Essential ICT that’s free for the taking

16th October 2015 at 00:00
With budgets squeezed, seek out alternatives to costly software

Did you know that, as a school, you can access Microsoft Office 365 for education in the cloud, for free? Or that Google Apps for Education – giving you unlimited cloud storage and access to Gmail, Google Docs and the impressive Google Classroom – is free, too?

This is not a sales pitch. I have no shares in either company. Nor do I get a kickback for each headteacher I get to sign on the dotted line.

My aim, instead, is to get you to question whether you need to spend the money you are currently spending on software solutions at your school when you could get so many of them for nothing.

It’s a timely question to ask. School budgets are highly limited and the signs are that they will be ever tighter in the next few years. As with most organisations, the most significant spend is on salaries. But often the second largest portion of a school’s outlay relates to ICT.

Get the message on email

Just as you want to get results from your staff for the salary you are paying them, you need to get a return from your investment in ICT, whether it’s hardware or software. The problem is, when you are paying megabucks to renew your licensing every year on products, that return is very difficult to secure.

Here’s where you need to be savvy. Let’s take email as an example. We all know how important it is to have email as a facility in school. The associated costs, however, can be massive. Not only does it require purchasing a server capable of managing email but it also requires the ongoing maintenance of that server – something that should really be done by a trained technician, and they aren’t exactly cheap.

On top of that, you have to purchase the Microsoft Exchange Server software that enables this to work; with only 25 licenses (not enough for a secondary school or most primaries), this works out at around £5,000 a year. And you’ll need the licensing for Microsoft Outlook so you can access your email and calendars.

Now let’s look at Microsoft’s other offering: Office 365. Currently free for schools, it provides unlimited email for the entire institution, students and staff alike. Google offers the same through its Google Apps for Education package.

What’s the catch? Some may worry that the data generated by users can then be sold on by these tech giants. Well, not if their agreement with the Department for Education and the Information Commissioner’s Office is to be believed – see the report Cloud (Educational Apps) Software Services and the Data Protection Act at bit.ly/DataProtectionInfo.

It is far more likely that Microsoft has gone down this route to match Google. Google’s offering has become more and more popular, so to sustain its place in the market long-term, Microsoft has joined the fray.

Survey your options

It’s not just email where free alternatives exist. One tool popular with many schools is Survey Monkey, which anyone can use, for free, to run a survey and collect a maximum of 100 responses. But without a contract costing at least £26 a month, you can’t even download a set of results, let alone analyse them. Why not opt instead for Google Forms? It has all the power of Survey Monkey but with none of the costs.

Of course, it’s entirely up to you what options you choose for your school. If you feel the paid-for product is the best one available, then that’s fine.

However, with so much of the ICT schools use being available for nothing, don’t we have a duty to check if the free alternative is the way forward? The next time your technician comes to you with yet another purchase order asking you to sign for something, think carefully, think differently.

There is always another way – and it’s usually significantly cheaper.

Mark Anderson is a teacher, education consultant and author. Find him on Twitter at @ICTEvangelist and read his blog at www.ictevangelist.com

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