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The Myth of K12 Platforms: 4 Reasons Why Building Beats Buying in EdTech

March 06, 2024   •   Insights

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To build or not to build — it’s the poetic question that every technology organization asks itself when facing an emergent customer need. 

If you’re not familiar with the software space, this conundrum simply means that a vendor must decide to either: 

A: build a solution themselves, or
B: buy an existing solution and integrate it into their existing platform.

In the edtech space, school and district administrators are often choosing between a “built” and a “bought” solution as they look at software to support their staff. Regardless of which choice a vendor makes, their decision has a major impact on the customers they serve. 

Let’s explore the two most common types of edtech software (K12 platforms and point solutions) and determine which path best serves educators: when vendors “build it” or “buy it.”

The Hunt for Efficiency Using Edtech Software

First, a preface: you’re going to see the word specific a lot in this article because — surprise! — education is an extremely specific and unique industry. Though it shares some similarities with how other industries operate, the nuances in the K12 education sector have critical implications for software providers who want to design solutions for administrators, teachers, students, and even parents.

One of the most critical things educators seek is efficiency. When solutions save them time, energy, and resources, it’s a win.

Many educators may jump at the opportunity to use what’s called a K12 platform with the goal of efficiency in mind. This “all-in-one” solution professes to save educators time and money by combining many products that solve different challenges into one single offering. Like others in the “buy it” camp, K12 platform vendors typically scout for existing software in the market to buy and integrate into their platform.

In contrast, point solutions — also called “best in breed” — are “built” in-house by vendors to solve very specific problems in a specific industry. Vendors may design point solutions to operate with other software that solve other problems beyond its purview.

At first glance, many educators may gravitate towards a K12 platform, and it’s easy to understand why. A one-stop shop for a teacher to track student absences, the HR administrator to file new hire paperwork, and a principal to approve teacher time off? Such a solution sounds magical.

Even vendors can be enchanted by the promise of a K12 platform. After all, isn’t building one comprehensive platform to meet all customer needs a more effective business strategy?

Here lies the rub: the K12 platform doesn’t deliver on these promises for educators. In the end, its magic is merely a myth.

K12 Platforms: 3 Reasons Why “Buying It” Fails Educators

The attraction toward the K12 platform is founded on three key stories that educators (and even vendors) tout about the benefits such platforms impart:

  • A K12 platform provides a comprehensive suite of solutions that mesh well with each district or school’s environment.
  • It’s less expensive in terms of time, money, and energy to set up one platform vs. many solutions.
  • An all-inclusive platform offers a seamless user experience and is easier for users than juggling multiple separate solutions.

Let’s unpack each of these myths about the K12 platform, and why the vendor philosophy of “buying it” creates more challenges for educators than it solves.

Myth #1: The K12 platform that works in our neighboring district’s context will also work in ours.

In reality, specific problems require specific solutions. Rarely in education has there ever been a one-size-fits-all strategy for solving the most common challenges that schools and districts face, like substitute teacher shortages, funding changes, ineffective family engagement practices, negative school climate, and more. Even if these problems look the same on the surface, they come with nuance and context that is essential to integrate into any solution designed to solve them.

Unfortunately, as K12 platform providers squeeze more solutions into their all-inclusive offering, the platform itself becomes more rigid. Every software application added comes with certain fundamental properties and structures that cannot be easily adjusted. They’re simply baked-in. This rigidity makes it difficult for a K12 platform to adapt to, say, supporting absence management in a high school district that uses block scheduling if the application was designed to manage a more “traditional” high school class schedule.

Though workflows like absence management are commonplace among districts, the devil is in the variable details. K12 platforms are often unable to adapt to such details and provide educators with solutions they need. True solutions to complex issues depend on each customer’s context, and more importantly, their active input and collaboration to co-design solutions.

Myth #2: A single platform is easier to use because of a single user interface and seamless integrations across its solutions.

In reality, K12 platforms are often clunky for educators to use, their software not so ‘seamless’.

Remember, every software application has fundamental mechanisms in place that are very difficult, if not impossible to change. When K12 platforms try to bring these disparate pieces together, they usually can only make surface level changes, like updates to the user interface or single sign-on capabilities. Such superficial adjustments may look nice at first, but educators quickly discover how many headaches they instigate.

Even the vendors managing K12 platforms struggle here. More often than not, even if two systems live on the same platform, they operate in silos from one another. Issues like data interoperability (having data flow cleanly between two solutions), simple navigation, and feature parity (having the same core features available on all solutions) are challenging for vendors to address to create the “seamless” user experience they promise to their customers.

The frustration educators experience with less-than-seamless user experiences in a K12 platform simply isn’t worth the costs. Speaking of costs…

Myth #3: An all-inclusive platform saves district money, time, and resources.

When one takes into consideration the clunky user experience, the lack of flexibility — not to mention the upfront costs of implementing a K12 platform is multiplied by the number of apps it has — the numbers don’t add up to a net positive for districts.

A challenging user experience means more precious time spent by teachers trying to understand basic functionality in the platform. Disjointed data means more effort spent by district admins pulling together reports from separate software apps and trying to make sense of them outside of the platform. Different rules for managing user permissions means more energy spent by IT teams trying to ensure staff can access specific areas of the platform, while also safeguarding parts staff shouldn’t see.

Clearly, educators pay greatly for the additional time, energy, and resources spent standing up and managing a K12 platform.

Point Solutions: Why “Building It” Serves Educators

For every myth about the K12 platform, there is a countering assumption made about point solutions. Here are three reasons why, in fact, point solutions offer the best service and support to meet educators’ most pressing needs.

Fact #1: Point solutions are fundamentally designed to address educator challenges in their context.

Rather than try to tackle every challenge under the sun, vendors better serve customers when they concentrate their efforts on building solutions for one specific challenge really well — especially when they consider the many nuances of such a challenge.

Take a familiar district HR workflow, for instance: staff absence management. Though there are common practices involved in absence management, each district’s unique context plays a key role in operationalizing these processes. For example, one school might follow a completely different classroom schedule from their neighboring school serving the same grade levels. That means scheduling substitute fill-ins and tracking teacher absences might need to look different for each campus — even if the same department at the district manages this workflow! By partnering with districts to understand this nuance, a vendor can design a solution that addresses both school’s needs.

Red Rover embraces this philosophy in our commitment to build solutions with our customers, for our customers. Remember that high school district mentioned earlier, the one that uses block scheduling? We collaborated with their team to craft a tailored solution that would support their unique absence management needs across its campuses. Read the success story here.

Fact #2: Educators have a more seamless user experience when they leverage multiple-point solutions that interconnect with one another.

Solutions can be designed to be as seamless as possible for educators by prioritizing integration into other systems (vs. trying to become the system to rule them all). That way, educators can quickly and easily utilize those systems that support their work best. Modern point solutions are capable of such sophisticated interoperability, so why use a cumbersome K12 platform?

Best-of-breed solutions like Red Rover also deliver best-of-breed integrations. As part of our vision to cultivate customer delight, Red Rover remains committed to optimizing connections between our solutions and adjacent ones. In fact, one district took advantage of our integrations with Munis and Kronos to simplify how they manage extra teaching duty coverage across their 113 school campuses and 9,000 employees. Read the success story here.

Fact #3: Districts save time, energy, and money when vendors co-create solutions that address their unique needs.

Many vendors make the erroneous assumption that it takes longer and costs more for them to just build a solution, either from scratch or on top of their existing one. In reality, time spent deeply understanding the problem — and building a solution that addresses it well — saves time and headaches in the future for everyone.

On the vendor side, when teams are focused and clear about what they are building — and more importantly, what they are not building — it saves costs over time by allowing them to design and maintain only those solutions that address the problem they want to solve. And since all software requires maintenance, why not prioritize what’s most critical: visibility into what evolving needs educators have and flexibility to modernize solutions to meet those needs?

On the educator side, of course, point solutions are also a win as districts and schools get the solution they actually need for a particular challenge. But let’s not underestimate the value of an easy user experience and high-impact customer support, too — both of which are the bread and butter of many point solutions like Red Rover. Learn more about how we built our brand centered around customer delight, or discover for yourself what your fellow educators think about our solutions.

Designing Modern, Best-In-Breed Solutions

The myth of the K12 platform attracts educators with its claims of time saved, costs mitigated, and ease of use gained. But in the end, the empty promises of “buying” software and cramming it into one platform cost both educators and vendors alike.

This is why point solutions that take the “build it” path truly support educators’ most pressing needs. When vendors build a specific solution for a specific problem with ample input from their customers, it doesn’t just delight district admins. Students, teachers, and the entire school community reap the rewards.

Ready to be delighted? Learn more about Red Rover today!

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