What was once the premier, must-go conference in the education technology industry is now going away.
Last week, the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) announced that its education technology group will no longer operate as its own division beginning July 1. Instead, it will be absorbed into SIIA’s existing public policy division, which advocates for legislation on behalf of its members.
As part of the change, the Washington, D.C.-based membership association will no longer hold its annual education technology conferences, once staple events for industry leaders. For nearly two decades, SIIA has convened a spring conference in San Francisco for education technology industry executives, and a fall gathering in New York catered to education investors.
In an interview, SIIA President Jeff Joseph said the option to cancel its conferences had been on the table “for the better part of a year” due to sagging attendance in recent years. But the pandemic accelerated the decision. Its 2020 summer conference, originally scheduled for May, convened virtually—but not without losing substantial revenue that it normally generated from its in-person event.
SIIA dates back to 1984, when it was known as the Software Publishers Association. In 1999, it merged with the Information Industry Association and took on its current name. Its early work focused on lobbying on behalf of its members, which also included companies across the banking, financial and trade publishing sectors.
The education group, which would later become the Education Technology Industry Network, formed in the late 1980s, at a time when the education market was just a blip on the broader technology industry landscape. “It was early in offering programs that highlighted edtech,” says Frank Catalano, an independent industry strategist who previously served on SIIA’s education board. “It was essentially the go-to association for the edtech industry.”
The conferences were the most publicly visible part of SIIA’s education programming, attracting executives from big textbook publishers along with their peers from major technology companies with growing education footprints, including Apple and Microsoft. Panels and keynotes covered the latest industry trends. Market researchers shared the latest reports about the edtech landscape and opined where sales opportunities were.
“It was where you went to get deals done,” recalls Catalano.
SIIA also created an “incubator” program in 2006 to support early-stage education companies, long before the idea became popular in the edtech industry. “All the big companies wanted to find out who the new ones were. They were looking to license their tools, or acquire them, or simply see what new ideas startups were coming up with,” says Karen Billings, who ran SIIA’s education technology division from 2002 to 2016.
Over the past decade, technological advancements turned education technology from a fringe to an increasingly mainstream market. Computers, laptops and mobile devices became more affordable. Broadband internet access and cloud computing made it easier to distribute educational software once sold on floppy disks and CD-ROMs.
Money also followed in the form of private capital from foundations and investment firms, which further accelerated the development and adoption of education technology tools in homes and schools. In 2019, venture capitalists invested $1.7 billion in U.S. edtech companies, marking the highest tally of the decade.
For a once-nascent industry, these have been welcome changes. But they also introduced new competitors and challenges to SIIA’s education events business.
“In the early- to mid-2000s, some of our conferences were really well attended,” says Billings. In their heydays, each event attracted upwards of 500 attendees, she estimated. “But that really changed about 10 years ago, as others emerged.”
Among the competitors Billings and Joseph named: the ASU GSV Summit, launched in 2010 by investment firm GSV Capital and Arizona State University, and which has become the annual dealmaking venue for education businesses and their financiers. A year later, South by Southwest organized its first education spinoff event, SXSW EDU, to bring together entrepreneurs and educators. Both these events—just a couple among dozens for the edtech industry—now boast thousands of attendees.
Many of the new events attracted a broader audience beyond the corporate executives that SIIA had wooed. Colorful booths, celebrity speakers and corporate-sponsored happy hours introduced a mix of entertainment and excitement that may not have always yielded deep business discussions, but helped expand the fanbase. The programming brought more teachers, parents and the general public into the mix.
By contrast, SIIA’s education events largely stuck to a strictly-business affair. They kept to the suit and tie as others were donning T-shirts and hoodies. There were no vendor halls where salespeople demoed their tools. Neither were there concurrent (and often competing) after-parties, organized by sponsoring companies, after the day’s formal programming concluded.
“One of the shifts I saw, and why some of our conferences decreased in attendance, was that the companies really wanted to be where their customers were. ISTE was a popular one. CoSN also grew,” says Billings. “For the industry, ASU GSV provided the investors and had a lot of support for the younger startups.” (Note: ISTE is the parent organization of EdSurge.)
“Our conferences have focused heavily on diving in-depth into issues and challenges. But now a lot of our members are investing in events that help them build their sales pipeline,” says Joseph.
What resulted was a “double-digit percentage decline [in attendance] over the past several years,” adds Joseph. “We’re just not seeing companies respond in a manner that made it reasonable to keep the events going.” About 120 people registered for its last summer gathering in June 2019.
Without the conference, SIIA’s value proposition for its education members will be trimmed to its roots in advocating and lobbying for policies that support the industry. With schools shuttered and facing budget cuts due to the pandemic, priority issues include securing federal funding for schools to purchase technology, along with better safeguards for student data privacy, says Joseph.
According to Joseph, SIIA currently has more than 60 education technology members, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson and Scholastic. Annual membership dues start at $1,000 and increases based on a company’s reported revenues.
The only other major piece that remains for edtech members is the annual SIIA CODiES Award program, which recognizes leading technology products and has a category specific to education software.
To Catalano, SIIA marks one of “the last of the major old-school conferences in the education industry” to call it quits. The move follows in the footsteps of Content in Context, once a hot stop for education publishers, which held its last event in 2017. EdNET, a K-12 focused industry event organized by marketing data firm MDR, last convened in 2018.
“In some ways, SIIA was a victim of its own success in promoting education technology. As it became mainstream, other nonprofit and for-profit organizations became interested, and SIIA found competitors on all sides,” says Catalano.
“The good news is that edtech is now everywhere,” he adds. “But when that happens, the industry organizations that specialized in something that was once niche have to evolve or fade away.”