Software Development for the Education Sector: What Coders Need to Know

Educational institutions have unique requirements for software development. Here's what developers focusing on the education sector must provide with their software solutions.

Christopher Tozzi, Technology analyst

March 29, 2024

6 Min Read
students on computers at their desks

If every business is a software business, and if you count educational institutions as a type of business, then schools and universities, too, are software businesses.

But that doesn't mean that the education sector's software development needs are the same as those of any other industry or domain. In certain key respects, the education sector faces unique requirements — and anyone who wants to work in software development for education needs to accommodate them.

To that end, keep reading for a dive into the software development needs and trends for education. We can't tell you everything you need to know about software in the education sector in one article, but we can tell you the essentials.

Which Types of Software Does the Education Industry Need?

Let's begin by discussing which types of software educational institutions typically require.

To a large extent, they depend on the same types of software as most enterprises. They need accounting software to manage expenses and payroll. They use human resources (HR) platforms to manage employees. They might use enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to keep track of business processes. And so on.

However, the education sector also depends on some unique types of software, including:

  • Learning management system (LMS) platforms, which instructors use to manage course materials and engage students online. Whether a course takes place in-person or online, an LMS is probably a key element in course delivery. Blackboard and Canvas are popular examples of LMS platforms today.

  • Information systems for tracking student grades, attendance, and so on. These systems are sometimes built into LMS platforms, but they more often operate independently. The Banner platform from Ellucian is widely used for this purpose. Ellucian markets Banner as an ERP for the education industry, but it's more of an information management system than a traditional ERP.

  • Communication portals that allow faculty to communicate with students and (where relevant) families. Although communication may take place over email, education industry compliance requirements, as well as inclusivity considerations, mean that some institutions depend on more specialized communication portals.

Related:What Is a Software Developer and What's the Best Way to Become One?

The list could go on — this is not an exhaustive summary of every type of software platform you'd find in a school or university today — but these are some of the key platforms that are widespread in the education sector but not in most other enterprise settings.

Related:4 Ways College IT Departments Can Support Online Learning

It's not just the types of software that educational institutions use that sets them apart. It's also how they obtain that software and what they require from developers. In several respects, software development for education must meet special priorities that don't apply elsewhere.


For starters, take compliance. In the United States, schools and universities are subject to certain compliance rules made just for education. One is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which you've probably heard of, but there are dozens of other compliance mandates that may affect education institutions — so many that the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), an organization devoted to higher education compliance, offers an extensive compliance matrix, which is typically treated as the gold standard for compliance in the education sector.

Not every compliance requirement on the HECA matrix applies to every education application or platform, but developers in this space should familiarize themselves with the mandates and make sure they build apps and data flows that comply with the rules.

Limited IT resources and demand for SaaS

Today, the typical school system or university lacks an extensive IT department capable of deploying and hosting complex applications. For that reason, many educational institutions prefer software that is available via a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. If you build an app that customers must host themselves, you're unlikely to gain as much traction as a company that builds SaaS apps for education.

That said, situations may arise where institutions want to keep software on-prem for security, privacy, or compliance reasons — so it's important to evaluate use cases for education software and determine whether an on-prem, self-hosted offering will be important for your users.

Self-service functionality

Limited IT resources also mean that building self-service features into software is critical in the education sector. Unlike in some other enterprise settings, where IT experts expect to offer hands-on support to non-technical users, IT departments at schools and universities are often too small to offer extensive support to instructors and students.

Consequently, developers need to build software that is easy enough for users to run on their own, without hand-holding. And they should ideally do so in ways that make it easy for non-technical users to achieve their goals while simultaneously providing a great experience for "power users" who want access to advanced features. (Unfortunately, not all educational software platforms do this well; Blackboard, for example, is notorious for offering an interface that, while being theoretically friendly toward inexperienced users, makes it almost impossible to automate tasks or repurpose content.)

Anywhere, anytime access

The ability to make software available to users based in any location and at any time is important in most sectors today. But it's especially critical in education, where instructors, students, and administrators may be remote.

Delivering this experience well requires developers to implement features such as single sign-on integrations, so that users can access apps from anywhere without having to sign in to each one independently.

They must also ensure that remote access to their apps is secure; while VPNs were traditionally the solution on this front, the trend in education software today is toward newer approaches, such as Zero Trust Network Access, which can be both more secure and (when done well) more user-friendly than placing all resources behind a firewall and making them available only through a VPN.

What Makes Education Software Unique

It would be wrong to say that software development for the education sector is a totally unique beast. By and large, schools and universities depend on the same types of software as most other organizations.

But this industry does require some special types of software, and it expects developers to deliver that software in special ways — which is why emphasizing priorities like software compliance, SaaS architectures, self-service functionality, and remote access are key for succeeding in software development for education.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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