Google Apps for Education vs. Microsoft 365 for Education

Many schools have started considering adding a cloud productivity application suite for staff and students to use. The top two providers for cloud-based productivity tools are Google and Microsoft.

Specifically, Google offers its platform to education providers as Google Apps for Education. Microsoft offers its MicroSoft Office 365 for education.

Invariably the question that surfaces is, “Which platform is better?” The Google Apps for Education vs Microsoft Office 365 debate rages on.

That’s an incredibly complex question with potentially hundreds of comparison points, and a lot of subjective biases depending upon who you ask. You, in fact, may notice an editorial bias on the part of this reporter toward the MS side of the ledger, but I promise to do my best in presenting a fair and balanced report on the comparison.


Features for productivity, communication, and collaboration

When evaluating Google Apps For Education (also referred to as GAE) vs Microsoft Office 365 for education, I find a very similar feature set at the end-user level for productivity, communication, and collaboration. In fact, when looking at the following chart, you can see many similarities down the line with each of the primary features.

Feature Google Apps for Edu Microsoft Office 365
Browser Chrome Internet Explorer / Edge
Word processing Docs Word
Spreadsheets Sheets Excel
Presentations Slides Powerpoint / Sway
Email Gmail Exchange / Outlook
Pages Sites Office 365 Sites / SharePoint
Drive storage Drive OneDrive
Instant messaging Talk Lync / Skype / Yammer
Video conferencing Hangouts Lync / Skype
Social networks Google+ / Groups Yammer /
Notes Keep OneNote
Native search engines Google search Bing / Fast Search
Service status dashboards App status dashboard Office 365 service health dashboard


8 key differences between Google Apps for Education and Office 365

Getting past the end-user productivity level, a lot of the key differences have more impact on the organization and your school’s IT team itself. I am going to focus on some of these key differences:

1. Mac vs. Windows Operating System

At one point, Google could claim it was better in this category because it could offer the applications across both operating systems as a browser-based solution. This was an important distinction with so many Macs being used inside of school environments. Google was able to offer very consistent features as a browser-based platform.

When Microsoft launched Office 365, they added seamless, browser-based application compatibility that worked well on Mac. But the downloadable local installable versions of the software weren’t current between Mac and Windows.

Only recently has Microsoft launched Office 2016 with native versions for local Mac installation. Up until now, Mac users were relegated to Office 2011 versions.

Now the discrepancy between versions of Office applications has been resolved between Mac and Windows, which opens up the real competitive discussion: offline use of productivity apps.

With locally installed versions of the productivity software, a user is able to work with local Microsoft tools – even without having internet access.

Google simply does not provide offline application support, as everything runs in the browser.

2. Directory services

Microsoft clearly has an edge with its lengthy tenure as an enterprise environment. This starts with Active Directory and directory services for identity and permission management at a very granular policy level.

Many schools are considering productivity in the cloud as a migration from existing on-premises legacy IT stack. When Microsoft launched Office 365 as a cloud environment, the company anticipated the issues with legacy AD environments. They provide a hybrid Active Directory approach where directory services can still be managed on-prem while moving to the cloud for application functionality.

Google, of course, has never experienced life as a traditional IT infrastructure layer within enterprise, and launched as a cloud service outgrowth from the original search services stack.

3. Information architecture

When Office 365 launched, Microsoft incorporated SharePoint as a core information management framework. SharePoint permits a lot of flexibility in structuring an organization’s information architecture to meet the specific needs at a department, or even specific function level.

While Google indeed has a strong search capability combined with rudimentary Google Drive storage for document storage and support, Microsoft’s legacy enterprise IT expertise brings an interesting edge.

Microsoft’s advanced usage of managed metadata services permits organizations to design their information architecture at the very top by creating organization-specific taxonomies, which can then be further applied to everything from site tree navigation to document tagging and indexing.

Managed metadata services are among the least-known, but most powerful aspects of the entire Microsoft platform.

4. Workflow automation

Because of this SharePoint foundation, Microsoft opens up ad hoc database development, data connectivity services, and in particular, workflow automation capabilities for customization.

Designing a SharePoint list that connects with different aspects of information management creates a powerful platform for advanced users without requiring a lot of heavy lifting from deep software development engineers.

Power users are able to take control of their document flow, approvals, and integrations into other applications. Approvals, case-based routing, and other deep operational workflow automations are the result of Microsoft being a true business process automation development platform.

5. Cloud hosting / application services

Additionally, the direct interface between Office 365 and Microsoft’s Azure cloud hosting framework provides a platform for unlimited scalability and application integration as a native technology stack. Whereas Google has yet to launch cloud host services in the same vein as Microsoft or Amazon AWS.

With Google, you’re fairly limited to what you see is what you get, and any customization will require a software engineer with cloud API connectivity experience and a third-party host environment upon which to run the application itself.

