Why one school district chose Office 365 over Google Apps for 150,000 students

In-school Wi-Fi systems can improve collaboration and learning. Credit: Flickr by chris.corwin

When the Peel District School Board in Ontario, Canada, went live in September with its first-ever district-wide Wi-Fi system for its 150,000 students and 15,000 staff members, it was just the start of big changes.

Also launched at the time was a district-wide Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative, as well as an invitation to students to get free use of the web-based Microsoft Office 365 suite for their studies.

"The school district is transforming with the whole move to BYOD and with the embracing of technology," said Mark Keating, the CIO of Canada's second-largest school district, which includes 235 schools in Brampton, Caledon, and Mississauga in Canada's Ontario province. "It's just changed the way we are teaching and learning."

Goal: Increase collaboration among students and teachers

The key driver for these changes was a desire to increase collaboration among the students and teachers, while building a database of institutional knowledge that students can refer to whenever they need answers to their questions, said Keating.

"Kids live in a social world and there was a real disconnect from the schools," said Keating. "They're moving a thousand miles a minute away from what's happening in school. We wanted to bring social media into the classroom in some way."

Because Office 365 includes chat, wikis, bulletin boards and other social media features that be used by the students within the safer confines of their personalized Peel school district log-ins, they can share information and learn together without the worries of open social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, said Keating. 

Also, if students share lesson information outside of the new internal school district social network, those posts are lost to the other students in the schools. If they are posted within the school district's internal social network, those posts and their information can be saved and made available for searching and re-use by other students instead of starting from scratch.

Many of these social collaboration features are delivered through SharePoint Online, one of the components of the Office 365 solution.

"We wanted to have higher student engagement," said Keating. "When we actually teach and create content inside Office 365 we can retain it. It's not lost. And students can help students. They can ask a question and another student can answer it. It's a collaborative environment and that's the way the students live [today]."

All students and staff log into the system through their individual schools, but they can communicate or search for information from all the schools in the district. After logging in with their personalized single sign-on, students can view the classes they are enrolled in, their assignments and lessons and the wide array of social media capabilities they have at their disposal.

"The key is that for this to work anywhere you really have to make it seamless," he said. "Single sign-on is key and making it a transparent transaction for users is key." To help accomplish those goals, the IT team synchronized their local Active Directory implementations with the Microsoft-hosted Office 365 services.

Students and teachers are able to access Office 365 using most devices and operating systems, from Windows tablets and laptops to Apple iPads and more, said Keating. The district guarantees that any device will be able to connect to the Wi-Fi system, but the district doesn't provide technical support to users for their devices.

Why not Google Apps?

Peel got free versions of Office desktop apps for students under Microsoft's recently announced Student Advantage program, which is for schools that already pay for staff licenses for Office 365 ProPlus or Office Professional Plus. (The district has an enterprise licensing agreement with Microsoft for Office for its 15,000 teachers and staff.) 

But it actually wasn't the prime motivator for choosing it over competitors such as Google Apps.

"We would get Google Apps for free as well for education, so it's a level playing field. Companies want people to use these products at an early age," said Keating, so they often make them available to schools for free.

"We thought Office 365 was a richer offering now because it has an Office suite as well as a new feed, chat, blogging, and more," said Keating. "It's not about the free Office 365," he said. "It's all about the social aspects of Office 365" and the availability of those features in a safer, closed environment for the district's students.

"A new version of Google Apps for Education is coming out very shortly and we'll see what they have in the future," which could later mean a switch to Google Apps again. "We're a service industry so whatever our users demand, we'll use. If our users say they want Google Apps later, then that's the way we want to go."

Many staff members inside the district had previously been using Google Apps and will still be able to use that product if they desire, according to Keating. "The dominant player in the district before choosing Office 365 this time was Google Apps," he said. "There are still pockets" of users that continue to use it.

A new Wi-Fi network made it all possible

The Wi-Fi and BYOD initiatives went live on Sept. 4. It took about five weeks for the district's 180 IT staff members to bring it all together, said Keating. The Wi-Fi system was built by the district using Cisco hardware.

Because the district didn't have a large-scale Wi-Fi system previously, setting up a cloud deployment like this would have been impossible in the past, he said. "So with wireless, that's where the Office 365 offering came in," said Keating. So far, about 60,000 devices are connecting to the Wi-Fi system each week, with about 3,000 new devices coming online weekly, which Keating calls "aggressive adoption." The capacity of the system presently is about 180,000 devices.  

"You can imagine what's going to happen after Christmas when everyone opens up their gifts" and new devices are brought in after the holidays, he added.

The biggest success so far is that the students are engaging more as a result of BYOD, the Wi-Fi network and the social media features of Office 365, said Keating.

"There's a very powerful social element that kids love" inside the district today, he said. "It's a socially immersive environment and that's what's really attractive to them. They're chatting about classes, homework, football and more. It's a social environment as well. And what's exciting about this is that it's got a whole social world, but it's a protected world. The whole notion of cyber bullying goes away because this is somewhat of a monitored environment."

That's what makes it so exciting for the school district, he said. "Getting Twitter-like and Facebook-like features in a controlled environment, that's really the game changer."

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