Pressing need for Indian institutions is not cloud storage, but tools to enable online learning
Microsoft Office 365 is nothing like any previous Microsoft product. Office 365 is a leap into the cloud by the company that has been better known for its products that brought office work processes to personal computers. Starting June, students in engineering colleges across the country will find themselves logging on to this product — a free offering from Microsoft — courtesy an order from the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) that has drawn flak from advocates of software freedom.
This writer found that Office 365 runs seamlessly on web browsers running on the Windows, Mac and Linux-based operating systems. Microsoft’s bundled package of infrastructure, storage and software in Office 365 appears to be well done. However, Office 365’s emulation of services offered by Internet search giant Google indicate a desperate attempt to stay relevant in the age of the cloud. Google has been running its own online office suite of spreadsheets, documents and slideshows — Google Docs — since 2007.
What does it offer?
Microsoft Office 365 is an extension of SkyDrive, in which Microsoft offered free storage of about 7GB for registered users. SkyDrive integrated into Office 365 has a close semblance to Google Drive, which is accessible to anyone with a Google account.
The web applications for Office suite and mail access uses Microsoft’s online mail server Exchange Online, which is configured with Microsoft’s mail client, Outlook. This is obviously an attempt by Microsoft to gain ground vis-à-vis Google, which is the widely acknowledged past-master in this field. Office 365 also has even an intranet-sharing platform, Newsfeed, with an appearance that closely resembles Google Plus.
The difference is in how users get to use these services. Google allows users to register as an individual and access these services on a ‘freemium’ basis — an account with an initial capacity is free, for more capacity, users need to pay. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s package is available on a freemium basis only for a ‘beginner’s education plan’. The ‘A2’ education plan, which offers storage, mail, intranet sites and a web-based office suite, come at zero cost only for registered educational institutions.
The recent controversy about the AICTE offering about 7.5 million Office 365 accounts in Indian technical education institutions is based on the A2 plan, which Microsoft is offering free of cost. But then, what is the catch?
While Google Drive allows users to upload, edit and download documents in both proprietary and open formats, Microsoft Office 365 allows users to upload and edit proprietary and open formats, but only allows the option of downloading the files in Microsoft’s proprietary formats — .docx for documents, .pptx for slideshows and .xlsx for spreadsheets.
In the case of the AICTE-Microsoft deal, when 7.5 million users are given an option to use a service that allows users to work online on Office 365 and to save their work only in a proprietary format for offline use, it is presumed that the offline tools to be used are Microsoft’s Office suite, which come with an annual license fee of Rs. 4,200 for the home edition.
It is obvious that the proprietary formats from Microsoft Office cannot be edited using Free software office suites such as Libre Office, without losing some formatting at the least. Also, while Office 365 runs on web browsers operating on non-Windows operating systems such as Ubuntu, offline usage would require the use of the Windows platform.
More than just mail
The pressing need for Indian institutions is not mail and cloud storage access, but to implement online college management systems and tools to enable online learning.
One such project, cited worldwide as an example of successful implementation of a school management system, is Sampoorna.
About 15,000 schools, 7 million students and three lakh teachers in Kerala are part of the Sampoorna school management network, which is powered by Free and Open Source software, Fedena. “Cumbersome processes such as preparation of transfer certificates, copying of admission registers, generating reports related to students, parents, teachers and non-teaching staff, preparation of scholarship lists, progress reports, examination databases, promotion list and timetable-preparation have all been made easy using this software,” claims the page on the Fedena website.
Apart from using a tool like Fedena for institution management, there are many other cloud-based services that can be offered using Free and Open Source software, to improve the use of information technology in teaching and learning.
Modular Object Oriented Learning Environment or MOODLE is a learning management system that is Free software, and can help institutions implement online courses, conduct online quizzes, and provide forums for students to discuss and share ideas.
In India, many institutions, including many in Bangalore, have implemented MOODLE-based cloud solutions, which has resulted in the reduction of paper work. It has also enabled institutions to implement better usage of IT tools in their pedagogy.
Apparently, the AICTE failed to take this broader view when settling for Office 365 as its chosen platform for use in Indian institutions.
To be fair, Indian free software activists too have jumped the gun while assessing Microsoft Office 365. Some of their comments have been way over the top; AICTE, rather than Microsoft, ought to have been the object of their ire.
(The writer is an activist of the Free software movement and teaches at an engineering college in Bangalore.)