How SaaS is Changing the Academic Space

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.

After the pandemic began usage spiked tremendously.

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.

For Further Reading:


California Students use Cloud CAD for Community Service

RIT Engineering Students Embrace Real-time Collaboration with Onshape’s Cloud CAD

How Cloud CAD Can Save your STEM Class

13 comments

  1. Very interesting topic and one that I look forward to learning more about and seeing how Covid will have a long-lasting impact on our education system. Unfortunately, currently a child’s zip code hugely determines his/her quality of education and future. With covid forcing schools to remotely teach, it has shown that we have the technology to do it. While I think that younger children may benefit a lot more from in-person learning, I think remote learning for older students can be effective and this turn into an opportunity to provide quality education to children regardless of their district they live in. Looking forward to learning more about Saas in your presentation this week!

    1. ritellryan · ·

      It is funny you say that about younger children benefitting more from in-person learning. A friend of mine is actually teaching in my hometown and she said that the younger kids are back and the older ones are more hybrid/in-person. My mom teaches religious education in the evenings, which is mostly elementary and some middle school students, and she says it’s actually great that it is virtual because the kids aren’t nudging each other and being disruptive. While I am in the pro physical education camp, it appears there are benefits for remote. The challenge is making that possibility equitable for everyone

  2. therealerindee · ·

    I agree with Jie that a child’s zip code very much influences the quality of his/her education, and I also agree with you that SaaS has the potential to truly open up many learning tools to students. However, I think the bigger picture here is how do we even get these tools to students/have the use them in the first place. Something lots of school districts are seeing this year is the lack of student engagement. The virtual environment only works for those students who are self motivated or being supervised consistently by someone else, so when it comes to SaaS products across the board how do you work to get that engagement and buy in from students? I think there needs to be quite a fundamental shift in the education system in order to leverage SaaS products to help push for the larger democratization of education, but I am very excited to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. ritellryan · ·

      I think SaaS is really more of a tool to be used than a total revamp of teaching going forward. Like Professor Kane has said before, robots won’t necessarily replace doctors, but doctors who use them will replace doctors who don’t. While obviously a student needs to buy-in to use it, it’s hard to teach someone who isn’t interested virtual or physical. While I personally find it challenging to learn online, a lot of teachers are also learning how to use some of these tools as well. I think teachers (the good ones at least) will be able to adapt and understand how to make their classes a little bit more enriching if it continues to be a useful tool. That said, I think we are in the stages of more and more adoption, and as it becomes more common and teachers become more comfortable we will see its impact.

      1. alexcarey94 · ·

        I totally agree with you both on this point. I think it is tough to have fully at home education for young children. I think the kids who are successful often have a parent sitting with them. What I have heard from some of my colleagues is that the younger children have a tough time getting online and often need their parents to read them the instructions. I do really think though (as you mentioned above) that going forward teachers will be using this technology more in the classroom & pairing it with the “typically” learning structure we see today. I think if in early grades kids are taught to use technology in school it will make for an effective hybrid model, where today it is more challenging because students had to learn on the fly.

  3. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Really enjoyed the graph and seeing the spike in OnShape usage even on the weekends. There is a ton of structural inequity in education and opportunity for a quality education and access to resources varies vastly. SaaS is a start but there is so much more to be done to ensure that all students have access to the internet and devices so they can leverage resources such as SaaS. Great to see the initiative your company has in place to partner with students, seems to be a symbiotic relationship for sure. Looking forward to your presentation in class on Wednesday and learning more on this topic.

    1. ritellryan · ·

      Yes, it is just one piece of a very large puzzle!

  4. I enjoyed how you were able to bring in your own experiences to shed some light on this topic. I remember when I was in elementary school it was a privilege to have the ability to use laptops once a month. The hardware of the laptops were necessary for myself and the other students to get exposure to applications that could enhance our learning. We have progressed to the point now where seemingly everyone has access to some type of computer or internet source and learning is just a touch away. I agree with your point that this could lead to an evening of the field where the people who do not have access to certain applications because of budget constraints could now get it. However, everything tells me this will not change the way higher education charges extremely high prices because they will argue that there are other justifications for their pricing.

    1. ritellryan · ·

      You had laptops in elementary school? Am I really that old? I know we had a computer lab in middle school and I thought that was wild then. While some of the questions were more for discussion, I tend to agree, with the higher education piece. Even now, BC will tell you that even though many classes are online they are just as valuable, yet the original justification for the high price is the experience, it always seems to be a moving target, and it will take more than just this to change that

  5. williammooremba · ·

    I really enjoyed this post. As someone who has gone through a lot of STEM education both in K-12 and in college this really resonated with me. One thing this made me wonder about is potential compliments on this to the hardware side of things. One of my majors during my undergraduate education was robotics engineering. A huge component of utilizing CAD based designs for me in robotics is then creating the physical object. While some methods are probably still going to be prohibitively expensive for now, some like 3D printing are looking to become more and more accessible. I think if one could combine SaaS applications like Onshape with really making it easier to prototype that could really open the door for expanding STEM education, particularly robotics.

  6. sayoyamusa · ·

    Your insightful post reminds me that technologies can/should contribute to societies, which is obvious but I sometimes forget by just focusing on the business. Your company’s great service seems to spot on “quality education” of UN’s SDGs commitment.
    While SaaS creates more opportunities to both students and teachers, it could easily bring digital disruption. My father was a university professor of Japanese literature (far from tech area…) and I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have adapted to this online shift. I just feel relived he retired two years ago. I think one of the challenges is to educate educators first.
    Looking forward to learning more from your following presentation!

  7. Wonderful post Ryan. I think that you make some good points around how tech can evolve to any challenging circumstance such as COVID-19. I think that interactivity and onboarding adoption is a challenge for most SaaS companies. Many try to employ account managers or service professionals to offer live tutorials, however, scheduling and individual learning curves, and differing learning styles offer more roadblocks to getting users up to speed. I think due to the pandemic, you will see companies like Appcues, Userpilot, Walkme, and Pendo soar as they provide ways for companies to integrate tutorials into their SaaS products to help users from anywhere develop a quicker comfort zone using their respective applications.

  8. AndraeAllen · ·

    To me, it feels like SaaS is trying to take over everything. To a point where as a consumer, I feel like everyone wants to take their perfectly functional desktop application and convert it into a SaaS. For some products, it makes sense. I recall the first time I used a diagramming tool named Lucid Charts. It was amazing. I enjoyed everything about it, especially when collaborating with remote team members. Sadly, as its popularity has risen, so has its pricing. It is now totally cost-prohibitive. SaaS is an excellent example of how technologies such as microservices, containers, and Kubernetes are changing the digital landscape. These changes are becoming the bedrock for new products and businesses.

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