School leaders face unparalleled choice, pressure, and complexity when choosing technology for their school.

The decision has become even more complicated with all the new technology in play – the vast amount of EdTech choices can be overwhelming.

Increasingly tech providers are promoting “horizontal”, or generic software as a core solution for schools. But, as school leaders know, challenges in the K-12 space such as duty of care, complex families, student wellbeing and student learning are unique to the sector.

As school’s grapple with long-term education technology planning and delivery, it is essential that they consider how unique challenges faced by K-12 schools will shape their long-term technology investment. For school leaders, software built to meet these unique challenges – or “vertical” software – will always sit at the heart of their technology eco-system.

Let’s explore.

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Vertical and Horizontal Software: What’s the difference?

Vertical software is designed to solve the unique problems of a specific sector or vertical, such as mining, hospitality, healthcare, or K-12 education. Vertical software companies like Education Horizons zero in on an industry’s particular needs and design a product to fulfil those needs.

For example, vertical software for education has specialised functionalities, such as:

  • Managing complex family relationships and the requirements for billing, communications, and more.
  • Supporting student wellbeing
  • Maximising student learning progress
  • Compliance reporting

Horizontal software on the other hand refers to software designed for all industries.

Horizontal systems are generic products designed to meet needs which are the same across all sectors such as email, spreadsheets, document creation and storage.

Horizontal products include:

  • Microsoft and Google suites,
  • Salesforce (CRM)
  • Xero, MYOB and Quickbooks for bookkeeping and accounting

The companies delivering these systems have designed them to be sector-agnostic to maximise user numbers and revenue.

Vertical software at the heart of education

As school operating software has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that schools require software built to meet their unique needs. Whether we’re talking about school management systems (SMS), student information systems (SIS) or learning management systems (LMS), they are carefully designed with the unique capabilities schools need to function and thrive.

One example is how software manages relationships in a school community.

Increasingly generic or horizontal Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools are promoting themselves as solutions in the K-12 school sector to meet this need. They do this by mapping the relationship between a business (the school) and its customers (parents and families). But this model misses a lot of essential data for schools.

Vertical School Management Systems on the other hand, such as Synergetic and Zunia, map relationships between members of each school community – parents, students, staff and wider families.

Generally, vertical School Management Systems do this through a single-user-ID for each community member, which captures all of their different roles and relationships over time – such as former student, current parent or relative, and current staff member.

This rich data is critical for schools and represents a critical need which horizontal software does not meet.In the future the situation may change in some limited areas.

Schools do share some pain points and needs in common with other sectors and solutions designed for all businesses in general can be useful options for schools to consider alongside their core vertical software systems.

For many schools the Covid-19 pandemic drove a shift to remote learning for schools worldwide, forcing them to rapidly find ways to communicate and share learning content with students at home. Many schools solved this need through generic communications platforms including Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Suite. Increasingly these tools are being integrated with core Learning Management Systems, delivering a generic virtual learning and interaction space as part of their vertical, or school-specific core software experience.

The bottom line is School leaders must carefully assess and understand where horizontal software options can support and augment their core vertical software solution.

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Finding the balance

To find the right balance school leaders need to ask which needs can only be met by school-specific vertical software and which can potentially be met by generic horizontal options.

Begin by exploring your particular needs in detail against the different capabilities of vertical and horizontal software options.

You’ll find that horizontal software solutions cannot meet the unique needs of K-12 schools and will be most effective working alongside a core vertical school operating solution.

Compared to the generic business market, the relatively small size of the K-12 schools sector means large horizontal software providers cannot justify investing in product development to meet these specialised needs.

For example, despite rapid improvements in generic accounting and business management software, the sheer complexity of school fee billing and invoicing remains beyond the capability of these systems. While these solutions can potentially provide a good option for General Ledger management, this will generally be via integration with a school’s core School Management System.

Seamless integration is critical

Whichever way schools choose to go, horizontal software must integrate seamlessly with core vertical software to work effectively for schools.

Zunia is one next generation student information platform that uses an open-platform model and API-first design to ensure exactly this type of seamless integration.

Here are three examples of Zunia integrations:

  • Virtual classrooms: Zunia can integrate with Microsoft Teams, enabling teachers to automatically create and update Teams virtual classrooms using class information set up in Zunia.
  • Payment gateways: Zunia integrates with Stripe and Fat Zebra online payment gateways, meaning schools can offer easy and flexible payment options while speeding up time to payment.
  • General ledger: Zunia lets you export general ledger transaction data to a CSV file for use with Xero, MYOB and Quickbooks, so you know your data is accurate and up to date.

You can learn more about how different generations of vertical education technology can be augmented with horizontal software in our recent whitepaper “Navigating EdTech Choices for maximum impact”. Learn more – download our whitepaper on Navigating EdTech Choices

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