Industry Insights: SaaS in Higher Education



In the last decade, the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, has been a game-changer in the technology industry. Though colleges and universities have been hesitant to commit completely to SaaS software, there’s no doubt that more and more industries and businesses are moving to the cloud.

To find out where higher education stands in making the switch to SaaS we talked to Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project and an expert in information technology and computing in higher education. We chatted with Green not only about the state of SaaS in higher ed today, but also about what its potential impact might be, going forward.

Evisions: How widely have SaaS solutions been deployed in higher education?

Green: The data and research we collect on the deployment of SaaS and the cloud suggests a model of low-, middle-, and high-clouds like low-, middle-, and high-hanging fruit. Gmail, for example, is a low-cloud application in the sense that it’s widely deployed and people understand that it’s not on your computer in the way that your copy of Microsoft Word is. Currently, colleges maintain the hardware and essential infrastructure for “high-cloud” applications — like information systems that hold transcripts, financial systems for a college’s money, or information for the development office—on campus.

With the cloud, the idea is that companies have these huge storage farms that can maintain and service both the data and the applications, perhaps for a lot less than it costs a college to buy the hardware and have employees attend to and update it. It’s imperceptible to students and employees whether it’s in the building someplace on campus or in a building someplace 100 or 400 miles from campus. It’s only a nanosecond behind.

E: What improvements might SaaS deliver for higher education?

G: There are several areas for potential improvement. Part of the oft-heard, if as yet undocumented, promise of the cloud for many key IT applications is lower cost. If some of the high-cost infrastructure—the hardware, space, utilities and people—moves from being on site to being at somebody else’s site, a college can redeploy those assets, resources and people. The second major improvement is having somebody else to service and maintain the software. Third is that SaaS or cloud deployments offer the beginnings of a continuous quality improvement process where you can do incremental updates in small little bits, as opposed to massive—and potentially disruptive—updates over a longer period of time.

E: What problems could it potentially create?

G: There are a lot of concerns about security and privacy. Amazon and Google and other cloud services providers have had some hiccups. Higher education is highly risk-averse. We want to see others like us take their own “journey of Columbus” and come back and say, “The world is not flat; there are riches on the other side,” as opposed to saying, “You’re going to fall off and you go at great risk.”

If SaaS deployment doesn’t work or doesn’t go smoothly, the cost in money and time can be horrendous. You may be able to recover money, but you can’t recover time. Think what would happen if the registration system at a college went out for two months or if it crashed for four days during fall rush. If financial systems went out, how would financial aid be awarded and settled in the spring? Campus IT officials and senior officers are now saying, “We should just manage it for a while until we get to see what somebody else has done.”

E: Have colleges been quick to adopt SaaS solutions?

G: EDUCAUSE, the leading education technology association for higher education, published a book in late 2008 where the introduction by the president of the association said that the cloud was going to come faster than we ever might expect. Yet my data from the fall 2013 Campus Computing Survey suggests that very few CIOs and senior campus IT officers expect their campuses to migrate to “high-cloud” ERP applications—finance, HR, development and student information systems—by 2018.

The slowest things to move to SaaS or the cloud are the big applications, in part because the major vendors haven’t been clear about when they’re going to use SaaS and how they’re going do it. The real challenge is for the technology firms to announce their strategies, and for the campuses to find what strategies are viable and credible.

E: Does SaaS offer more value over traditional software solutions?

G: That’s the great unknown. The assumption is that it is more cost-effective. And it may be, over time. Certainly the transition and training costs may initially be higher. But the assumption is, ‘If I don’t have to buy the equipment to host the application and somebody else has the technicians to maintain the application, then I don’t have to pay for space, utilities and other kinds of things.’ However, we don’t yet have a really good set of case studies from big deployments on the true and complete costs of migrating to SaaS or the cloud. It’s still early in this process.

E: Is SaaS here to stay?

G: The technology industry is certainly suggesting that SaaS and cloud computing reflects a massive, long-term and inevitable shift in the technology infrastructure—not just for colleges and universities, but for other markets as well.

Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of The Campus Computing Project, the largest continuing study of the role of eLearning and information technology in American colleges and universities.  The project is widely cited as a definitive source for data information, and insight about IT issues affecting Higher Education. Green is the author, co-author, or editor of 20 books and published research reports and more than 100 articles and commentaries that have appeared in academic journals and professional publications.  Green also serves as the senior research consultant to INSIDE HIGHER ED and developed INSIDE HIGHER ED’s surveys of college presidents and provosts.  INSIDE HIGHER ED also publishes his Digital Tweed blog.  In 2002 Green received the first EDUCAUSE Award for Leadership in Public Policy and Practice.  The EDUCAUSE award cites his work in creating The Campus Computing Project and recognizes his “prominence in the arena of national and international technology agendas, and the linking of Higher Education to those agendas.” A graduate of New College (FL), Green earned his Ph.D. at UCLA.


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