SaaS Explained

Why more SaaS options are needed in K-12 education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Benjamin Heuston

CREDIT Waterford InstituteOver the past decade, the software industry as a whole has seen a swell in adoption of cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) applications. The higher education market is no stranger to this growing trend, but K-12 providers have been slower to adopt these distribution models.

That’s bad news for our schools, which stand to see great operational and financial benefits from cloud-based programs and SaaS sales models. Here is SaaS explained and why K-12 schools – like their higher education counterparts – should consider SaaS as a way to get the most out of their technology investments.

What is SaaS?

You’re probably already using SaaS programs everyday – even if you don’t realize it – with products from companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix.

SaaS subscriptions better align the interests of schools and the vendor than in the traditional model. 

SaaS is a software distribution model where the application is hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over the Internet. In SaaS, customers license an application for “use in the cloud” as service on demand, and pay for what they use. It’s an alternative to the standard (and quickly fading) software installation model where a user has to host the software on their own server, install it, configure and update it.

Think of SaaS like a software rental. With SaaS, schools would have a subscription to use computer-based curriculum, for example, for a period of time, for a certain number of students, and would pay for only the software they’re using.

Benefits of SaaS

Cloud-based curriculum and SaaS delivery models offer schools many potential benefits. In my opinion, the top five are as follows:

1. Lower costs. With SaaS subscriptions, schools reduce costs across all major areas of their technology budgets: hardware and software; maintenance; and staffing. Gone are the large upfront costs for on-site hardware and software licenses that are common financial burdens in the traditional model. Having the SaaS provider manage the IT infrastructure also means lower IT costs for hardware and software, and frees up the people previously needed to manage it all. Finally, because they are maintaining one master version of their product, vendors can produce and support their software at lower costs, which are then passed on to customers, creating greater value than traditional models. All of this helps to keep IT budget costs more consistent and lower – two common challenges we often hear from schools.

2. Painless, continual access to the latest technology. Because a SaaS provider manages all updates and bug fixes, these are installed automatically, giving schools continual access to the newest and best versions of curriculum without any additional investments. There are no new application licenses, no patches for customers to download or install. Schools don’t need to add hardware, servers or IT staff if their usage increases; the SaaS provider does it for them. This means schools can adapt as fast and as much as needed, providing the best for their students, without incurring extra costs. Having a single, master version of the software also means vendors can quickly develop and roll out new features and updates without worrying about supporting multiple versions of their product. Schools, in turn, benefit from this increased rate of innovation.

3. Better customer service. SaaS subscriptions better align the interests of schools and the vendor than in the traditional model. Because the relationship is ongoing and reliant on subscription renewals, it’s in a SaaS provider’s best interest to offer the best possible product and customer service, including continuing to offer relevant improvements and respond quickly to customer feedback. SaaS vendors are motivated to help schools get the most out of their product; they can’t afford to simply close a sale and not follow-up.

4. More flexible and transparent budgeting. Currently school districts have large up-front investments in solutions that then take years to justify.  By moving to a subscription model schools can now align the costs of the program with the current year’s budget.  In addition, if a given program didn’t work out as well as anticipated, the cost to shift to a new provider is drastically reduced, allowing for faster, more flexible introduction of best of breed programs.

5. Anytime, anywhere learning. For those SaaS applications that involve cloud-based curriculum, it is now possible for children to learn wherever they are, a significant improvement over the current approach where a child can only use a certain computer for a designated amount of time.

Yes, some school districts might not be a good fit for SaaS, and all districts must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of SaaS versus traditional commercial software before making a purchasing decision. But having choices is a good thing, and given these significant benefits, there aren’t enough SaaS choices in the early education market right now. It’s time for early education technology companies to catch up with other software industries.

Benjamin Heuston, PhD, is the President of Waterford Institute, a nonprofit research center that creates personalized, cloud-based instruction for children aged Pre-K to 3rd grade.


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