Cloud Computing | March 2013 Digital Edition

Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps for Education: Which Way Do You Go?

Entire counties and states are moving away from locally hosted e-mail and document-sharing software. The big question they have to answer: Google Apps or Microsoft Office 365?

cloud computing choices

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's March 2013 digital edition.

Look at school districts across the country these days, and you'll see a lot of educators with their heads in the cloud. Driven by educators' need to provide remote access, save money in licensing fees, and help students share their work, cloud-based computing is making serious inroads in education. Two regions are leading the way: The state of Oregon is two years into the first statewide rollout of Google Apps for Education (aka Google Docs), while the Clarksville-Montgomery County (TN) School System (CMCSS) last year became the first countywide school district to launch Microsoft Office 365 for Education. Each of these ambitious projects can offer lessons to school districts considering a move into the cloud.

Picking a Provider
CMCSS serves a total of 31,400 students at 22 elementary schools, seven middle schools, eight high schools (including a middle college program), an alternative school, and a STEM academy. The district was an early adopter of Microsoft Office 365 for Education at least in part because instructional technology coordinator Helen Gooch was already a Microsoft Innovative Educator. As the new product was being readied for release in mid-2012, Gooch's Microsoft sales rep told her about the cloud-based system that provides e-mail; student accounts; profiles; database access; file sharing; and collaboration services for students, faculty, and administrators.

Gooch and her staff of five technology integration coaches explored their options. "We also looked at Google, Gaggle, and several other products," she says. A major selling point for Office 365 was that the Clarksville-Montgomery County schools were already using Microsoft Outlook as their basic e-mail program. That eliminated one of the largest hurdles to adopting a new cloud-based content-management system: moving to a new e-mail platform.

Ultimately, though, it was price that sealed the deal. "We had been using ePals, and they were going to a fee-based system," Gooch says. "Office 365 would be totally free. It was a no-brainer." Gooch says the district kept the cost at zero by ordering A2 licensing from a partner vendor.

Oregon's statewide shift to the cloud had a different inspiration. According to Steve Nelson, director of the Oregon Virtual School District, which provides online learning applications, digital content, and digital courses to students in the state, "This started for the benefit of school districts that didn't have student e-mail."

In the course of investigating various e-mail offerings, Oregon school officials met with Google execs. Because the state was looking to create e-mail accounts for so many students, teachers, and administrators, the cost of new licenses was a major issue--which was why early discussions with Google quickly expanded beyond e-mail and came to include the full Google Apps for Education ecosystem, which includes e-mail service, content-management features, file sharing, peer-review features, and administrative controls. Oregon educators liked the full suite, and Nelson says that Google liked the idea of piloting a statewide rollout.

A Team Effort
According to Nelson, "Oregon has been successful in adopting Google Apps for Education because of the partnership we enjoy between the state, districts, and educational service districts."

Participation in the project is voluntary for each local district. When a new district wants to come on board, it requests a domain from the Virtual District. The local district signs a legal obligation, and the Virtual District then gives the local district access to cloud-based services through Oregon's Open Data Portal. "We provide the accounts, but the local district controls the administration of student and teacher accounts, and what services they have," Nelson explains.

Clarksville-Montgomery County's path to the cloud was also smoothed by having a team of ed tech professionals shared throughout the district. That team was key to the Office 365 rollout, especially because the platform was then brand-new to the market.

Last year, the district focused on training teachers in the summer, then implementing student accounts and e-mail service in the fall. Gooch says that rolling out the new products in stages has allowed teachers and students to develop a level of comfort before dealing with more complex functionality. For example, she says, "Phase one has focused on collaboration, e-mailing documents back and forth, content management, and attachments."

Training Early Adopters
Oregon's Google Apps implementation was a top-down affair. The Oregon School Boards Association sponsored training for superintendents first. "That got them excited to go back to their districts and ask for (Google Docs)," notes Corin Richards, an instructional technologist in the Willamette Education Service District (ESD).

Once superintendents were on board, the ESDs began training the most tech-savvy teachers in local school districts, kick-starting the process with a summer boot camp and one-day lunch-and-learn programs. According to Rachel Wente-Cheney, who was one of a team of five involved in training teachers to use the new system, "The early adopters grabbed onto Google Docs very quickly."

In addition to producing champions for Google Docs, the summer meetings led to the first-ever Google Summit, whose goals were to introduce educators to the Google Docs environment, to show how to best use its features to enhance curriculum, and to model best practices for student collaboration and peer review. While Google signed off on the event, it was sponsored entirely by Oregon educators. The idea has caught on, to say they least: Google Summits have since been held around the world.

