FETC 2010: Frost or Future?

FETC 2010 provided an opportunity to assess the health of the Education Technology market. In today’s guest blog my friend Mike Baum shares his take on the highlights and lowlights of this year’s trade show
By Mike Baum

4161149378_3b38d9668bComing to Orlando from Wisconsin in January, I expect warmer weather. I didn’t expect 50 degrees to be greeted as a warming trend. And when I saw the conference center adjacent to my hotel was hosting a national beekeeping convention with the alarming title “Keeping the Hive Alive,” I began to watch out for falling metaphors.

Traffic Report

The Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) 2010 wasn’t all bad news by any means, but true optimists had their work cut out. Attendance and traffic, while possibly higher than last year’s debacle, were light and sporadic. Exhibitors by one account were down by 100, with absentees divided between business casualties of 2008-09 and firms keeping powder dry for ISTE (nee NECC) in July and possibly TCEA next month.

At least one long-time major exhibitor has permanently downgraded FETC to a “regional show” vs. the must-attend national show it once was. Companies still seem to consider FETC an important “announcement show” – more in a moment – but that’s due less to real significance and more to just the calendar, like the New Hampshire primary used to be.


Booth visitors were mostly classroom teachers, some school administrators; of the few district people I encountered, most were IT with focus on the “T” – not engaged in curriculum decisions. Some shoppers, few buyers, at least at this moment.

To some extent this was to be expected: continued weak economy, a state whose budgetary problems are in the top 10 or 15, still early in the decision-making year. And as Lee’s last entry of 2009 noted, spending is likely to come even later this year than usual, nationwide. One bad swallow does not the Heimlich Maneuver make. Still, I think one can reasonably draw some conclusions – both negative and positive.


Negative: with apologies to my beekeeping friends, the buzz is over, at least for a while. One presenter at the show pointed out that we’ve come off a decade of education spending at 2X GDP growth, and that’s over. Much of that money came from rising property taxes driven by the real-estate bubble. The splash from that burst bubble is likely to dampen ed budgets for the next 2-3 years.

Tech spending may be further retarded by success: technology is ubiquitous in society and pretty plentiful in schools, so it’s not a question anymore of adding technology so much as what you do with what you’ve got, to really impact educational outcomes.

Vendors also have an increasing amount of “good free” to compete with – perhaps a dozen FETC sessions touted free resources from everyone from district or state consortiums (Florida especially is rife with them) to our friends at Google. So we all will have to come up with compelling educational reasons to make incremental or replacement purchases, at least for some time yet.

Positive: life goes on, technology is here to stay, and even if the market is stagnant there’s always gain in market share. NetTrekker formally announced expansion of their popular safe-search and web resource platform to the U.K. Discovery Education announced plans to enter the next Florida adoption head to head with traditional textbooks, as they did successfully in Oregon. Online delivery of content isn’t a panacea, but where it provides schools with a clear advantage it will sell. Expect pushback from the traditional publishers, of course, but historically they have trouble really focusing on ed tech.

What To Do?

The key, I believe, is finding fertile spots – I hate to call them “niches” – where technology makes it easier to do things educators want to or must do in light of larger trends. Such as?
Professional development – increased demand for “job-embedded” PD, which has to be largely online-enabled.

Writing – several people have pointed out that kids are actually writing more than ever before, between texting, blogs, and social networking – and if those messages are often short and cryptic, well, so is haiku.

Assessment – isn’t going away, must be delivered in short, teacher-friendly bursts to be really effective in improving outcomes.

Games – to many, a four-letter word, but increasing research (as presented by Lee at a fascinating session) shows they can demonstrate real educational outcomes if properly designed.

Targeted applications that help individualize, improve academic learning time, increase motivation.

Up here in the frozen north we know that a hard freeze is necessary every so often – kills mosquitoes, and many seeds actually require one to germinate in the spring. Maybe that’s an encouragement while we’re working to keep the hive alive.

MHB photo 1-19-09Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC
Mike is a business growth consultant specializing in K-12 marketing and product strategies. Former CEO of Renaissance Learning, he has 15 years of experience in the education market and over 25 years of helping companies become bigger companies.