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In the mid-90’s I had the pleasure of working for a genuine serial entrepreneur (defined as someone capable of having 10 number 1 priorities). He was charming, he was brilliant, and as the company got larger he was a disaster.  Eventually the lack of focus caught up with us and the company cratered.  It was only saved by a new infusion of capital, paring our development back to a single product line, and several years of patient turnaround work.

Setting priorities and focus for product development is one of the core questions all companies have to wrestle with. The answer determines how resources are focused. It also drives explicit and implicit organizational structure and power. It quite literally defines who you are as a business.

I’ve found that a simple framework with three options is the cleanest way to start this conversation. The three options are all valid, but they have very different strengths and weaknesses. Picking the right one for your company is critical.

The three approaches are:

  1. Sales Driven. These companies build what the last customer asked for.
  2. Product Driven. These companies build the coolest things they can think of, then search for markets.
  3. Market Driven. These companies focus on solving urgent problems for a target market.

In practice great companies have be good at all three.  You need great products that solve real problems for the market that are then sold effectively.  Miss any one of these elements and you will fail.

The real question is which discipline drives the thinking of the leadership team as they set priorities for the organization. Who dominates the conversation?

Lets take a more detailed look at each of them.

Sales Driven

Sales driven companies focus on the needs of the latest and largest customer. They are well suited to professional services like contract development and consulting where each contract is bespoke.  Often, early stage companies that are discovering product market fit are also sales driven, just finding anyone who will buy is the first challenge.  This was the case in the example I started with.

The weaknesses of this model are threefold.

First, great salespeople are focused on solving THIS customers needs RIGHT NOW. That is why their customers love them. But it makes them less than optimal team players. If you have more than one great sales rep there are going to be a lot of ugly politics in who gets served.

Second, you will get whipsawed as they talk to newer customers with different needs. Organizational ADD is a very real danger.

But the biggest problem is when there are problems. If your market has a long sales cycle you can’t sell your way out of a hole – there is too much hand to hand combat involved to make a difference in the near term.  You may get a kick save from something in the works, but time is generally not your friend in these cases.

If you have a services business providing custom solutions this is a good model.  If you have a products business it can hamper your growth.

Product Driven

Product Driven companies have a Field of Dreams Strategy : “if you build it they will come.” If Sales rules the roost in the first example these companies are typically ruled by engineers or authors. They are maker cultures.

These companies build the coolest things their production teams can think of and then go in search of a market. HP used this model for decades very successfully.  It worked for them because they had enough capital to support tons of projects, knowing that most of them would only find niche markets. Valve and Google are two more recent examples. In all of these cases the companies had access to large pools of capital – either from investors (HP, Google) or from huge hits (Valve). At scale it needs that kind of capital to support the portfolio approach.

The problems with this model are really concentrated at the smaller end of the market.  Like the Sales Driven companies you can’t develop your way out of a hole, it takes too much time.  If you find yourself at a dead after two years of development it can be impossible to start again. Any one project can sink the whole company.

But the bigger problem is that the makers who love this model ignore the overall economics of what it takes to build a business.  I recently talked with the lead at a very successful mobile gaming company.  In their model they spend a year and $1 million building a new game.  They then spend $1 million A MONTH marketing it. By the end of year 2 the go-to-market spend vs. development is 12:1.

The world is littered with companies that built a really cool thing thinking the world will beat a path to their doorstep only to discover that they don’t have the resources to cut through the massive amounts of clutter and information overload we all live with.

Market Driven

Market Driven. These companies start by focusing on solving the urgent needs of a target market. They do not shift focus because of any one customer (sales driven companies) and they don’t build first and seek markets second (product companies).  These are pragmatic problem solving cultures, sexy doesn’t trump useful.

This is the model used by most large products companies (P&G, Pearson, etc.). When done right it allows non-linear scaling as the center of the market adopts the product. Unlike sales or product driven models it is possible to market your way out of a hole, if you have built a solution to a real problem in the first place.

This model is also essential for more complex products that require large teams and big up front investments. Grinding away for a year or two of investment to build something, only to discover that it doesn’t solve a problem in a way that people will pay for is a recipe for disaster.  An inelegant solution to a real problem is better than an elegant non-solution to a non-problem.

