Dispatches from the Front
EdTech Leaders Face Covid-19
This is the fifteenth of a series of mini-interviews ODP conducted with EdTech Founders and Senior Executives to gain insights into how industry leaders are adjusting their strategies and evolving their management practices during the current pandemic.
THIS WEEK: Ellen Bialo & Jay Sivin-Kachala, President and Executive Vice President of Interactive Educational Systems Design (IESD)
Ellen Bialo
President of Interactive Educational Systems Design
Jay Sivin-Kachala
Executive Vice President of Interactive Educational Systems Design

Interactive Educational Systems Design (IESD) serves the educational publishing and technology industries by providing market and product research and analysis. They conduct focus groups, surveys, structured interviews, comparison group evaluation research, and competitor analysis. IESD’s clients have included Amplify, Cengage, Cisco Systems, Curriculum Associates, Edgenuity, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, Renaissance Learning and Scholastic.

IESD President Ellen Bialo has served as chair of the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) Education Section Board of Directors and as an advisor to the National Science Foundation (NSF).  She was a founder of the DOLS, a women’s professional organization in the educational technology industry.

Dr. Jay Sivin-Kachala, IESD’s Executive Vice President, has been widely published, including articles and reports by Scholastic, the SIIA and the NSF. Both Ellen and Jay have previous experience as classroom teachers.


1. Now that the school year is underway, what has surprised you the most about what you are hearing from your clients and what they are saying about what is happening in the market?

Ellen: Early on, a lot of our clients needed more IT staff because they were having a lot of technical issues. They were working very hard to beef up their tech offerings. We had some clients who didn’t have any digital products; they put their technical development on super speed. Other clients were trying to figure out specific offerings to meet the COVID-19 challenge – addressing student learning gaps, dealing with issues around remote learning and support for families whose students were learning home. Some were sending print materials home, which is really difficult. And they were generally figuring out what kinds of customer support plans to put in place.

Another issue was figuring out what to do about professional development. A lot of companies were already doing remote PD, but a lot were providing PD face-to-face. And for a lot of them, PD is a big piece of what they sell.

Jay: Another takeaway is that PD is becoming a really critical issue. It’s not just a moneymaker. Since most of the market is dependent on clients re-upping on subscription contracts, you have to make sure that people are implementing your products well. PD becomes a critical element in making that happen.

2. How has the COVID-10 crisis affected the kinds of research projects you are taking on? How has it affected the kinds issues your clients want you investigate on their behalf?

Jay: Early on, when the pandemic hit, clients all of sudden couldn’t attend to research projects or had other priorities.  So we decided to conduct our own research into the impact of COVID-19.  An important finding was that most district were planning hybrid options, or had plans that they envisioned would change over time.  The flexibility of those plan served them well.

We also found some market opportunities, for example, in the areas of COVID-19 prevention (cleaning products, plastic screens, etc.), social-emotional learning, and multi-tier systems of support – intervention systems to meet students’ academic, behavioral, and emotional needs.  We also saw market opportunities in focusing on special needs students, and on resources for remediation and intervention.

Ellen: In District 75 in NYC (which supports special needs students), there was a lot of pressure to provide services.

Jay: What we’re doing now is similar to what we’ve done in the past:  online focus groups, online surveys, competitive analysis.  We’ve been doing some research foundation white papers as well.  One notable change we are seeing is that in research, clients now tend to ask questions about responses to the pandemic, or about new offerings related to the pandemic.

3. How has the crisis reshaped your approach (if at all) to managing your own business?

​​​​​​​Ellen: Not that much. We pretty much work remotely anyway. Some of our clients we’ve never even met. We meet via phone, Zoom, whatever – that’s just ongoing for us. It’s pretty much the way we’ve always done it. But I do miss going to conferences!

4. Do you think education will go back to what was considered normal before? What do you think the “new normal” will look like?

Ellen: One of the things I’ve been aware of is how teachers are burning out and how that impacts quality of instruction.  That’s a real concern.  Teaching this way is very different.  I think it’s tough.

Jay: Unless there is a big relief package, a lot of cities will face economic pressure to reduce spending.  That will make what Ellen is talking about even worse.

Ellen: It’s just not sustainable for teachers to teach this way.  It will impact instructional quality; it affects working parents; and as the dominoes fall, it affects the economy too.

Jay: Something we thought we knew is even more evident now—that face-to-face learning is really essential, both academically and for social-emotional learning.  But at the same time, districts have to be ready for online learning – with hardware, software, instructional systems – for when the next crisis occurs. I think districts will be more selective in what they buy.  They’ve experienced successes and some failures with what they bought quickly during the pandemic.  Products and vendors that establish track records of value during the pandemic might have a market advantage.  A lot of learning will happen in school, but a lot will occur remotely as well, so solutions that work well in a hybrid situation will do particularly well.


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Robin Warner

Managing Director

Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips

(212) 651-2605