When it comes to cloud and classroom management services, school districts are firmly divided — they either favor Microsoft’s Office 365 or Google Apps for Education (G Suite).
A panel of five experienced technology directors clashed over the two edtech software programs at ISTE’s annual conference in San Antonio.
Each side, loyal to its platform, dove into details for an audience of IT specialists who are either using one of the services now, balancing a combination of both or trying to decide which to adopt.
The Office 365 and G Suite platforms share many common features —they’re both cloud-based, free, device-agnostic and offer nearly unlimited storage, online applications and collaboration capabilities. So the panelists — all hailing from schools in Michigan’s Macomb County — described what gives their service an edge over the other.
The winner? Well, there really wasn’t one. Both platforms have strong — and similar — offerings, but here’s what their loyalists had to say.
The interface is user-friendly, tile-based and allows administrators to control which applications their students can see. For example, in panelist Sarah Monnier-White’s school, the Chippewa Valley Schools, K-5 students don’t have access to emails — a setting determined by administrators.
“There are many different apps available — it’s totally customizable to your district,” Monnier-White said.
The learning tools have evolved in recent years to become highly sophisticated, too, she said. Many, like speech-to-text software, have replaced services they previously had to bring in from outside. “A software that our school used to pay for to support students with special needs is now built in,” she said.
Microsoft’s training resources are especially valuable in helping new tools resonate in an educational setting, Monnier-White said. They helped her learn how to utilize Sway, Microsoft’s presentation program, in the classroom.
“It’s not just about how do I use Sway, it’s how do I use Sway in my classroom to support teaching and learning,” she said. “It’s about 21st century learning.”
In addition to redesigning OneNote, Microsoft recently launched Microsoft Teams, its chat-based workspace, for Office 365 Education users. This tool will make it easier for teachers to manage different classes and use a single interface for sharing and editing documents, said Craig McBain, another tech director at Chippewa Valley Schools.
The Teams function “is really exciting,” McBain said. “We’re dying to try it out when the school year starts.”
Google Apps for Education
Like its Microsoft counterpart, the G Suite for Education is highly customizable. Different grade levels and school staff will have varied access to apps within the G Suite, so their screens will all look slightly different. If you have less access, you will have less to manage.
“It makes it easier for [students] to identify things,” said David Tchozewski, who recently left his IT director role in Macomb County to work for Discovery Education.
For him, one of the biggest draws to Google is its Team Drives. “It solves the headache you have when you have a staff member leave the district,” Tchozewski said.
If each teacher keeps his or her own documents, when that teacher leaves, the IT department can’t archive an account without losing all of the resources and information included in those documents. With Team Drives, documents are added and shared with multiple users — they’re not owned by one individual.
“So when someone leaves the district, you will not lose access to those documents. That is huge,” he said.
Another perk of G Suite is the ease of hosting meetings on Google Hangouts. Michael Antoine, a tech director at Roseville Community Schools, said he holds monthly technology meetings with building representatives. In lieu of orchestrating an in-person gathering, they use Hangouts, which is more convenient for their busy schedules and scattered school locations.
The competitive panel did not declare a clear victor, but it did have two main takeaways.
First, the panelists advised tech leaders in the audience to pick just one of the classroom management services rather than a piecemeal combination of both.
“We’ve cautioned away from using both,” said Nick Pitrone, a panelist from Warren Consolidated Schools. “We really want to foster one spot for all students and staff to share files within a district.”
And second, Pitrone, who uses Office 365, said the constant back-and-forth between Microsoft and Google — and the “passionate” exchanges between Office 365 and G Suite supporters — is actually a great thing for IT departments and educators. It urges both companies to keep innovating.
“They really help each other out in the long run,” Pitrone said