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Microsoft Launches Office 365 Free for Education

Microsoft today formally released Office 365 for Education and announced plans to begin migrating Live@edu customers this summer.

"This is a huge opportunity because we're providing a level of service to schools for free that only our corporate accounts have been able to enjoy so far," said Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for Microsoft Education. He spoke with us at the ISTE 2012 conference in San Diego this week.

At the ISTE 2012 conference in San Diego this week, Microsoft launched Office 365 for Education. Anthony Salcito, vice president for Microsoft Education, spoke about the launch.

Office 365 is Microsoft's cloud-based productivity and collaboration platform. The education edition, identical to the commercial version, is being offered free for schools, colleges, and universities, covering teachers, students, and administrators. It incorporates several of the features of Live@edu, along with additional tools found in the commercial version of Office 365, such as the Microsoft Office apps, Lync Online, SharePoint Online, and Exchange Online.

  • Lync Online is conferencing and communications package that allows users to IM one another, start Web conferences, make calls, and engage in video chats.
  • SharePoint Online is a collaboration tool that lets users create sites for sharing and collaborating on documents.
  • Exchange Online is the enterprise-class edition of Microsoft's hosted e-mail, calendar, and contacts management system.

Office 365 for Education also includes Microsoft's Web apps, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Early Adopters in Higher Education
At the ISTE conference, Microsoft showcased six early deployments of Office 365 for Education--three in K-12 and three in higher education.

On the higher ed front, about 7,000 faculty and staff at Cornell University will move onto the Office 365 platform beginning in the fall. Initially they'll have access to Office 365's e-mail and calendaring tools, with plans calling for SharePoint Online and Office Web Apps to be deployed to both faculty and students in the future.

Gonzaga University will use Office 365 to support its distance learning students with online collaboration tools. According to Microsoft, Gonzaga's online student body accounts for about 20 percent of the Washington university's entire student population. About 8,000 total students and 1,200 faculty and staff will be affected by the move.

And at Dartmouth College, about 10,000 faculty, staff members, and students will be moved onto Office 365.

"After extensive research, we chose Office 365 for education because it allows us to leverage the benefits of cloud-based services while readily meeting our security and accessibility requirements for e-mail and calendar support. The shift to the cloud allows us to focus more directly on our core missions related to education, research and outreach," said Ted Dodds, CIO at Cornell University, in a prepared statement.

On hand at the ISTE conference was University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Gino Sorcinelli, who used Office 365 in an international collaboration with National University of Ireland Galway Professor Murray Scott. This spring, students from the the two universities participated in a course called "Effective Decision Making in the Age of Cloud Computing," in which virtual collaboration was a central theme. He said that while all of the collaboration tools in Office 365 benefitted the students, two that were not a part of Live@edu had the greatest impact on students--Lync and SharePoint Online. He said the Lync conferencing and messaging system with its ability to broadcast PowerPoint presentations contributed significantly to the collaborative capabilities of the students and also helped bolster their enthusiasm for the work they did in the course.

"Lync has the software capabilities so that [students] can connect with one another, and they can start off in an IM presence and say, 'Well, do you want to do an audio call?' And they can boost that into a video interaction."

Sorcinelli said plans for the near future call for bringing in universities whose students do not speak English natively. The language barrier will let the students try out Lync's translation capabilities, which allow messages to be translated on the fly.

Early Adopters in K-12
On the K-12 front, the Tennessee Department of Education will be bringing Office 365 to K-12 institutions statewide, encompassing 136 districts and 1,677 schools.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools will migrate its 80,000 students off Google Apps for Education and its 9,500 faculty and staff members off on-premises tools. Microsoft estimated the move will save the district about $400,000 annually.

Fresno Unified School District will also make the move to Office 365, affecting about 70,000 students and 12,000 faculty and staff. According to a blog post from Anthony Salcito today, "... Fresno USD expects to save $50,000 to $100,000 per year in costs. Nearly one-third of students currently utilize Microsoft Office and SharePoint to create documents and presentations and collaborate on class projects, which is expected to increase three-fold with the move to Office 365 when students will be able to access school portals at home."

"It's important we have a consistent toolset across the district so people can work together effectively. With Office 365 everything from the features and functions in the applications to the way the toolbars look exactly the same no matter where or how it's being accessed, helps improve both teacher and student productivity," said John Williams, executive director of technology and information services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, in a prepared statement. "This consistency, combined with the collaboration capabilities of Office 365, will be essential in supporting the blended learning environment we're striving for across our district."

Migration from Live@edu
While migration from Live@edu will begin this summer, according to Microsoft representatives, schools will have a migration buffer of about 18 months to allow IT staff to prepare for the move.

Microsoft's Salcito and Evans told us the move would be essentially invisible to end users. On the IT side of the migration, there are some technical considerations, including conversion of domains from Live@edu and issues related to identity management.

At the ISTE 2012 conference in San Diego this week, Cameron Evans, Microsoft Education's chief technology officer, discussed the role of IT in migrating to Office 365.

Complete details about technical issues can be found on Microsoft's Office 365 upgrade page. Additional details can be found on Microsoft's education site or the Office 365 for Education portal.