Education-as-a-Service” is Suddenly Here: There’s No Turning Back

By Matt Yeh, senior director of product marketing, Delphix.

Matthew Yeh

Nearly 10 years ago, Marc Andreesen, one of the world’s most influential investors, famously proclaimed that “software is eating the world.” At the time, no one understood the magnitude of what that meant. But today, the world’s most powerful and prosperous companies are software companies that have brought a tidal wave of digital innovation and disruption to almost every industry from retail and banking to manufacturing and insurance.

And the next frontier for software? Education.

In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic and mandated “social distancing” measures, the demand for digital services and software has skyrocketed. Schools across the country have begun planning for what just weeks ago was an unthinkable scenario: a fall semester without students on campus. As educators prepare for what could be a dramatically different start to the upcoming school year, students and teachers alike need much more than “Zoom University” (which is going through its own coronavirus growing pains) in providing high-quality online learning experiences.

From K-12 to community colleges and public and private universities, the education industry needs to adopt a new playbook for the digital world. For example, the automotive industry is undergoing a tremendous shift towards digitally-enabled car-sharing, ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles. In order to transform their road to success, organizations in this industry have had to transform how they leverage data and software to meet new business models.

Similarly for the education sector, it’s an opportunity to transform education and apply the very same SaaS principle to learning. Otherwise, they run the risk of jeopardizing the delivery of essential (public) services with student and community confidence tumbling in these times of great uncertainty.

Here are three tactics the education industry can learn from SaaS companies and build resilience into educational systems.

It’s All About the “Users” Boosting Student Retention and Graduation Rates

How can education services ensure students get value from that product, even in the midst of a global pandemic? The answer banks on intuitive and interactive digital learning experiences. From stimulating classroom environments online with interactive chat and quizzes to virtual “office hours,” the digital transformation opportunity for education right now is tremendous.

It costs five times more for a company to attract a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. Software allows you to visualize your customer relationship across varied segments, accounts, and product lines. This allows SaaS companies to be more effective and make smarter investments in their products to both retain existing users, and attract new ones.

Education can also use other SaaS subscription tactics such as 100% online courses and “try me learning” (aka free trials) to both reach new students and offer more flexibility to existing ones. As coronavirus has shown, physical location is no longer a barrier to the learning experience. Perhaps an institution already offers select or piecemeal online courses, but now is the time to create entirely digital learning platforms and extend these to brand new “users” who were previously unreachable due to geographical location.

And the education industry should apply similar metrics for measuring success by managing churn. Identifying students who are at risk for dropping out, and getting them the help they need to change their trajectory and find success before it’s too late (preventing a “canceled subscription”) is one example of how education can reduce churn.

Going All-in on Cloud Services

A key driver of SaaS success is cloud-based software delivery. The cloud gives these companies the ability to rapidly scale services without the need to upgrade or maintain physical servers or other types of hardware. It also means that for customers, the barrier to entry or price for these software products is usually lower and avoids the upfront costs associated with hardware.

For example, California State University (CSU) — the largest public university in the U.S. —embarked on modernizing its Common Management System that delivers everything from student enrollment, management, scheduling, and registration. Technology leaders at CSU embraced a hybrid cloud strategy in order to make its massive IT system accessible and actionable across its highly distributed campus system.

The goal was to bring greater agility and faster delivery times for application development by enabling the movement of data across its campuses, so university leaders could leverage insights to determine whether a student had a “high risk” of dropping out. By looking at whether they didn’t buy books for class or performed poorly on a recent set of tests, the university system could then help those students change their learning behaviors to find success. This allowed CSU to prevent dropouts and improve graduation rates.

And in the wake of COVID-19, CSU had to quickly provision additional services to support remote learning for 500,000 of students.

Obsession With Student Experience 

SaaS companies have an intense focus on serving the needs of their target customers by delivering products that solve their problems while giving them a consistently delightful experience.

Take Domino’s Pizza as an example. Pizza delivery might not strike you as an industry ripe for digital innovation, but Domino’s path to the world’s largest pizza chain has proven otherwise. After years of lagging sales, Domino’s created an incredible new digital experience around ordering pizza, such as making pizza orders as simple as sending a pizza emoji and allowing users to track its delivery status in real-time. Today, over half the pizza-maker’s sales come from its digital platforms, and it’s stock has outperformed tech giants like Apple and Amazon.

In the time of coronavirus, the focus might be on making the online experience intuitive and interactive to re-create the physical learning environment. This might include creating a way to provide  instant feedback for tests or quizzes and make hyper-personalization for coursework possible.

The digital campus experience is much more than online coursework and tools. For example, the University of Manchester built a seamless application to eliminate disparate, paper-based systems and improve university services for both staff and students.

There is little doubt that the SaaS market has grown at a meteoric rate, due in part to the combination of these approaches to fuel success. Education has the unique opportunity to learn from and adapt these principles for their own growth. While no one saw this unprecedented event coming, it’s proven that digital experiences are not the future, they’re the present. Education is arguably one of our society’s most important industries, and it’s about time to bring learning services into the software era. After all, the seeds of innovative ideas are nurtured through access to high-quality learning experiences.

Today, Marc Andressen has a new mantra for our post-coronavirus: “It’s time to build.” So what are we waiting for? Let’s build a more digital future and transform education as we know it.

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