Case study: Tennessee schoolchildren pilot first Microsoft educational cloud tool

Back-to-School Special Report, Part 2
Tools

When students in the Clarksville-Montgomery School District in Tennessee return to school in two weeks they will find freshly-buffed hallways, sparkling desk tops and a new update of what is a very new educational cloud platform--Microsoft Office 365 for Education.

Clarksville-Montgomery County is the original test bed for Microsoft's education cloud offering, receiving the first-in-the-nation large-scale rollout when the product became available in the 2012 school year. The school district stepped up to become the guinea pig for Microsoft Office 365 for Education, embracing cloud computing for its 31,400 students. That includes every public school in the county: 22 elementary schools, seven middle schools, eight high schools (including a middle college program), an alternative school and a STEM academy.

"We were the first to jump on it," notes Helen Gooch, the instructional technology coordinator for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System (CMCSS), who retired this summer. "We were right there, ready to go."

That the CMCSS was ready to go was no accident. The county was already using Microsoft Outlook as its basic email program, and Gooch is a Microsoft Innovative Educator.

Gooch's role as an MS Innovative Educator, coupled with her experience in the CMCSS, also made her the perfect choice to help with training in the neighboring state of Kentucky.

"As they rolled out a state-wide initiative, Marty Parks, with the Kentucky Department of Education, spearheaded the implementation in that state and the rollout went off without a hitch," Gooch says. "To my knowledge, those districts across the nation that are rolling out Office 365 are doing so on a scheduled rollout, giving their stakeholders time to learn and make this product part of their classroom practice."

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, "Clarksville-Montgomery County, being one of the first adopters, enjoyed a year using a familiar interface to Office 2010, as Office 365 had that look about it, as Outlook resembled Outlook Web Access. Microsoft did a scheduled update: Bring a very clean Office 2013, Office Web apps and Office 365 continuous look across all the products," Gooch adds.

Given its size, the CMCSS didn't receive the update until June 2013.

"So the teachers and students are just walking into classrooms now, and enjoying a crisp, clean, intuitive experience," Gooch says. "Outlook interface is crisp and easy-to-use. Contacts are now called People, and that, along with Calendar, SkyDrive and other features now appear across the top tool bar."

Initial efforts

Gooch and her staff of five technology integration coaches first looked into Microsoft Office 365 for Education in March 2012. They also looked into Google Applications for Education and other products. A major selling point for Microsoft Office 365 for Education was that the county schools were already using Microsoft Outlook as the basic email program. That eliminated one of the largest hurdles to adopting a new cloud-based management system: moving to a new email platform.

Once Clarksville-Montgomery County signed on with Microsoft, an aggressive training process was the first step in the journey. Last year was all about training teachers over the summer and adopting student accounts and email service in the fall.

The actual roll-out was tackled in stages, Gooch says. Phase one focused on collaboration, emailing documents back and forth, content management and attachments.

Getting all teachers trained to a level of equity in the cloud world proved to be a mixed bag, according to high school and middle school instructional technologist Donna Baker. "We have had some teachers that have really embraced it; and we have some resistant teachers."

"We try to show the teachers that with the right preparation up front you're going to better engage the students," Baker says. "Once they see the responsiveness of students--the quality of their work and their excitement--the teachers are hooked."

Similar to the Oregon Virtual School District experience as the test bed for Google Applications for Education, training was key to success with the Microsoft Office 365 for Education roll-out. The district offered intense summer sessions followed by constant reinforcement through professional development.

On the student level, participation is voluntary, since it involves setting up a student email account. But it is a closed system, enabling students to share with each other and with teachers but not with the outside world.

"We are using email as a way to access information from one room to another," explains instructional technologist Tracey Hoover, who divides her time among eight schools in the CMCSS.

A new school year

As students and teachers return to the classroom in two weeks, "Office 365 is fully functional and complete today," Gooch says. "Students and teachers can collaborate beautifully now. As with all products; Microsoft will continue to enhance and update the product as suggestions are heard and as technology changes."

In terms of user feedback, "the feedback I have received has been excitement with the product and questions about training and use. The one feature that has become easier, and will soon become even more user friendly, is file sharing and collaboration."

The next step in the journey this year will be making full use of SkyDrive for document collaboration and file storage, as well as using Lync to its full potential. "That will come through professional development, and many talented teachers in the classrooms incorporating features into their classroom practices," Gooch says.

Despite the initial success with the program and the platform, Gooch says it is still too early to assign a grade to the cloud experience.

"Real assessment will be coming in the months that follow," Gooch explains. "The product is just now reaching so many teachers and students. I would not assess any teacher or product until it was in use for a good period of time. We are still training Office 365 and getting requests for training."

Still, Gooch has high hopes for cloud computing in public education.

"Long-term, students and teachers have access to folders, files, collaboration 24/7 from any device with a browser," Gooch says. "No longer does a student have to have a computer with Office loaded onboard. The full functionality provided with Office 365 is outstanding, but a student who has an older computer without Office, but who can log into a browser, has Office 365, Outlook, Contacts, Calendar, SkyDrive Pro with complete document sharing and saving can be globally competitive."

Read more:
- check out the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System website
- see the Oregon Virtual School District website
- take a look at the Microsoft Office 365 for Education site

Read more about education in the cloud
Case study: Oregon schoolchildren living well in the cloud
Microsoft reportedly developing government cloud platforms
Office 365 is 99.9 percent reliable, Microsoft boasts