical pieces. An unexpected failure point in some projects has been poor understanding of parental concerns about student devices coming home. Too many big international programs have foundered for lack of these elements after major expenditures on equipment and infrastructure.
  • Economic and Political Sustainability – One-shot funding doesn’t do it, but too often project funding has been a single windfall that leaves future support an open question. Political and social instability are further hazards as leadership changes often orphan projects championed by predecessors.
  • Academic Value – Some international initiatives, predicated on constructivist learning theory, relying on digital productivity tools, and even just programming languages, have supplied little in the way of instructional content aligned to local curricula, on the premise that students learn best when constructing their own solutions. For example, the One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, program championed by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, and predicated on Seymour Papert’s constructivist philosophy that tools were all students needed, famously eschewed curricular material in its early ventures. This approach seems to be going by the wayside in favor of instructional content tightly correlated to national curricula and standards. Teachers in other countries, like those in the U.S., have precious little time to work digital resources into their fully scheduled days and are too often inclined to ignore the technology without content aligned to the curriculum.
  • Teaching and Administrative Personnel – Digitally competent and motivated staff are key to any successful technology initiative, both at the classroom and administrative levels. Without adequate professional development and support for these people, no project can succeed. The challenge is even more extreme in parts of the world where computer and tablet usage is sparse and school staff members are themselves less educated.
  • Established International Suppliers – U.S. firms new to international sales may find themselves competing with established international publishers whose known brands for print materials give them an advantage winning purchases of newly introduced digital programs. British firms, in particular, with strong support from the British government and trade development organizations and riding on the popularity of the British curriculum among international schools, are often substantial and tenacious competitors.

What’s Different This Time Around?
As suggested by the title, the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” has been getting some road repair as educational systems planners around the world become more aware of past failures and more savvy about requirements for success. The “Wild West” days of short-sighted hardware provision programs are gradually fading from view. Forces behind this renaissance include:

  • Help From the World Bank, Intel, and Others – As an occasional funder of international educational technology initiatives under its economic and social development programs, the World Bank has developed considerable expertise in the area. In particular, Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s Senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist, and his staff are frequently consulted by education ministries and other top-level policy and program officers on major initiatives. Trucano is also a widely read blogger on related topics.
  • Intel has long been a player in international educational technology initiatives, motivated both by business development and philanthropic goals. Intel’s initial focus, the development of “reference designs” of low-cost laptops, netbooks, and now tablets for school use, spec’d on Intel technology and often manufactured locally, has been supplemented by resources focused on ensuring adequate curricularly aligned digital content and professional development. It’s not uncommon for their experts to be consulted, like those of the World Bank, when big projects are being considered or implemented around the globe. For example, for a sufficiently large initiative, according to a conversation I had with a member of the education team, Intel will help the government map the areas of their curriculum covered by existing digital resource providers and suggest candidates for developing materials for the uncovered areas.
  • Lower-Priced Purpose-Built Devices and Nets…and More Adequate Support – Well-known improvements in technology and manufacturing, as well as the mass market appeal of low-cost tablets, netbooks, and laptops, have made it possible to manufacture low-cost purpose-built devices meeting schools’ needs. The advent of low-cost touch screen tablets, in particular, propelled into the public imagination by Apple’s iPad, has set minds in motion worldwide regarding inexpensive devices for every student and teacher. Advances in remote device management, allowing centralized distribution and management of tablet-based software, are bringing the maintainability advantages of schools’ desktop PC networks to wireless tablets, which previously required individual updating. Lastly, a new breed of remote two-way video tutoring and professional development firms are also providing a robust platform for local or vendor provision of these kinds of programs, exemplified by firms like Eleutian (whose marketing tag line is “The Bridge to Globalization”), making it possible to provide inexpensive tutoring and PD, even linking, for example, U.S. language teachers working after hours, with ESL instruction students on the other side of the world.

These advancements all help manage the risks of international markets for U.S. businesses, taking some of the “Wild” out of “Wild West.” With the Internet making national barriers less relevant for digital commerce and educational resources becoming increasingly digital, you can count on international commerce to be one of the faster-growing market segments for years to come.

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Dr. Nelson Heller is President of The HellerResults Group, a global strategic consultancy serving business and non-profits seeking growth opportunities in the education market. His international focus includes particular interest in Latin America and China. He is the founder of The Heller Reports newsletters and EdNET: The Educational Networking Conference, both started in 1989. The EdNET News Alert, successor to The Heller Reports publications and now published by MDR, reaches over 31,000 education executives worldwide every week and features a regular column from The HellerResults Group each quarter. In 2009, he was inducted into the Association of Educational Publishers’ (AEP) Educational Publishing Hall of Fame, and in June 2012, he chaired the first AEP/AAP International Markets Forum. You can learn more about Nelson and his industry leadership at The HellerResults Group. You can reach Nelson at 858-720-1914 and by email at nelson@hellerresults.com.