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Having assisted more than 50 education customers with their adoption of Microsoft Office 365, the tremendous value of the platform is undeniable.  In nearly every case, hosted Exchange based email was the primary focus for B2B’s education clients.  However, more and more schools and districts are showing interest in the broader set of capabilities Office 365 provides, specifically those that might enhance their core mission of educating students.

It is easy to imagine how the powerful document collaboration with role and user based permissions and built-in workflow could support lesson planning and assignments; or how unique tools such as digital shared class notebooks, document co-authoring, and Yammer discussions present new opportunities for students to work together.  And how remote access to these services on laptops, mobile devices, tablets, shared lab computers and home PCs, facilitates flipped classrooms so valuable class time can be reserved for exploring or using concepts, active engagement, mentoring, and personalized learning.  Indeed, many of B2B’s K-12 clients have begun exploring these possibilities which is why Microsoft’s recent announcement that School Data Sync (“SDS”) and Classroom have launched is so exciting.

If you are not familiar with these new tools, do not fret.  While they have been under development for more than a year, Microsoft has remained fairly quiet as they worked directly with schools and educators during an extended beta period.  Despite the lack of fanfare until recently, School Data Sync and Classroom are extremely compelling additions to Office 365 for Education.  Together they remove some of the largest deployment obstacles districts face as they consider Office 365 for learning management: provisioning and user adoption.

Below is a video from Microsoft that describes just how powerful SDS has been for their K12 environment. Even the students get a chance to describe how thier work process has been transformed.

In general, provisioning users and licensing services within Office 365 is not complex.  Azure AD Connect simplifies the creation of accounts based on Active Directory information which also populates some parts of the users’ profile data.  Active Directory groups can also be used to manage permissions, and licensing for services can be assigned through the online administration interface or programmatically using PowerShell scripts.  All of this works very well for commercial Office 365 customers, however, education is surprisingly complex when considering user roles and access, and organizational structure.  Teachers have multiple classes throughout the day and students are of course enrolled in multiple courses.  Unlike businesses where membership within a department is relatively static, schools and districts go through a major “re-organization” every year, if not every semester.  All of the data which manages this is stored in the district’s student information system (“SIS”).  However, until recently, there was no simple way to leverage SIS data to efficiently provision Office 365.  School Data Sync solves this by harnessing SIS roster data so it may be used within Office 365, specifically by education aids like Microsoft Classroom.

Today, SDS offers two methods for syncing SIS data with Office 365.  Detailed information on both of these is available on Microsoft’s SDS overview site (click here for their overview).  The first option is to deploy SDS using CSV files.  In short, an administrator would export data from the SIS and organize the data in six CSV files.  Microsoft provides templates for the CSV files and related guidance.  This process of exporting the data and creating the CSV files could potentially be automated depending on the capabilities of the SIS.  Once the CSV files have been prepared, the administrator would go to http://sds.microsoft.com and, using global admin credentials for the district’s Office 365 tenant, sign in to create a new sync profile.  The CSV files will be uploaded during the creation of the sync profile and the site will provide guidance to perform the sync.  Microsoft has also released the Microsoft School Data Sync Toolkit which validates the CSV files and enables some automation of the process.

The second option for syncing SIS data via SDS is applicable to those districts which use PowerSchool for their SIS.  PowerSchool provides REST-based APIs which School Data Sync can leverage to extract data programmatically.  This makes manual extraction to CSVs unnecessary.  Once the connection is made between PowerSchool and SDS, and the initial sync is complete, subsequent syncing will occur every 10 minutes to ensure that enrolment information is up to date.

How exactly does Office 365 use the SIS roster data once it is synced?  This is where Microsoft Classroom comes into play.  The roster data is used by Classroom to capture enrolment information and assign membership to students and teachers in the appropriate classes.

Classroom provides a place to keep class materials, a class calendar, a shared class OneNote notebook, and the ability to create and respond to assignments and assign grades.  Classroom and its specific capabilities will be covered in more detail in a follow up post.​