Can you sell computers to the public school system?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, September, 1996

Pretty much everybody agree that students need exposure to computers?this not only improves schoolwork, even in early grades, but it helps make students comfortable with the sorts of tools that they will be using in virtually every job, after graduation.

In BC, for example, the Provincial government has set a target?one computer for every 6 elementary students, and one for every 3 secondary-level students. So where are the computers in the public schools going to come from? Is this a market with potential for CCW readers?

Many schools, particularly elementary schools, lack both dedicated computer labs and computer specialist teachers. In some cases, if there are computers, it may be only a handful of machines for several hundred kids?and many times, the hardware may be Commodore 64s or Apple IIs, popular over a decade ago. Other schools are working with hand-me-downs? computers donated by individuals, companies, the Federal government, or groups like phone company?s Phone Pioneers or the Science Council of BC?welcome additions, but in all cases, machines that are obsolete. (Ontario schools have a unique history?a decade or more ago, their Provincial Education Ministry mandated a unique, made-in-Ontario computer for schools? but now, that laudable, but incompatible effort has been abandoned, and Ontario schools, like others are focusing on standard Macs and PCs).

The schools that do have relatively modern computers have often bought them with money raised by the parents?in BC, often as a result of sponsoring casino nights.

There are some signs that this situation is changing for the better, however. The BC Ministry of Education, for example, has published new curriculum; guidelines for teachers aiming at integrating Information Technology into all subject areas at all grade levels. And because these new guidelines require access to modern hardware, the government has also increased the funding available for schools to purchase computer hardware, resulting in newspaper accounts of $100 million set aside in BC alone for computers in schools.

Some school districts are also pushing ahead on their own? Vancouver, for example, BC?s largest district, is in the midst of wiring all their schools with ISDN lines, connecting them to a wide area network, and providing all schools with high-speed Internet access.

With figures like that $100 million being thrown around for computer purchases for schools, it could appear that schools might finally be providing a new market for many computer distributors.

Unfortunately, with a very few exceptions, this may prove to be a difficult market to penetrate. Here?s why.

While schools and school districts want computers, they often find computers scary. Most teachers have little background with computers, and aren?t very comfortable with them. And schools typically don?t have technical support on site. At the same time, while businesses may be prepared to replace their computers every few years, this luxury hasn?t been available to schools (remember all those Commodore 64s? )

Let?s look at the Vancouver school system, for example.

In order to access money from the Provincial Ministry of Education for hardware purchases, Vancouver schools need to abide by purchasing guidelines issued by the Ministry. Periodically, the government requests companies to submit hardware for evaluation, that can be recommended to the schools? currently, that hardware list includes various models by exactly three manufacturers: Apple, IBM, and AST; while in some years, a few smaller companies, such as Datatrain, have had approved models, this is not currently the case.

An individual school district can limit that list further, and can ask retailers or distributors to submit bids for bulk purchases within that district. Since an individual district such as Vancouver will have to keep the machines up and running after the warranty period runs out, they may want to limit the number of models they have to support. At the same time, they want to ensure that the hardware will be robust enough to last through a long period of non-stop student use.

So teachers in Vancouver often felt frustrated, when they were told that their school could only buy relatively-expensive AST Bravos, models aimed at the business market, when they saw full colour fliers advertising similar-appearing AST Advantage computers being sold cheaper? the school district replied that the Advantage models, aimed at the home market, did not meet district standards.

Schools can purchase other models of computers?but they have to use their own funds to do so? money raised by parents, for example. But if they do that, the school district will not put those, non-standard machines on district inventory, so the individual school is responsible for insurance and maintenance. Some schools have chosen to buy a larger number of less-expensive machines that way, while others have taken the more cautious route of spending more money to remain compatible with district standards.

All this means that the school market will be a difficult one to penetrate.

Large enough companies may want to consider trying to get listed on the Provincial recommended hardware list? that means providing models for evaluation, by a set deadline. Datatrain, for example, missed that deadline one year, and as a result, was not listed for the following school year.

Smaller companies may want to approach individual schools; it can?t hurt to talk to a school?s principal, or to see if the school has a staff committee looking at hardware purchases. Be prepared to be frustrated?schools cannot spend Provincial government-provided funds on off-brand hardware, but they may be willing to discuss using so-called discretionary money-?casino-night profits, or the results of other fundraising. You may be able to see what you?re competing against? the Vancouver district, for example, sends a list of recommended hardware and prices out to schools, several times a year.

An added frustration for many companies will be the traditional Apple-centric attitude of many schools and districts. Apple has been quite successfully at courting the education market, ever since the Apple II-days of the early 80s, with the result that many schools, particularly elementary schools, but in some cases, whole school districts have standardized on Macintosh machines. Although Apple?s recent financial problems are causing schools to look at this, PC-focused dealers will find themselves having to work extra hard to penetrate these school districts.

And if you do make a sale to a school, expect to provide a lot of support? remember, few teachers are power users, and the machines are going to be used non-stop, by little sticky peanut-butter fingers. Factor the cost of that support into your price quote.

But if you are able to build a relationship with a school or a school district, and if you are patient and supportive, they will prove a loyal market (and, as teachers and administrators circulate), they can make it easier to sell to other schools, as time goes on.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan