We interviewed Academic Software’s co-founder, Pieter Barremaecker to talk about how Academic Software helps bring about efficiency gains
If one of the big stories of education now is that users are bringing their own laptops and devices, and institutions are investing less in on-site computer labs, surely this means that schools and universities are spending a lot less on ICT?
It’s not that simple. As the use of digital technology in education has grown, so has complexity, which has brought different challenges, and new costs. For one thing, the sheer number of software and application titles has grown. ICT has extended into every part of learning and teaching. There are no educators, students, researchers, or staff who aren’t using software. The average educational institution uses between 200 and 300 titles, and each title has its own licensing framework and distribution methods. And the number of software titles and applications keeps growing. We have over 1,300 titles available on our platform, and that number will rise.
How do you get all these licences into the right hands when you have thousands of users on different devices? And how do you do that with sufficient oversight and reporting, and whilst keeping costs from spiralling out of control? These are some of the big challenges facing education institutions.
How does this complexity translate into costs for institutions?
One thing is that education institutions need to devote a lot of ICT staff hours to managing issues around accessing, licensing and deploying software. You need people to package software titles, you need people to manage the integrations with your SSO and LMS, you need people to maintain the environment, for security and patching, and you need to staff a support desk to help end users when they get stuck. Some institutions have five to ten people running the helpdesk alone. So you have staff as well as infrastructure – room space, equipment, servers and storage – tied up there.
And how does Academic Software help?
Academic Software frees up some of those commitments – helping to rationalise licensing and deployment, bringing about savings on estate and infrastructure costs, and giving back time to ICT staff.
We provide a single workspace solution that centralises the distribution of all your digital tools, and we handle the packaging, integrations and updates you need. We create software packages for mobile device management (MDM) via Intune or Jamf. And once configuration and technical setup has been completed, this becomes a self-service platform. This means that end users can install or use any tool without involvement by your ICT staff.
Another really important way we reduce the burden on ICT staff is that we take over end-user support. The platform is designed for self-service – with the idea that the end user can easily help themselves to the tool they want. Most users can access what they want themselves, guided by our user-friendly manuals. But if they have problems, our helpdesk is there – in the user’s own language. We will help the end user until the tool is running on their device. We even provide support for free-to-use software. We know, for example, installing AutoCAD is one of the top questions at our helpdesk because it’s complicated to get the licence and do the installation for the free education edition. AutoCAD doesn’t offer support for this, but we will help with the licence request and with the installation of AutoCAD until it’s up and running. By taking over this kind of helpdesk support, we free up ICT staff time.
What’s so costly about software licences? Surely you just match the number of licences to your number of users?
Education institutions have very particular characteristics that impact the management of licences. One of the challenges is the constant churn in the number of users and their requirements. Thousands of students join at the start of the academic year, some needing certain software for three months, some for a year; the digital tools they need may change in the course of the year. A lecturer may decide to bring in a new digital tool for a short series of practical sessions. You want to make sure everyone has the digital tools they need, so you buy enough licences to cover the anticipated need. But the risk is you end up paying for licences that aren’t used, or were only needed for a short time.
How can Academic Software help with that?
By centralising and automating the management of licensing, and giving you better oversight. Access to digital tools is assigned at SSO or LMS group level on the platform, meaning the user has access to the tools appropriate for the group they’re in. If they leave, or switch to another course, they no longer have access to the tools assigned to that group. Those licences can be freed-up for other users. And access to particular licences such as Adobe can be limited to three months, or six months, or a year. You can make campus licences available for use at home. And licences are allocated in real time for the licences actually used, reducing the likelihood of overspend.
Surely moving everything into the cloud has helped institutions bring down costs?
The cloud isn’t free! There are costs associated with the cloud, and institutions sometimes struggle to keep track of their cloud consumption. Different departments and labs and classes all over the institution consuming cloud resources can quickly mount up. Academic Software centralises the management of cloud consumption, providing better oversight, and has built-in cost-saving measures such as auto-scaling and inactivity shut-off, helping you avoid unnecessary expenditure.
Also, why rush to the cloud – and its associated costs – if there are more cost effective, more user-friendly ways of distributing your digital tools? If your users have perfectly good capacity on their MacBook, why replicate and pay for that computing capability in the cloud?
You really need a balance between different deployment methods – between native installation and virtualization – so that the most cost-effective option is presented to the end user. Academic Software helps automate that, with significant potential savings on cloud costs.
You mentioned reporting and oversight earlier, how does that help institutions manage costs?
In education, expenditure gets allocated against specific budget lines and funding sources, sometimes linked to external funding, and that needs clear oversight and reporting. As digital technology has expanded in education, the complexity around it has sometimes meant that this oversight is difficult to achieve. Academic Software makes this much easier, enabling dashboard reporting on licences and cloud consumption, and reporting analytics and cost allocation per project, lab or course. Basically, we help solve the problem of who gets billed for what. And, really important, having your own data on real usage puts you in a stronger position when negotiating future contracts with software vendors.
You emphasise how user friendly the Academic Software platform is, why is that important?
Making your institution a good place to study and work is important, and having accessible and effective ICT is a big part of that. Problems with ICT regularly show up negatively in surveys on staff and student satisfaction.
And there’s also risks to not managing digital tools well. The reality is that if your institution doesn’t get digital tools into people’s hands in a user-friendly way; if your students, educators and researchers are confused about how they access the tools they need, they will try to find their own solutions. They may end up swiping their credit card and buying software that already exists. And you have no oversight or control over this. The larger the institution, the more complex this problem risks becoming. This kind of “shadow IT” not only results in unnecessary costs but puts your institution at risk of cybercrime and compliance gaps. Also, dealing with problems and inefficiencies created by shadow IT is a drain on the time and resources of your ICT department.
Academic Software’s platform helps to discourage shadow IT and maintain the integrity of your environment. It’s easier for your users, and at the same time you have greater control and oversight, without increasing investment in ICT staff and infrastructure.