Microsoft testing new Office 365 features to entice educators

Microsoft is improving its education chops as school IT managers ramp up for a new year

Microsoft's Classroom Hub website gives students and teachers an online dashboard for classroom information

Microsoft's Classroom Hub website gives students and teachers an online dashboard for classroom information

Microsoft announced a private beta for a pair of new services Wednesday aimed at making its Office 365 service work better in schools.

The new Classroom Hub is a website that brings together content from different Office applications into a single, central location that teachers and students can use to stay on top of what's going on in their classes. The service can pull in notes, assignments, calendars and class materials to provide a digital home for all of the information that students need to know. Teachers will also be able to track progress on assignments and provide students with feedback and grades through the site.

Each class with a Classroom Hub site will also have a OneNote Class Notebook generated for it, so that educators and students can share information about class through Microsoft's note-taking service. It's part of a larger push the company has made with OneNote to make it a useful tool for education users as more schools bring laptops and tablets into the classroom.

Microsoft also introduced a new School Information Sync service in closed beta that will hook student information systems that contain information about pupils up to Office 365. Through the new service, administrators and teachers can pull information like a student's name and class enrollments into Office 365 apps and other applications.

Software vendors that make student information systems will be able to improve their integration with third parties by working with Microsoft's new service. It provides a single API for integrating with school data, which would make it easier for developers to create apps that pull in that information from a wide variety of systems.

The new education tools may make Office 365 more appealing for school administrators and teachers alike at a time when the education market has become a battleground for tech firms. Apple is pushing Macs and iPads as tools for learning, while Google has had success getting its low-cost Chromebooks into schools alongside deployment of its Google Apps productivity suite.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to get those same organizations to move away from traditional deployments of Office and onto its Office 365 software-as-a-service offering. What's more, Microsoft will launch Windows 10 in a month, and will be selling a special education edition of its new operating system through a volume licensing program. Improving its software platform could keep more educational institutions on its operating system and away from competitors.

Microsoft hasn't announced when either service will be generally available yet, but education stakeholders can sign up to receive updates through the website for each product.

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