A management buyout is said to have secured the future of the Studywiz virtual learning environment (VLE) used in thousands of schools across 27 countries. Studywiz is one of the few VLEs that has prompted unsolicited approval from teachers and learners, it is Apple Inc's VLE of choice and the news sent shudders around the VLE schools market.
The service has a reputation for innovation. For example it has been tailored for access by handheld computers and mobile phones including iPhones and Google's Android phones. According to a statement on the Studywiz website by founder Geoff Elwood (left), parent company Etech hit trouble due to "very rapid growth compounded by the global financial crisis and great fluctuations in global currency markets". [UPDATE BELOW.]
The government's ICT agency Becta is understood to be meeting with Studywiz representatives, including Geoff Elwood, and leading customers in London this week. School customers will need assurances of continuity of service and future development. Studywiz is one of the "approved" services on Becta's learning platform framework agreement and had been involved in ground breaking projects like the Kingswood Partnership's curriculum use of iPods and integration of pupil data with the VLE across schools. It is also the VLE for the massive one-laptop-per-student scheme in Maine USA.
[UPDATE: Speaking in London after the Becta-hosted Studywiz customer meeting, Geoff Elwood said that there was a clear consensus among customers that they were committed to continued use of the VLE, and that they wanted assurances of continued development. He said the new company was also committed, and its challenge was to work with customers to come up with a satisfactory new business model that would alleviate their concerns. Further developments will be reported as they happen.]
News of the winding up of Etech is a blow to perceptions of the Becta framework, particularly as two of the other most successful VLEs in the UK are Frog and the open source Moodle, neither of which are included in the framework, along with fears about the commercial prospects of at least one other learning platform provider.
There is also worry at policy level that take-up of learning platforms in UK schools has been less than enthusiastic, partly because they have not been linked to changes in pedagogy (an aspect picked up by Ofsted); the feeling is that there is not much point a school engaging with a new learning platform unless there is a desire to develop the learning and teaching. And that has not been helped by the perception that many VLEs are, to put it politely, "clunky", with many schools expressing disatisfaction with their ability to engage users who feel they use better, friendlier technology in their out-of-school lives.
However, the collapse of parent company Etech is a more serious blow to Australian founder Geoff Elwood who has consistently championed innovation, pedagogy and collaboration for the schools using Studywiz around the world. He is a well-known and respected figure at conferences (like Handheld Learning for example) who has stressed the primacy of learning and change management for learning platforms, and always been open and happy to debate the issues around open source. The company has always been associated with innovation whether that is by bringing in Web 2.0 aspects like blogging which users schools have asked for, or for integrating other services like Google Apps.
Statement from Studywiz pledges continuation of service
The statement on the Studywiz website says: "A management buy-out has ensured that Studywiz will continue to service and support its global client base and ensure the ongoing growth and development of the world-leading learning platform. A new company called Studywiz and Studywiz UK has been created ensuring there will be a smooth transition from the old Etech Group."
Geoff Elwood added: “I’m delighted to announce the strength and success of the Studywiz platform has been secured. The new management buy-out company has secured the customer base, the Studywiz intellectual property, along with its original development team and the core support team; securing an ongoing presence at a Global headquarters in Tasmania. We know that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do, but the new company’s top priority is to service its customer base.’’ Studywiz intends to continue to maintain offices in Hobart, Melbourne and the UK.
An industry insider said this week that it should be possible for the Studywiz and the new company to emerge as "a stronger beast" with the potential for future development and further innovation, which is what customers will be hoping for. They need continued support of the software, the service and its online hosting, along with assurances for continued development.
Although he praised the intentions of the national learning platform initiative, he also pointed out that it was "an artificial insemination of marketplace". The constant pressure for growth and innovation, coupled with the expectation of low prices ("roughly the cost of a packed lunch per pupil") and the need to attract capital investment created the potential for unbearable pressure on smaller companies. He also commended Geoff Elwood for his commitment to customers and creating a solution.
From his Australia base, Geoff Elwood added: "The past few months have been extremely difficult and challenging for me personally. After 16 years of hard and rewarding work, the recent developments have taken a heavy toll and it would be extremely tempting to head for the hills on my mountain bike! However, we have been overwhelmed by the massive groundswell of support and encouragement we have received from our customers around the world.
"Yes the market place is tough, and is changing rapidly, but innovation in education is what makes the journey so rewarding and worthwhile. I remain convinced that we are on the cusp of a totally new mobile revolution in schools, and the advent of the iPad just reinforces this.
I can assure our customers that we are fully committed to providing ongoing support and, most important, continuing to innovate and collaborate with our schools in the continued development of Studywiz."