The multibillion-dollar market for educational technology is in one sense being shaped from the top down—through major policies and economic forces influencing spending across states and school districts.
But it's also being fueled from the ground up—by a belief among school leaders and entrepreneurs, that digital tools will give schools the power to customize learning to meet individual students' needs.
Researchers and industry groups studying the market say they now see a growing demand for ed-tech products, an uptick that has followed a prolonged period of lean budgets at the state and local levels.
Some of that demand is being driven by big shifts in state laws and district policy, which have collectively ramped up the pressure schools face to raise academic achievement and evaluate the performance of schools, students, and teachers more precisely.
Other nationwide policy shifts are also at work, such as the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the development of online tests aligned to them, both of which have prompted school officials to look at ed-tech purchases to prepare them for those new benchmarks.
Yet much of the activity in the market today is also focused squarely on the promise—however vaguely defined—that ed-tech products and services will help teachers transform learning, student by student.
The goal, as espoused in the selling points of ed-tech companies across the market, is to create "personalized learning," or instruction that can be shaped through devices, platforms, and systems to raise the performance of students of very different ability levels. An increasing number of districts are counting on mobile devices such as tablets, in particular—tools they believe students are already comfortable using—to deliver that specially tailored academic content.
For districts and schools—traditionally, the main buyers in the market—the challenge is to figure out how the myriad tools touting different benefits can meet those different needs.
It is not easy. Despite the omnipresence of technology in many schools and students' lives, many ed-tech products in potentially promising areas, such as personalized learning and blended learning, are far from maturity, said Larry Johnson, the CEO of the New Media Consortium, an Austin, Texas-based association that helps K-12 and college officials make sense of digital trends.
"There are a lot of vendors in the market who hope they can make a hit in this area of focus," said Mr. Johnson.
But for schools, the reality is that "it's early days," he said. "It's a confusing market. We don't have a clear way of doing things."
Overall, data show that state K-12 budgets have stabilized and rebounded since the nadir of the Great Recession, which officially ended in late 2009 but drained state revenues well after that.
Even before states and districts had climbed out of that hole, the market for K-12 educational technology grew by 3 percent, to $8 billion, from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 school years, according to a report released last year by the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade organization. That research was based on confidential sales information from companies who responded to a survey by the association.
Since then, the budget picture has brightened somewhat. Forty-two states approved spending increases for K-12 education in their fiscal 2014 general-fund budgets, while just five states cut funding in that area, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, in Washington. That represents a turnaround from four years earlier, when 30 states made targeted cuts to K-12 education for their fiscal 2010 budgets.
Not that the financial picture for schools is rosy. At least 34 states provided less per-student funding in 2013-14 in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did before the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington policy organization that advocates for low- and middle-income Americans.
But the improvements appear to be helping spur spending on educational technology. Information put forward by the Association of American Publishers this year said that year-to-date sales of combined digital and print instructional materials in 2013 were up 7 percent over the previous year, according to the Washington-based association.
Meanwhile, there appears to be plenty of faith in the strength of the market among investors putting money into ed-tech companies with the goal of generating returns.
Venture capitalists invested nearly $1.2 billion in education and training companies in 2013, nearly four times the amount of five years earlier, according to GSV Advisors, a Chicago-based organization that consults across the education and business sectors.
While the largest portion of that investment last year was in higher education, a substantial chunk of that money, $219 million, was focused on K-12, more than twice as much as was invested in 2008.
"There's no doubt there's increased interest and activity," said Jennifer Carolan, the managing director of the seed fund at the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit venture-philanthropy organization based in Oakland, Calif. "Venture capitalists have always looked to new industries, and to technologies that can improve those industries.
But some question whether enough of that money is being directed to the right places.
Matt Greenfield, a managing partner at Rethink Education, a company based in White Plains, N.Y., that invests in ed-tech companies, recently wrote about how too many investors are putting money into the same products or services—he named digital textbooks as an example—even though many of those efforts will inevitably fail in that crowded landscape. Many other, potentially fruitful investments get ignored, he said.
The problem is not the risk of an ed-tech "bubble," as some claim, Mr. Greenfield wrote in an online blog post, but rather "there is a bubble in ideas that won't work and a dearth of capital for ideas that can work."
Deborah H. Quazzo, a founder and managing partner for GSV Advisors, disagreed, saying that thinking amounted to "tilting at the wrong windmill."
Ms. Quazzo, who also serves on the board of education for the 400,000-student Chicago public schools, said the flow of investment supports a diverse range of ideas and products, mentioning support for teachers as an example.
