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

Posted on 3 Oct 2012 at 10:59

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.

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User comments

There is no such thing as free

Free is an illusion. Zero up front cost on the other hand, is not. Somewhere or or other these companies will make a profit on the transaction because being listed on the stockmarket, maximising shareholder value is a legal responsibility of the board.

Personally I like paying for products up front because you know where you stand; money in exchange for goods and services. Maybe I'm just old fashioned.

By SirRoderickSpode on 3 Oct 2012

Yes Minister

"Your s/w is too expensive and a drain on the education budget - it is the corporate standard but there are alternatives"

"OK minister we'll drop the price to zero for schools"

"No that's too cheap and anti-competitive - it would cause me all sorts of problems we must pay (less)"

"What price would you like then ?"

"Couldn't possibly comment"

Rinse and repeat

By gcmassey1 on 3 Oct 2012


I wonder how much income Simon Jones gets direct from Microsoft to spout so much anti Google apps/ Open Office guff? What is all that about the TV station, completely irrelevant but associating Google with advertising of cigarettes to schoolchildren.

By ramjam on 3 Oct 2012


SJ didn't mention Open Office but isn't OO so passé these days, an up-to-date troll would have harped on about LibreOfice and the fact its not even mentioned. But more seriously, all SJ was saying is that Google ain't a charity! They've turned out some great stuff like Google Maps but they are basically doing it to cement their position as the premier purveyor of online ads, and like SJ, I can't help wondering if Google's largesse in the education market is driven by a large chunk of self interest. Of course Google are not alone in that respect.

By rjp2000 on 3 Oct 2012


I know SJ didn't mention OO or Libre Office, but if you look at his past articles you will find he is just as scathing, despite the fact OO wasn't and Libre Office isn't commercial. That's why I ask how much he gets paid by Microsoft.
Microsoft isn't a charity, either, and do what they can to further the sales of their products. Very popular these days to buy opinion in publications and online.

By ramjam on 4 Oct 2012


Sorry, I'm completely with SJ on this one.

By jgwilliams on 4 Oct 2012

The fact of the blather...

The biggest problem is, there is no real alternative to MS Office in business at the moment, at least not for more complicated documents, which need to be shared among businesses.

I do a lot of technical writing and Google Docs doesn't have the feature set to be a serious contender.

OO and LibreOffice have real problems with keeping formatting, especially when the documents need to be converted into MS formats, things just go haywire.

I used OO.o for a long time, as my main workstation was Linux based. But I always had to keep a PC in the corner with Windows and Office on it to check the documents, before sending them out, because they would always need reformatting, before I could send them to clients or partners for further work - sending out finished documents was easier, I could just send the PDF.

The worst are presentations, OO.o and Libre Office randomly move lines and other objects around the page when confronted with an MS format file.

Very embarassing when you are trying to show a process flow and you open the document and the flow lines go between the wrong parts of the process!

By big_D on 5 Oct 2012


Issue is that with software licensing you aren't paying for goods and services, you are paying to be allowed to agree to a massively complex EULA which permits you to use (but not own) the software under some very draconic restrictions. For example you may not be allowed to transfer the software to a new computer if your mobo fails. You may also be paying four times as much as a system-builder would pay for the same software. Not that I'm advocating cloud services as an alternative, IME they are dreadfully unreliable. At least local software works most of the time.

By Anteaus on 5 Oct 2012

its really a great news for every school children.

By Williamgibson on 10 Oct 2012

Schools aren't commerical organisations...

Personally I got through school and university (early 1990's) without having to to pay Microsoft, or any other company for office products (student editions or otherwise) and have been happily using this free software for numerical analysis, documentation and presentations ever since.

I'm by no means a Microsoft or capitalist hater, I do feel strongly though that school children and students should be made far more aware of the free alternatives out there and that they don't have to resort to buying software to do their school work on.

By thickspex on 15 Oct 2012

for the record.

I do not get paid anything by Microsoft.

They do give me free copies of some of their software so I can learn and write about it but that's it. I've not even had a free trip to a conference for many years.

If you look at my recent writings about Microsoft Office 2013 you will find I have been very scathing about many aspects of it.

I am in no one's pocket and will praise or lambast as I think fit.

By Simon_Jones_RWC on 15 Oct 2012

The problem is standards

If we had an agreed document standard we all stuck too, it wouldn't be such a problem.

As has been mentioned, nothing is free. But some things are better then others.

Google want your data to sell you ads. That's their business model. Hence they give away so many 'apps'.

Microsoft want to sell you more software (and increasingly want more of your data) and keep you tied in to their 'standards'. Hence they give it away to schools.

Both want to get their hands on users as young as possible to indoctrinate them in to their ways. Hence it is accepted by many that 'Word' is a standard and people are scared into changing that.

Personally I would force all schools to use LibreOffice (or another agreed open source system - I have no preference on which one) and make everyone else change to fit proper open standards.

Schools are their to teach kids that you use a word precsessor or a spreadsheet ot a database. Not Word, Excel and Access.

I'm fed up with kids being indoctrinated by these companies that see them as nothing more than cash machines.

If these companies were giving them sweets and promising them a good time whilst following them 24/7 to watch their habits, we would treat them like paedophiles for 'grooming' their subjects and have them locked up immediately.

But in reality that is exactly what they are doing.

It's disgusting and should be changed urgently.

By reetspetit on 16 Nov 2012

buy a degree online

I agree that there is nothing such as free.Everything has a price in one way or other. There can be solutions and one such solution is online education.

By Elena12 on 15 May 2013

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