Credit: Isaac Kohane

I’ve been thinking a lot about how K-12 districts adopt core math or ELA curricula and how this relates to OER. In this context, I’m not thinking about the product itself (though I may write separately about that), but more the sales and support process.

I know how large traditional publishers do it — with lots of marketing, beautiful collateral, big sales forces, lots of hand-holding, lots of promises.

What I’m trying to tease out is how much of this is essential and how much is not. Particularly in the case of an open-licensed (“free“) curriculum that is not likely to have the financial resources to sell in the same way as the big boys (and yes, they are mostly boys; it is an old boys network) players.

Credit: Side Wages

There are other models for selling to schools — some involve viral marketing, community building, and stimulating grass roots demand. In my mind though, those models work better for supplemental products that are more driven by teacher (and even parent or learner) demand. Core curriculum adoptions on the other hand are made by committees with a keen attention to high stakes accountability. In this risk adverse environment, a “build it and they will come” approach to sales and marketing is insufficient.

Another option to consider could be to cultivate in-district “champions” who are enthusiastic about the product and might take on some of the tasks described below, especially advocating for the project in face to face meetings. I’m not sure about the feasibility of this, but if it were to work, it would require careful cultivation.

[Note: For the purpose of this post, I am presupposing the goal to be district adoption of OER as the primary core curriculum. If your goal is to have your curriculum used in any fashion, e.g. “downloads,” then the options are much more numerous. And yes, it is true that schools are using more resources in a piecemeal basis, which I think is a good thing, but the context of this discussion is adoption as primary core curriculum.]

So then, here is a list of possible sales related tasks to be considered (Note: This relates to both adoption state and open territory districts, but obviously for adoption states, there is another whole set of hurdles before this):

  • Initial awareness building (e.g. trade shows, press, direct mail, telemarketing)
  • Getting on the list to be considered by district adoption committees (in-person sales calls, direct mail, telemarketing, sampling)
  • Correlations
  • Sampling (digital vs. print; this is a big issue for OER.)
  • Committee presentations (in-person)
  • Lots of paperwork (vendor approvals, bonds, etc.)
  • Piloting (not always required but often required in larger districts)
  • Research on “effectiveness” (This is getting to be a bigger and bigger issue.)
  • Follow-up; repeat, repeat, repeat

The question is which of these are essential and which are not, especially for “free” OER curriculum. My initial estimation is that many/most of these are critical regardless of the price of the curriculum. I’m going to be testing this supposition out by getting district input though and would love to hear your thoughts.

(Note: I’ve left out of this post the sales dimension involving personal relationships, which can be as straightforward as building personal trust or as unsavory as quid pro quo favors. While I suspect that these relationships have a sizable impact on some purchase decisions, and I have certainly heard stories of such, whether completely on the up-and-up and less so, I don’t have a broad enough base of factual evidence to support that.)

One possible answer to this dilemma is a business model that includes some flow of revenue to the OER publisher in order to fund the sales process (and also pays for follow-up support services like professional development and customization, which I don’t discuss here but will in a future post). The price, of course, still would be MUCH lower than traditional curriculum. To me, that’s a pretty good trade-off for everyone involved (especially considering that in some cases, it’s not clear who exactly benefits from free or lower-cost core curriculum). Future posts coming with more details on possible business models as well.

Selling core curriculum
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