Education IT: Education resellers find business among cost-conscious K-12 schools

Read up on three areas in education IT -- A/V projects, Chromebooks and application integration -- in which VARs are reporting increased business.

The end of the school year idles students, but it's peak season for channel partners working in the U.S. K-12 market.

Education resellers and solutions providers that submitted bids over the winter now find out what they'll being doing this summer. But reduced state funding means schools won't be free with their education IT spending. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that K-12 schools are receiving fewer state dollars for the 2012-2013 school year than in the previous year in 26 states. And school funding in 35 states has fallen below 2008 levels, the state and federal fiscal policy organization noted. Yet solution providers active in the education space report interest in a few areas, including re-cabling projects that support audiovisual (AV) gear, Chromebooks and application integration.

Pulling cable

As schools roll out AV equipment, they may need to update their cabling to keep pace. Channel partners specializing in this field cite new business.

C2G, a cabling and connectivity vendor, teamed with integrator Sage Technology Solutions Inc. on a connectivity project for the Southern York County School District in Glen Rock, Pa. The technology refresh involved the installation of cabling to support classroom projectors, interactive whiteboards and other AV equipment. The project had the additional objective of supporting the district's current analog needs while preparing it for such digital technologies as HDMI and DVI. 

Julia Schumaker, account executive for C2G's AV sales department, said the use of Lastar Inc.'s RapidRun cabling products met the requirement to span both analog and digital worlds. She said RapidRun allows multiple signals to move over one cable. C2G is a division of Lastar.

"While they still have an analog solution in the works, they can use VGA and audio and RCA," Schumaker explained. "And next year, with the same cabling that is already in the wall, you would be able to upgrade to HDMI or DVI" without having to pull more cables for each classroom. 

C2G generates much of its cabling and connectivity business in the AV space, working through systems integrators. K-12 projects heat up in the spring and summer months. Schumaker said the second and third quarters are the busiest times for its school business. 

Daniel Rohrer, president of Sage Technology Solutions, which is based in Mount Joy, Pa., said he often sees older AV formats included in projects schools designed a couple of years ago but haven't yet implemented. Construction projects planning for AV systems a year or two down the road, however, are opting for digital technology, he added. 

The analog-to-digital transition represents just one challenge schools face. They must also deal with financial constraints.

"In Pennsylvania, there are still a lot of projects that have been sidelined and delayed by lack of state funding," Rohrer said. 

As a consequence, school districts seeking to move forward now fund projects out of their operating budgets rather than capital budgets, he said. In the current economic environment, districts evaluate each purchase for the total cost, not just the immediate price, he added. Rohrer said he has seen districts adopt "extremely competitive" cloud solutions, but he noted that schools will consider the cost over time of a multiyear X as a Service commitment.

Sage Technology also views school security systems as an emerging opportunity.

Rohrer said he has seen a spike in the number of security-related projects as schools seek to install card access control systems, security cameras and building communications systems. He said Sage is bidding on projects in this space, offering surveillance IP camera systems, mass notification and paging systems, and card access control systems.

Chromebooks on the rise

Channel executives also report widespread K-12 interest in Chromebooks, laptops that run Google's Chrome OS. The lower-cost hardware and cheaper upkeep attract education IT buyers. The Common Core State Standards Initiative and the related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium also play a role in driving purchases. The common core standards, which set learning expectations in math and English language arts, have been adopted in 45 states. The consortium will require students in participating schools to take online assessments, which are expected to kick in during the 2014-2015 school year.

[Chromebook] demand has been through the roof compared to last year, and part of that has to do with all the OEMs.

Joe Simone,
director of K-12 education, CDW-G

"We are seeing a lot of inquiries ... driven by online testing mandates," said David Hoff, senior vice president of technology at Cloud Sherpas, a cloud services brokerage based in Atlanta. "[Students] are going to be taking a lot of standardized tests and ... the only mechanism for completing the tests is going to be through a browser."

He said Chromebooks appeal to schools as a low-maintenance thin client that can provide an online testing platform.

Joe Simone, a director of K-12 education at CDW-G, suggested that schools are ready to get the jump on what's effectively an unfunded mandate. He said a recent CDW-G Chromebook event in Michigan drew representatives from more than 60 schools.

"A lot of schools really want to ... act quickly and have a viable solution in place," Simone said.

Chromebooks, while addressing the testing directive, can also support schools' one-laptop-per-child goals, Hoff noted. Simone added that Chromebooks, some of which come in at less than $300, let schools extend technology to a greater number of students, compared with higher-price-tag devices such as Apple iPads.

"It comes down to this decision that many leadership teams are faced with: Do we give 10 students access to the technology for this price point, or do we give 20 students the opportunity to use the technology?" Simone noted.

The number of Chromebook models available on the market also contributes to the platform's momentum.

"Demand has been through the roof compared to last year, and part of that has to do with all the OEMs," Simone said.

Samsung and Acer were first to market with Chromebooks. Those companies are now joined by HP and Lenovo. Combined, those vendors offer seven Chromebook models. A desktop form factor, the Chromebox, is also available.

Simone said OEM support provides "a big rubber stamp" that validates Chromebooks as a viable solution.

The greater range of Chromebook options lets CDW-G serve as a technology advisor for schools, helping districts sort out which device suits their needs. That assessment involves weighing cost versus features. The entry-level Samsung Chromebook, for instance, lists for $249.99, but the battery is soldered in place and is not consumer-replaceable, Simone noted. So, a school would need to come up with a battery replacement plan. Other Chromebook models offer consumer-replaceable batteries, larger displays and other plusses, but cost more. Lenovo's ThinkPad X131e Chromebook, specifically designed for classrooms, offers ruggedized features such as a rubber casing and reinforced hinges. The device's price starts at $429.

Education resellers can also offer ancillary products around the Chromebooks. CDW-G, Simone said, will soon offer Google Apps Vault, a Google Apps add-on for email archiving. CDW-G also plans to offer Hapara Inc.'s classroom management solution, which is optimized for Chromebooks, Simone said.

Data cleansing

Level Data Inc., a Kalamazoo, Mich., services company, has created an education IT market niche in cleaning up school district data and integrating applications. Maintaining accurate student information is important, given that state and federal funding depends on data quality, noted Matt Betts, president of Level Data.

Betts said a school engagement begins with a walkthrough of how the district conducts such activities as enrolling students, transferring students and hiring personnel. The company also works with the customer to determine authoritative sources for each data type and then initiates a data-cleansing process.

Once a foundation of trusted data is established, Level Data moves on to integration. The company offers a cloud-based data integration service, which pulls together a school's applications -- student information, food services and transportation systems, among others.

Level Data integrates about a dozen applications for Oxford Virtual Academy, which offers online courses to K-12 students in Oxford Community Schools in Michigan. Those applications include Pearson's PowerSchool student information system and SRC Solutions' Registration Gateway, an online registration and re-enrollment product.

Data-cleansing and integration projects help schools in a couple of ways. Integration relieves school district employees from the task of shuffling data back and forth. Betts cited one district customer that was able to repurpose 39 employees who had been involved in the manual movement of data. Cleaner information, meanwhile, can boost a school's access to funding. For example, data-improvement projects help school districts accurately identify which students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. That data is reported to government programs, which provide reimbursement. Betts said most districts see about a 20% drop in free and reduced-price counts when students enter high school.

"Those kids may still qualify, but they frequently don't get counted in the state reporting," Betts said. With accurate data, however, schools can look forward to "tapping new funding ... they didn't have before," he added.

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