ePals, a leader in connecting students, classrooms, and educational activities worldwide with safe, secure email and Web 2.0 platforms, announced today that it has signed a "strategic technical collaboration agreement" with Microsoft. ePals will integrate Microsoft's Live@Edu offerings with their extensive network for millions of users worldwide while the two companies will continue to expand their integration in the future with Office Web Apps and features of Sharepoint Online.
I had the chance on Wednesday to speak with Anthony Salcito, vice president of Worldwide Education for Microsoft, and Ed Fish, President of ePals, about the partnership. Needless to say, I was really impressed by the potential of ePals driven by the power of Live@Edu. As Mr. Fish pointed out, ePals brings an extraordinary level of expertise and tested methodologies in building K-12 communication networks and integrating collaborative web tools into the classroom. Microsoft, on the other hand, expands ePals' reach beyond the PC to mobile phones and any browser by superimposing the calendar and mail platforms of Live@Edu on ePals' existing tools.
The two noted that the roles and permissions concepts used by ePals (allowing teachers to securely control and monitor student email in their "SchoolMail" product) dovetailed nicely with the roles and policies available within Live@Edu. Creating a "tangible end-to-end" solution for ePals customers, the partnership will allow users to leverage all of the assets in Exchange to provision resources to students, teachers, and even parents.
According to the joint press release, Mr. Fish explained,
“While the cornerstone of school-based communication and collaboration systems must be the protection of user identity and data and implementation of sophisticated policy management, it is Web-based collaboration and assessment that can truly transform learning globally. The powerful features and extensible platform delivered by Live@edu enhances ePals’ own platform and leading solutions for the K–12 market.”
For ePals customers used to the Schoolmail interface, a revamped Outlook Live interface will be rolled out. However, this provides significant advantages to school IT staff who have been managing the service:
From an IT perspective, the solution will allow schools to set up sophisticated policy-based controls that regulate which students and teachers can e-mail and share information with each other for security purposes, and what level of filtering and monitoring is desired for sent and received e-mail, including for inappropriate language. Rules can also be applied for instructional value as well, and help facilitate peer-based editing and feedback features.
The introduction of workflows, as well as the potential for integration with on-premise Active Directory and Sharepoint services turns ePals from an innovative learning platform into a robust educational communication and collaboration solution. As Fish and Salcito both emphasized, this partnership moves ePals to an enterprise-grade scalable platform. While the basic mail platform will remain free and will still include many of the benefits of the partnership, the real long-term benefits will be realized by schools that subscribe to the premium ePals LearningSpace.
I'm a card-carrying Google Apps user, having rolled out their educational apps products for my school district, relying on the regular consumer Gmail and Apps for most of my personal communication needs, and even using Apps for my business communication needs. I've created a local users' group and work with educators around New England looking to take advantage of the free Edu Apps product. OK, I don't get to carry a card, but I do have a "gone" button on my messenger bag (courtesy of Google's "Gone Google" campaign). Card or no card, though, I'm heavily invested in Google's groupware offering for schools. However, the partnership between ePals and Microsoft, uniting the best of ePals' expertise in K-12 collaboration and communication with the scalability, horsepower, and manageability of Live@Edu is an absolute game changer in elementary and secondary educational technology.
Live@Edu provides a useful set of communication tools, as does Google Apps for Education, both for free. These certainly aren't going away and will continue to compete independently for educational customers. The partnership between ePals and Live@Edu would certainly seem to be a real coup, though, in this market, particularly given that ePals has been successful in monetizing their learning platform and LearningSpace educational environments with a wide cross-section of users.