We are the [software framework providers]. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile!

Star Trek fans will be cringing at the re-purposing of Borg doctrine but there is no more applicable sentiment for what is about to happen to niche software vendors operating in the EdTech space.

Over the past few decades I have attended countless education exhibitions and conferences. What I inevitably saw at each event were the same faces selling the same products to the same procurement officers and buyers. The biggest change to the status quo was an occasional updated feature set or perhaps a compliance certification with the latest Microsoft Windows operating system.

Attend an EdTech event now however and one will see a raft of startup companies who have developed an app or software product which is designed to solve a specific problem being experienced by students, support staff or management. Very often the creators of these products have come directly from the sector and are bringing first hand knowledge of the issue for which they are offering a solution. These are not incremental updates to previously available products, nor are they concerned with OS compliance. The adoption of Agile development, and SaaS / PaaS models of provision are now making it possible to conceive, develop and deliver a robust and comprehensive feature set which can be delivered straight to a web browser. Critically, all this can be delivered at a fraction of the cost associated with traditional waterfall development techniques.

The volume of new faces and new products at education events is testament to the fact that digital transformation of the education sector is well and truly underway. One would therefore assume that institutions were using the newly available products. In many other sectors the companies selling these products would be heading towards the holy grail of hockey stick financial projection charts. Yet this is not what we see in the EdTech sector. So what is going wrong?

Generally, the new programmes I come across are stand alone products. What they do they do well, but they do so in isolation of the wider IT infrastructure and systems currently being used by institutions. This lack of interoperability results in institutional IT departments and management being wary of adding yet another layer of complexity to an already intricate staff facing system user interface. Or alternatively, advocating their staff use a flotilla of separate stand alone products in a piecemeal workflow.

I believe the answer to solving this problem lies in suppliers of new software products developing an understanding of the value of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs). Specifically, how APIs can be used to add value to an existing suite of well established and tested software applications without the need to open a new application to access a new feature set.

Any provider of software entering the EdTech sector who has a fundamental understanding of the need to offer API access to their feature set will have an opportunity to assimilate into the behemoth that is the current conglomeration of student registration and support platforms. Suppliers who fail to recognise the importance of APIs will be doomed to walk alone on the road less travelled (by procurement officers) and I doubt they will ever come back.

Author: Michael Humphreys (with a little inspiration from Robert Frost) – CEO – ORAC Software

Student Support: A Multidisciplinary approach

When entering Higher Education, students present with a wide range of needs no different in scope and depth than that of the general population. If we are to take a student-centric and wholistic approach to the wellbeing of students as they progress through their studies, we need to be aware of how these various needs and desires are likely to interact with current HEI systems and policies.

In the Healthcare arena, the formation and operation of multidisciplinary teams has long been considered best practice in many areas due to their ability to provide a complete strategy of care no matter the circumstances or required supports. In the area of Higher Education, institutions have begun to mirror this strategy in terms of providing additional supports which would traditionally have been considered to be over and above the requirement of formal teaching and assessment services. Examples of best practice can be seen in many institutions who now provide a wide range of student wellbeing services in addition to pure academic support.

While it is encouraging to see Student Support departments in many HEIs pursuing a strategy of wholistic student support it is frustrating to see the disparity in the available IT support structure to facilitate these efforts.

To enable effective support to take place, the needs of students and requirements of the teams who coordinate and deliver their supports, must be taken into consideration when planning institution wide data management systems.

In most institutions Student Support staff are forced to log onto numerous IT systems to access student data. Often the systems used by student support administrators are not in fact systems at all, but rather a conglomeration of organically developed spreadsheets, databases and documents spread over several machines and maintained by individuals out of necessity to enable them to perform their specific job role.

Data collected and maintained in such systems tends not to link to the master student record nor does it aggregate to institution wide analytics or case management systems. The result is a piecemeal approach to student data which ultimately is to the student’s detriment.

An inability to access a consistent data set and lack of interoperability of internal systems can often lead to a systemic inability to proactively and effectively identify potential student support issues in a timely manner.  The result is often an issue escalating into a crisis and the subsequent withdrawal of a student from their studies due to lack of support.

These situations should, in the main, be addressable and preventable through the appropriate use of currently available technologies. With SaaS and PaaS cloud based models of provision having proven themselves as viable alternatives to in-house IT solutions in private industry, it is perhaps now time for HEIs to consider adopting a similar approach to the provision of IT services to their staff and students.

Author: Michael Humphreys CEO

Next Generation – The education software framework

Integration, interoperability and digitisation are all terms we are becoming familiar with. But what implications do these concepts have for the way HEIs will interact with their students over the next decade?

As I go about my daily activities on-line I am constantly being prompted to install the latest plug in, visit the app store or download a new widget onto one of the many dashboards I use on a regular basis.

The power of a well-developed software framework is that it enables software vendors to easily create and distribute their product into a market who otherwise may never have stumbled across the, sometimes niche, product they produce.

A great example of this is the fact that I have recently installed a plugin to my chrome browser which lets me colour code and edit the text on the tabs.  For me this is a huge timesaver and makes what is an already market leading browser even better to use. Is it useful – absolutely. Would this product have been of any value to me as a separate application – definitely not. This is the power of making a platform accessible to the creators of features and applications that are perceived as added value to the end users.

As I look at the plethora of software vendors competing to provide registration, workflow management and student support systems to HEIs, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take for someone to realise that stand-alone closed platforms, no matter the size, are simply not a viable long term approach to supporting a user base.

I can of course understand why the big-name software houses are not particularly interested in pursuing this new strategy. After all, they have long established software platforms of their own. Not to mention a customer base who regardless of their level of loyalty are tied into a complex bespoke and integrated software platforms and equally complex software agreements.

As a producer of a software product for the EdTech sector, I am also fully aware of the significant barriers to entry to the HEI market for a vendor with a new product. The greatest of which is the fact that administrators and users of institutional IT systems do not want yet another login to yet another stand-alone product, no matter the alleged benefits being extolled by the latest player on the block.

But what would happen if someone produced a platform which operated like the Google Play store or the Apple App store? What if HEIs had access to a framework which not only facilitated but actively promoted access to titles currently only available as stand-alone products.

One only has to attend an EdTech conference or trade show to instantly see how many potential opportunities exist for integration of innovative and cost saving applications.

I don’t know when this approach to the provision of software to HEIs will become a reality. But I am certain that, as if often the case, the first player to bring the concept to the market will have a huge advantage over the also-rans. I am also certain that the multitude of companies who are currently producing small apps and programmes that would add value to any HEI, will come knocking on that software vendor’s door to get access to the platform.

Author: Michael Humphreys, CEO: ORAC