Improving school to home communication by giving parents access to Office 365 for education

imageMy colleague, James Marshall, is a whizz with Office 365 for education. And he regularly shares information on his UK Education Cloud Blog on how to use the Office 365 cloud services to support education organisations (from both an IT management and user perspective). I really recommend following his blog if you’re after up to date information.

I’ve used some of the information from his blog post "Parent Access to SharePoint Online using PALs" to describe some scenarios where you can use Office 365 for education to improve your communications with parents. I’ve written this from a school perspective, but the same applies to TAFE or University where you want to securely communicate and interact with external users, including parents, business partners, researchers etc

Using Office 365 to improve secure parental communications and save costs

imageThere’s all sorts of information that schools need to provide to parents, and traditionally this has resulted in copious amounts of paper being given to students to put in their bag, often never to be seen again! This not only involves tonnes of paper, but also massive cost. Increasingly schools have turned to their websites, or social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, to distribute information but sometimes there are things schools need to distribute to a restricted audience (things you want parents to know, but not tell the world; or things that are only relevant to one particular group of parents only). The good news is that if you’re using Office 365 for education (the free cloud-based office service that gives you email, SharePoint, Lync, and Office web apps as an online service) you can use the website, team collaboration and publishing services to make this whole process easier.

You can enable parent access to the SharePoint Online service in Office 365 for education using PALs (Partner Access Licence). And the good news is that the PALs are provided automatically as part of the Office 365 service.

Scenarios for school to home collaboration with parents

What sort of information could you publish? Here’s a few examples:

  • Internal school contact information – this could be information on how to contact a particular form tutor, or an up to date staff listing etc.
  • Event dates – some events like an open evening you want to promote to the world, but other events such as sports day or parents evening you might want to make available to a more limited audience.
  • School trip information – creating a dedicated team site for a particular school trip that you can grant parents access in order to share important information such as the trip itinerary, contact information, blogs, photos, etc. It can be a great way to keep in touch with home, but not tell the whole world about it!

There is a bunch of jargon here, so here’s a few definitions:

  • PAL – partner access licence. Each SharePoint Online tenant in Office 365 for education gets 10,000 of these included.
  • External User – another name for someone that doesn’t exist as a licenced user object in Office 365. Typically your staff and students will have SharePoint Online licences, but as parents can’t be given these licenses they are external users. External users are invited by email address. The email address can be from any domain, but must be associated with a Microsoft Account. Each External User consumes one PAL.
  • External Contact – these represent people outside of your institution who can be displayed in the shared address book (GAL). They don’t have a mailbox in Exchange Online, and can’t sign in to your domain. They are also totally separate from External Users.


Enabling parental access to Office 365 for education in three simple steps

Enabling this functionality can be done in three simple steps:

  1. Enable external sharing for SharePoint Onlineby default SharePoint Online does not allow external users. To enable the potential for external users to be invited to any of the sit collections in your environment you need to enable the feature.
  2. Activate external sharing for a site collection – after the SharePoint Online environment has been set to allow external sharing, site collection administrators can choose whether or not to allow external users to be invited to sites in their site collections.
  3. Share your site with external users – now that you’ve activated external sharing, and allowed it on your chosen site collection(s), you can start sharing it with people.


Keep in mind that once you invite external users to one part of your site, it is easy to grant them permission to other sites – which means if your staff get carried away, you may be sharing more than you first planned. So you should ensure that you know the identity of users who are invited through e-mail and consider confirming their identity before granting an external user access to content.

An external user invitation can be accepted only one time. The invitation email can be forwarded to another recipient who can use the invitation to access the SharePoint site. However, after the e-mail invitation has been accepted, it expires.

If you attempt to invite an external user to use your site when your school has set SharePoint Online to deny external users, you will see a note in the ‘Share Site’ box that that says, “Invitations to users outside your organization are currently disabled.”

To use an email address, such as *, to log on to a SharePoint Online site, the email address must first be associated with a Microsoft account. You can register an email address with your Microsoft account by following the steps at this website.

More Info

You can read up on this topic in a few different places: