With interactive whiteboards (IWBs) beginning to hit their peak in the education market, many in the channel are looking for the
next big thing to hit the school and university sector. The buzz at this year’s British Education and Training Technology (BETT) show, the technology event for education, was all about interactive voting systems.
For those not familiar with the technology, think of the little handsets the audience use on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire when the contestant chooses the ‘Ask the audience’ option. Or for those old enough, cast your minds back to the voting systems used on 1980s talent show New Faces when Marti Caine told the audience “Press your buttons now” to vote for the winner.
Obviously, interactive voting systems have moved on considerably since the days of New Faces, but the technology is based on the same idea.
The handsets on the market today use a radio frequency, and simply need a PC or laptop to work with them. They can be used in conjunction with an IWB, but results and data can be just as easily projected onto a blank wall or a dry whiteboard.
UK manufacturer Group Dynamics has been developing and selling interactive voting systems since 1983.
“We effectively started the market in the 1980s,” said Pat McGuane, account manager at Group Dynamics. “We began by providing audience response systems for pharmaceutical companies that held huge medical conferences and needed to extract a lot of information from a large number of people.
“We work in virtually every sector in 50 different countries. Although we sell direct, we also sell to resellers. There are more manufacturers coming onto the market, but the hardware is really a means to an end. It is the software that differentiates. We are constantly developing new software.”
Group Dynamics also hires out its systems. There are a lot of smaller companies where it simply is not viable to buy the handsets outright.
McGuane said she has noticed an increase in demand for the systems. “More people are seeing the handsets on TV shows,” she said. “They understand what they are.”
Andrew Smith, senior associate at audiovisual (AV) analyst Sandy Brown Associates, agrees.
“The use of interactivity is increasing,” he said. “Voting systems are a growth area in the UK. Voting systems are a good value-add for VARs in any market where interactive participation is required. The interactive voting market is set to increase.”
According to the channel, this year is one of growth for the technology. Rachel Turner, marketing manager at VAR Interactive Education, said: “I think demand [for interactive voting] is really going to take off this year. We just need to educate people as to how they can use the technology.”
Interactive Education used to sell vendors’ voting systems, but it has now developed its own interactive voting system in conjunction with software developer Genee World.
“Our system is called GeneeUs,” Turner said. “We officially launched it at BETT 2006, but we have been promoting it since September 2005. Initially it was secondary schools that wanted it, mostly because of the assessment capabilities, but this year we’ve had more systems going into primary schools.”
Other channel players also believe the interactive market is taking off. As the sole distributor in the UK for a system called Turning Point, AV distributor Steljes is looking for a repeat performance of the success it achieved with its Smart Technologies range of IWBs in the education space.
Mitt Nathwani, product manager for Turning Point at Steljes, told CRN: “Interactive voting systems will be the next big thing. They will take off quicker than people think.”
Nathwani worked for AV reseller Research Machines (RM). He was brought on board at Steljes “to make Turning Point fly”.
“Turning Point is an interactive voting system from US vendor Turning Technology,” he said. “It’s stunningly easy to use, which is important. Experience shows that if someone can’t use a piece of technology in the first five minutes, they tend to
give up. It’s also built into Microsoft Office, so there is no new software that users have to learn to use with it. It’s also officially deemed for use with a Smart board.”
Asked if Turning Point will be available to all Steljes VARs to sell, Nathwani said: “My preference for Turning Point is that only resellers that have bought into the idea and speak the language of Turning Point will be the ones I’ll work closely with. I could take all 300 ‘Smart’ VARs, but it wouldn’t work as well. There is no accreditation programme in place for Turning Point yet. I need to find the best way to pick the right resellers. This could be through an accreditation programme, but it might not be.”
Neil Sampson, marketing manager at education VAR CDEC, said: “We’ve been selling interactive voting systems for two or three years, but at very low volumes. Everyone talked about them at BETT, so whether that will filter down to the school level, I don’t know. We sell Turning Point and we sell Promethean AV’s ACTIvote, but EduClick is the one we’re having most success with, mainly because it’s the cheapest.
