0530hrs and my alarm goes off with an unwelcome screech - it’s time to get up ready for Microsoft’s Fun, Free Friday event held on it’s campus at Thames Valley Park, Reading.

The event was designed to demonstrate some of the technologies Microsoft brings to the education sector including everything from Live@edu through to XNA Game Studio. It was run as a series of quick-fire demonstrations of free technology offered by Microsoft to help schools at a variety of levels to enhance teaching and learning and ease management.

I was particularly taken with Live@edu, and Windows Live essentials (Messenger, Writer, Photo Gallery, etc).


Live@edu is, in my opinion, one of the crown jewels of Microsoft’s free (it really is!) offering: hosted Exchange email. Available to all schools in the UK the service, hosted at Microsoft’s data centre in Dublin, Ireland, provides users of the service:

  • A 10GB inbox.
  • 25GB Skydrive storage.
  • Office web apps
  • Instant Messenger
  • and much more!

Having worked in schools for a number of years I know that email is one of the most contentious areas when it comes to running a school network so being able to pass the lion’s share of the hassle over to somebody else, while retaining full administrator features, is nothing short of a God-send.

Students can work together collaboratively on documents and share them using Skydrive and Live Spaces and as a network manager or decision maker you can choose to enable or disable functionality as desired.

A feature-request did come out of Fun, Free Friday: the ability to restrict access to features ‘on demand’ – i.e. disabling Live Messenger for a particular lesson.  The guys at Microsoft were impressed with the suggestion, and have promised to pass it on.

When taken into consideration against FOSS software like Open Office, Microsoft Office and Live@edu really do provide the complete solution in a consistent and polished manner.  I think consistency is important, particularly in a learning environment, so to offer pupils and staff the ability to create, edit, share and collaborate on documents wherever they are using Office web apps and Live Messenger is brilliant and means that there is no need to cart documents around on memory sticks, or in email attachments.

Google, no matter how good they appear to be, cannot compete in this particular area yet – Microsoft Office and Exchange Server is just too good, and too widely deployed; and now the cost barrier is removed for academia it would be fool-hardy to go elsewhere.

Windows Live Essentials

This free suite of applications has been a round for a while, but we were treated to a look at a beta build of the next versions of Live Writer, and Photo Gallery.

I have been using Live Writer for a little while now and I immediately saw how it can help students, particular GCSE, A-Level and University, keep track of projects and share their progress through a Blog.

Live Writer makes it easy to manage blog posts, and pages and provides a really nice WYSIWYG interface that can even download your current Blog theme and allow you to live preview the post as you write it.  The software has good support for a large number of blogging services including Wordpress, Blogger, TypePad and can also take custom settings.

Live Writer makes it easy to  incorporate multimedia content into your posts with some simple effects for photos, and integration with YouTube for videos.  Adding photos and videos has never been so easy!

Photo Gallery’s ability to take two photos and ‘fuse’ them into one ‘perfect photo’ (for example: two photos where one person is smiling and the other is blinking) was a real crowd-pleaser, resulting in a round of applause from the people there as their jaws all dropped in the demo!  I can see the whole suite really appealing to pupils in key stage 3 and above as they begin to tackle coursework that requires a log of their progress.

I had a thoroughly good day with Microsoft and I sincerely hope they continue to run events like this, not just for the food (Ben Nunney gave away his other half’s famous Bacon Brownies as rewards for answering questions correctly!) and free software, but because it allows people to see first-hand how Microsoft software can benefit them directly.  Sometimes events like BETT just aren’t enough to get the message across.

Tweets from the day were tagged with ‘#MSFFF’.