6. Mobile access

As much as I have been chanting my own belief in Microsoft’s superiority as an enterprise IT platform in this article, there’s an area where they have clearly been bested by Google.

Google kicked Microsoft’s back side when it came to mobile. Google clearly has a native advantage being the originator of the Android mobile operating system, controlling not only the operating system itself, but largely influencing the application development ecosystem through the Google Play Store.

Third-party developers can still write and release apps independently on Android, skipping the Play Store itself – but that’s considered risky from an IT governance perspective, and also requires special non-default security settings at the individual device level to be able to install an app from sources outside Play Store.

Microsoft has recently released very functional renditions of its productivity applications that integrate well into the Office 365 environment.

In theory, this also gives Google a bit of an edge when considering tablet devices for classroom use. Android tablets and Chromebooks work well natively access Google Apps whereas any Microsoft Apps would require downloading and deployment to the device. Anything requiring extra effort on the part of already burdened school IT teams is going to get more scrutiny.

7. Forms

Another area where Google may have an advantage is an ad hoc form builder with Forms.

Forms are a great tool for schools to use in gathering and sharing information. From in-class applications like creating cheat-proof quizzes, to results or student elections or parent surveys, forms have far-reaching uses in and around the school.

Here’s a slide presentation on using Google Forms in the classroom. On the other hand, some say Google Forms are also fairly limited in what you can do with the data, as well as the security options associated with the form.

Microsoft has abandoned InfoPath as an Office form builder platform. The issue was InfoPath not being mobile-responsive or mobile friendly. Microsoft hasn’t yet announced any functional replacement for InfoPath, and Google Forms are still fairly basic, only allowing a narrow set of data types and form layout features.

The developer partner community has been pushing Microsoft for a new form tool, and I would suspect there’s a good one in the works.

8. Education-specific third-party extensions

Another comparison is the way each platform can be tailored to meet the use cases of education-specific customization through third-party extensions of the native platform. These extensions are usually offered by a third-party development partner of each platform.

Here are a couple of examples of third-party extensions to the native platforms:

Google Classroom / Hapera

Google offers Google Classroom as a native feature to the Google Apps for Education suite. It has features like collaboration, assignment tracking, and many more features useful to teachers within the classroom environment.

A specific customization for the Google Classroom environment is a third-party extension from Hapera. Hapera further extends Google Classroom to add a teaching rubric wrapper and management system for other 3rd-party resources as exercises and assignments within the Google Classroom environment

Teacher Dashboard for Office 365

Microsoft has a rich tradition of building and maintaining a third-party partner ecosystem of developers around vertical market-specific applications of the native platforms. One such partner is Axis, who offers a fairly robust extension to Office 365 called Teacher Dashboard.

Teacher Dashboard provides its own suite of robust collaboration offerings designed specifically for teachers to use in classrooms. It also provides direct connectivity to many SIS systems, which could be valuable to school IT teams.

Weighing more than just the features

Determining which cloud productivity application to deploy for your school is very complex, and based on many factors. The decision of Google vs Microsoft will likely come down to a few key issues:

  1. A school’s existing approach to user account management and identity services within the IT network.
  2. Existing email infrastructure and services
  3. Existing document management methodologies
  4. User adoption and skill level in using Microsoft productivity applications versus Google productivity applications
  5. School administration / IT team skills, resources, and philosophy towards IT and automation in general

As you can see, there are a lot of different points to consider when evaluating whether to use Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365. These can be complex areas of discussion, and extend far beyond the surface level of just which apps have which features. Check out this archived video on whether Google Apps is Good Fit for Your School.

Do you have anything to add or take into consideration when comparing Google Apps for Education vs Microsoft 365 for Education for cloud productivity platforms for schools?


Michael is the founder and Chief Disruption Officer of Intellig8, a marketing technology consulting company. He is a lifelong student of business, financial models, marketing, communication, and behavioral science. He loves solving business problems, and helping techies and non-techies alike use technology to their advantage.

21 thoughts on “Google Apps for Education vs. Microsoft 365 for Education”

  1. Great Job on this!
    We are Office365 at the high school level. Couple strong points that helped us make the move a couple years back.

    1. 5 copies of the full Office Pro Suite at no cost to all students and faculty
    2. OneNote and it’s Classroom Creator App (Outstanding solution for the teacher and students)
    3. Majority of the workforce continues to require experience with Office suite
    4. Privacy/security compliance is achieved with O365 whereas not achieved with GAFE

    Note: Surface3 combined with it’s Pen, O365 OneNote Classroom Notebooks and wireless projection is revolutionary to the classroom!

    Summary: Most schools in our area are GAFE and that’s fine with me,, but I’m all about O365. I’m proud of the opportunities, privacy and head start O365 brings to our graduates!!

