Two years later: My brightening review of Microsoft Office 365 for Education

I was invited to the GMail and the Google Apps betas sometime in 2003 or 2004.  Take a minute for that to sink in…  Before Google Apps had taken over many school districts and before my experience as a New Tech Network teacher (where Echo and Google Apps ruled), I had grown up using arguably one of the best email experiences yet developed.  So, when I decided to take the plunge into my district’s Office 365 experience, I was a little hesitant because of my high expectations for online storage (thanks to Dropbox) and live collaboration (thanks to GoogleDrive).  Over a year, however, I have to say that I have been witness to some genuine efforts my Microsoft and its new leadership to make its online offerings more dynamic.

OneDrive logo iconMy first hesitations (and still my biggest) is that despite having unlimited storage, the Office 365 for Business accounts issued to schools do not have an OneDrive downloads.  (This is still in development, and I’m actually using the OneDrive for Business Mac Preview right now to migrate my Google Drive contents over.  Thanks to the Google Takeout, I’m actually able to convert and migrate my Google Docs over to OneDrive.)  Techies should take note that Microsoft put considerable resources into keeping the OneDrive personal and OneDrive for Business experiences separate for far too long.  Most of that has to do with the fact that OneDrive for Business is operated on Sharepoint technology that just cannot keep up with the features that Dropbox and Google are throwing into their storage offerings.  Some tips at a recent conference indicated that Microsoft is streamlining at least the OneDrive for Business storage options to look and act much more like the personal OneDrive experience.  Why is this important to educators?  For one, educators and our students are more on the move than ever before.  As mobile technology becomes a standard for Americans, we need to be able to take our lesson materials with us, no matter the device.

A few years ago, I documented in a research article how the online Word experience was synchronous but not live at the time.  This prevented collaboration in Microsoft-powered classrooms, where students’ face-to-face experience is timed by our industrial-era bell schedules.  At an ISTE presentation a year ago, I sat through a Microsoft-sponsored demo where the rep said “In the real world, no one is actually working on a document at the same time.”  …What?!  I almost flew out of my seat when I heard this, because this was a basic technology feature of Google Docs that was used almost daily in my classroom.  Viewing authors work in media res on a Google Doc allowed teachers to see progress of documents as students were writing and allowed students to see ideas and make uniquely collaborative narratives, scripts or informational texts.  Have you ever tried watching 30 students write in front of screens, Mr. Microsoft Trainer, sir?  Well, that is often a feature that I used for classroom management in my Google classroom to monitor student progress.  How often do curriculum maps change and how valuable is face-to-face time when looking at documents that determine the future learning of your students, Mr. Microsoft Trainer, sir?  Please do not dismiss the idea that live synchronous contribution was not the best way to go.  Fortunately, Microsoft upgraded the Word online experience to show the cursor of coauthors moving about and writing on a document in media res.  </end soapbox moment>

OneNote logo iconMicrosoft does offer one service that Google just has not touched: OneNote.  Now, the research community is still out on whether or not electronic notes are better or worse for students.  While academics research, Microsoft is developing software that is fully capable of digitally capturing expectations of what students and teachers have been putting into binders for years.  My background in AVID tells me that notes are only as good as what you do with them.  OneNote’s toolbar on both Windows and Mac versions help students visually mark up their notes as they take them.  Oh, and they are backed up and fully syncable with their smartphone or tablet apps, so students can have notes on the go in the cloud.  OneNote Class Notebooks is where I’ll be focusing my energy this year in professional development because of how easy it is to disseminate information, check on student notes and also give feedback while preserving a wiki-like feel.  OneNote notebooks are also great places to collaborate on curriculum, keep living faculty/student handbooks and document work in professional learning community (PLC) teams.  Point goes to Microsoft here because Evernote is the closest competitor in this arena, and their pricing structure just keep changing, making Evernote less worth the hassle of signing up students for free accounts.

Two years into my full commitment to Office 365, Microsoft seems to be realizing that education environments are looking much more at their platforms first and then their devices, which did not used to be the case.  Bang for your buck used to rule, and labs were assumed to be one platform.  Because of the SAMR model and emphasis on 21st century skills (look than at the Profile of a South Carolina Graduate), technologists take a much longer look into the tasks that can be performed by the user, not just the administration of software or logistics involved in setting up hardware.  Increasingly, as instructionally-minded leaders get involved in technology acquisition, they equip their students for what can be done by students with technology tools.  If Microsoft does not provide feature parity across platforms, instructionally-minded technologists would be smart to ignore their suite.  Fortunately, three big feature upgrades in two years might be demonstrating that Microsoft is steering a new course.  Keep listening, Microsoft, because teachers still will have much to say as they add more devices to their personal and work lives.


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