School eMail, Websites Hit by eRate Changes

For instance, Google Apps for Education includes free school Gmail accounts hosted by Google, along with 30 gigabytes of shared Google Drive storage per user. Microsoft Office 365 Education includes a free plan (called A2) that includes Microsoft-hosted eMail accounts with up to 50 GB of storage per user.

“Microsoft has long been a committed partner to schools in helping implement technology tools that address their unique needs and meet budget requirements,” said Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s U.S. education business. “Our Office 365 Education A2 plan has been available to education institutions for free since 2012, regardless of their eRate-eligible discount level.”

Many schools have had great success using the free eMail services from these companies.

“Being a Google Apps [user] since 2007 has provided our district quite a few benefits—both in terms of cost and … learning,” said Hank Thiele, assistant superintendent for technology and learning at the Maine 207 Schools in Park Ridge, Ill., during an eSchool News webinar earlier this year.

Thiele estimated his district has saved more than $780,000 over the last six years by using Google’s free hosted Gmail for students and staff.

Microsoft and Google also offer free website hosting for schools, as do a number of other companies—although most of these tools are more appropriate for teachers and students to create class and group websites than for schools or districts to create comprehensive sites.

While free or low-cost options for school eMail and website hosting do exist, schools already locked into contracts with service providers could face large out-of-pocket expenses next year. And there are limitations to what these free services include, making them unsuitable for many schools’ needs.

In a letter to the FCC last fall, John Carbrey, chief technology officer for school website provider Intrafinity Inc. (operating as SharpSchool), noted that free website hosting services often lack features such as sufficient data privacy and security measures, or live support. Their legal or contractual terms “may be subject to change at any time, with or without user notice,” he wrote—and most of these services are not geared toward enterprise-level use.

“These apparently free services are never entirely so, whether the additional cost comes by way of subsequent charges by the ‘free’ service provider, onerous or inappropriate conditions of service, or through the additional staffing and other resources that must be provided by the school in order to support and administer these ‘free’ tools,” Carbrey wrote.

Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish Schools in Lake Charles, La., agreed.

Abshire said she understands the rationale behind the FCC’s decision. But “for schools to be able to function, we’ve got to be able to … conduct business,” she said. And that means having a robust web presence.

(Next page: Why Abshire thinks it’s ‘laughable’ that school districts can rely on free website services)

Dennis Pierce

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