Over the past few months, we have been watching the "software as service" discussion with some interest. While much of the debate in the technology press seems to circle around business applications such as CRM (customer relationship management), the simple question of whether a web-delivered application should reside entirely on the Web or have a client-side component has interesting implications for the education market.
More and more educational institutions at all levels are embracing online offerings -- to expand their reach, make it easier for students, overcome geographic or demographic barriers, etc.. At the same time, technology advancements have made Web-based experiences much richer. Going forward, it is increasingly likely that online classes and materials will be delivered over the Internet using standard Web technology and Web-based applications rather than proprietary systems and software that need to be downloaded and run on the local PC.
Provided that the Web-based application can authenticate the student as having the right to participate in the class, delivering the class through a standard Web browser offers a great deal of flexibility to both the professor and the student. The professor can take advantage of all the new technology bells and whistles to make the class engaging - podcasts, YouTube video, Second Life and so on. And the student can take the class anywhere, without worrying about having to be at a certain computer.
But what about when it comes to evaluating the student? Simple authentication with a password is not enough. We'd rather not admit it, but people do cheat, and the higher the stakes, the more likely it is. When it comes to securing the test, stronger security is required, and that is going to require some code on the client computer.
The challenge is that the service should make this necessary client-side code easy to manage. And not just for IT, but for the actual users. This means there really shouldn't be much for the users, whether professors or students, to do with the software on their computer. The Web-based services should manage everything, including software updates.
Of course, challenge is just another word for opportunity, and we're thinking hard about how to meet this one, particularly in light of Vista. Stay tuned....