While this blog post was supposed to be a follow-up to my presentation, circumstances have forced this to be a preview instead. While more will be forthcoming in my presentation, I wanted to share some of the cool applications of SaaS that “didn’t make the cut” into the presentation. Software as a Service (SaaS) is a cloud-based architecture that runs fully-developed applications, making it more relevant for end-users rather than developers.
This has been useful in academics even before Covid-19 hit. As a graduate student, it isn’t always easy meeting up with people all over the city for group projects, so being able to work on a shared Google Doc or Google Sheet makes it a lot easier to see how much progress has been made and what needs to be done. The chat windows on the side are also very helpful if people are working simultaneously so they can bounce thoughts and ideas off of each other. Obviously, a report or presentation is actually fairly remedial when it comes to the challenges that Covid-19 has brought into the world of academics.
Teaching provides a fairly instant amount of feedback as the teacher (especially a seasoned one) can tell if a class is fully grasping the concept or not, but with everyone virtual, it is more difficult to see everyone, and you have no clue if they are really interested in the cat video that they have up on their screen. It becomes even more challenging when the concepts are more difficult or need to be done in a more physical setting. For example, STEM and industrial design courses were thrown for a loop last year as students would typically work at a workstation to design their product. This information would sit locally on each computer.
Where I work, we have an academic outreach program to help get high school and university students comfortable with our software (so they can suggest their employers buy it later to keep our machine rolling J) and we have hit records with the usage of the platform in the past year, showing how valuable it is and how many schools and programs are using this as an opportunity to possibly not only bridge education this year, but to transform how they are teaching students going forward.
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words and the chart below is no different. It is a graph that shows the usage of our product (Onshape), which allows for Computer Automated Design (CAD) work to be done remotely online and how it was used day over day for the first 4 months of 2020. We can see that in January and February, there were peaks during the weeks and it would dip on Fridays going into the weekend, which we would expect to see as students typically don’t go into the computer lab on Saturdays. Around the March 16 block, you can see that usage was down even during the week, obviously because everything was shut down and students were sent home. This is because they did not have access to the computer labs where their traditional software was installed and could not complete their assignments. Then, the software got more popular and after mid-March you can see a spike in usage of the platform, not only during the week, but on the weekends as well. Some of this is in part to students who used our platform getting back to work, but also many instructors and students who had used on-prem software switched to using Onshape mid-semester.
Additional use was likely due to students being in lockdown with nothing to do all day along with increased availability of software that allowed them to work seamlessly from remote locations. With access to more tools, people are going to utilize them more, especially something creative like engineering design.
I think this is an important invention in the academic space, not just for this year allowing students to keep building on their own knowledge, but this can also level the playing field across communities. For example, not all school districts are created equally, meaning they don’t have the same number of resources in terms of budget, caliber of teacher, or computing power. With SaaS technology hardware inaccessibility and inequality disappears as any device will allow for access. With no installation of software or IT support, it is as simple as an email address and internet access to be able to access the tools. The 1-minute video below talks about our product and specifically about democratizing CAD to K-12 students, but the concept of democratizing learning is universal. Who says this can’t be applied to other subjects as well?
This will also allow for educators to be more productive. Instead of needing to go somewhere for office hours, both teacher and student can have a URL that they can click on and work in a document together, allowing for a more interactive learning process. The student can see something happening, or do something themselves with a teacher watching, from anywhere they want to be. This might become even more useful for PHD’s as a professor can keep up with progress on something like a dissertation and provide ongoing feedback rather than commentary after the report has been completed and turned in.
I think about this class and how the concept of SaaS and other similar ideas can change the way education is handled. For example, in many classes you must be present in the classroom or need access to Canvas (a privilege we are all paying for handsomely), but in this class you can largely be engaged if you follow the Twitter hashtag and WordPress link. While these tools are not specifically SaaS, it could lead to a democratization of education that causes a seismic shift in the entire education industry. Anyone in the world can be engaged with our class through reading and commenting on blogposts or retweeting our tweets. Even Professor Kane stated that it is fine to miss a class or two because of how much an individual can participate without being in the classroom. Will SaaS allow education to trend more this way, where it is more accessible to everyone who wants to partake, regardless of status in the classroom? If higher education does become more accessible, where we can get more and more learning and discussion from platforms like Twitter and WordPress, does that mean the cost of higher education will decrease? Overall, I think SaaS is an incredibly useful tool that, pre-pandemic, we had only scratched the surface of how powerful it could be in the academic space and now could lead to demonstrable change in the industry going forward.
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