You are here


Google and Microsoft Go to School

The computing giants compete to provide powerful online applications to school districts—for free.

Until this year, the Oregon Department of Education was running a central portal of thousands of learning resources that required all teachers and students in the state to have an e-mail address as authentication for security purposes. Because many districts didn't offer student e-mail, however, the learning materials were not available to everyone.

Steve Nelson, chief IT strategist for the department, needed a new e-mail service that would provide security and privacy to users, enable compliance with federal regulators, and integrate with course management and learning management systems. Nelson found what he was looking for with Google Apps Education Edition. "Other solutions were less secure, mature and reliable," he explains. "Nothing compared with Google's complete suite."

In April, Oregon became the first state to offer the Google Apps Education Edition to all its public schools when it signed an agreement with the company to make the tools available to any district in the state that requested a Google domain. Of the 221 Oregon districts, 68 signed up within the first two months. "We'll continue to add more. It's a combination of cost avoidance and increased functionality. We can't build what Google can," says Nelson.

Kentucky Chooses Microsoft

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Department of Education wanted an improved capability to provide e-mail services to the more than 700,000 students, teachers and staff in the state's 174 districts. School users in the state were asking for more e-mail storage, as well as Web 2.0 technologies, and the department needed a way to integrate its active directory infrastructure with its hosted e-mail offering.


Chuck Austin, who spearheaded the search for vendors in the department's office of education technology, selected Microsoft's Live@edu, and the state agency rolled it out over one May weekend. It was one of the largest and quickest deployments of the product, and the "largest and fastest cloud computing implementation of all time," according to Microsoft. Its features were "far greater than anything we could have afforded to offer to every school in Kentucky," says Terry Holliday, Kentucky's state commissioner of education.

Austin says Google could have increased e-mail capacity just as well as Microsoft, and the collaborative features both offered were "a wash." He adds, "They both have some really mature, robust offerings in that space."

A key factor in Microsoft's favor was that the Kentucky state education agency already was using Microsoft Exchange, and its active directory is a Microsoft product. "We already had an investment in Microsoft infrastructure," Austin says.

Free at Last

But perhaps most appealing for both states, the powerful applications they chose to implement are free. Nelson estimates that using Google will save the Oregon DOE some $1.5 million in hardware and software licensing and purchasing fees. Austin says Kentucky expects to save $6.3 million in operational costs over four years by using Live@edu.

Because we sell to industries and commercial entities, we're able to offer Live@edu free for education. Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's vice president of worldwide education

The cost savings are appealing to other states as well: in late June, Colorado and Iowa announced similar statewide agreements with Google to make the company's applications available to the states' combined 3,000 schools. The Google Apps Education Edition is the same suite that Google offers universities and businesses and that the company uses internally, according to Jaime Casap, Google Apps education manager.

The applications in the suite include Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Video and Google Sites, as well as administrative tools, customer support and access to APIs to integrate Google Apps with existing IT systems. But while businesses have to pay for these products, Google doesn't charge education users. The tools come with no ads, and K12 users get free message security, enabling districts to provide stronger e-mail filters for students, Casap says.

The Education Edition is free to districts, he says, because Google cares about education, but also because the company wants to create future customers. "Google has always had an education look and feel to it," he says, citing the company's start as a research project by two Ph.D. students at Stanford University. "Our core values are around making sure we organize the world of information and make it accessible and useful, so it makes sense to make these tools free in education," Casap declares.

He is hopeful that K12 students who get used to Google Apps will continue to use it. "We are building users for life," he explains. Features of Google Apps for education include 7 GB of e-mail storage per user and an integrated calendar that can schedule use of resources like lab rooms or laptop carts, and because all applications are Web-based and accessible from any computer with an Internet connection, students can work outside the classroom.

Similarly, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's vice president of worldwide education, cites the company's "rich commitment to education" that starts with founder Bill Gates, who "had a dream when he started Microsoft to enable everyone to use technology," Salcito says. The company's core philosophy is to "help individuals reach their potential. That's what classroom teachers do every day," he adds. "Because we sell to industries and commercial entities, we're able to offer Live@edu free for education."

Accessible through popular Web browsers for Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems, Live@edu features e-mail with a 10 GB inbox per user, calendars, 25 GB of additional file storage per user, document sharing, instant messaging, video chat and mobile e-mail. "Some of the largest companies in the world use this platform," says Salcito.

Saving Money

Casap cannot provide a count of districts that are using Google Apps but says he is working with "a ton." Salcito says more than 10,000 schools in more than 130 countries have enrolled with Live@edu, serving 11 million people worldwide.

Administrators using the tools say getting them for free is a significant attraction. "It's too good to be true. I keep waiting for an invoice to come in the mail," says Scot Graden, superintendent of the Saline (Mich.) Area Schools.

