Do Colleges Benefit from Free Access to Microsoft Office 365?
Thinking about cloud computing possibilities for collegiate administrative or teaching and learning needs? If so, those considerations just got a little more interesting.
Why? Because Microsoft now offers the basic version of its Office 365 suite for free to higher and K–12 education organizations.
Some higher education adopters show the potential of this cloud-based version of the Microsoft productivity suite: from campuses within the same system supporting distance learning via video conferencing to an e-mail rollout of 25 gigabytes per account. These early efforts find colleges saving money while also being able to offer students access to Office 365's array of productivity tools.
Kenneth Pierce, vice provost for IT and CIO at the University of Texas at San Antonio, figures the move to 365's Exchange Online will save the university about $400,000 over the next three years. Working with Microsoft to take over hosting of the UT San Antonio mail system, Pierce and the University of Texas System negotiated an agreement to complete the upgrade at no cost. The migration of more than 8,000 San Antonio e-mail accounts began recently and will be completed this year, Pierce says.
The move to the managed environment "will take care of a lot of issues we had with managing messaging and litigation holds," he says. "We won't have an onsite implementation, so we're getting the full benefit in terms of time and money we're saving."
Looking ahead, Pierce expects UT San Antonio will deploy other 365 capabilities. He views the suite as an avenue for online interactions with other UT campuses too. "We'll be able to integrate busy schedules, not only for ourselves but throughout the UT system in a federated manner," he says.
Services as Needed
Office 365 takes advantage of the cloud to host the core components and files created by users, saving space on server and client systems while also reducing the management burden on the IT department. Microsoft describes this online Office version as collaboration-friendly because of its messaging, sharing and conferencing capabilities. In addition to Exchange Online, 365's components include Lync Online, SharePoint Online and Office Web Apps.
Microsoft expects this free version of 365 to have great appeal in the 24x7 college environment. After all, many students work day and night (as do many professors and instructors). With 365, campus users likely wouldn't need the IT help desk to set up online meetings for them, for instance. Additionally, students and faculty members alike could make changes at any time to documents stored in the cloud.
Cameron Evans, national technology officer for Microsoft Education, acknowledges the on-campus benefits. But 365's real potential, he says, lies in giving students, faculty and staff the ability to collaborate with their counterparts across the state or in different states or even different countries. For example, a researcher or professor using SharePoint could search for people studying a similar topic and then create a community of practice.
4 billion Numbers of users Office 365 reaches worldwide
The upfront cost is certainly right. "Free is a good price," says James Albert, associate provost and CIO at Georgia State University. Like UT San Antonio, the Georgia State IT team also had been considering a migration to Exchange. "To go to Exchange, we wondered if we'd have to host it ourselves or if we would need to totally outsource it," Albert says. "This created a great situation."
The e-mail move to the cloud took about a month and meant all users saw their individual mailbox capacity jump from 300 megabytes to 25GB.
Another advantage for staff is the calendaring feature, Albert says. "It allows for invites internally, and it means users can place and accept invites without going through assistants."
From the get-go, the University of Washington's Kelli Trosvig says 365's calendaring tools intrigued her. Faculty and staff have long sought access to "a ubiquitous calendaring solution that will reduce collaboration friction," says Trosvig, UW's vice president for IT and CIO.
UW's IT team also intends to use the suite to provide hosted services to School of Medicine customers, which was tricky because of the school's Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act compliance requirements, Trosvig explains. But Microsoft has done the appropriate security and compliance work up front, so the university negotiated a special agreement for the School of Medicine services, she says.
"UW is in the process of transitioning its current Microsoft Live@edu users to the new Office 365 environment," Trosvig says. "Once that transition is complete, the focus will begin on moving local Exchange users to the new Office 365 environment."
As 365 matures and UW finalizes the transition of its e-mail service to Exchange Online, the university will look into using other products in the suite. "We see Office 365 as a way to reduce costs, both for UW Information Technology and campus users of Exchange," Trosvig says.
At Gonzaga University, CIO Chris Gill decided that 365 could ease the collaboration needs of the university's faculty search committees and institution accreditation teams. "You can move forward without having to pick up the phone and call each other about storing documents, and can track changes together," Gill notes.
In addition, Gonzaga is considering whether to build out a portal infrastructure on top of SharePoint. "We want a one-stop shop for students online. We think this gets us closer to that goal," he says.
Too Good to Be True?
The free version of Office 365 that Microsoft is offering K–12 and higher education organizations includes all of the suite's components: Exchange Online, Lync Online, SharePoint Online and Office Web Apps.
For a fee, institutions can upgrade to Office Professional Plus, which includes an expanded version of SharePoint and a Visio Enterprise diagram tool that lets users work with diagrams and workflows without installing the Visio software.
But colleges shouldn't feel that they must opt for the Plus version to obtain decent service, says Cameron Evans, national technology officer for Microsoft Education. The free service will be a suitable choice for many colleges, he says.
Cameron says that he's excited about extra features that the company may add down the road, such as hosting Microsoft software inside of a web browser so students can access data from any device, at any time or location. Microsoft also is developing ways for the service to allow users to run third-party apps from within the suite's tools and to integrate the suite with identity management programs.