SAS stops charging students, profs for software

Students and professors at universities around the world will have free access to business analytics software and resources from SAS Institute Inc. starting in the fall 2010 semester.

SAS OnDemand for Academics, a Web-based service hosted by SAS on servers in Cary, N.C., provides access to SAS Enterprise Guide (which includes Base SAS) and SAS Enterprise Miner (which includes SAS Text Miner). SAS plans to add additional applications over time.

The online service launched globally in March 2008. Professors have always had free access, while students were required to pay roughly US$50 to use it.

SAS announced the offering at the SAS Global Forum in Seattle. “We want to make sure that SAS is being used more and more at the university level,” said Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS, to a group of press. 

Goodnight holds a Ph.D. in statistics from North Carolina State University, where he taught before founding SAS in 1976.

Analytics has become one of the hottest topics in business, said Goodnight. “The more students that graduate with the knowledge of SAS, the more that will promote the use of analytics in business and that’s very important these days,” he said.

This is a “tremendous move” from SAS, said Hugh Watson, a professor of MIS at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. “I think it will result in much more increased usage of the software by universities.”

The fee was nominal, but if professors were only going to use the software for a week of class because they were also using other BI software, it was difficult to justify the price for students, he said. “You tended to do something else,” he said.

The Web-based delivery model is more university-friendly than downloading it onto your PC or receiving a box with client software, he said. “The two models that have been out there the most … are much more difficult for universities to work with,” he said.

With downloadable software, there are issues with operating systems that aren’t supported; boxed softwarerequires installation and maintenance, he said.

SAS’s initiative is part of a growing trend among vendors to offer free software and resources to help universities teach business analytics skills to students.  

“I could not be more thrilled,” said Barbara Wixom, associate professor at University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and co-executive director of the Teradata University Network.

These types of offerings provide great exposure for the vendors, students get the right skills, it makes it easy for professors to do their jobs and employers love it because students are coming out of universities knowing the tools that are used in their companies, she said.

But providing the tools in a Web-based, low-maintenance fashion is key, according to Wixom.

Not having any set-up requirements is just as important as the price, because professors don’t have the time to set up servers, learn new software and maintain accounts, she said. “There is just no way that I would be able to put that kind of situation in place,” she said.

Wixom surveyed IT professors around the world last fall as part of a study on the current state of BI in academia for the Business Intelligence Congress in Phoenix, Ariz.

The study, based on responses from 87 universities, found that professors clearly understand the need to provide students with analytics skills, and that the biggest obstacle to accomplishing this is having the tools to teach with, she said.

“Education is another industry that has really been impacted by the economy,” said Wixom. The fact that SAS is offering the tools for free is a huge advantage for universities and students alike who don’t have the money to invest in software tools, she said.

The second biggest obstacle, next to software, is having the right kinds of accompanying materials. SAS provides that by developing pedagogy around the software, she said.

Getting access to contemporary tools is a further challenge and SAS satisfies this requirement, she said. Professors “want to give students experiences they will find in the workplace and to do that, we need heavy-duty tools,” she said.

The study also noted challenges in finding professors who can teach BI, and again, this type of initiative can help, she said. Faculty may, for example, have a data background but not a business analytics background, and can use the free tools to teach themselves.

SAS’s free offering may also help extend analytics education to a broader array of courses.

Professors often don’t have a whole semester to teach these tools, said Wixom. Because the tools are free, professors will have the flexibility to offer this to students regardless of the amount of time they have to teach analytics in their courses, she said.

“Let’s say I teach a course to marketing students and I know they need some analytics skills. Often, I only have a small part of my course that I can devote to teaching analytics software, so for me to ask them to pay for software they might just use for a few days is just not an option,” she said.

Student interest in business analytics is growing, said Irad E. Ben-Gal, a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

“It is a very special time in the history of statistics … every big company is using statistics to compete and business analytics is one of the main tools today and students feel it. They know exactly what is going on,” he said.

Ben-Gal said his students are fascinated by the subject. “Sometimes it is only a question of branding. For example, when you say statistics, it is not sexy enough for them. But when you say data mining – which means in many cases very similar techniques – they will jump on it,” he said.

Follow me on Twitter @jenniferkavur.

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