One of the criticisms of these models is that they are not creative, that they lack imagination.  But creative people can innovate just as long as they solve a broad based problem slightly ahead of the market (Apple, Uber, Amazon).

Attempts to Blend Approaches

In a future post I’ll address how Agile attempts to bridge product and market driven approaches. It can work, but it isn’t for everyone as the cultural adaptations needed execute it well are radical.


I’m a long-time advocate for the market driven approach. The other approaches can work in specific situations, but for me the market approach does the best job of balancing the need to sustain focus over the long haul with solving real problems.  Knowing who your target market is allows you to scale investments appropriately and to plan for the whole go-to-market program of building the product, launching it, and sustaining it.

The next time your leadership team sits down you might consider putting this topic on the table.  Discuss what model would be most appropriate for your business, and then compare that to the actual model you are using.  If those two are not in alignment you are going to have real challenges scaling your business.

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Watching my kids play World of Warcraft in 2005,  I had a moment of clarity about video games and learning.  At root WoW is a Learning Management System (LMS) with Orcs and dragons in the presentation layer.  But grokking that potential and translating it into improved outcomes in school is a huge leap.

Connecting developmental psychology, brain science, and play is critical to seeing the whole picture. The Game Believes In You does just that.

Ten years ago, after reading Jim Gee’s What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning , Raph Kosters A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, and Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You I had exhausted the canon of the early aughts.

A lot has happened since then.

We’ve seen solid research and several market scale successes (iCivics and Game Up). Most importantly the conversation in schools has shifted from “Why the heck would I do something crazy like that” to “I have no idea how to do it well.”  We have crossed the chasm to the early majority market. That market needs sound advice and guidance on how to move forward.


Greg Toppo’s The Game Believes In You is a welcome addition to the canon of books focused on games and learning.  Gregg covers the education beat for USA Today. He used that perch to spend several years digging into the current state of the art.

Starting as a skeptic he quickly realized that his preconceived notions about games and learning needed radical revision.  

One of the pleasures of these games is, quite simply, the luxury they afford us to learn, to see instantly how well we have learned, and then to try again without fuss or interruption until we succeed. p5

What he has produced is a compelling case for games as a valuable addition to the learning media ecosystem. He manages that tricky balance of connecting compelling personal anecdotes to solid research. The reader emerges with clarity on the impact implementation is already having on kids and the most promising avenues for future development.

Here are two of my favorite passages from the book that demonstrate this connection.

Connecticut psychologist Eric Schleifer…uses games diagnostically. “If I come across a boy who is really into the violent content, that almost assures me that there’s something going on, that they’re struggling with something, that they have a high degree of anxiety…” (page number)

In September 2013…critic Tom Bissell concluded that [Grand Theft Auto] “is basically the most elaborate a*****e simulation system ever devised…”  If your son is playing a lot of GTA, maybe, just maybe, he wants to try out being an a*****e.  Maybe you should try it alongside him and talk about the experience. (page number)


Understanding the twists and turns that got us to where we are is important to those entering the field today. Even someone like me who has been kicking around the space for 10 years picked up whole swaths of background that were helpful.

If you are thinking about implementing games in your school or classroom, I encourage you to read The Game Believes In You. The book equips you with the background knowledge to avoid common pitfalls and provides you with examples that will inspire you to push forward through the rough spots.

If you are developing games or curriculum materials that use games you will benefit from knowing how we got where we are today, what teachers and students are looking for, and where the puck appears to be moving.

This book is strongly recommended.

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Open Educational Resources (OER) are here to stay.  Publishing, despite the rumors, is not dead.  The real question is not “if” but “how” these two options will co-exist in the instructional materials market.

A starting point is sorting out where each type of resource makes the most sense. For me the two most important criteria are the degree of complexity in crafting the materials and the ongoing requirements for maintenance.  How these two criteria map against content looks something like this:

OER vs Print

Degree of Complexity

The range of materials teachers draw on to support their work in the classroom is vast.

At the low end there are simple black and white worksheets or practice learning tools (e.g. flash cards).  These tools are simple enough that a single person, or a small handful of folk, can quickly make them.  Quality is important, but in this regard accuracy is valued more than design.  Distribution is typically on paper or PDF.  Requirements for efficacy studies are low or non-existent.

At the high end there are resources like video games where the act of creation involves coordinating large teams with diverse skills.  The complexity requires professionals who specialize in a range of crafts (project management, coding, game design, illustration, audio engineering, user testing, interface design, efficacy research, rights management, etc etc etc).  In the quality arena both accuracy and design have to meet high standards for the product to be usable.  Distribution requires explanation (sales), professional development, and a student progress monitoring platform.  Educators demand large scale efficacy studies and clear evidence of alignment to standards.

Ongoing Maintenance

As more materials move to on-line distribution we are shifting to a world where instructional resources live in an ecosystem outside of the classroom.

Paper based products and digital worksheets stand on their own once they are purchased.  These products don’t need any ongoing maintenance other than some duct tape and spell checking.

But as more and more resources move to the web they live in a complex ecosystem that is both technological and cultural. On the tech side web platforms have to be constantly updated to protect against security gaps, file formats evolve with new releases, operating system updates create new bugs in software, and hardware platforms are evolving rapidly towards touch interfaces and new screen resolutions.  On the cultural side standards get updated, new linkable content is constantly being created, and best practices change as new research is released.

For for most web based products ongoing maintenance is not optional.  Without it products can be rendered useless overnight by the decisions of outside actors. Sustainability in a world of impermanence is value added.


Applying these two filters provides some guidelines for where OER makes the most sense and where schools should be looking to professionally produced content.

For publishers there will always be a market for simple worksheet like products, saving teachers time in a busy world has value.  But this will be a business of low margins and intense competition.

Publishers would be better served by focusing on more complex products where complex teams add value and where ongoing maintenance is not optional.  Innovation, quality, and support will be the new vectors of competition replacing distribution networks, operational efficiency, and process refinement.

To compete globally a publisher has to do all of those things, but the relative emphasis is shifting.  Are you?

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In January 2001 as the dot com boom burst online education site went out of business overnight, literally. Coverage tended to focus on the employees – who ultimately filed a class action lawsuit for back pay and 401k contributions.

Lost in that ugly coverage was the blunt reality for teachers and schools that the new era of on-line content had a very dark side. Teachers who were relying on wwwrrr’s materials on January 9th were left with absolutely nothing on January 10th. They had no warning.

When schools buy a textbook they own the thing. If the vendor stops offering the book the school still has the thing. With cloud-based solutions schools are buying a license to a service. If the vendor stops offering the service it evaporates. Teachers rightly want some assurance that if they integrate a useful solution into their lesson plans that they can use it for several years.

There are enormous benefits associated with cloud-based materials (see below*). As the wwwrrr story illustrates there are significant hurdles to overcome as well.

The trick is to find a business model that insures products will be supported and sustained over the long haul. At the heart of this challenge is the question of how cloud-based instructional materials are priced. As we transition from physical textbooks to digital content we need a pricing model that is fair to everyone.

Pricing for cloud-based instructional materials will probably not look like the enterprise or personal SaaS markets because there are some unique structural issues that have to be reckoned with.

This post examines the market forces that are driving an emerging standard for SaaS pricing in education.

Production & Maintenance

As soon as textbooks are at the press the product becomes inert which is one of the big knocks on them. The benefit is that a book can be useful in and of itself decades after it was published. There is no ongoing maintenance.

Software is more like a living organism that has to survive in a larger ecosystem. OS revisions, bug squashing, content updates, and new hardware platforms make ongoing maintenance an imperative. Software evolves as the platform evolves, sometimes on a daily basis.**

This means that publishers have to dedicate teams to the product after it is released, and those people need to be fairly compensated for the work they do. There is a need for an ongoing revenue stream to support this vital work.

Enter Subscription Pricing

The obvious solution to this problem is to sell the software as a service (SaaS) on a subscription.

Software as a Service (SaaS)pricing models are well-established in the corporate and personal software spaces. SalesforceEvernote  Netflix  and Google  have proven and accepted business models. In the education space, the Student Information Systems (SIS) market has gelled around standard subscription practices. SaaS instructional materials remain a laggard. The transition from the old adoption model for textbooks to something better adapted to digital content is very much in motion.

