Northern Illinois University—giving everyone the best tools for learning with
Office 365

Today’s Office 365 post was written by Brett Coryell, chief information officer at Northern Illinois University.

A key role of any university is to provide students, faculty and staff with access to amazing resources: world-class libraries, state-of-the-art labs and innovative research facilities, to name just a few. As the CIO and vice president of Information Technology at Northern Illinois University (NIU), I make sure the wealth of campus resources that the campus community enjoys is also reflected in the technology they use. Higher education is synonymous with innovation, collaboration and communication. We enhanced these values at NIU by bringing in Microsoft Office 365 cloud-based services.

When I joined NIU in 2014, the IT environment had a distinct divide between students, who used Google G Suite for Education, and faculty and staff, who used Novell GroupWise. The very first decision I made as CIO was to move faculty from an outdated, on-premises solution to Office 365. Next, I addressed one of the chief complaints of our faculty members, which was the difficulty of navigating the Google environment to collaborate with their students. Collaboration between students and faculty is fundamental to learning, and it simply didn’t make sense to keep students and teachers on separate software platforms. For that reason, we migrated all 19,000 students to Office 365, completing a campus-wide move to the cloud.

Any time we make a change at NIU, we think first about the effect it will have on our students. Our change management team did a stellar job of keeping students in the loop when it came time to migrate, using an impressive 33 channels of communication to ensure they understood the benefits of moving to Office 365. Now that everyone is on the same page, communication issues have naturally dissipated, and closer connections are being forged. I can see this in the enthusiasm with which students and educators have adopted the dynamic email and collaboration tools. Shared calendaring is an incredible way for professors and students to coordinate their schedules and implement flexible “digital” office hours. Using tools for anytime, anywhere collaboration among individuals both on campus and off improves teamwork on projects. There are many benefits to an integrated, multiplatform suite where you can store data online so it’s always available. Amazingly, I’m seeing students start to write their papers on their smartphones and finish the work at home on their laptop or in the computer lab.

Email and data security at NIU gets a boost from Office 365 features like Microsoft Exchange Online Protection, which streamlines how we deal with compromised accounts, and Exchange Online Archiving, which we use to ensure compliance. By adding these features, our IT team has gained more time to focus on strategic projects instead of putting out fires.

There is a tangible value to moving to Office 365 as well. Previously, we had a surplus of videoconferencing solutions—everything from WebEx to Polycom. By consolidating on Skype for Business Online, we are saving US$300,000 a year on licensing. The switch from Google to Office 365 gives our students a yearly benefit of US$400,000 in services they didn’t have before, all for the cost of tuition. And we are avoiding half a million dollars in hardware upgrades.

Universities are about preparing for the future, and I’m excited about the future of Office 365 at NIU. For example, we plan to use Office 365 Video to boost learning with short clips that help students solve an equation. I anticipate the combination of Office Delve and Office 365 Video will be a powerful new way to help students gain access to visual learning.

When it comes to standardizing on a productivity platform across NIU, I’m thrilled that today we have a broad group of powerful tools that are equally available to everybody. Not only will students be learning the technology they will most likely use once they graduate, but everyone has the same opportunity to take those tools and achieve their personal best.

Read the full NIU case study.