Schools have historically been on the tail end of technology advancements, seemingly always playing catch-up to what businesses have been doing with technology for years. This is not surprising considering the limited budgets schools have to work with and the fact that technology has been viewed with skepticism as to its real value in the classroom early on. Now, as a new software distribution model called Software as a Service (SaaS), has become popular, touting costs savings for all, the question schools need to ask is “What are the real values of the SaaS model in education?” Software investment is huge for education, and the costs of implementing and maintaining that software must be evaluated in light of emerging technology.

Certainly, the most prevalent software model in schools is on-premise software, that is, software installed on individual workstations, or on servers which workstations connect to for running an application, all in-house typically, or for larger districts, across the WAN as a client-server product. The amount of this type of software available for schools can be seen by browsing through one of the many educational software catalogs, such as Software for Schools by National School Products, (www.NationalSchoolProducts.com), Educational Resources, (www.edresources.com), Sunburst, (www.Sunburst.com), and many others. This type of software installation is the most common for all types of schools, and educators have become quite comfortable with all that is involved with supporting it, even when they are aware of the costs of that support.

The next major shift in software delivery, Application Service Providers (ASP), came about in the 1990s, according to an article on Wikipedia.org, as the Internet became available to the public. In the original implementation of this model, “each customer has its own customized version of the hosted application, and runs its own instance of the application on the host’s servers.” Spencer, A. (2005). Examples of software designed under this model are early online gradebook programs like ThinkWave, (www.ThinkWave.com), which actually require a portion of the application to be installed on the local client, and the database is stored on an Internet hosted server, accessed by the client component. Some forms of ASP software may use a browser, but often the client portion of the application provides its own interface. ASP products may also be implemented purely in-house, serving its clients throughout a local or wide area network.

As for the SaaS delivery model, the underlying principal is to provide access on a fee basis, also called a subscription, across the Internet via a browser for use of a specific service or process stored on a central data center server. SaaS is a variation of the ASP delivery model, and multiple acronyms have sprung up, all referring to the same model such as, “Internet business service (IBS), business service provider (BSP), solutions service provider (SSP), and more.”, according to The Software and Information Industry Association, (www.siia.net). The catchword is “subscription”, which is a dramatic shift away from the retail and off-the-shelf products IT is familiar with. This term may elicit alarm in the minds of many conservative IT directors and school administrators, and many are now attempting to gauge the benefit of SaaS based solutions versus more traditional products. Many are no doubt already using some SaaS products without fully realizing it due to the confusing terms floating around the industry. However, an increasing number of schools are finding SaaS based solutions an economical alternative to costly and antiquated financial and logistic on-premise or client-server packages they have been chained to.

Just how widespread is the new SaaS delivery model you might ask? According to a report by Gartner, Inc., by the year 2011, 25% of new business software will be delivered as SaaS, (2006). In the education software market, many companies are moving to a SaaS based delivery method for their existing products, such as online keyboarding, grade books, assessment programs, study skills applications, student information management systems, and many others. For small to very large school districts, there are a number of compelling reasons for doing so.

“SaaS is a way to access capabilities that would otherwise be too complex or expensive to do in-house. For instance, Web application security assessments require specialized skills, and the cost of a full-time employee or outside consultants can be prohibitive. A service based assessment is a lower-cost alternative.” (Conry-Murray, 2007)

The number of companies producing SaaS based solutions is sparking a revolution in how IT gets done in education, and how educators are developing engaging learning opportunities for their students.

Schools that have staff members with programming and Web site development backgrounds also have embraced this delivery model. For example, as the computer teacher for a private school district covering seven states, I recently chose to develop a Web based solution that would allow IT Directors and computer teachers from all schools in the district to create individual IT profiles for their school, which can be searched and viewed online from a central Web site. This product qualifies as SaaS, and will provide some customizability for each individual user who accesses the product. See Appendix A below for details on the product. The benefits of producing this product using the SaaS model reduces maintenance labor, makes it available 24x7x365, uses less resources, and greatly decreased deployment time. A user accessing the application performs no installation routine on local hardware and is not required to perform any configuration for it to be operational. Additionally, users and IT staff alike, have no maintenance or upgrade issues to be concerned with. This simple application demonstrates just how wide-spread the appeal is for SaaS modeled solutions. They are inherently designed to improve efficiency in any organization’s business processes.

