ePals users will have access to online versions of popular Microsoft software within a secure learning environment.

ePals users will have access to online versions of popular Microsoft software within a secure learning environment.

In a move that could spur more widespread use of online tools for communicating and collaborating within K-12 education, software giant Microsoft Corp. has announced a strategic partnership with ePals, which provides a safe online platform for teachers and students to share information and work together on projects.

Under the terms of the alliance, ePals this fall will add Microsoft’s Live@edu eMail and calendaring software to the services it already provides for some 600,000 educators in 200 countries through its ePals Learning Space platform.

Sometime early next year, ePals users also will have access to the web-based versions of Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint within the ePals Learning Space, the two companies say.

The deal seems to make sense for both companies, and it could benefit schools as well.

ePals customers will be able to take advantage of popular productivity software and can access their Word documents and other files—all from within a single, shared, and secure education technology environment.

“Students and teachers have wanted their documents to reside seamlessly alongside them,” said ePals co-founder Tim DiScipio. He added that his company’s partnership with Microsoft is “a real solution to eliminate … web sprawl,” which occurs when internet users’ documents are hosted across multiple platforms and systems.

For Microsoft, the deal helps it address several key concerns—such as security—that have kept some educators from using “cloud-based” software, which is hosted on a company’s servers and delivered to users via the internet.

“ePals will help take us to the next level [in making] the cloud come alive in a learning scenario,” said Anthony Salcito, vice president of worldwide education for Microsoft.

The idea behind the partnership, Salcito said, is that “schools aren’t risking their safety and security, or compromising on the kind of software they’re using, when they’re using the cloud.”

Integrating Microsoft software into the ePals Learning Space will involve adding the kinds of policy-management tools to these applications that have made ePals so popular among educators, the two companies said. These tools let educators define features such as document workflow and permissions, giving them more control over the educational environment.

For instance, a teacher using the online version of Microsoft Word within the ePals Learning Space could set up a policy rule specifying that when a document is created, it should be routed automatically to another student for his or her peer review, then passed along to the teacher for grading. Or, the teacher could specify that he or she must review any documents before they can be eMailed or shared with another class across the globe.

Adding these kinds of policy-management capabilities to Microsoft’s ubiquitous productivity software could facilitate communication and collaboration in K-12 classrooms dramatically, DiScipio said.

He estimated that fewer than 10 percent of schools in the United States have given their students tools for communicating and collaborating online—but that could change if educators and students are able to store and share online resources more securely and efficiently.

And that, in turn, could help foster the kinds of 21st-century skills that today’s employers say they’re looking for when hiring. It also could help increase the amount of writing that students do in class.

DiScipio said he has heard from several ePals customers who say their students are writing much more often now that they’re using collaborative tools in their classes. “This is one of the truly amazing bi-products” of implementing a digital collaborative environment in education, he said.

The ePals Learning Space provides safe virtual workspaces for schools that include eMail, blogs, wikis, shared portfolios, media galleries, and language translation in 35 languages.

Live@edu is a free suite of online tools, based on the familiar Office applications many people use today, that give users access to information anytime, anywhere, from any desktop, laptop, major web browser, or mobile device. Live@edu is Microsoft’s answer to Google Apps for Education, and its partnership with ePals could give Microsoft a boost in its competition with Google for school users of web applications.

Integrating Live@edu into its platform will bring additional capabilities to ePals’ SchoolMail and other services, ePals says—such as a familiar Outlook interface on both mobile phones and computers, as well as dynamic distribution groups.

From an IT perspective, the solution will allow schools to set up sophisticated policy-based controls that regulate which students and teachers can eMail and share information with each other for security purposes, and what level of filtering and monitoring is desired for sent and received eMail.