Investors are pushing hard for subscription models – they like the predictability of a steady stream of income. Since subscriptions cost less on an annual basis than a purchase it takes longer to spin up to profitability, but performance is much more sustainable over the long haul. Thus VCs and Private Equity investors place a valuation premium on this model.

The obvious result has been a slew of subscription-based educational software startups over the last several years.

Spiky Funding & Market Cadence

Subscriptions in schools run smack into the uncertain nature of school funding, particularly for materials purchases. There is no guarantee from year to year that a given funding source will be available.

The market solved this for print by doing adoptions on a scheduled refresh cycle (usually 5-7 years) for each subject area. Funds are specifically (categorically) set aside for this purpose. A big burst of funding over 18-24 months buys all the books, and then a small residual fund is available for replacing damaged or missing books through the tail of the adoption.

This funding structure is very unfriendly model for subscription-based products because the funding is so spiky.

That said, the cadence of switching core materials every 5-7 years makes a lot of sense for teachers. It usually takes them a couple of years to master a new set of materials, which they can then leverage into another 3-5 years of practice without having to completely start anew.***

Additionally, all the review and approval mechanisms are tuned to this cadence at the state, school board, and teacher level. There will be significant institutional inertia to something like an ongoing or even annual cycle for new materials. Educators are pressed enough for time already.

Think of the 5-7 year materials cycle as the QWERTY keyboard of purchasing. It will survive long after its original purpose has been obviated by new technology because the switching costs are so high and it still solves the basic problem.

An Education-Specific Solution

What appears to be emerging is the ability to pre-pay subscriptions over a set of years that mimics the traditional adoption cycle. This maintains the cadence that everyone is familiar and comfortable with, without presupposing the funds will be available through the full cycle. Schools can buy a single year if they just want to try something out, but the best pricing options are all at some level of multi-year commitment. There is no doubt that schools are buying a subscription-based service not a physical product, but the purchase cycle mirrors the older product purchase model.

From the vendor perspective cash flow will look very similar to today, but revenue recognition on the income statement will take a big hit in the initial years (subscriptions have to be recognized over the life of the subscription). Dollars you collect today won’t be recognized for up to six years and will sit in an unearned income bucket on the balance sheet.

Investors should plan on revising their analyses of financial statements to account for these shifts. I expect to see a much higher emphasis on cash flow than EBIDTA in this new world.

Vendors should be careful about managing cash to make sure the resources for maintenance are available through the life of the contract. This isn’t a windfall for them. Even though the cash is in the bank they should budget to the income statement.

A multi-year subscription requires a level of trust that the vendor will be around through the full term. This will play to the advantage of larger companies and those with well-established brands.

I expect this model will emerge as the dominant pricing structure over the next 2-3 years. That will be a good thing for teachers, students, and vendors. It will help fuel a new generation of innovative solutions.

*Using the cloud solves a wide range of problems schools face when deploying instructional software.

A quick review:
Installation and maintenance evaporate – this is a massive headache for thinly stretched School District IT staff.

  • Software is no longer hardware dependent, well-crafted solutions run on older computers and the latest tablets.
  • User authentication is based on where the user is, not what machine they are using.

From the vendor’s perspective many of these benefits have a mirror image.

  • Minimal set up makes it easier to trial and implement new solutions, reducing transactional friction.
  • It is possible to paint a path forward to tablets when they are still a small fraction of the market.
  • With web-based authentication, it becomes easier to see what is getting used   (i.e. what is valued in the classroom).  Do.  More.  Of.  That.

The forces of change are all lined up behind this shift.

** This by the way is one of the primary filters educators should be use to evaluate OER solutions. All software needs a clearly sustainable source of funds for product maintenance. Unsupported solutions have a high risk of becoming unexpectedly obsolete in the middle of a school year because something in the larger ecosystem has shifted.

*** This is based on the the teacher’s own learning curve. In the textbook world it is understood that student outcomes do not improve in the first year as the teacher adapts the new tools to their unique needs and style. Typically benefits start to emerge in the second year and are not fully established until the third year. SaaS, with a one year subscription cycle, asks teachers to make a renewal decision based on their own challenges from year one. The obvious result is lower renewal rates. This isn’t a new problem,  the pattern is familiar from print. But the ability to walk away from the digital materials after one year means they don’t have enough time to generate meaningful improvements.

