The Microsoft in Education Blog caught up with Philippe Van Laethem, IT manager at Erasmushogeschool Brussel (EhB; Erasmus University College Brussels), to find out how migrating from Google Apps to Microsoft Office 365 has empowered the staff and students he supports.
Tell us about your school!
EhB is located in Brussels, the capital city of Belgium. It was founded in 1995 as an aggregation of several Higher Education institutions that were based in Brussels at that time. Today, we have about 600 faculty members and about 4,500 students.
Erasmus University College Brussels comprises professional and academic education in Architecture, Audiovisual and Dramatic Arts, Business Management, Health Care, Communications, Design & Technology, Music and Performing Arts, Education, Social Work, and Tourism.
One of the key aspects of EhB’s mission is to educate students so that they develop as open-minded individuals, ready for the challenges they will meet in their business life. Our location in Brussels offers the opportunity to immerse our students in the multicultural and international aspects of our society. Also, we have good connections with many companies located here in Brussels, enabling our students to come into contact with companies early on during their education, which in turn leads to vocational opportunities.
How do you support the mission of the school?
Our IT team ensures that teachers and students have the tools they need to do their jobs well. Our responsibilities include: providing fast and secure infrastructure with little downtime, and providing efficient and user-friendly means to communicate and collaborate.
Most important for both teachers and students are the tools they use to communicate. The majority of intra-student and student-to-teacher communications occur via email. Many students and teachers check email at least once a day, and many check even more frequently than that. The bottom line is that email has to be up and running for the students to interact with their teachers and collaborate with each other.
What challenges did you face in achieving these goals?
Prior to 2009, we used an on-premise email solution for both students and faculty. A major problem was that it did not provide sufficient mailbox space. Student demand for larger mailboxes is what ultimately led to our adoption of Google Apps for students, which we adopted mainly for Google Mail.
We considered moving teachers to Google Apps as well, but the features that Microsoft Exchange offers were heavily used by teachers and we didn’t find Google Apps to be comparable. Calendaring and Distribution Groups are extremely important features, especially when you include the ease of sharing calendars with Exchange. It would be a real problem if we moved our faculty to a system where they couldn’t use those features.
Why did you ultimately choose to migrate to Microsoft Office 365?
With only a small team to manage network and system administration, having two email systems was not ideal. Over time the need to move to one system, where both staff and students were hosted in the cloud, grew more pressing from a cost-of-ownership perspective. Due to the faculty need for calendaring and distribution group features, the most compelling option for us was to investigate moving the students to an Exchange solution.
We were also persuaded by the security assurances provided by Microsoft, as we knew that there was some management concern around putting institutional information in the cloud. It was very helpful that Microsoft has ISO level datacenters. That gave management peace of mind about the security of the information we would be placing in the cloud.
After reviewing options, we chose a hybrid solution that combined Exchange Online, as part of Microsoft Office 365, and our existing on-premise Exchange Server to continue our Active Directory services.
What was your migration experience like?
We brought on a partner to help with the actual migration. Our migration was executed with guidance of Jethro Seghers, Cloud Solutions Architect with J-Solutions/ Flexamit, a company specialized in Office 365 for education. With his help the migration turned out to be painless. We completed the migration of all mailboxes to the cloud by the end of August 2012.
As a next step, we want to start using DirSync Password Synchronization. This would help to further improve the availability of e-mail to our users.
What are the top three benefits you’ve experienced so far with Office 365?
First of all, Office 365 offers our students and staff a great environment in which to communicate, share, and work on documents. They are very happy with the amount of mailbox space and pleased with Office Web Apps. Overall, reactions have been very positive.
Second, as administrators our communication solutions are now easier to manage. Going from two systems to one saves cost and time for management. I am not sure of the specific number of hours that will be saved, but it will be a lot!
Finally, Office 365 is well supported by Microsoft. If we have an issue, we contact one of the support people and they resolve it, which is a huge benefit for our administrators and was an important factor. We needed to know that end users interacting with a broader feature set would be helped when they had a problem – and we’ve had no issues with the level of support we have received to date.
What are your future plans for improving collaboration and communication?
We want to make greater use of SharePoint Online by creating a communication platform for the teachers and staff. We are in the process of implementing that and teachers are starting to use it more and more.
We also hope to see greater adoption of Lync. In particular, some of our courses are aimed at students who engage in distance learning and blended learning where they study on their own time and can’t attend classes. We want to offer different ways for teachers to interact with those students. Lync is a very useful tool to enable learning and extends the part of our mission that stresses connection with business.
What would you say to colleagues also looking into cloud collaboration and communication solutions?
It is always difficult to give broad advice to other people, as it depends on the needs of their end users. However, from our perspective, there hasn’t been a single moment when we’ve regretted the decision to migrate to Office 365. Microsoft provided great tools to make migration as smooth as possible and Office 365 itself is an excellent platform for the students and the teachers.