Disclosure: My attendance at FutureSchools 2017 was under a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
After attending the Education Nation conference in 2016 I wrote an article titled The Playground which is one of my most widely read articles. In it I challenged education vendors to re-think the way they engage with teachers, to ask questions and find out what teachers are trying to achieve instead of selling to them. I also challenged teachers to re-think how they engage with vendors, to challenge them with what they are trying to achieve rather than simply ask what the product can do.
As part of my role with ClickView I am in a lot of meetings with various stakeholders. I typically prefer to take my notes using a pen and a notebook, however, in the meetings I have been in thus far, which have typically been led by a colleague as part of my training and induction process, I have found that the process of handwriting notes during the meeting and then transferring them to the typed notes for future reference is rather cumbersome and adds an extra piece of equipment. I have been aware of OneNote's ability to write notes directly in and wanted to explore this further, taking advantage of the fact that Microsoft had a stand at FutureSchools.
I do not know whether Belinda, whom I spoke with on the Microsoft stand, read that article or not, but she dealt with me the way I wish more vendors would deal with educators. The opening was standard, but when I said I was looking for a better way of note taking and had heard that OneNote had a writing function, she did not launch into a sales pitch. She asked questions about the contexts I would be taking notes and how I wanted to use them later. She asked about my familiarity with aspects of Office365 that are inter-operable with OneNote such as Outlook and Word Online. Talking about Outlook brought up calendars and I asked if OneNote could make tentative calendar entries (it cannot), but that then led us on a merry search for an add-on that Belinda remembered coming across as a recipient some time ago, which we eventually found. It was a very helpful conversation as I learned more about OneNote that I can apply to my note taking and work, and found a new add on that may help solve a vexatious issue.
I did have a similar experience with Joe on the STM Bags stand. He asked questions about what I wanted in a bag, what I needed to be able to carry around, what was frustrating me about my current bag. I did end up buying a bag from him, taking advantage of the FutureSchools expo offer they had running, but it was great to have an experience with vendors who tried to find out what I was trying to achieve rather than simply rattling off some specifications and hoping I would buy.
Credit where credit is due.
“They do not know how to talk to educators”
-An Education Nation delegate’s observation regarding vendors.
Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
I would like to begin this article by sharing a personal story, and I would like you to try to place yourself in my shoes throughout. I arrived at an education conference last year wide-eyed and more than a little naive about what was going to see and hear from the vendors. It was my very first conference and the first time I had been exposed to an educational vendor expo. I spoke with all of the vendors who had something that intrigued me or made me curious, and they all went something like this:
“How are you?”
“Well, thanks, you?”
“Yeah, good. Have you heard of our product before? It can do x, y and z.”
“Ok, can it do p or q?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
There were also a number of vendors, actually, the majority, who made no effort to engage me, or other delegates. Their body language was closed off, their facial expressions were bored and disinterested and they appeared more interested in chatting with their colleagues on their own stand and those around them. Many of them had signage that told a delegate everything they needed to know about the product and discouraged talking to them. If you did approach those vendors, they answered the questions with product knowledge drawn from within their box of knowledge about that product.
Though I was asked questions by vendors such as what year group do you teach, what subject do you teach, and have you tried competitor A’s product? Because ours is far superior, they were superficial questions which were asked from a superficial interest, driven by wanting to sell me the product or get my details for later promotional e-mails* as opposed to wanting to understand what I am trying to do in my classroom with my students at the moment and what challenges I have that they can work with me to solve. The vendors were also, it appeared, unwilling to leave the safety and comfort of their stand to get amongst the delegates and get to know and understand them and their needs.
The vendors had no understanding of how to get to know me as an educator and my needs, challenges and goals. They knew how to rattle off their sales pitch, and could do so with aplomb. This is, I believe, a distinct difference in approach and attitude.
I suspect that many of you are, whether figuratively or literally, nodding your head in agreement at this point, as your experience with vendors at expos has been somewhat similar. I had a conversation with someone recently who pointed out that it is partially our fault, as educators, for going in and often just asking “what can it do? as opposed to going in and asking “I teach x to y students and am trying to do z but have come up against problems a, b and c. Do you have a solution?”
When I initially came across Education Nation during a twitter chat earlier in the year, one of the aspects which caught my eye was the way in which the organisers had positioned the traditional vendor exhibition floor, which they were dubbing The Playground. It sounded like it would be different.