"Not every investment is going to work," she said. "You're going to bet on different management teams and different ideas." But while the market is certainly prone to "bunching," she said, "you'll see a very big spread of people covering large areas."
While many of the ed-tech companies receiving venture capital will fail, the willingness of investors to gamble on them will almost certainly spark innovation, Ms. Carolan argued. For years, many venture capitalists interested in technology focused on the consumer market and ignored ed tech, she said. That meant many ed-tech startups lived or died based on their ability to have immediate success selling to K-12 schools, a notoriously insulated market, she said.
Now, "venture capital will help bridge that gap," Ms. Carolan said. Educational technology "is a space that has been undercapitalized."
Others note the rapid flow of educational technology into classrooms also raises questions about whether the end-users of those tools, and ultimately, students, are getting what they need.
A nationwide survey released in April, for instance, showed that educators regard only about half of the digital devices their students are being asked to use in schools as effective.
The survey, commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that teachers are especially eager to find products that will help them with the common-core standards. Yet their satisfaction with those tools in meeting that need was mixed at best—and they saw the performance of resources in certain areas, such as elementary-level English-language arts and high school mathematics, as especially weak.
"The absence of useful market information has led to a mismatch between the kinds of digital instructional tools that teachers say they actually need," the report concluded, "and the kinds of products companies are creating and districts are buying."
Many of the biggest changes in the K-12 ed tech market have occurred because of the growth of mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and netbooks, and the related upswing in the market for digital content and tools, said Karen Billings, the vice-president of the education division at the Software & Information Industry Association.
The growth of mobile "has changed the landscape for developers, for instructors, and for students," she said.
Many districts around the country, meanwhile, have embarked on costly and ambitious technology projects, in some cases meant to give each student a computing device, or at least dramatically expand access to online tools. One of the most high-profile, and much-criticized examples is playing out in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is rolling out plans to provide all the system's 641,000 students with digital devices, with preloaded curriculum produced by Pearson.
At the same time, while a lot of school officials are keen on making the leap from print to digital materials, many are in fact moving "very, very slowly" on that front, added Ms. Billings, who said SIIA has surveyed district officials on the topic. The reasons vary: some districts believe some print content can still be delivered more effectively and equitably than tech-based lessons; others have said parents favor the familiar, print model, she said.
When it comes to choosing among the myriad of technology products thrown their way, many district administrators today feel "overwhelmed" by the choices they're asked to make, while also keeping costs in mind, said John D. Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, in Reston, Va.
Those decisionmakers want to put innovative technology into the hands of teachers and students, but they are also unnerved by the rapid pace of change in digital tools marketed to them.
Only a few years ago districts were relying on desktops, before shifting to laptops, Mr. Musso noted. But now, many laptops are being phased out in favor of iPads and assorted tablet options—leaving school leaders wondering how quickly their next purchase will become obsolete.
The challenge is not only to identify needs today, but "what's on the horizon and what kind of technology is being developed," Mr. Musso said.
While much of the market remains in flux, it's likely that schools will continue to demand products promising personalized learning, and new approaches to blended or hybrid learning, which combine online and in-person instruction, at school and in homes, speculated Mr. Johnson of the New Media Consortium.
Yet even those areas of educational technology face volatility, Mr. Johnson added. Unreliable Internet access in schools and in students' homes, for instance, can disrupt blended learning projects, he pointed out.
Plus, much of the most valuable work in personalized or adaptive learning is focused on using data about students' learning processes, not just data about outcomes, such as test scores, Mr. Johnson noted.
But the recent eruption of parental concern over student-data privacy is not about to go away. So if companies, districts, and policymakers don't ensure that students' personal information is protected, he said, "the blow back will kill the whole thing."
Many companies are also claiming that their products are aligned with the common-core standards, even though a number of researchers have cast doubts on those claims, saying it's likely that some vendors are merely rebranding existing materials under a new imprimatur.
To complicate matters even more, districts may face significant difficulties in trying to evaluate the value of ed-tech products claiming to promote personalized learning, Mr. Johnson said.
While that term is "very much in the news," he said, "personalized learning is not a well-defined landscape at all."
Given those unknowns, and district officials' overall unease about having to make big decisions about costly technologies, Mr. Johnson said he sees little harm in districts taking a cautious approach.
For many districts and schools, it makes sense "to wait a bit and let the market develop, so that options are clearer," he argued. "See how this unfolds. There's not a real penalty for being a midterm adopter."