The Vatican has struck a deal with Microsoft to give 43 million pupils at 200,000 Roman Catholic schools in more than 100 countries access to a broad suite of the software company's products.
The new Social Network for Catholic Education will allow students to access a product called Office 365 for Education. Pupils will be able to use the company's widely used workplace software, as well as teleconferencing and other tools.
The rollout will start with allowing 4.5 million students at innovative schools access to the software over the next three years. The intention of the concordat, however, is to extend the program to the entire Catholic school network.
Father Angel Astorgano, general secretary of the Catholic International Education Office, said: "We are entering a new era in global Catholic education. We will offer the most advanced technology, knowledge and skills to our schools."
Anthony Salcito, vice-president of worldwide education at Microsoft, said he came "straight out of the Catholic schools in the Bronx [in New York]" Catholic schools around the world, he said, often do well "with less funding than other schools."
The Catholic International Education Office, based in Brussels, runs the largest network of schools in the world. It represents and supports the secretariats of national Catholic education systems.
Microsoft is one of several large companies in the schools software market. Products for schools are intended to allow teachers – and parents – to track pupils' marks, attendance and to share and enliven lesson content.
News Corp has entered this field. Pearson, which owns the Financial Times, offers services such as Fronter, which allows pupils and parents to access lesson content at home. Capita is a big provider of management software for schools.
The software package will be hosted online: schools will require a broadband internet connection to access it. Mr. Salcito described it as "perfect for schools." "It's a rich set of tools without needing to put in infrastructure."