Thursday 10 September 2020

AI - the second wave of SaaS.

If nothing else the events of the last few months have highlighted the limitations of traditional IT solutions based on servers and local data.

Schools that embraced cloud storage and SaaS have found the adoption of remote learning an easier pathway than those with teaching resources locked up behind firewalls or maintaining a heavy reliance on server based applications.

For education it’s been a significant change. Numerous SaaS programs were fast tracked over the summer break and there’s no returning to the old way of working. In the future IT systems will be designed to allow the efficient consumption of SaaS services without the requirement for local stateful data. While people talk about a hybrid scenario it’s really only an interim solution or a ramp to move processes and data offsite. The future is firmly SaaS.

While remote learning is an immediate payback of this transition it’s only a small part of the SaaS advantage. Previous posts have discussed other elements such as cost management, scalability and the levelling of the ‘tech’ playing field but perhaps the biggest advantage has yet to be realised.

ADS - Classroom Dashboard

Visualisation Suite for Google Classroom.

Once data is centralised in the cloud, a canvas that was once just fragmented shards of black and white expands into a kaleidoscope of colour painted by Data Analytics and the emerging field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The resulting landscape is not just better than what we have currently but completely new.  It’s the same transformation that drives the success of platforms such as Amazon Facebook and Google and it’s inevitable that both processes will have an important role to play in education.

Most schools and businesses already make use of Data Analytics and AI. Microsoft’s Data Loss Prevention (DLP) features rest on top of these platforms as do most of the processes that intercept email spam and control the threats to your internal network. AI based systems have the capability to draw relationships between seemingly unrelated points of data and then use this information to improve the response. The power of continuous improvement should be familiar to anybody who works in teaching and now it can be put to work in a practical way, analysing the schools data resources in ways that were impossible only a few years ago,

The information stored in platforms such as Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams can be opened out in new and exciting directions. Not just the simple lists of students and classes (although this is useful enough) but insights into how it’s being used, identifying those students who are engaging, those who are being left behind. Not just raw numbers but the patterns of use within that data drawn out across year groups, subjects or any label type and then presented in a secure way using a web dashboard.

Every school using Google G Suite and Microsoft Office 365 already has access to an advanced analytics toolset through Google Cloud Platform (GCP) or Microsoft Azure but because they are not fully understood they are rarely used. This is almost certain to change because the benefits of adopting this toolset are almost limitless.

Established SaaS platforms such as Securly use an AI engine to scan messages for signs of depression and self-harm thats capable of understanding local nuances and working across language barriers. offers a visual threat intelligence feature as a standard component in its safeguarding product also using AI.

Other company's such as Applied Data Science are working with trusts in the UK to help them build customised analytics platforms that open out the data they hold in platforms such as Google Classroom. The result goes far beyond the simple snapshot view that you get with a spreadsheet download providing ongoing analysis that can expose trends and patterns over time and give real insights into how a school or Trust is operating and performing.

The real takeaway for education is the fact that none of this is particularly difficult or costly to implement. Once the school has adopted a SaaS platform the data is in the cloud and the delivery platform is in place (GCP/Azure). Both come with a generous free tier that can be used to trial a service. No local infrastructure is required (of course) and ongoing costs are mainly limited to data storage.  Data remains within the same security boundary controlled by the school or Trust -  it’s just moved from one database to another. 

The data is already there, it just needs to be put to work. 

Disclosure: The Serverless School provided consultancy services to Applied Data Science to help realise the Visualisation Suite for Google Classroom.

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