Google Apps & School in a Box: Two routes to the cloud

Moving to the cloud has tangible benefits for UK schools, but with both Microsoft and Google pushing rival solutions, which way should you go? Stuart Andrews investigates

By now, it’s clear that the adoption of cloud technologies in school is one of the big ICT stories of the year. Everyone, from mainstream IT companies such as Dell to education specialists such as RM and European Electronique, is pushing a vision of the cloud as a revolutionary force in schools ICT. The promise: to maintain control of tighter budgets and reduce the burden of support, while – most excitingly – enabling new models of learning.

In the background, the schools market also provides a new battleground for those two giants of IT: Microsoft and Google. With a debut showing at this year’s BETT, Google was actively promoting its Google Apps for Education and Chromebook products as the all-in cloud solution for cash-strapped schools. Only a short walk away, Microsoft was pushing its own cloud concept, School in a Box. Is either one right for your school?

Two approaches

First, let’s define some terms. There are two basic approaches to the cloud. One is private cloud, where the kinds of applications and services you have running on a server in the school are centralised on a server or in a third-party data centre, and accessed using a browser through the internet or internal network. The users may all be in the same school or across several schools in a local authority or federation. However, the cloud that most people are talking about is the public cloud, where a provider hosts applications, services and data from a remote data centre, and schools access these over the internet.

Google Apps for Education is a development of the company’s mainstream Google Apps product, offering email, calendar, communications, website creation and office applications, among others, to every student and staff member in the school. Instead of using Microsoft Exchange on an in-house server and installing Microsoft Office on every laptop or PC in the school, pupils, teachers and admin staff access Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs through the cloud. Meanwhile, Google Sites takes on a dual role, enabling pupils to build their own websites, but also staff to create sites where they can centralise and share information, either internally or with children and parents.

Google Apps for Schools

Microsoft’s School in a Box differs slightly. It’s less a product than a concept; one that focuses on shifting the applications and services schools use on-site to the cloud, starting with email and calendaring, but going on to take in communications, collaboration software and even Office applications. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the core of School in a Box is Microsoft’s Office 365 for Education service. However, Microsoft’s vision goes beyond that, to integrate partners who can provide more schools and curriculum-specific products and services on another layer.

School in a Box is a more cautious approach, with the key message being that the school moves to the cloud at its own pace. School in a Box doesn’t necessarily replace existing products and services – after all, it isn’t in Microsoft’s interest to lose all its Office licences overnight. Instead, it’s built to co-exist with them, so that schools can move services over on a timescale that works for them.

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