Free office software for schools: what's the catch?

3 Oct 2012
Children laptop

Simon Jones ponders the ethical question of supplying free office software and services to schoolchildren

Microsoft Office 365 is to be sold to schools, taking over from the existing Live@edu service. Plans A2, A3 and A4 are similar to the enterprise plans E2, E3 and E4, but seem to be missing the SharePoint component – although this can be added at extra cost.

Plan A2, based around Office Web Apps, Outlook Web App, Exchange Online and Lync Online, couldn’t be any cheaper since it’s free for all pupils and staff at any educational establishment.

The A3 plan adds rental of Office Professional Plus, unlimited email storage, archiving and hosted voicemail, and it costs £1.98 per student per month and £3.50 per staff member per month.

Google is basically an advertising sales company, where you’re the product

To add enterprise voice capability, integrating with an on-premise Lync Server, you need the A4 plan, which costs £2.38 per student per month and £4.75 per staff member per month. You can mix and match these plans of course: for instance, by putting junior pupils on plan A2 and senior pupils and staff on A3, for optimum economy.

Many schools, colleges and universities are starting to move over to Office 365, and indeed the Scottish government announced in April that it would be updating its Glow project, the "Scottish schools digital network", to use Office 365. This was a controversial choice, and a significant number of people would have preferred to use Google Apps, but Google pulled out of the procurement process. Microsoft won the contract by promising to provide the service and support free of charge, including a full-time member of staff, until December 2014.

Transition to the new platform could take some time, with existing contracts with RM Education being extended until December 2013 to ensure that schools have enough time to identify and transfer all the content they want to keep. Some lucky schools, however, could be up and running on Office 365 from September 2012.

I know that some people wanted to go with Google rather than Microsoft for a variety of reasons: some see Microsoft as too expensive or too corporate; others think that Google’s tools are more "innovative"; others believe that since Microsoft’s Office suite is effectively the "business standard", why should children be forced to learn something different at school and then have to change when they start work? I take a different stance.

Google is basically an advertising sales company, where you’re the product: it’s out to learn as much about you as possible so it can sell you to its clients. If it can identify you while you’re at school, and build up a history of your likes and interests, it will be able to serve up even more highly targeted ads, which means that it can make more money out of you. The company’s Terms of Service for Google Apps allows it to use the "information you supply" – that is, your emails and documents – to target adverts at you.

Targeting children

To show where this process can lead, consider Channel One, a US TV channel specifically for schools. The firm leases TV equipment to schools for free, in return for the schools showing its Channel One News programme in their classrooms every day. Forty per cent of US middle and high schools have signed up. The schools can use the equipment any way they want, but all their pupils have to sit through the 12-minute news programme, including two minutes of ads, every day.
A study by Michigan State University reported that while students didn’t remember much about the news content of Channel One News, they did remember the adverts, and that "regular watching of Channel One reinforces materialistic attitudes".

From 1994 until 2007, Channel One was owned by Primedia, part of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), which owned RJR Nabisco, makers of Camel cigarettes.

While there’s no suggestion Channel One ran cigarette adverts, from 1990 to 1999 Primedia also owned Weekly Reader, an educational magazine for children distributed through US schools. Research by Professor Stanton Glantz of the University of California in 1995 accused the Weekly Reader of downplaying the health effects of smoking and most often ending with the view of the tobacco industry. The Weekly Reader even ran promotions including pictures of Joe Camel, the Camel cigarettes cartoon mascot. In 2007, Channel One was sold to Alloy Media + Marketing, which describes its industry sector as "Marketing and Advertising".

I’m not suggesting Google would go that far, and indeed the company says that its default position is not to serve adverts to users of Google Apps for Education, although it does include "sponsored links" in its Gmail service. What are sponsored links if not adverts? The school’s administrator can turn off the sponsored links, but if the school has accounts for "Alumni" then Google insists that all adverts, not only sponsored links, are turned on for those accounts.

I think both Google and Microsoft’s reason for providing free services to schools is to accustom young users to its products early on. In Google’s case this is about knowing more about its users and making them more valuable to advertisers. In Microsoft’s case it’s so employers can buy those products with the confidence that the employees it hires in future will already know how to use them, helping it to sell more software.

If we think about the goals of the companies that seek to provide such services, and follow the money, we should be able to make a reasoned judgement about which offering is best for staff and pupils.