The example above merely hints at how SaaS is beginning to transform how businesses and schools can benefit from the model. As for schools specifically, teachers are beginning to sign up for online grade book sites for recording grades, like www.ThinkWave.com, by ThinkWave, Inc. of Sebastopol, California. As a complete online grade book tool, ThinkWave grade book data is managed and backed up by the company, reducing IT staff workload. Data can be exported into several formats for further use by schools if necessary. From the IT perspective, there are few installation concerns and almost zero maintenance issues. In my case, it also reduced the amount of professional development training time needed, as I was able to refer teachers to online help files built into the product. Initial introductory training was not needed, though I did produce a brief getting started guide with useful tips and suggestions. Implementation of the product was accomplished much sooner than normal by not having to focus so much on setup and configuration, meaning teachers were productive much earlier and were using the product immediately after signing up. Though still considered a SaaS based product, it does require a locally installed front end, which publishes to a database on a remote server. A local copy of the grade book data is stored on the client as well for redundancy. IT staff reap other benefits from this model as well. Should the grade data become corrupt in the local file and is unrecoverable, the file can be reconstructed from the online database easily by ThinkWave’s support staff. Many companies provide similar grade book products using the SaaS model, or a variation.

Many school districts are realizing similar benefits from the use of software like Pearson SuccssNet (www.pearsonsuccessnet.com), a Web application delivering online curriculum for teachers and students. Used by teachers to provide a wide range of uses in the classroom, it provides similar benefits to IT staff by reducing the amount of resources needed to support it. All data is stored online and maintained by Pearson SuccessNet. Teachers may need initial support by local IT staff in terms of getting familiar with the interface and basic usage concepts, but as in my case, this is easily done via an introductory user’s guide with plenty of step-by-step procedures and screen shots. See Appendix C for Pearson SuccessNet Users’ guide I created. Though producing a users’ guide such as that shown in Appendix C takes time to create, it certainly takes far less time than having to plan for, create training materials, and provide individual or group training sessions.

There are numerous examples of how the SaaS delivery model is allowing schools to reduce expenses and implement truly engaging teaching tools. However, SaaS is not without its drawbacks. Schools need to consider the downside to choosing solutions that rely completely on the Internet for access. If the Internet becomes unavailable, pure SaaS products become unavailable for staff and students alike. Teachers using SaaS based solutions should be prepared in this event, and have appropriate material available to continue the lesson without disruption. The consequences of not being prepared for outage could be disastrous for young learners.

Proper expectations should be given to students up front about the possibility of losing the Internet connection, and they should be made aware of alternate plans to help reduce stress. IT personnel should work with staff and solution providers both to help ensure best practices in using SaaS based solutions. Make sure you know how the company intends to provide updates, bug fixes, and security patches. Some situations may require more flexibility on the vendor’s part, especially where security is concerned due to school’s need to protect personally identifiable information of their students. No solutions should be jumped into without proper investigation on the full impact and consequences for parties concerned, especially in education.

Additionally, it is a good practice to communicate often with your school’s board and administration through periodic presentations of the status of technology initiatives. Keeping everyone informed of the status of solutions implemented and the benefits gained, goes a long way toward reducing misunderstandings on progress. Regular reviews of the school’s technology plan, and established maintenance procedures should be held at least semi-annually, to ensure proper decisions are being made that reflect established goals. Following practices such as these will help determine the best software solutions for perceived needs. When all facets of these needs have been considered, the choice between traditional versus newer solutions becomes easier to make.


References

Conry-Murray, A. (2007, October 1). Software As A Service Requires Diligence. InformationWeek, 47

On Premise Software Will Be Challenged By SaaS Software Delivery. (2006, October 3). Gartner, Inc. Retrieved May 22, 2008, from http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=496886

Software as a service. (2008, May 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 22, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Software_as_a_service&oldid=213843117

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