I just came back from attending the ECAR Symposium 2007 entitled, “Higher Education IT: New Boundaries, or No Boundaries?” and thought I’d pass along two “findings,” as they say in the analyst biz: Software as a Service (SaaS) is hot within higher education, and despite all the technology possibilities these days, students still want to have face-to-face interactions with teachers.

Regarding SaaS. This is when a vendor creates an application and delivers it over the Web, rather than selling you software that you install yourself. Due to the popularity of my Google Apps report, I was invited to give a presentation on SaaS-based productivity applications (information worker applications such as creating documents, spreadsheets, presentations, managing e-mail, collaboration, and content management). The public knows these applications by names such as Google Apps and Windows Live: a shorthand way to think of them is as Microsoft Office online. At the beginning of 2007 no major vendor sold them; 12 months later, Adobe, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce.com and Yahoo! either offer them or are developing them.

In the educational market, some of these vendors (e.g., Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.com) give them away for free, hoping to hook students on them so they’ll demand them when they graduate. And in fact, students are already developing brand preferences: at Northwestern, the student governance body told IT that the student e-mail system needed to be improved, and they recommended Google Apps. When the students want something, its functionality is better than the current system, and the system is free, it’s hard to argue against it, especially when many state universities are in a budget crunch and looking for any way to save money. So today Northwestern runs Google Apps for students; it’s looking at a different system for collaboration for faculty and staff.

Whether Williams follows this trend remains to be seen, but there are a lot of colleges and universities currently saying yes to this new form of application delivery.

Regarding teaching. ECAR undertakes a student survey each year, trying to understand student attitudes toward, and uses of, technology. You can download a copy of the full study here. One of the key findings is that students still yearn for face-to-face interaction with professors. Technology may save time, but it does not make up for the need for a great professor. As one student notes, “Although all of the new technology is a great blessing as far as convenience and efficiency, nothing will replace live face-to-face interaction with the instructor.”

Here, it’s clear that Williams’ emphasis on the tutorial is what students want, whether they attend a small liberal arts college or a large state university.

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