In case you are unable to read the text on that image from the Education Nation website, this is what is says:
Let’s face facts – people who attend education events are normally there for the learning opportunities they offer… NOT to speak to ‘vendors’ in the expo.
I was excited by the prospects of this. My imagining of The Playground would be that the Vendors would not only know their products but would have an understanding of education and specific challenges in at least some of the areas that are faced on a daily basis. More importantly, though, I had imagined that the vendors would be intermingling with the delegates, engaging in discussions about education and specific contexts within which the delegates are teaching and the specific challenges we were facing.
This was not the case.
Acer came to the Education Nation party, and had, inarguably, the largest stand there and were the official coffee provider with a barista at one end of their stand (who made consistently great hot chocolates, but from what I heard, terrible coffee).
Although I am going to explicitly use Acer as an example in this story, it applies equally to all of the vendors, not just at Education Nation, but at any educational conference. I stood in line for my hot chocolate on several occasions and not once was I engaged in conversation by an Acer representative; no sales pitch, no good morning, how are you? I did approach the Acer stand at one point with the express purpose of scoping out what they had on offer and approached a computer that had a driving computer game on display. However, what captured my interest was actually the monitor, which was a wide-screen curved monitor.
An Acer representative approached me, just as I was starting to look at the monitor and told me that the game was playable and to just use particular keys on the keyboard to drive the car. He then turned and moved away. There was no discussion, no sales pitch, no what has you interested in this computer? No what computer are you using at school or at home at the moment? Nothing. Sadly, that is not the worst part of the story.
One of the presenters at Education Nation was Nick Patsianas (@nickpatsianas), a current Year Twelve student who is also, and I use this term as a compliment, a huge computer nerd (I would only label myself as a minor computer nerd). He was engaged in a conversation with one of the Acer representatives about some of the laptops they had on display and was explaining to the representative about how a particular component of the laptop works and why that was good for him as a student. He also explained to the representative that another feature that was purported to be in benefit, was actually a flaw, and why that was the case.
A delegate had more knowledge of the product the vendor was promoting, and its real world uses and flaws, than the vendor himself did.
PC Locs had a stand there as well, and the representatives looked bored, disinterested and disengaged and made no effort to engage those walking past their stand, in any way unless someone actually stopped to look at a product that they had. The Brainary stand had a robot that could walk, dance and talk, and it gained some attraction, but I do not know how much genuine interest there was, and how much was due to the gimmick of the robot. Latitude Travel also showed little interest in engaging people in conversation, they certainly made no attempt to draw me in. ABI were there showing off their Snowflake system. They had a flat screen touch panel, upright, showing a simple screen, and a banner with all the info you needed to know about it.
The representative, as did many of the company representatives there, looked bored and did not show off the fact that the flatscreen touch panel could go from full vertical to horizontal and was height adjustable, and then when he did show that off, could not explain why that would be of use to a teacher for collaborative learning and publishing of work for a wider audience.
The vendors did not know how to engage educators appropriately.
Vendors, there is something you need to understand about educators. You complained we were not talking to you at Education Nation but there is a reason for that. We can find out everything we want to know about your product online. You cannot find out anything about our teaching context and the challenges we face in our specific room without engaging in conversation with us. Talk to us, not at us. Ask us what we want to be able to do and what our challenges are, rather than rattle off the specifications of the product. Leave your stands and have lunch or coffee with us. Ask us who we have just listened to speak and what we took away from that talk. Or, be even more genuine, and sit in on the talks, show an interest in education rather than just selling us products and tools and services.
Educators, there is something we need to realise about vendors. If we continue to simply ask what a product does, the vendors will continue to sell to us and talk at us. We need to go in and tell them what we want to do, whether it is a concrete function or an abstract dream. We need to share our real, genuine, everyday systemic, policy, process and people-power challenges with them to give them insight into what we face and allow them to go back to their companies and brainstorm ways of surmounting those challenges.
Until we change how we engage with the vendors, the vendors will continue to not know how to engage with us.
UPDATE: I was contacted by the CEO of a company at this event via e-mail afterwards who requested to chat regarding her company's representatives and their conduct, wanting specifics. Although I rang and left a voicemail and followed up with an e-mail I did not hear back from that person.
*There is an exception to this. Rowan and Yohan from MyEdApp engaged me in conversation very differently and did make an effort to understand my context.