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My mother sent me this little bit of inspiration.  Inspiration to focus on what is important, what gives our lives meaning, what we should be thankful for.


What are you going to do today?

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Texas has been a vocal holdout on adopting Common Core State Standards (CCSS) since the beginning.  Last week all 14 publishers who submitted high school biology textbooks for adoption in TX ignored the state’s demand to include creationism.  I believe these two news items are directly related and reflect a huge shift in the market dynamics for instructional materials in the United States.

Partisans think the creationism kerfuffle is because the publishers are taking a principled stand for scientific accuracy or, conversely, because they are elitist liberals.  In some cases these may have been factors in publishers’ decisions.  That said, I think it is much simpler and can be explained by following the money.  For the publishers this was a business decision, not a political stand.


This is the clearest example to date of how CCSS is going to reshape who gets to dictate the overall  structure and content of instructional materials.  The hypothesis I floated in 2010 – that the combined market power of smaller states could steal the march on the big 3 (TX, CA, FL) – appears to be  happening.


CCSS is influencing every decision publishers make about prioritizing investments in new products.  The fact that this is a biology textbook, while CCSS only covers RLA and Math, only reinforces my point.  RLA and Math account for roughly 70% of overall materials purchases so publishers won’t take any risks that jeopardize their position in those subject areas with the center of power in the market.


A couple of charts make this point more clearly than words can.


This first chart shows the market pre-CCSS.  There were 50 individual markets and the states that had formal adoption processes had almost all the power to dictate what got written and when.  When big states committed to purchasing large amounts of a single subject area in a specific year it made sense for publishers to hit those dates with fresh product.


This chart shows the top 10 adoption states, and you can see that even within this group California and Texas dominated (click to enlarge).  CA, TX, and FL* all represented the biggest buckets and lowest hanging fruit for sales.  Everyone else got warmed over, slightly tweaked versions of materials created for the big 3.
Chart - Top Adoption States
This second chart shows the new market structure with all the CCSS states, Texas, and the other 3 holdouts (AK, NE, VA).  I don’t think the shift could be any clearer.  Instead of worrying about offending the panjandrums in TX publishers now have a very different equation.  Note the shift in the scale on the Y Axis in particular.
Chart Materials Post CCSS
This is what publishers see today when they evaluate how to prioritize development decisions.


Somebody in California clearly got the memo because they are actively investing in taking the lead within the CCSS states.  The recently released budget includes $1.2 billion in one time funds for implementation of CCSS in 2014-2015 to cover training, materials, and other preparedness.  This will get publishers undivided attention and will be the engine that pulls the CCSS train.


Texas will not become irrelevant, but it will lose its power over publishers that allowed its instructional decisions to reverberate nationally.  The internal politics of the state are not conducive to adopting CCSS so I don’t anticipate this trend will change over the next several years.


The state has every right to make this decision and they appear to be willing to live with the consequences to maintain their individualism.  It remains a large market – $1.3 billion annually in instructional materials – they also spend slightly more than the average state on materials – $274/student in TX vs. $261/student nationally.  For those reasons it won’t fade away completely.


But if I were employed at one of the large outposts education publishers have built in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas I’d be looking over my shoulder as the bigs consolidate offices into New York, Boston, and Chicago.  Or I’d research real estate in Sacramento.


*Florida has also been a powerhouse despite being smaller than CA and TX largely because it is organized along just a few very large county wide districts.
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“During the gold rush its a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.”  Mark Twain

There are large amounts of capital flowing into the education publishing market today.  It appears we are experiencing a small gold rush as savvy technology investors bet that the digital transition in education will yield significant returns to those doing the disrupting.

Some basic facts:

  • VC investment in education in 2012 was 4x 2002
  • Most of the growth has been since 2010
  • 50% of that investment has been in K12
  • The split is roughly 50/50 between platforms and content

In the spirit of Mark Twain’s famous quote about Samuel Brannan I’ve asked a range of experts to say who is panning for gold and who is in the shovel business in today’s education market.

Funny thing that – no one can answer the question right now because it isn’t clear.