Targeting the early adopters has also been the strategy in Clarksville-Montgomery County's move to Office 365. As a high school and middle school instructional technologist in the CMCSS, Donna Baker has been working with both teachers and students as they use the new e-mail system, and gives both passing grades so far.

Baker says teachers' reactions to the new cloud-based tools have varied. "We have had some teachers that have really embraced it; and we have some resistant teachers." The key to bringing teachers on board, she says, has been constant, clear communication about why the county school system is heading in this direction, and what the goals are. "We try to show the teachers that, with the right preparation up front, you're going to better engage the students. Once they see the responses of students--the quality of their work, and their excitement--the teachers will be hooked."

The district has offered plenty of training along the way, from intense summer sessions to constant reinforcement through professional development.

Buy-in and Savings
Nelson says that Oregon's move to Google Apps was planned as a "cost avoidance, rather than a cost savings." In any event, he says, the state expects to save approximately $1.5 million per year by not having to take out new or renew licenses on the Microsoft Office applications that it replaced with their free Google counterparts.

So far, 122 of the state's 206 school districts have adopted Google Apps. That number is up from 20 in the first year. Nelson says, "Collectively, we take a small amount of money appropriated by the Oregon Legislature ($900,000 per year) and serve a large population with Google Apps and Oregon's Cloud Portal services," Nelson says. "The portal serves 150,000 teachers and students in Oregon."

Inspiring buy-in has been a more personal matter in Tennessee. Using Office 365 is voluntary for each student, since it involves setting up a student e-mail account and profile. Tracey Hoover, an instructional technologist who divides her time among eight elementary schools in the CMCSS, spent much of her time in 2012 introducing the new e-mail system to students and bringing them to a level of parity. "Every student had had an e-mail account with ePals," Hoover says. "But their experience level varied from school to school."

Neil Michalenko, a systems administrator with CMCSS, says that so far the only "hiccup" in the e-mail changeover has affected Firefox users, who have to first log on to their individual device, then log in to their Office 365 accounts separately. With Internet Explorer, though, Office 365 accounts are set up to log in automatically when users turn on their computers.

Since elementary-school students are using the new e-mail system, Hoover has had to define to whom students can send e-mail and from whom they can receive it. The system is a closed one, enabling students to share with each other and with teachers, but not yet with the outside world. "We are using e-mail as a way to access information from one room to another," Hoover explains.

According to Wente-Cheney, districts are also using the new e-mail system to save money. In the first year of the Office 365 program, she says, "We had a couple of districts save up to $200,000 on e-mail upgrade savings," noting that those savings were in turn responsible for saving a couple of teaching positions.

What's Next?
Looking ahead, Gooch says she hopes the district will implement a 1-to-1 program at the ninth-grade level next year. "I'm fighting for the resources to do that right now," she says.

Meanwhile, in January, Gooch's team received training in Lync, Microsoft's unified communications platform that includes instant messaging, video, and voice capabilities. They are now training teachers to use it. In March, the district is adding SharePoint, a document-sharing, social media, and time-management platform, to its offerings. Once Lync and SharePoint training is complete, students and educators will have the ability to fully access and share all their content.

With Google Apps training finished, Oregon has moved to phase two: adopting Chrome notebooks. Google selected Astoria High School (in the Astoria School District) and Crook County Middle School (in the Crook County School District) as participants in its Chrome Notebook Pilot Program. Each student and teacher in the participating schools received a Chromebook to be used for learning both in and outside of school.

Crystal Greene, senior program and accountability officer in the Oregon Department of Education, explains that "many qualities stood out about the schools in Astoria and Crook (counties). Both were selected due to their strong district leadership; track records of adopting and sustaining classroom technology; strong district-ESD relationships, which enhance the implementation, adoption, and sustainability of technology programs; and their readiness to use Google Chrome notebooks in classroom instruction."

Oregon educators have made tremendous progress in adopting Google Apps for Education and putting them to work in the classroom. "We have a long way to go before we can say every teacher is very technology-efficient," Wente-Cheney says. "Still, we have some real rock stars."

The state will be counting on those rock stars to help it achieve its goals for this and next year: the move to a 1-to-1 environment. With a digital device in the hands of every student, teacher, and administrator, Oregon's cloud initiative will be one step closer to allowing everyone it serves to share their work anywhere, anytime, and with anyone.