Google Vs. Microsoft: Choosing Cloud Apps For Schools

Is Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365 for Education the right choice for your school? Learn from these two examples.

David Weldon, Contributor

June 10, 2013

5 Min Read

More Pioneers Of Cloud Computing

More Pioneers Of Cloud Computing

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Cloud gazing -- trying to figure out which cloud-based platform is right -- has become a favorite pastime for school districts.

The activity is driven by the desire to provide 24-7 access to educational material for students and faculty, and the opportunity to save considerable dollars. A majority of school districts are now looking to establish a presence in the cloud, or want to know more about it.

A first step in the process: deciding between the two primary educational platforms: Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365 Education. Which direction you head in will depend on your previous technology investments, your current licenses, relationships with both companies, and your comfort levels.

Oregon's State-Wide Google Apps Initiative

One of the best places to look for insights on adopting Google Apps for Education is the State of Oregon and the The Oregon Virtual School District. Oregon is two years into the first state-wide roll-out of Google Apps for Education.

[ Does a Facebook for education sound like a good idea? Read Edmodo: Social Collaboration For Teachers.]

According to Steve Nelson, director of the Oregon Virtual School District (OVSD), the state-wide effort started as a simple quest for broader email service for students. The cost of new licenses for so many students and teachers was daunting, so Oregon officials sought an alternative. Fortunately, Google execs were looking to pilot a state-wide project. That led to Oregon becoming a test bed for full Google Apps for Education services: email service, content-management features, file sharing, peer-review features and administration controls.

By moving to Google Apps, Nelson estimates the state has saved $1.5 million per year on license fees with Microsoft. The Google Applications for Education program has been free, with no hidden costs, he says.

The key to initial success was the existence of the Oregon Virtual School District, which was created prior to the Google effort. The OVSD is the umbrella technology-provider for all school districts, from applications platforms to software availability to teacher training.

Participation in the Google Apps program is not mandatory. Still, 122 of the 206 of Oregon districts already are on board, up from 20 in the first year, Nelson says. When a school district wants to move to the cloud, it requests a domain from the Virtual School District and signs a legal obligation. It is then given access to cloud-based services through the state's Open Data Portal.

Other keys to success have been top-down support from the Oregon School Boards Association, and lots of training. Instructional technologist Corin Richards, a teacher trainer at the Williamette Education Service District, says school superintendents were targeted first for training, to get them excited and open to bringing their schools on board.

The most tech-savvy teachers were the next targets, attending a summer boot camp two years ago where they received extensive training. Those champions then fanned out across the state to spread the word on what Google Apps was doing for their schools.

The Oregon model is not difficult to copy, says Rachel Wente-Chaney, who directs the training efforts for the Oregon Virtual School District. Start out small, and add elements as you go. The best approach is to start with the most tech-savvy staff, early adopters, and core subject area teachers. For the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System (CMCSS) in Tennessee, being the test bed for Microsoft Office 365 for Education was a no-brainer. The county was already using Microsoft Outlook as its basic email program, and Instructional Technology Coordinator Helen Gooch was a Microsoft Innovative Educator.

When the new product was being readied for release in mid-2012, Gooch got early word on it, and liked what she heard. Microsoft Office 365 for Education would be a cloud-based system providing email, student accounts, profiles, database access, file sharing, and collaboration services for students, faculty and administrators. She also liked the price: free. The district pulled that off by ordering A2 licensing from a partner vendor.

Aiding the Montgomery-Clark roll-out was the team of ed tech professionals shared throughout the district. Similar to the Oregon initiative, Montgomery-Clark held a summer boot camp for teacher training, and then implemented student accounts and email service in the fall. The roll-out was done in stages to enable teachers and students to get comfortable with the new technology. That included collaboration, emailing, and content management to start.

The strategy at Montgomery-Clark was also to target early adopters, and have them help spread the word. According to Donna Baker, a high school and middle school instructional technologist in the CMCSS, the key to bringing teachers on board was clear communication on why the school districts were adopting the technology, what the goals are, and if working in the cloud would change their teaching style. Part of the message was to stress the engagement of students in this new approach, and how the quality of their work would improve in a collaborative environment.

Using Microsoft Office 365 for Education is a voluntary program for each student, because it requires setting up an email account and profile. Instructional technologist Tracey Hoover says the email system is currently closed to the outside, allowing students to share only with each other and with teachers.

The CMCSS ed tech staff this year received training in Lync, the Microsoft unified communications platform that offers instant messaging, video and voice; and SharePoint, a document-sharing, social media, and time-management platform. The next step for Montgomery-Clark County will be implementing a one-to-one program -- a computer for each student -- in the ninth grade this fall.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, they have moved on to Phase Two: adopting Chrome notebooks. Two Oregon schools were among those selected by Google as the test bed for the Chrome Book, with every teacher and student in those schools receiving one. This fall the state will roll out its own one-to-one program in all districts.

About the Author(s)

David Weldon


David Weldon is a business and technology journalist in the Boston area. He is a former editor at Computerworld, eWeek, White Digital Media, EH Publishing, and Wellesley Information Services, and has written for a variety of other companies and publications.

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