Apps for Office and SharePoint beta websiteA few weeks ago we made the customer preview available of the new version of Microsoft Office. And one of the many changes that's immediately apparent is the focus that it has on the cloud – and that includes the ability to build cloud applications that integrate with Office, and a marketplace (the Office Store) to make those apps available.

For education customers and partners, this is good news. Really good news. What it will mean is that customers will be able to add custom applications to their installations of Office or SharePoint easily, without having to do lots of fancy customisations themselves. And create a market for education apps for Office…

How do Office cloud apps help education?

I think that over the next few months, building up to release, there are going to be people around the world working away on apps that support specific processes in education – whether it's to handle a process such as submitting information, or lookup information, or publish information. Here are some of the simple ideas that occurred to me within two minutes:

  • Staff Cover booking form – for a school teacher to submit a request to attend a course or other professional development day, and automatically submit it for approval, notify the person that organises lesson cover on approval, and add it automatically to the diary of the teacher, head of department and the substitute teacher.
  • Assignment submitter – automatically saves a read-only version of a student's work into a specific folder for a teacher/lecturer, lets the teacher know that it's been submitted, and updates a tracking list of students
  • Research assistant – that goes to a specific web system for more information on a topic – perhaps one that your institution subscribes to – whilst ignoring others
  • Lesson plan publisher – takes a completed document, saves it in the appropriate format, and publishes it onto a specific library of your school/TAFE/university SharePoint, with appropriate tags so that students and other teachers can easily find it
  • Resource Booker – give you the opportunity to quickly find resources and book them for your lessons, from within your calendar.

Many of these scenarios are actually possible today already in Office and SharePoint. But the ability to have a simple, single-button way of doing these things through an app would make life much easier for staff, students, and potentially parents (oh, imagine a "permission" app, where all the parent does is read a permission form and click a button to say "Yes", instead of the constant flow of paper that seems to flow between schools and parents and back. Somebody please create one, if only to make my parental life easier!)

Who is going to create Office cloud apps for education?

I believe that we'll see three major sources of Office cloud apps for education customers:

  • Companies
    There are plenty of companies that already do equivalents of these Office cloud apps today, and sell them to education customers. But they can be difficult to find and sometimes difficult to configure and install on your SharePoint. With the creation of an Office Store for apps, suddenly it makes it much easier for a company to create an app that adds an educational feature to Office, and is easy to find and distribute.
  • Education users
    I think we'll also see free Office cloud apps developed by keen education users – for example, schools that develop an app that they are happy to share in the marketplace for others to use for free.
  • Individual developers
    Reflecting the way that apps can be developed using standard web technologies - HTML, CSS and Java – it will be possible for an individual developer, or a keen teacher of techie, to develop a useful education app and release it themselves. And it might well become an evening and weekend hobby/job for some people.

Hopefully, if you're still with me, I've got you interested in the idea – and you want to know where to get more information.

Building education applications for Office, Office 365 for education and SharePoint

Rather than repeating details from elsewhere, this is where I'm going to send you over to some other places to get the detailed info. The first starting point is the Apps for Office and SharePoint Blog, which has is publishing increasing amounts of information on how to develop and use these apps.

I'd recommend starting on these blog posts:

  1. Introducing the new Office cloud app model 
    An overview of how apps are built, and the way that are designed around web standards, security, performance, consistency and flexibility.
  2. Anatomy of apps for Office
    Explains how the apps are basically a web page integrated into Office as custom content
  3. Building apps for SharePoint and Office 365
    A step-by-step guide to create a simple app, and a walk-through of how to actually publish apps