What free tools are these giants of the software industry providing to Education?
Both Microsoft and Google offer an evolving set of free online tools specifically for the education community. This week and next we'll take a brief look at these offerings. I imagine we'll find a good deal to like about both sets of applications, given the price and ease of a hosted (i.e. Internet based) tool set. Before starting I should add that Microsoft and Google are certainly not the only providers of free applications for education – in a brief look at collaboration tools back May I discussed a similar app suite from Zoho, but since Microsoft and Google are such behemoths of the software industry, there is particular interest in what they have to offer and how these offerings compare.
We'll start with Microsoft's Live@edu service.
Live@edu from Microsoft
It is my understanding that the Live@edu service started as a free email offering for students. Students can have a free mailbox with their educational institution's domain name, and they can keep it after they graduate. Today these email accounts provide 10 GB of storage and include calendaring, spam filtering, and other features. The Live@edu services have expanded considerably from the initial functionality offered, and now includes access to the following additional applications:
- Office Live Workspace – For collaborative document editing
- Windows Live Skydrive – Skydrive provides 25 GB of internet based file storage
- Windows Live Spaces – Provides a web ‘space' (a web page) where you can share information and ideas using documents, blogs, discussion groups and more
- A growing number of additional applications, such as Windows Live Messaging (Instant Messaging) and Windows Live Mobile (mobile devices access to email, messaging, etc.)
As might be expected, the offerings continue to evolve. One of the latest additions to these tools is a free plug in for the Moodle learning management system, providing access to many of the Live@edu services directly within the popular, open source Moodle application.
Microsoft's web site provides a wide variety of introductory information, with product overviews, video intros (some of which, frankly, border on creepy in their effort to be cute/goofy) and more. There are a handful of prerecorded webinars available providing information about creating a paperless classroom, deployment options, http://www.educationwebcasts.com/Webcast.aspx?i=3504, and so on. Microsoft also provides a bunch of case studies that offer insight into how various schools have leveraged these offerings. There are also MS-focused web based user communities, such as the Microsoft Education Partner Network (this link opens their EDU tech blogs page), that play a role in supporting and providing further insight into education related tools (and others) from Microsoft.
I spent a little time searching for negative reviews or bad press, to get a sense of any blatant dissatisfaction users may be experiencing with the platform, and found nothing other a few long outdated rants about early versions of some related products like MS Small Business Office Live and one “Microsoft's plot to take over the world” enthusiast! I would imagine a lot of users and administrators may be pretty content with the growing functionality of this free software. Does a free tool set like this ultimately compel some users to embrace other Microsoft applications, including licensed software, and stick with them after this initial exposure? Sure, and that's likely an important goal of Microsoft's business plan for providing the free tools in the first place. I wouldn't think that would really come as a big surprise to anyone.
I'd have to say that it certainly appears that Microsoft offers a pretty useful set of tools for education, hosted, at no cost – (talk about a ‘free ride') – email, document collaboration, 25 GB of space for file storage, and more, and the functionality and features just keep expanding. Of course, they're not the only one doing this sort of thing.
So, how about “the competition”?
I am looking forward to learning more about Google's Applications for Education and trying to get a sense of any obvious pros or cons versus what Microsoft is doing. I examined some of the many free offerings from Google back in May, but did not notice the “Google Apps – Education Edition” branding at that time, so I am assuming this is a somewhat recent approach being applied to some existing functionality (presumably to answer Microsoft's offerings). I know one obvious drawback to Google's free word processing and spreadsheet tools is the challenge of learning a new interface for the many users already familiar with the widely used MS Office tool suite, and it will be interesting to see how that ultimately impacts adoption of one tool versus the other. But again, this stuff is free, and it works, so how much can you really constructively complain about any of it?
I'd love to hear more from users of either of these tools – is your institution using any of the applications available in these free suites, or others? What has your experience been? I am interested in possibly tapping further into some of the functionality these free tools have to offer. I know at least one of our professors has trialed Windows Live Spaces, and I personally have found Google Docs to be quite useful because it is available from anywhere I can get a network connection. If you have experience with any of this on an institution-wide deployment scale, please let us know your impression of these software giants' free offerings for education. Thanks!