Competition to provide free services to schools heightens with new pledge on Office 365
Anthony SalcitoAnthony Salcito: 'holistic collaboration'Microsoft has made a formal announcement that it is providing its online productivity suite, Office 365, free of charge to schools and higher education institutions in the UK. A statement from the company said this was to mark the one-year anniversary of Office 365.

The announcement includes an endorsement by Scotland's cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning Michael Russell: "The Scottish Government is pleased that Microsoft will deliver their Office 365 for Education for Scottish pupils and teachers through the updated Glow platform.

"It is very welcome that Microsoft share our commitment to using technology to enhance teaching and learning and to help all pupils reach their potential in school and beyond."

In June, Education Scotland awarded a £5.5 million contract to RM to provide a new stage of its Glow national education network based on Office 365 for 15 months. The decision caused consternation among many educators who felt that Google Apps would be the preferred choice by Education following a usability exercise among learners and teachers that was said to favour Google (see "Glow plight – pride of Scotland or 'zombie' network?"). 

This followed Google pulling out of Education Scotland's procurement process for Glow, which some observers felt was unnecessary for a free service. In a report in TES Scotland, Google's UK head of enterprise William Florance said that the procurement was "inconsistent with the company’s philosophy" and that it was not "in the best interests of Scottish pupils and teachers, or the councils that support them" (see "Google pulls out of Glow's next phase").

The controversy underlines the heightened competition behind ongoing moves to provide education with free cloud services.

Making the Office 365 announcement, Microsoft's vice-president of worldwide learning Anthony Salcito commented: “The cloud and online learning are key trends transforming education today. Office 365 for education delivers a holistic collaboration platform that will change the game.

“As schools face ever-tightening budgets and the pressure to innovate, we are offering enterprise quality technology for free that will modernise teaching practices and help prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Schools get free upgrade from live@edu to Office 365 in the summer

Office 365 for education is Microsoft's cloud offering for schools and represents a transition for its existing customers (users of its first iteration, live@edu, will have their service upgraded over the summer holidays). Office 365 is made up of web versions of its popular Office programs, OneNote, Microsoft Exchange Online, Microsoft SharePoint Online and Microsoft Lync Online. It provides students and teachers with facilities for email and sharing documents. (Microsoft's popular online storage space, Skydrive, is not part of Office 365 but it is freely available to all students and teachers on an individual basis.)

The Microsoft announcement says that users can communicate in various ways, from instant messaging to video chats, and that Office 365's enterprise-class tools help reduce IT costs. The press release declares that Microsoft is "delighted" with the Glow deal which will connect around 1.2 million users across Scotland, and it includes endorsements from a number of other education sources including:

  • “As Office 365 builds on the experience our students have already gained through using desktop Microsoft products, the transition has been extremely straightforward and hassle free.
    “One of the main drivers for changing to a cloud based product was the saving on storage and backup, we believe we saved in excess of £5,000 in capital expenditure for additional storage, whilst providing the students with an improved user experience, simply by moving the email accounts over to Office 365...
    “Calls for support from new students on setting up their email accounts significantly diminished thus releasing our small IT support team to concentrate on the more important issues related to the delivery of teaching and learning. With the cloud based storage and the removal of attachment size limits that were previously imposed internally, students have found it much easier to ‘move’ their work between college and home.”
    Eric Stone, IT services manager, East Norfolk Sixth Form College
  • “We had backups everywhere, and some users were mapping five drives just to make sure they didn’t lose anything. It was a mess. Now, we don’t have to do anything because it’s all backed up for us.”
    “I am really excited about SharePoint Online. The product is so good, it grows legs and takes off. Once you start using it, it can manage itself.”
    “We didn’t even bother costing [an on-premises solution] because we knew it was too expensive and were confident that the benefits of Office 365 would sell the product to our senior management team.”
    Brad Johnstone, IT service leader, Kilmarnock College

  • “The university selected Office 365 over Google Apps because it gives us a robust enterprise-class platform for developing a radical new approach to collaboration and communication that goes far beyond email.”
    Tom Mortimer, director of information and communication services, University of Dundee
  • “Implementing Office 365 is not just about what we can achieve today but also what we can deliver in the future"
    Lee Rose, ISLS associate director infrastructure, University of Westminster

Looking at the international scenario however, the scale of Education Scotland's Glow implementation of Office 365 is dwarfed by Microsoft's support for the India Council for Technical Education with 7.5 million users and the Catholic International Education Office with more than 4.5 million users in 102 countries. So the stakes for Microsoft and its rivals – namely Google – in this competition to provide 'free' services are very high, although at £5.5 million to RM for 15 months, Glow is hardly free.

Microsoft has an enormous education customer base, loyalty too, and professionals with expertise in Microsoft products are well embedded globally. That's why it's such a harder pitch for Google which has far, far fewer footholds in education. This is the first stage in the campaign though, and predictions are dangerous.  
Customers can sign up for a 30-day trial with Office 365 for education via 
University of Dundee case study