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Scott Wieprecht- Office 365: Blast Off

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by Scott Wieprecht
Expert Educator Columnist, UK

So, you’ve heard about Office 365, you think your school could possibly benefit from it, but how do you know, how can you be sure, and more importantly, how do you go about finding out?

The first thing is it’s free! As the pressure around schools financially increases, making the right decision about software and service purchases can seem like a burden too big to bare – that’s not the case with Office 365. You can freely sign up, have a play around, and confirm it’s right for you – although I promise it is, even in its most basic use.

How do I know? Because of Outlook. It doesn’t matter how good a school network is, or how much ‘redundancy’ your school computer geeks tell you they have; at some point, sometime, your email will go down. Only when that happens do you realize quite how crucial email is to you, and how difficult things become without it.

Now, it may be a really simple fix, and you could be back up and running within a few hours – great! It may be more difficult, and take a few days to come back. Worst case scenario, as I hear almost weekly from colleagues across the world, is something went seriously and they lost some, or even all of their messages. I know how that feels, it happened to me! Suddenly all those emails you were keeping for Performance Management are gone, those four parents you were due to get back to will no longer get a reply, and the really good contact you’d found for an event next term, lost forever.

This, I always suggest to Head Teachers, is the best way ‘in’ to Office 365.

If you are in my first group of schools, who don’t have emails for each member of staff, it’s a great and free way to get everyone connected. It enables a great dialogue with parents and guardians, and also between colleagues. Missing register, messages to reception, you can start to do it all straight away – you won’t believe you’ve never had a school email system.

My second group of schools are those that already have emails, but they are with another cloud service or hosted on some aging school server thing that sits in the corner and costs a fortune for someone to fix each time it goes wrong. Firstly, Microsoft doesn’t scan your email or advertise with them in any way, unlike other providers. The safety and security of the young people in my care is paramount to me, and I would never want to use something that puts them at risk – with Office 365, I feel incredibly safe in the knowledge of both their encryption, and their terms and conditions. Secondly, all issues that crop up (I’ve been using Office 365 for 2 years now and never had my email go down), are fixed almost immediately by Microsoft Engineers, and you are constantly given updates as to what is wrong. No more bills for someone to come and fix things for you.

My final group of schools is those who feel safe and secure with their email the way it is. If you are in this group, great. Genuinely, I’m not writing this as a sales pitch, and if you honestly see no benefit in changing I wouldn’t convince you in 1000 words anyway. It would be amazing if every school had the budget to be able to offer every teacher and student 1TB of email and storage space (for free), as that’s what you get in Office 365. In my school of 1600 that’s a lot of terabytes to buy and maintain to avoid using this free solution. This may also give you the opportunity to offer students their own email addresses as well. Again, furthering their ability to collaborate and communicate with each other – I’ve seen the quality of my group’s project work improve leaps and bounds since they have been collaborating in Office 365.

Obviously you don’t just have to access your email by visiting the Office 365 website – it’s a massive benefit though if you are on a ‘non-friendly’ device you don’t own and want to check your email, as you can access Outlook in 365 from absolutely any device with an internet connection. As well as this, however, you can also very simply sync the Microsoft Outlook software to your cloud account, and this even downloads a local copy of documents to your device so you can access them all without a network or email connection. The fun doesn’t stop there though– with OWA now available for Android and Apple, so you can access your emails and get notifications straight away from a convenient little app.

Another key thing is you can easily bring your school’s website address over to ‘the cloud’. So if your school, for our purposes cunningly called “Example School Academy,” has a website on “www.exampleacademy.com,” then all your staff can have their own email at that address. You can also use a completely different address, though, and if you wanted all your staff to have an email address “@ExampleSchoolEmail.com,” that’s also perfectly possible.

“Great, so your message to me is swap my current email for a different type of email that you say is more reliable, cheers Scott,” I hear you say. No, not at all, not even close. My point, however, is this is a brilliant way to introduce Office 365 to staff and get people in the cloud – it’s a starting point. Do I think Outlook is the best thing in Office 365? No, probably not – but it is a simple and effective free part of it. Over the next few months I’ll be looking at where you could go next, which features you can begin to use, and deploy across the school to better the learning for your young people. Email, however, is universal, and most teachers will have experience with this. What better way to ease someone into a ‘big new thing’ than by breaking them in gently with something they already know.

That’s not to say Outlook in Office 365 doesn’t still pack a mighty punch, and offer some new features… but if I told you them now, you’d have no reason to read next month, no spoilers from me I’m afraid! Tune in next fortnight to hear how to create your school’s Office 365 service step by step, before the column after hearing my ‘Top Tips for Every Day (365) Outlook” to get started using your new service.

Scott Wieprecht is a Microsoft Expert Educator Fellow based in the South West of the United Kingdom. He works at forward thinking saltash.net community school who are a Microsoft World Tour school. His column “365: Every Day, Every Student” runs every Thursday on What’s Fresh.

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