The digital journey from mainframes to SaaS

Rodney Spark

Rodney Spark is the executive director of eWorks and chair of the E-standards for Training Expert Group (EEG). Rodney focuses on improving the flexibility and quality of learning through the application of information and communication technologies (ICT). Here, Rodney shares his views on the digital journey from his first encounter with computing to the emergence of software as a service (SaaS).

Where did your digital journey begin?

My first computer experience was a ‘dummy’ terminal connected to a mainframe. Interestingly, despite the emergence of the PC and individual computing, we have returned to the same scenario – personal devices that connect to large data storages and applications for manipulating the data. There is one significant difference worth noting though and that’s device mobility. For the end user the connecting spaghetti is now ubiquitous and invisible. While you could argue that it has been a 30 year circular path back to our starting scenario, it is important to understand that the journey itself has been essential for re-purposing computing, including for education, and for exerting a ‘people’s voice’ on the re-build.

Then came the thought of ‘big brother’

In the 70s individuals and society were exposed to the conceptual fears created by Orwell’s 1984 and big mainframe computers profiling everything we did was definitely ‘big brother’. Of course the government gave us the privacy legislation that we demanded but was that truly a guarantee that no-one was looking? The emergence of PCs enabled local applications and local data storage, the perfect ‘privacy’ solution for the distrusting public. Then Apple gave us intuitive interfaces enabling a common accessibility to the power of computing.

The birth of personal computers (aka fridges)

Apple IIe
Credit: Apple IIe, by William Warby

My first ‘PC’ was an Apple IIE in 1983 but it wasn’t until I upgraded to my Macintosh SE that I understood the flexibility and creativity that the world of ‘icons’ offered. It was only a black and white world though but the Macintosh SE was also unique for being the first portable PC. It was fully self-contained, you only had to carry the one item and use it wherever you could find electricity. For 1987, my Mac SE was a high performing PC with an 8MHz processor, 1MB of RAM and a 20MB hard drive. In terms of portability there was a well-padded carry bag with strong handles for carrying the 8kg weight. I used to strap the SE on the back of my motor bike and it looked like I was transporting a small fridge.

A time for sharing

Once satisfied with computing’s ‘new world order’ I wondered at the things we could do on our computers but it was a lonely experience given we couldn’t share it with others unless we put a floppy disk in the mail. The Internet changed all of that. At first it was hard to believe that something built for national security and covert activity would not impinge on our individual liberties. In fact the irony is that it enabled ‘people power’ and the capacity for us to share ideas, beliefs and those wonderful things we were starting to create on our PCs ….. and we were able to share privately or publicly.

Learning through computing

It was the Internet and subsequent growth of digital communication that enabled education to fully realise the learning value that computing offered. The wave of PCs that flowed during the 80s and 90s promised low-cost, self-paced learning for all. The IT world was excited about CBT (computer based training) and CAL (computer assisted learning). Employers embraced it with the same level of enthusiasm because it promised them low-cost training for large employee numbers. Educators, however, were not so quick to support CBT/CAL because it sought to replace rather than understand the teacher’s role in ensuring cost-effective learning outcomes.

Or not…

Large amounts of money were invested in CBT/CAL programs for diminished rather than increased learning returns. The three main reasons for the high development cost were:

  • level of technical expertise required
  • emphasis on professional production values, and
  • attempts to mimic the teacher’s capability to respond to individual learning needs.

Experienced teachers will tell you that the repetitive use of identical learning content and teaching strategies does not guarantee the same learning environment or learning outcome. The student is the differentiating ingredient and the teacher is able to adjust accordingly. CBT programs may have been technically innovative and visually attractive but their educational value was limited to rote learning. Consequently CBT/CAL failed to impact on mainstream education, let alone improve the availability and accessibility of learning.

The importance of content

The arrival of the Internet changed this because it promoted content over production values and it enabled content to be packaged with live social commentary. Students exposed to Youtube and other ‘cloud content’ no longer expected high quality production, the focus shifted back to the relevance and usefulness of the content. Today there is a greater student acceptance of teacher created learning material using new digital tools such as mobiles, cameras, videos and so on. Cut and paste learning objects surrounded by teacher commentary and learner support is the essence of quality and affordable e-learning. All good teachers have sound instructional design and communication skills which is why good teachers are also good e-teachers. Contrary to the original promotion of CBT, e-learning is affordable because of the teacher. Teachers adjust and support the learning experience, they provide the quality assurance for maximising learning outcomes and hence the return on the training investment.

The cloud with more than a silver lining

To understand the reason for returning to individual ‘dumb’ devices connected to centralised intelligence we need to understand the popular acceptance of the ‘cloud’. The Internet facilitated the perception of ‘anarchy, state and utopia’ where everyone benefits from everyone else’s presence. There is no perceived threat of ‘big brother’, you control your own content deciding who can see what and the rules of behaviour are limited to the basic requirements to ensure that the Internet survives. Putting aside the debate about the reality of this perception, the impact has been millions of people using the ‘cloud’ to create, store and display their intellectual property. Similarly, millions of people entrust the privacy of even their most intimate communication to the Internet in the same accepting manner as they have always done with telephony. Through social networking services such as Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn and Tumbler people have embraced software as a service (SaaS) and the cloud storage of their digital artefacts. SaaS provides reliability and predictable cost compared with owning local-based infrastructure. As our connecting devices got cheaper and smaller, our use of local applications and data storage reduced.

E-learning today

For eWorks, this shift in mindset is also very evident at a business level with over 200 employers and training providers now using the TrainingVC to manage and deliver their training. Although the TrainingVC has been providing the benefits of SaaS for over 15 years, the demand today for the service is unprecedented. Like many other businesses, training providers are seeking to reduce their ICT risk exposure (i.e. the escalating and unpredictable cost of managing secure business infrastructure) by moving to cloud based services which in turn enables them to concentrate resources to delivering their core business. E-learning began with local applications servicing pockets of innovation. Today e-learning is a core component of the business strategy requiring the provision of business critical systems. This means:

  • full disaster recovery
  • ensuring the security and integrity of data
  • 24/7 access for anyone from anywhere, and
  • large databases and storage requirements.

How has eWorks fared in the digital journey?

There are several reasons for eWorks’ longevity as an SaaS provider.

  1. Our industry leading Service Level Agreement guarantees a performance that’s greater than what’s usually offered for SaaS.
  2. Our research and development capacity to keep up to date with new technology and learning innovation, changing the service accordingly and in conjunction with the preferences and needs of our users.
  3. Our capacity to provide an end-to-end e-learning solution that includes the integration of the TrainingVC with other business systems and local portals, the provision of off-the-shelf or bespoke learning content and related staff training.

I am proud that eWorks’ track record of delivering excellent service is best illustrated by the volume of new business we win through referrals from a loyal and supportive portfolio of clients.

Does your organisation need some support through its digital journey?
Wherever you are, eWorks can help.