Matt McGoldrick is supervisor for systems engineering and integration at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

Jun 06 2023

How Cloud Software Widens Student Access to Learning

Software as a Service brings digital learning to life in K-12 classrooms.

As more school districts implemented one-to-one programs over the past few years, they were faced with a challenge. They needed a way to give students access to applications that could scale rapidly, be accessed from anywhere and seamlessly integrate with one another.

The solution? Software as a Service.

Cloud-hosted software has essentially become a default for educational applications, with districts largely opting for cloud-based versions of learning management systems, productivity tools, collaboration solutions and more.

“Without Software as a Service, the level of digital transformation in schools would be limited,” says Vince Humes, chair of the Consortium for School Networking’s network and systems design initiative. “Imagine if each district had to manage all the requirements to run tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or the learning management system. Without SaaS, we’d still be using Oregon Trail on CD.”

“It is mind-blowing to think about the learning tools that are now available to students,” Humes adds. “That would not be possible without the SaaS model.”

Classroom Transformation TOC


Cloud-Based Applications Provide Consistency Across Devices

Matt McGoldrick, supervisor for systems engineering and integration at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, agrees. He says SaaS programs helped the district move to a more device-agnostic posture, seamlessly integrate different applications and give its more than 160,000 students access to a broader array of learning tools.

“The landscape has shifted quite a bit in the past five to six years,” he says. “Students are now expected to do work online outside of school hours as part of that flipped classroom model. Cloud-based applications made it easier to provide staff, students and families with a consistent experience across devices and form factors.”

“It’s hard enough being a classroom teacher,” McGoldrick adds. “We don’t want them to have to manage the technology as well.”

As a Chromebook district, Montgomery County Public Schools relies on Google’s suite of productivity apps and the Canvas learning management system for student work. McGoldrick says one of the crucial services that the district’s LMS and Google Workspace for Education accounts provide is single sign-on access to other cloud tools.

Canvas also allows teachers to incorporate resources and curriculum from other cloud tools — such as content from Encyclopedia Britannica, Gale databases, Khan Academy, Kami and other third parties — into their online lessons.

While SaaS applications are powerful tools, McGoldrick says, they are not without their challenges. He notes that it’s easy for districts to become “inundated” with the vast number of applications that are now available, and it’s a “constant challenge” to ensure that students are using all of these solutions appropriately.

“We want to maintain students’ attention, but we also want to keep them from accessing harmful content,” he says. “Digital citizenship has to be part of the curriculum. We’re teaching students about good password hygiene in the same way that we would teach them how to check out a book.”

“Kids are really good at using technology to consume information, to socialize, to interact with their communities, but they’re not always prepared to use these tools for productivity,” McGoldrick adds. “It’s about teaching them to  use YouTube as a student to better themselves, not just how to solve a challenge in Minecraft.”

Demolish your device lifecycle woes. Get maintenance and management resources here.

Instructional Technology Helps Teachers Speak Students’ Language

Dr. Matt Kuhn, CTO for Volusia County School District in Florida, sees both benefits and downsides to Software as a Service. On one hand, he notes, cloud software is highly scalable and available remotely. On the other, cloud apps often introduce unpredictable pricing and are sometimes impossible to customize.

“They’re usually cross-compatible, which is a big deal. It didn't used to be that way,” he says. “When you had on-premises software, you knew it only worked on certain machines, but cloud-based software has to be cross-compatible and mobile.”

That is one of several reasons the district has come to rely heavily on cloud applications. Students and teachers use Microsoft 365 for productivity apps and file storage, the district’s Canvas LMS is hosted in the cloud, and teachers depend on many content specific cloud-based programs like the STEM app TinkerCad for career and technical learning.

“Technology is our students’ innate language,” Kuhn says. “It’s how they think, how they communicate and how they operate. You have to speak students’ language, and I think cloud software has helped us do that.”

DIVE DEEPER: How to make the most of Google Workspace for Education’s features.

When Kuhn came to Volusia County in 2022, he introduced a new system for software selection, which has streamlined and standardized how the district adopts new cloud apps. Anyone, including teachers, can make a request, but district leaders typically initiate the process. Requesters must provide basic information about an app. Then Kuhn and his team vet the software to make sure it offers adequate privacy and cybersecurity features, aligns with learning standards and doesn’t duplicate existing tools.

“We’ve approved probably 95 percent of the requests, but the system does its own filtering,” Kuhn says. “If people can’t answer the questions properly, then the request never even comes to us. If everything passes muster, then we move forward with plans for implementation, training and who is going to support the new software.”

While some software tools, such as online flashcards, merely replicate traditional learning, Kuhn notes that others provide students with experiences that would be impossible to access without technology. For instance, students in science classes use tools from ExploreLearning to simulate a 100-year forest lifecycle, adjusting variables such as precipitation to see the impacts on the ecosystem. “You have all of these conditions you can change within a one-hour class period, and you can learn quite a bit by analyzing the results. You can only do that with software.”

Rick Kelly
Budget dollars are getting scarcer, and it’s just not sustainable for us to manage on-premises software.

Rick Kelly Technology Director, Conneaut School District

Budget-Friendly Cloud Software Drives Innovation

Rick Kelly, technology director at Conneaut School District in Pennsylvania, says the district uses SaaS for “everything.”

Students and teachers in the rural district use a SaaS tool to annotate PDF files. In special education classrooms, kids use a different app to dictate written content and have passages read aloud to them.

“SaaS is embedded in everything we do, from our cafeteria systems to the kids looking at their own grades to our rostering system,” says Kelly. “It’s the majority of our applications, and the few things that aren’t yet in the cloud are on our radar to move into the cloud. The big drivers are the cost and expertise associated with making sure applications are up to date. Budget dollars are getting scarcer, and it’s just not sustainable for us to manage on-premises software.”

“Not only has cloud software allowed us to deliver a wider array of services to our staff and students, within budget,” Kelly says, “but also it’s given us peace of mind that the services are being delivered in a safe, secure and up-to-date manner. Those can be competing priorities when you’re working with a limited staff and budget.”

LEARN MORE: How K–12 schools can maximize their ROI as they spend their federal funding.

Years ago, Conneaut had a one-to-one tablet program, but the district has since switched to Chromebooks. The tablets students used then had 40 or 50 apps, Kelly says, but the district has since focused on a smaller number of learning programs to standardize instruction and streamline the cloud environment. The district uses both Google Workspace for Education and Microsoft 365.

”We try not to use the ‘app of the month,’” Kelly says. “We focus on the basics, and we focus on tools that will help teachers deliver the curriculum. Kids can get confused if you throw too many tools at them.”

“I often see districts put too many balls in the air at once,” Kelly adds. “My biggest advice is to stabilize before moving on to more innovation. Stabilize, then innovate. Then stabilize again, and then innovate. Make sure you have the proper training and delivery methods in place before you bring in the next thing.”

Photography by Ryan Donnell

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT