Educators Use Free Web Apps, Save Money

Published November 9, 2010

Cash-strapped school districts are saving tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars on the cost of servers, software, and IT maintenance—money that can be plowed back into the classroom—say district officials and education technology specialists.

When the Maine Township school district in Illinois went looking for a new e-mail service for its students and staff, it didn’t take officials long to settle on the solution. The price was just right.

“By choosing to use Google for e-mail, the next-best product we saw was going to be $35,000 a year,” says Henry Thiele, chief technology officer for the 7,000-student district. “So it was $35,000 or free, which do you want? We went free.”

Saving Districts Money
Google announced this fall its four-year-old Apps for Education program—a free suite of services that includes free e-mail, documents, and website-building services—was serving more than 10 million students in universities and K-12 schools worldwide.

Google’s main competitors in the education market are paid products from firms such as Microsoft and Lotus. In addition to saving money on the initial purchase of programs, districts can cut server maintenance costs because the data for Google’s services are stored in the firm’s “cloud.”

“For school systems struggling to pay their licensing fees for products like Microsoft Office, free software suites may soon become the no-brainer replacement solution,” said Jeffrey Hastings, a school information technology specialist and columnist for School Library Journal.

Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Michigan, says, “It’s cheap, it’s free.” Graden says cloud computing saved his district about $400,000 during the program’s first year.

Aiding Collaboration
Whether the applications improve classroom instruction, educators say, depends on how educators use them/

“The apps are intended to help with collaboration and electronic communication,” says Katie Rose, a technology program manager at the University of Notre Dame, which deployed Google Apps in May 2008. “A variety of faculty use them for a wide range of purposes to enhance the learning experience, but the faculty is responsible for putting any content into Google Apps.”

Thiele and Graden both say the collaborative nature of Google’s programs makes it easier to encourage student and faculty partnerships. Students work together to create PowerPoint-style presentations in the Google Presentation app. Faculty can collaborate on curriculum development in real time through shared documents instead of e-mailing proposals back and forth.

“The tools Google gives you allow for a more collaborative tool set when you are working with groups of students, in the same classroom or in separate classrooms,” Thiele says.

Moving Forward
Graden says the full possibilities of cloud computing in education have yet to be realized. “I think the idea of shared, cloud-based software has long-term instructional impact,” he says. “In many cases it’s still word processing.”

Google’s constant evolution, though, presents challenges to educators.

“You’ll never know how to use it completely,” Thiele says. “It’s just a different mindset.”

Joel Mathis ([email protected]) writes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.