October 26, 2022
Service-as-a-Software: How universities can use SaaS to enhance the digital student experience

Let’s set the scene. You’re in the process of making big changes to deliver the next generation of higher education as a result of external conditions – the need to improve remote learning, to increase access to online materials for students, or to attract an international cohort. Why not let us help you lay a solid foundation for agility and innovation?

Here at LearningMate, we’re experts in the field of online teaching and learning. We’re at the forefront of these advancements and are already supporting our clients to transform how they present their content and use their platforms for better learning experiences.

On-premise software is a traditional part of the university estate, with some having data centres as far as the eye can see. But the future of higher education is moving towards a blended learning environment with more widespread use of digital learning resources. And with this will come cloud technology, including Software-as-a-Service or SaaS.

What is SaaS?

It’s important to remember that SaaS and cloud aren’t necessarily one and the same. Software-as-a-Service (pronounced ‘sass’) is a model where providers allow customers to use software on demand. By subscribing to a licence, customers can access the application from various devices (phone, tablet, PC) through a web browser or simple app interface. 

SaaS usually offers only a small amount of configuration – so that users can manage their profile settings or perhaps customise their views. Because the user only has basic control functions, this cuts out the need to depend on a machine and the application. 

Universities aren’t new to SaaS technology, particularly around recruitment, payroll, and email using tools such as Office 365 or G-Suite. But universities are at a relatively early stage of embracing SaaS technology in comparison to other sectors, both in the UK and the US. 

“A common reason for adopting cloud services is to free up internal staff resource – we need to be more innovative and consider new ways of working to make greater use of cloud services and so free up more staff across the sector to support institutional innovation in key areas such as teaching and learning and research.”

Peter Tinson, executive secretary UCISA – The future of cloud computing, JISC

Another example of SaaS is one familiar to universities across the globe, Zoom, which became the go-to video conferencing tool for staff and students during the pandemic. 

How can SaaS benefit universities?

For universities that are ready to overcome barriers to change, the benefits of a move to SaaS can unlock opportunities in day-to-day delivery: core processes, people, user experience, service delivery, data, controls and governance.

“Many universities increasingly have to plug each individual piece of technology into their specific teaching and learning context. Integration with other technology platforms is a key piece of doing this well, and often presents us with another unique set of challenges. We need a consistent, holistic data landscape rather than a series of technologies that help teams in a siloed way fix one part of the student journey jigsaw.”

Emily McIntosh, director of learning, teaching & student experience, Middlesex University – Technology-enabled learning at scale: A roadmap to 2030.

Integrating new software can cause concerns for staff and students, with change fatigue and fear of disruption. Is SaaS worth it? Here are five benefits that SaaS can bring to the digital experience in higher education:

  1. Always up to date – SaaS enables automatic updates to your software. You don’t have to plan large-scale upgrades that tie up resources, and you can avoid institution-wide disruption.
  2. Access – It enables better remote working, data and analytics, and processing efficiencies, particularly when universities need to be ready to flex between on-campus and remote access and delivery.
  3. Reporting – SaaS can offer a ‘single source of truth’ for things like mandatory reporting or performance metrics.
  4. Cyber security – Cloud-to-cloud backup helps organisations meet compliance rules by protecting data with tools that are just as stringent as backup and retention policies for data managed on-premises. When end users or application administrators have an “oops moment,” it saves time and energy for both the IT team and the person who made the mistake to get their data back. Data backups are also monitored, meaning errors can be spotted faster.
  5. Seamless experience – It can be frustrating for staff and students to have to jump between screens, tabs and applications when managing complex and time-consuming administrative processes. This can be eased by connecting systems across the institution, especially when SaaS offers interfaces that are increasingly intuitive and user-friendly, and accessible via a single sign-on.

SaaS that talks to X, Y and Z

Incorporating new software into established on-premises systems is not without its challenges, and not all SaaS is created equal. An integrated SaaS platform allows a connection to other systems’ data for institution-wide planning. Some university systems, such as email, library management and collaboration tools are likely already running in the cloud, either from earlier change projects or because the circumstances of the pandemic forced a move.

As Emily McIntosh notes, universities need a single view of all institutional data that allows them to spot everything from upcoming financial emergencies to opportunities for growth. By allowing the progressive automation of routine tasks, staff can focus on higher-value activities and innovation, stepping in only to handle exceptions.

While online lectures and remote learning have made the headlines since 2020, the true digital transformation journey planned within universities is still driven by the potential to develop enhanced teaching and learning experiences – whether these are virtual, or on-campus. Whatever challenges the future holds, IT infrastructure needs to be underpinned by flexibility, scalability and, crucially, reliability.

To find out how LearningMate can help universities to empower staff and students to embrace change with improved user experience and tools, visit https://uk.learningmate.com/.

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