Dropbox Hops to School With New Education Team

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There are many things that millennials miss about college. But one memory that few are nostalgic about is backing up digital files—whether through emailing copies of documents to yourself, or carrying USB flash sticks (and hoping you have the right one—or that it’s properly formatted).

Mishaps with the latter scenario drove Drew Houston, who in 2007 was working at an online SAT prep startup, to write the first lines of code that would become Dropbox, the file sharing and collaboration tool used today by more than 400 million people around the world. The company has since wooed both big Fortune 500 companies and other institutions, including his alma mater, MIT, which made Dropbox available to all faculty, student and staff in August 2014.

About two months later, the San Francisco, CA-based company started a team to focus on education strategy. It’s a small outfit, numbering a dozen full-time employees housed under the Dropbox for Business division. But the Dropbox for Education group has already closed deals with several colleges, including Cal State Fullerton, Cleveland Community College and most recently the University of Oklahoma.

Ross Piper, Vice President of Enterprise at Dropbox, says its entry into the education market is eased by the fact that many university students and faculty already use the service. “We already have massive adoption by individuals within the education space,” he says. The company claims approximately one in four college students in the US—and a similar number for K-12 educators—have personal Dropbox accounts.

The strategy sounds like an ideal example of the bottom-up sales model in education, where consistent usage by individual students and teachers drives demand for institution-wide adoption.

At the University of Oklahoma, the IT staff found that 12,000 faculty, staff and students already use the service. Several departments had also each contacted Dropbox inquiring about purchasing enterprise accounts, prompting the company to stitch the conversations together to explore what a broader adoption would look like.

“We had a lot of individual accounts, and two departments ready to sign contracts,” says Eddie Huebsch, the university’s Assistant Vice President for Technology Advancement. “We also learned that the university was paying for a lot of individual faculty accounts.”

Dropbox’s popularity and demand ultimately drove the university to pilot Dropbox for Business for 500 faculty and staff. It’s a number that Huebsch believes will grow—but cautiously. “We’re comfortable with supporting multiple vendors, since people have different use cases and different needs,” he tells EdSurge.

The University of Oklahoma has existing agreements with Microsoft for services like Exchange and Office 365, which also comes with OneDrive, its own cloud-based file sharing and collaboration service. Many students also use services provided by Google, which in recent years has signed up schools like Georgetown University to adopt its suite of productivity and collaboration tools, including Drive for Education.

“There are going to be other options, and we’re going to assess where [Dropbox] fits,” says Huebsch. “It made sense for the university to try what students and faculty were already using.”

The company is also making inroads into the K-12 market, where Piper estimates there are existing users in more than 9,500 US districts (based on Dropbox accounts with school email addresses). The company already counts schools like KIPP Houston and Atlanta International School as customers.

“All this adoption has driven us to build capabilities required for the education market,” says Piper, including a single sign-on framework (which lets students and staff access Dropbox with their school-provisioned credentials) and compliance with security and privacy regulations like COPPA and FERPA.

Huebsch notes that Dropbox has also fulfilled requests to add “group management controls [and] the ability to distribute permissions and create multiple admin accounts.” These features alleviate concerns around ownership of sensitive files, especially when students and faculty move on.

As students rely on a growing toolkit of niche technology services and tools, Huebsch expects many school IT departments to “to move away from trying to get ‘one tool to rule them all’ to finding ways to accommodate the different use cases and needs that our students, faculty and staff have.”

To this point, Dropbox offers APIs that allow the tool to be used with Office 365 and Gmail, along with popular education technology services like Blackboard and TurnItIn. Other integrations are on their way. “Schools, faculty, staff and students are using so many different applications, and many of them already have integrated with us,” says Piper. “Collaboration in education is only increasing.”

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