Office 365 for Education – a new look
Posted February 23, 2014on:
It is always dangerous to get sucked into playing the comparison game between products and tools in education. Choices should be based firmly on need be they for devices or learning platforms. Microsoft Office 365 for Education and Google Apps are probably the two biggest players when it comes to productivity in the classroom and as such, comparisons are inevitable and it is perhaps worth a look at how these two shape up against each other. Both offer communication and productivity and storage tools based in the cloud.
Its no secret that I haven’t always been a fan of Office 365 for education – but then again, I’m not alone in this. Over two years ago when Education Scotland was comparing it with Google Apps for education, the users from schools who took part in a series of comparison tests voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Google products. At the time, they were probably right. Google were offering a mature product which was very familiar to most people, whereas the Microsoft produce, Office 365 for Education had not even been fully launched. When you add the general dissatisfaction which existed within the Scottish Education community over Glow (the Scottish Schools Digital Network which was built on an earlier version of Microsoft SharePoint) to this product immaturity, it is hardly surprising that this was the case. There were issues over the functionality of Office 365 on certain devices and platforms, and at the time, the decision made by the Scottish Government to go with Microsoft rather than Google looked to many people like a very bad one indeed. As it turns out, we were all quite wrong.
Fast forward two years and Office 365 for education has matured into a very good product indeed. The functionality issues on mobile devices appear to have been solved and the product now works very well across all three operating systems – something which is very important indeed for education. It is free to schools and those who sign up benefit from a superb range of tools designed for business use but which bring really awesome connectivity and productivity potential right into the classroom and which can be used by students and educators anywhere and at any time. The web versions of Office Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote let you work on your files wherever you are and in collaboration with other users (in real time if you want) and communication tools like instant messaging, shared calendars and Lync video conferencing really extend learning so that it becomes more and more self organised. This spin-off of giving students the tools which empower them to take ownership of their learning journeys is really significant; if we want to equip our youngsters with the skills they need to flourish in the information age, in the fast-changing pace of the twenty first century, then we need to be shifting our pedagogy away from an information transmission mode towards a much more looser heutagogy.
Office 365 for Education scores very highly in this respect. The creativity factor it’s tools and features encourage also move us away from the era of content consumption towards a creative agenda. Content alone is no longer king – its been replaced by the collaborative creation of content by people working together to create stuff which is relevant to their lives and their futures using tools which are culturally relevant to them. So they multi-task, creating and working together using technology to chat and discuss whilst they are doing it. When content is created, there is 25Gb of storage space on each users’s OneDrive (the storage tool integrated into 365)-my Google drive only gives me 15 Gb.
Office 365 for Education now fares much more positively than it did two years ago in comparison to Google Apps. Actually, it is now much better than Google, because it is a complete ecosystem of tools and features working together in an integrated and coordinated fashion. It is not just a collection of tools and services jumbled together, which is what Google Apps is, in my opinion. For example, you can invite people to join in a Lync video conference simply by sending them the link – nothing else required. Compare this to Google Hangouts where everyone participating has to sign up for a Google+ account before they join. Some people just wouldn’t want to do this (and you can currently only have ten folks in a hangout compared to many, many more in a Lync meeting). With the primary revenue stream for Google being advertising, I’m also nervous about Google scanning my email and the work I do for key words which might then be used to target advertising towards me.
The off line functionality with Office 365 is ahead of anything Google can offer and the interoperability between desktop productivity tools and the web versions is really very useful- the link between home and school is now better than ever.
Everything an educator might need in order to be able to interact with students can be reached just by logging in once. Great for evening homework help sessions or revision workshops at weekends before big exams. In fact, there is no need for a teacher to use any other external tools for communicating with students. Office 365 is a safe and secure platform for every teacher-student interaction, and this is good news for schools sensitive to the potential for misuse or accusations of inappropriate contact.
Microsoft has managed to join all the dots when it comes to a managed learning platform for education. The complete ecosystem of highly integrated services looks and feels like a highly versatile learning system. These productivity and communication tools really turbo-charge the potential for creativity. They can bring the world into the classroom,but also take the classroom out to the world. Having recently spent a lot of time working with Office 365 I’ve really started to see the potential it has for innovative and creative use in schools and other education settings.