Many schools, colleges and universities around the world are considering a move to cloud-based systems and there are certainly many benefits to this in terms of teaching and learning. Resources can more easily be shared among an individual institution's staff and among the wider education community. Students can access documents remotely and collaborate on group projects in real time. It can also streamline administration and so save money
Since Google apps became available in 2006, Microsoft and Google have been in competition for the education market, despite the fact that it represents little in the way of financial reward for either corporation. Google apps for education is free and so is Microsoft's current service, Live@edu, which will be transitioned to Office 365 for education this summer without charge. The benefit to both corporations lies in the fact that they are hooking in users at a young age, who are then likely to continue using the software in their future careers and business ventures.
At present, Microsoft is leading the race for dominance of the education sector. There are currently more than 22 million users of Live@edu worldwide, whereas Google Apps for education has in the region of 16 million users. Furthermore, in May 2012, Microsoft entered into a three-year agreement with the Catholic International Education Office (OIED) to provide Office 365 for education to Catholic schools around the world. Initial moves will mean the package is made available to around 4.5 million students, but there is the potential for Office 365 to be rolled out to the 43 million students who make up the OIED worldwide school community.
This followed shortly after the announcement that the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) will adopt Microsoft's Live@edu service making it available to more than seven million students across the country, a deal which makes the AICTE Microsoft's largest cloud customer to date.
So what do the packages include?
Office 365 for education
Email through Exchange Online provides a 25GB mailbox for each user, enabling them to retrieve mail, calendars and contacts from anywhere in the world, and send attachments up to 25MB.
SharePoint Online provides templates that can be used to create class sites where teachers can upload resources, lesson content and homework assignments. Teachers can create lesson plans with integrated images, audio and video. During lessons, they can transmit content to students' devices as they write it, which allows students to focus on the lesson rather than spending time copying things down.
It also promotes collaboration between teachers by acting as a hub where they can share ideas and resources, and track topics that interest them. Students can also collaborate on documents and group projects in real time.
When it comes to marking, teachers can comment on a student's piece of work and track changes and developments over time, which helps provide a record of progress. Students' grades and attendance can also be recorded in SharePoint and this can then be accessed by the student and their parents.
Lync Online provides instant messaging, voice chat, and video conferencing, facilitating communication and allowing schools to benefit from contact with others all over the world.
Google Apps for Education
Google provides a similar suite to Microsoft, with schools able to mix and match from the following Google services;
Google Talk enables teachers and students to call or instant message contacts anywhere in the world. Google Calendar enables calendar sharing between staff, students and parents for more efficient organisation of meetings and events.
Google Docs is similar to the Office 365 web applications and enables users to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations and collaborate on them in real time from different locations.
Google Sites is similar to Office 365 SharePoint, and provides a simple way to make and edit a class site including documents, photographs and images.
Google Video for education is a video hosting and sharing service which enables schools to use video for internal and external communication and collaboration.
Which is best?
Given that the offers are quite similar, it may come down to personal preference. However, there are some factors that may influence the decision of institutions.
Some users have complained that Google Docs could be easier to operate, especially for those lacking technical expertise. Another frequent request has been more offline capability, since lack of an Internet connection can severely curtail use.
Other Google deficiencies have been highlighted in an explanatory graphic recently put out by Microsoft. There are formatting issues, and content such as graphics can be lost when documents are uploaded to Google Apps. However, it must be pointed out that this is only a problem when documents are created in MS Word and not when they are created in Open Document Format. Google Docs is also incompatible with screen reading technologies that are vital for visually impaired users, and it does not provide the same facility for tracking changes in documents and students' work as Office 365.
The familiarity of the Office suite may also be a factor for many people, and there is the certainty that it will be compatible with existing content generated by Microsoft software. There may also be more faith in Microsoft when it comes to security, especially in Europe as the data is hosted in Amsterdam and Dublin.
However, all this does not necessarily mean that Microsoft has a clear run at the education market. Many schools have already invested considerable time and effort in creating their own Virtual Learning Environments and may feel reluctant to abandon their tailored systems for SharePoint, which is a more generic service. Also, there are still a great many educational institutions yet to make up their minds so there is time for Google to address issues with its service. Which of the two providers will ultimately come out on top is yet to be seen.