    Thank you,

  2. Bottom line is we need to teach and facilitate the skills (word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation). Once the skills are there than the platform doesn’t matter. So much chatter about you can do this on one and not the other. When in reality you could do it on both, just in different ways. We sometimes hinder ourselves because of familiarity and traditional ways. As a school district GAFE (Google Apps for Education), not GAE, provides the collaboration space that Microsoft is quickly gaining ground on. I use both platforms because the districts I work for chose one over the other. I can honestly say that 99% of the time I do most of my work in Google and then convert over for my Microsoft district. But hey, someone else might not agree with my tactics 🙂

    Good write up!

  3. Godfried, the above article is an excellent resource. I’ve used Google apps a little, and Office 365 a lot in an education setting. Not knowing your situation (# students, staff, hardware, budget) I would say this – if you are already a Windows school with a WIndows Active Directory back end – go Office 365. If you do not have a Windows network, disparate hardware, smaller staff, I’d say go with Google. Feel free to reach out to me more.

    P.S. Campus Suite does the web site for the school I am the IT director of. We have been very pleased with their work over the years.

  4. I want to share this reference with our University, as we are about to move to O365 from GAE. I fear though that when students read the product comparison they’ll misinterpret the browser comparison to imply that O365 only works in IE/Edge. Any chance you can omit that row from the table, since both services work fine in all browsers?


  5. Our school’s website says the following:

    “Every student must bring with them to school a laptop computer. Father Ryan is a Microsoft 365 Cloud-based school. This 2:1 program will not allow Apple computers.”

    So what’s the deal with banning Apple computers? It sounds from the above that they can work in the Microsoft 365 environment as Macintosh computers and be on par with a PC laptop. And if need be, they could run Windows via Boot Camp. Is this really a technology issue, or a school preference issue?

    Website URL:

    1. My only guess is that they only want to focus on support of a single OS. They may have dedicated support for all of the students and staff and may not have the expertise to support the Macs. However, Mac are pretty reliable and they would not have to mess with them to much.

  6. I sense some strong Microsoft bias in this post.

    Example points 2, 4 and 5.

    2. Why do schools care about Active Directory? What does it matter to them? Google has great tools to administer accounts associated with the school domain. These are the same tools used in Google Apps for business. There is a a lot of granularity in the Google tools for permissions and such through out the Email, Drive, Apps, Chrome and Classroom for students.

    4. You mention workflow automation which is might be great for a business but not so much need for a school. Yet you do not mention “collaboration” at all??? Google collaboration for students is far superior to Microsoft’s and students use it all the time. The very latest version of MS Office is better but still not as good as Google. With Google you could have one student on a Chromebook, one on a PC, one on a Mac and another on a iPad/iPhone all working on the same document.

    5. This one I really don’t understand. Again Cloud hosting/application services is something a business might really care about but a school? What schools have a IT team creating and linking applications services in the cloud??

    Google Apps/Docs/Classrom has always been in the cloud 100%. Yes Microsoft has been pushing Azure for business in recent years (at the expense of on premise Microsoft products) but Google has always been in the cloud, 100%. Google knows the cloud. Also with Chrome and Google Apps there many, many thirds party extensions and applications that work directly with Google Drive/Apps/Classroom. You mention Hapara as one. I use the heck out of Lucidchart.

    One thing you should also mention is that parents can be given access to their childrends Google classroom accounts to track their progress. I am not sure if Microsoft has this feature.

    1. The Active Directory value for us is related to the strength of role-based rights assignment and tracking. With Google, it was relatively difficult to manage file access right for a health care organization – and we had to disable more than 40 Google Apps features to meet the requirements of their BAA. Personally, dual mode seems to make the most sense for many education institutions. I greatly appreciate the admonition to analyze first – too often it is a “Chevy or Ford” fight with little regard for the requirements.

  7. Offline install of Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Powerpoint etc) is no longer free in office 365 Education license….

  8. Great article! But no mention of usability aspects.
    As far as I see (as usability expert):
    • The possibilities of Microsoft make the classroom environment to complex and less inspiring.
    • Google environment seems very intuitive
    • Google is designed as a environment for education making several features available, while Microsoft is designed as collection of usable apps for education

    Bu I haven’t any experience, anybody who can tell me if I am right?

  9. Google classroom is comfortable and convenient for those who are familiar with using it, but Office 365 with Teacher and Student dashboard is leaps and bound ahead of google class room with the full suite of business tools that students will be using when they get into the business world. The data management at the user level for both teachers and students is much more logical, visual, secure, accountable and traceable for both student, teachers and administrators. There is absolutely no comparison – Microsoft has stepped up in a big way. The only thing missing is a good form/survey/quiz creation tool with automated checking like what is achieved with google forms, sheet and Fubraru, Even with out this, Microsoft integration of its writing tool, with onenotes is a math/science teacher dream………………..

Leave a Reply

The Campus Suite Academy

Free resources for educators sharing the latest trends and tips in school communication and technology.

See for yourself why schools are making the switch.