When Microsoft decided to make select components of Office 365 free to schools, some educational technology enthusiasts speculated that it would transform how academic institutions of all types approach cloud computing. Anthony Salcito, the company's vice president of worldwide education, called the move a "game changer for teaching and learning."
Helen Gooch, instructional technology coordinator for the 39-school Clarksville Montgomery County School System (CMCSS) in northern Tennessee, considers Office 365 to be just that. Schools should reflect, as much as possible, "how students live," she says. And that means giving them a secure, yet fully functional e-mail platform that can be accessed anywhere, from any device. "Having them turn all of that off when they walk into school each day runs counter to what they already know and are using in their lives outside of school," she adds.
Office 365 for education, an evolution of Microsoft's Live@edu offering, gives students, teachers, administrators and staff free, cloud-based access to e-mail, calendars and contacts (Exchange Online); document storage and sharing and website management (SharePoint Online); instant messaging, presence, and audio and video conferencing (Lync Online); and the Microsoft Office productivity suite, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (Office Web Apps).
With these cloud-based tools, teachers and students can communicate and collaborate — and learning can continue — even when bad weather or emergencies force school closures. What's more, schools can provide a full range of productivity tools without having to find money in the budget to pay for them.
CMCSS' Gooch says that Microsoft's cloud-based solution fulfills Children's Internet Protection Act security requirements while also helping teachers and students overcome obstacles. Teachers, for example, can continue to teach even if kids are at home. "The student who's out with chicken pox for a week doesn't have to miss that full week of school," she explains. "Home-bound students can get the face-to-face time they need."
Office 365 has created a real learning network, she continues, one in which "students take more responsibility for each other and help each other move forward." Because students now have access to school resources anytime they're online, "they can work together at 7:00 at night, when they're really 'on,'" she adds, or at any time of their choosing.
The ability to provide district users with online access to Microsoft's Office suite also was a compelling selling point. The continuity between Office 365, which students are using, and Office 2010 Enterprise, which teachers are using, "cuts down my training time," she says.
Other districts that are using Office 365 report similar motivations for transitioning to the cloud — and equally powerful benefits.
Kurt Madden, chief technology officer for the 99-school Fresno Unified School District in central California, wanted students to be proficient in the same tools they will be using once they enter the workforce. "We wanted our kids to use Word, PowerPoint — all the tools that will be waiting for them in the real world," he says. Preparing students for the future is just as important as learning the subject matter, he adds.
Madden found what he was looking for in Office 365 and became one of the solution's earliest adopters. "Often, the 'light' version of a software package on the web isn't comparable to the full version that runs on a local computer," he explains. "But the versions of Microsoft Outlook and Lync on the web have almost the same capabilities as the ones we install on our PCs. The Word, PowerPoint and Excel versions in Office 365 are close right now, and when the next release comes out, they will nearly match the local PC versions, feature for feature."
Having these tools available in the cloud also means that students only need to get their hands on a mobile device in order to collaborate at any time, he adds.
For John M. Williams, executive director for technology and information services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, the biggest problem was the bottom line. "Our local government hosted all staff e-mail accounts," he explains. "We had 9,500 accounts for 140 schools, and it cost us almost $500,000 a year."
With Office 365, Williams has secured larger mailboxes for district users and gained antivirus and antispam protection, without spending a dime. "Districts are looking to save on budget any way they can, and this presents a great opportunity to do just that," he says.
Office 365 not only keeps users within a district connected, it also offers teachers around the globe a chance to collaborate, says Cameron Evans, national technology officer for Microsoft Education. With SharePoint, for example, users can create communities of practice around common skills and interest areas. "Third-grade teachers can learn what other third-grade teachers are doing," Evans says.
One of technology's best attributes, of course, is that it can level the playing field for everyone. The cloud, in particular, "does something powerful for education," CMCSS' Gooch says. "When you give students the opportunity to create — and the time and tools to be creative — they will outperform your expectations. I have monitored students working from home at all hours of the night on projects and collaborating with their groups. They do this naturally when we give them the resources to make it possible."