Our core values are around making sure we organize the world of information and make it accessible and useful, so it makes sense to make these tools free in education. Jaime Casap, Google Apps education manager

Since the district transitioned to Google Apps in June 2008, it has saved $400,000 by not renewing the contract it used previously and by reducing e-mail maintenance, hardware upgrades and ongoing IT support, by not having to specify browsers or operating systems, for example. The savings allowed Saline to cut one and a half full-time positions from its technology department.

Matthew Constant, director of instructional technology in the Daviess County Public Schools, one of the Kentucky districts implementing Live@edu, says he cannot estimate how much his district will save, but he expects to reduce costs for paper, network storage and electricity to power servers the district no longer needs. Constant says Daviess County administrators and teachers are excited about the collaborative tools they are getting with Live@ edu that will facilitate students' interactivity with their teachers and each other. All 3,100 high school students in the district have laptops, and Constant says, "We'll be able to teach them how to collaborate in the online space," he says.

The Saline district chose Google Apps initially for its e-mail function after it experienced difficulties managing and storing e-mail for its 600 faculty and staff. But administrators soon found other applications useful. Teachers and staff use Google Docs, for example, to create administrative agendas that can be presented at meetings and then saved as a single document updated in real time, or to conduct quick parent surveys or get teacher feedback from training sessions. "The use of Google Docs is almost ubiquitous in our district now," Graden declares.

Last January, Saline established e-mail accounts for all its 3,200 students in grades 5-12, and administrators also now require all staff members to use a Google Site for their home pages.

Starting Gradually

In the Clarkstown (N.Y.) Central School District, which previously used a patchwork of unrelated applications, both network and Internet-based, "the last year and a half with Google Apps has been transformational," asserts John Krouskoff, director of instructional technology. Google's suite "has become a cornerstone of practically everything we do because of the flexibility that is built into it," adds John Calvert, the district's technology learning facilitator.

Clarkstown's objectives were to create a collaborative and accessible curriculum planning system, reduce its use of paper, and empower teachers and students with 21st-century resources. The district began by introducing teachers to the Google Calendar "because teachers understand calendars and could adapt it to their own uses very comfortably," Calvert says.

Then, using Google Sites, the district's IT team built resource sites for every curriculum area within each grade level, organized by unit. Teachers started creating unit plans and other resources collaboratively in Google Docs and sharing them as Web pages with their colleagues. "For the first time in the history of the district, we built a platform for sharing work, ideas and professional development across the district."

All students in grades 6-12 in the Astoria (Ore.) School District are using Google Apps this year, including Google Sites for creating online portfolios that hold all of their schoolwork. Technology director Scott Holmstedt, who created a template for the portfolios, explains that each student's personal site will grow so that, by their high school graduations, students will have a documented collection of their academic accomplishments, such as research papers, awards and records of their community involvement. The portfolios will be easily viewable online by parents, teachers and college admissions officers.

Training Teachers

Statewide in Oregon and in districts elsewhere that adopt either Google Apps or Live@edu, professional development of faculty and staff is key to making the most of the programs. "It's the teachers I'm most concerned about," says Nelson, noting that state authorities in Oregon's four educational service districts train teachers both personally in group sessions and remotely online.

Google also offers a Teacher Academy that gives 50 participants at a time handson experience with Google's products and other technologies in an intensive, and free, one-day program. Upon completion, Academy participants become "Google Certified Teachers" who can share what they learn with their colleagues. Google is currently developing training materials for the Google Apps Education Edition that administrators will be able to use to train teachers in their districts.

Meanwhile, administrators in districts that are using Google and Microsoft say they find few downsides. Google Apps are guaranteed to be available "at least 99.9 percent of the time," according to a company spokesperson. Should they need it, Google offers an online Apps Administrators Help Center, as well as phone and priority e-mail tech support for Education Edition customers.

Austin says the Kentucky Department of Education has a tech support agreement with Microsoft that allows the agency's technology specialists to work directly with Microsoft engineers and product teams if it has problems. He cites the value of having "a single point of accountability" for support. "You never want to be in a situation where you have multiple moving pieces in a solution and different vendors have ownership, because when something goes wrong, they all point to each other and say, 'It's their problem.'" Whether they are using Google or Microsoft, administrators are confident that the benefits of each validate the decisions they have made.

"Google Apps has changed our culture from the technology standpoint, and given the current economic times, it has been a lifesaver," asserts Graden. "We're really excited about the collaborative tools that are coming on board here with Live@edu," declares Constant. But, administrators acknowledge that it isn't easy to choose between the technology titans when considering online applications to implement in a district. "It's an awesome battle between them for the K12 market," says Austin.

Nelson agrees. "They are doing equally great things. The competition between them is extraordinary."

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.