“Schools can buy them with e-learning credits, which is a benefit. Whenever we’ve sold them to schools they do like them. Younger teachers tend to love them, whereas older teachers don’t. We are promoting them more, but I haven’t noticed an increased demand for them yet. A continued awareness is needed.”
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) told CRN that although many schools have expressed an interest in using interactive voting systems, not many have bought them.
A Becta representative said: “We have schools involved in our test bed that are making use of voting buttons. When used for a real purpose, not just a gimmick, voting buttons add an exciting extra dimension to learning and teaching.”
Asked if there were any market leaders yet in the education market, the representative said: “Not really, although where schools have invested in RM kit they tend to buy Qwizdom voting systems. This is because they work with the Easiteach suite of programs, and results can be displayed easily on an IWB.”
Gary Morrison, business development manager at the Belfast office of interactive voting system vendor Qwizdom, said: “Qwizdom is a 20-year-old US firm that launched in the UK two-and-half years ago. Our route to market is through both a direct salesforce and a VAR network. Our main markets are education, government and corporates. We deal directly with resellers and have about eight on board, including RM.
“We’re happy with the number of resellers we have in education, but we are always open to more in the corporate and government sectors. The market for interactive voting systems is riding on the crest of a wave. IWBs were the big thing a year ago, but now people are looking beyond IWBs. This year will be a good year for us.”
Although education is emerging as the main market for interactive voting systems, many channel players feel that the technology will eventually take off in the corporate space.
Steve Dracup, managing director of manufacturer and distributor Promethean AV, told CRN: “A lot of voting systems are going into education, because that’s where the majority of resellers have targeted. There is a lot of promise for interactive voting systems in the corporate space, but the question is how do you get the products in front of corporates? Resellers with corporate contacts should show them interactive voting systems because it is the only way to sell these products. Resellers that do this see the success.”
Promethean AV manufactures two voting systems: ACTIvote is aimed at the education market, while its Presentavote range is for corporates. Dracup wants more VARs to sell both ranges, but he is particularly keen to increase corporate sales.
“The great thing about interactive voting systems is that they’re not just limited to AV resellers,” he said. “The technical support needed is very low, and they are easy to demonstrate because of their size and portability. From a reseller’s perspective, it is a good margin opportunity: about 25 per cent, compared with between 10 and 15 per cent for projectors. It also gives resellers something new to take to existing customers.”
Jason Gosnold, senior corporate account manager at AV reseller Matrix Display Systems, said: “We’ve been selling Turning Point since last year. I work in corporate sales and have had a couple of applications where this technology was the right thing for the client. But it’s mainly education at the moment.
“Corporates will catch on, but their need for a voting system isn’t quite there yet. We promote it in boardrooms, and we do a lot of seminars and shows. But once people have seen it they need to then go away and think about how it could be applied to their business.”
Nathwani said: “Turning Point will take off first in the classroom, probably because of Steljes’s links in education, but also because schools seem to be where there is demand and interest in it. We have plans to get it into the corporate and higher education space. The corporate market is huge, so we’ll pick out tight niches that I know will work for Turning Point. Then we will allow VARs to sell into that.
“Turning Point has been used for more than just teaching. We helped a local authority to gather anonymous feedback from their teachers at local schools. This data helped the authority to tweak their IT strategy.”
According to Turner, although education is Interactive Education’s main market, GeneeUs is also being used in training with fire brigades and corporate training centres. “The way the data can be collected enables GeneeUs to be used for opinion gathering, which is also appropriate for a lot of businesses,” she said. C
>> Further reading:
Group Dynamics (020) 8991 9559
Promethean AV (01254) 676 921
Qwizdom (028) 9048 5015
Steljes (020) 8213 2100
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