Growing fan base for Office 365 for Education

Back-to-school Special Report, Part 3

This week and next, millions of children across the country are returning to school. For some of them, the new school year will bring new opportunities with technology. And for a growing number of school districts, that includes investments in Microsoft's foray into educational cloud computing: Microsoft Office 365 for Education.

Launched only a year ago, Office 365 for Education has a growing following, according to Microsoft's Cameron Evans, who heads the company's educational initiative. Evans took time to speak with FierceEnterpriseCommunications last week about how the rollout has gone and what lies ahead for the product.

"There are already a lot of fans across the board for Office 365," Evans says of the new educational tool. "The cloud has become the canvas for modern learning--a place to connect all the aspects of relationships in the classroom."

Microsoft Office 365 for Education was first piloted a year ago among Tennessee school children in the Clarksville-Montgomery School District. The effort included 400 students in 22 elementary schools, seven middle schools, eight high schools (including a middle college program), an alternative school and a STEM academy.

Shortly thereafter, the public schools in neighboring Kentucky followed suit, adopting Office 365 for Education in a state-wide rollout.

"The latest large-scale rollout, which is underway now, is the Los Angeles Unified School District," Evans says.

Driving interest in cloud computing in education are two key factors: savings and the adoption of national standards around the Common Core, Evans says.

Savings come primarily in the avoidance of wide-scale email licensing fees for students and faculty. Microsoft Outlook is part of the Office 365 for Education package. The Common Core is the new set of national standards for expected student mastery in a wide variety of learning skills. All states must have adopted the Common Core standards by next year under federal education reform initiatives.These factors have combined to place great urgency on many school districts to find new ways to enhance the learning experience, especially with regard to collaboration. Enter cloud computing.

With Office 365 for Education, students and teachers get email service, content management features, file sharing, peer review features and administrative controls.

Evans says it is hard to put hard ROI numbers to cloud computing in education. First off, this is still new territory. Second, students are a moving population--evaluated at each grade level for only one year, then moving on to all new material.

Still, early anecdotal indications are that the cloud can pay big dividends in education, Evans says.

That has also helped paint a huge bulls-eye on the educational market, with Microsoft and Google both targeting the sector with comprehensive cloud computing products. It's no surprise: School districts are desperate for tools that can help them enhance the learning experience in the classroom despite tight budgets.

Indeed, for many cities and towns, the traditional budget split between schools and municipal services is being pulled heavily to the school side. The cost of public education is simply outpacing available funds for many communities, and the cloud is seen by many as a possible answer, Evans notes.

"Schools are looking at budgets as the first priority," Evans says. "There is not just less money to spend on technology, but also fewer people in technology. How do you deal with less money and less people? As they look to the cloud they look first with regard to money saved."

But cloud computing in education is far more than a budget buster, Evans says. It holds promise to revolutionize the way students share and collaborate with each other and with their teachers. It gives educators new-found abilities to monitor student work and team work as well as provide observation and criticism in a very unique way.

Still, as with any new technology, there are always concerns. With the cloud, Evans says the questions he hears most often involve security and privacy--the same as in the business sector.

In terms of benefits for students, Evans sees the cloud as a key way for school districts to be able to fully engage students in a way that will enhance learning, make it more fun and provide skills they will take with them into the workforce.

"Office 365 fosters the development of competencies that schools need to be successful in the world of education and the workforce. At the end of the day, education needs to find the technologies that foster the next level of competencies. Office 365 passes that test," Evans says.

Read more about education
Case study: Tennessee schoolchildren pilot first Microsoft educational cloud tool
Case study: Oregon schoolchildren living well in the cloud
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