Platforms Rule

Most VC’s invest in “first mover platform plays that disrupt the market.”   Everyone wants to be in the educational version of Twitter or Facebook   One could say that the gold rush is in platform technologies like Amplify  EdmodoGoogleAmazon, and others.  Heck, even Pearson is coming out with a platform for OER content.  There are dozens of well funded companies with strong visions for being the one education platform to rule them all.

Content Rules

But – a platform without content is useless.  In this scenario the quality content providers would be the dry goods retailers, providing the platforms the content that brings purpose (and traffic) to the tools.  Let the platforms slug it out for market share (someone WILL get rich there) but make sure your content is everywhere so that when the winner emerges, dusty and battered, in 4-5 years you are along for the ride.

On the other hand….

The content side of the business is in the midst of massive disruption right now as the value of large commodity content libraries plummets in the face of digital distribution.  The economics of that business traditionally assumed that you owned a printing press and a warehouse network to create and move the physical goods around (this was the old “platform”).

In this scenario the platform companies are shovel and pick purveyors, giving content publishers a quick solution to reaching critical mass with on-line versions of their products.

For decades publishers gave the stuff that can populate the platforms away as “free with order” deal sweeteners on adoptions.  Now OER providers are telling the world that schools don’t need to pay for content, content wants to be free.  There is a value perception crisis on the content side of the world.

Maybe Neither…

My pet theory (“awww isn’t it cute, does it bite?”) is that professional development and on-line teaching have  the potential to emerge as big winners here.  Schools don’t set out to buy a platform or content – what they genuinely want is better instruction.  Platforms and content are just means to that end.  Professional development and networks of high quality on-line teachers on the other had are directly connected to the mission and goals of educators.

Players to watch in this space include TeachscapePresence Learning, and even the Bigs.


The average fund expects their better performing investments to cash out in 4-5 years.  Since this trend began in earnest in 2010 we only have a couple more years before they start passing serious judgement on this newest wave of activity.  Chegg just did a $150m IPO.

It will be interesting to watch and learn.  It will be even more interesting to be in the middle of this titanic struggle for dominance in the market.

Next stop – Disruption Junction.

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Frank has a great post over on Geekwire that does a great job of explaining why Dumbo Drops of tech don’t work in schools.


The question he didn’t completely address is why do people keep making this mistake?

One explanation is that a massive initiative that “attacks” a “problem” is far sexier than a thoughtful program to incrementally improve classroom practice. Don’t forget that many Superintendents are politicians. These things get headlines.

Another perspective is that our school systems are so resistant to change that some kind of shock to the system is required to make incremental changes. Technology is often seen as a magic bullet that by its very presence will force changes. Frank does a nice of touching on why that is usually a false hope.

Arne Duncan has been leading the charge on digital textbooks. I’ll leave the whole “digital textbook” concept for another day. There are far far better ways to use technology in the classroom than aping the form and structure of textbooks. Its like putting plays on TV, mildly interesting but not an optimal use of the medium.

A year ago I penned four questions for Secretary Duncan that in many ways echo Frank’s sentiments. We don’t have better answers today than we did then. The questions are:

1. Funding. Where is the legislation that will provide a minimum of $65 billion over the next 10 years to launch and sustain this effort?

2. Evidence. Given the costs, where is the evidence that this investment will be worth it?

3. Market behavior. Current purchasing patterns show that educators believe a blend of digital and print is best – will this be valued or dismissed?

4. Quality. Transitioning 54 million students to digital textbooks in two years is a moon shot – how do we maintain the quality of learning resources in the mad dash to get it done in that timeframe?

Full post is here.

Bubble bursting time. The call a year ago was to move 54 million students to digital textbooks in two years. We have a year left and according the stats I’ve seen only 2.7 million students have access to a tablet device. We are 50% through the time period and 95% off the end goal.

Of course Congress could always appropriate the funds to make this happen pronto. Um, right.

Barring that perhaps we ought to be looking at a more measured approach.

Related Post: Apple’s iPad Textbooks Cost 5X More Than Print

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Vicki Bigham and I did a show with Larry Jacobs on Education Talk Radio this morning about EdNET.  We had some fun bantering about the conference and trends in the industry.  I got a chance to brag on the Packers and shared that I own an actual stinking badge (see below).