There is a great feature made possible using SharePoint called co-authoring. Co-authoring will allow a team of people working together to work on a document simultaneously. Each user can see who is currently editing and which part of the document they are working on in real time. This feature will save the headache of emailing back and forth a document and attempting to draw together the most recent information.
Lync Online is an Instant Messaging client for the working environment. It enables staff to instantly see if their colleagues are available (from many of the Office 365 Applications) and start an instant conversation, so that decisions can be made much quicker than by email for example. Once a decision has been made this could be acknowledged with a confirmation email.
The big advantage of Office 365 for Education is the low cost. To have all the services that Office 365 can offer, running and maintaining on-premise systems is far more expensive. Office 365 can offer students free Exchange Email and free SharePoint Online, which includes Office Web Apps. There will be a per user per month charge for staff for some functionality.
One great advantage, that again can save money, is that price plans can be mixed and matched to meet the needs of the workforce. So for example some members of staff may not need the SharePoint functionality, so they could be assigned a lower price plan, which could be free depending on services required. (UK Price plans still to be confirmed for Office 365 for Education).
Office 365 can also offer students Lync Online, again for free. This enables easy collaboration on assignments and instant team meetings as well as instant messaging, voice and even video chat with the click of a button. You can also see who is online, just like many other IM providers.
All of these features can be combined with the Office Desktop software for a small charge (per user per month) for both students and staff who wish to combine the services to give a more complete package.
The following features could be useful in an educational environment.
Libraries are a location on a site which provides users central access to important work documents and files. There are different types of Libraries for different purposes, such as ‘Document library’ for many file types like word documents and spreadsheets. There are libraries for images called ‘Picture library’ which is dedicated for digital images and graphics. Functionality varies between different library types, just as folder functionality varies in Windows Explorer, for example a slideshow option for picture folders or libraries. There are many more library types such as, Process Diagram Libraries, Record Libraries, Report Libraries and Slide Libraries.
Libraries allow the great control over documents for people working on a project together. Everyone can have access to the latest version of documents, with document versioning included, see who last edited the docment and when, and you can even specify specific permissions to documents to protect the most important ones.
Lists offer a collection of data that can be shared with team members and other site users. There are a number of list templates, which provide a good starting point. The way lists are organised can be customised for the specific needs of the business. SharePoint sites often include many lists by default, such as, Links, Announcements and Contacts, that you can use for team collaboration. One type of list that is also very useful is ‘Calendar’, with Calendar it’s easy to show all of your groups events, whether these be meetings, all day events or milestones. This will enable the whole group to see what is happening with a project for example and most importantly when. ‘Tasks’ is another useful List type. You can use it to assign tasks to specific people within the group. It is also possible to create a custom designed list.
Blogs provide a running commentary or news thread of a particular subject, same function as personal online diaries. Blogs are useful to keep upto date with a particular subject and are often a good learning material.
Wiki pages are a useful tool, that enables webpages to be quickly and easily edited by any user.
My Sites & Profiles
My Sites and Profiles integrates the social side to the learning environment. It enables you to connect with other people around you and build your professional network. It is important to remember that just like other social networks, your should consider what information you share with who. This can be controlled by privacy settings, that allow you to specify which people can see each piece of information that you share. You can also apply these settings to documents that you share. The organisation implementing the system, can also restrict what information you may share with others.
Discussion boards are a great way to share ideas and knowledge, or to discuss a particular topic. These can easily be setup by a user and moderated by an administrator. It could be important to ensure that the boards are moderated to look for cases of plagarism, although this is a possiblility there are many processes already in place to identify plagarism.
Mobile Browser Support
The system will also work on the go on mobile phone web browsers, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, giving users even more choice to where they can access thier data. Some phones can even display the documents that are stored on the system.
Having read a few comparative reviews it is clear many people have their own opinions, thoughts and ideas of the two systems. Some reviewers seem to give the impression that they thought Micrososft would not reach Google’s standard of the ‘cloud’ experience of storing documents online, sharing and editing them with colleauges and other students.
Some have described Google’s offering as a more consumer product compared to Microsoft’s which can be orientated to almost anyone or any business large or small. Google does not offer such flexibility and has been described as one size fits all. However Microsoft offer a range of different plans and licences that are user specific and not machine specific. Which means that the organisation could save money in areas where some members of staff need very little and others need that bit more functionality.
Google does not offer a downtime promise in it’s SLA, which could work out badly should there be any major problem. Microsoft has pitched an agreement that should their downtime be any less 99.9% they will refund a percentage of the fees paid (upto a maximum of 100%, depending on the length of time the system has been unavailable for).
Google’s system from the outset was designed to be web based. The tools that Google produced are brilliantly integrated and were created just for the cloud. This somewhat differs to Microsoft’s offering, whereby one method offers purely access to their Web Apps (with limited functionality) or a compination of the Web Apps with the full desktop applications to give a full set of tools. This in my opinion is better, mainly due to the fact that they can back each other up. By this I mean should a network connection be unavailable users can still work on documents using the desktop applications.
More on this topic to come soon…