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Microsoft offers free cloud-based Office software for schools

With the announcement, Microsoft could strike a blow against Google, which has offered a similar suite of free online tools for schools.

In a back-to-school move that could be the large company equivalent of distinguishing who has the cooler Trapper Keeper, Microsoft has released a free version of Office 365 for education, a cloud-based suite of tools that includes Office applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, as well as Exchange Online for eMail, SharePoint Online for collaborating, and more—rivaling Google’s education cloud.

Office 365, which Microsoft introduced last year, now is available free of charge to students, teachers, and faculty, the company said. Upgraded packages are available for a fee, including unlimited eMail storage, archiving, and hosted voice mail support.

With the announcement, Microsoft likely aims to strike a blow against Google, which has offered a similar suite of free online tools for schools. Google Apps for Education have been adopted statewide in Oregon, Iowa, and Colorado, among other states, as a means of enabling students and teachers to share documents and collaborate on projects online.

According to Anthony Salcito, vice president of education for Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector business, whom eSchool News interviewed during the 2012 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego, Office 365 is building off of Live@edu as the “next evolution” to provide a better experience for communication, collaboration, and productivity.

“We’re combining the security and richness of Microsoft with what the cloud can do natively,” said Salcito in the interview. “The cloud and online learning are key trends and opportunities to transform education today, and as schools face shrinking budgets and the pressure to innovate, we’re offering enterprise-quality technology for free that will modernize teaching practices and help prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Live@edu, which also was free to schools, included access to Office Live Workspace, a service for storing and sharing documents online. Certain functionalities were tied to a browser plug-in called Silverlight, though, which reduced the portability of the service when compared to other providers.

To access Live@edu workspaces directly from Office applications, users had to install an Office Live Update. Files couldn’t be edited from within a workspace, but clicking on “edit” would open them up in Microsoft Office.

In comparison, Office 365 offers a more robust computing experience, Salcito said. Giving students access to many Office-grade tools free of charge will allow them to use the tools so many companies use today, he said—providing them a “leg up” in the job market.

“Students must be more than consumers. They need to be creators. They need to know how to communicate and collaborate with others,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “Office 365 is … used all over the world, and companies are demanding expertise in [these tools]. And [now] there is no compromise for going to the cloud with Microsoft. The experience and features that you expect on the desktop and offline are also there in the cloud. Schools can connect all devices to the cloud, and every student and teacher regardless of location, to realize the potential of online learning.”

It’s not just students whom Microsoft hopes to target with its latest release. Teachers also will be able to take advantage of different collaborative tools that can help with curriculum enhancement, the company says.

According to Salcito, teachers can create curriculum, record lectures, and publish them to online class sites in the cloud, where students are able to view, open, produce, edit, and share their work.

“Office 365 provides new ways to extend classroom teaching time. … Students can engage in ad-hoc instant messaging or video chats to collaborate on class projects in real time, regardless of where they’re working or on what device,” said Salcito. “They can create documents with Office Web Apps, share class notes by synchronizing OneNote notebooks, and create digital portfolios.”

And schools can save on IT administration costs, says Microsoft, by counting on the company to manage routine tasks such as applying server updates and software upgrades. The demands on school data centers will decrease, and with 25GB mailboxes, users won’t be forced to purge files.

“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 eMail and calendar support,” said Ted Dodds, chief information officer for Cornell University. “The shift to the cloud allows us to focus more directly on our core missions related to education, research, and outreach.”

The feature Salcito says he’s most excited about is Lync Online, which will enable teachers to create personalized learning experiences. Already, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the National University of Ireland, Galway are using Office 365 to create virtual teams and prepare students to be more effective in the business world.

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