Office Online: For Free (and Quite Legal)

The free version of Microsoft’s Office Suite may have a reduced functionality when compared to the desktop version but for “no money” it has to be a bit of a bargain for both teachers and students.

While applications like Word and PowerPoint are probably staples of any teaching toolkit, they can be expensive, even when you take into account the various “Teachers and Students” discount versions of the Office Suite currently available: “Office Home & Student 2021 for PC or Mac”, for example, can set you back one penny less than £120 for access to just 3 programs: Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

This cost can be prohibitive for students and, indeed, teachers, which may go some way to explaining the plethora of cheap “Word” clones on the market and the popularity of free online apps like Google Docs.

Another problem if, like me, you prefer to use desktop versions of these apps, is their lack of portability. If you want to move your work freely and easily across different platforms it’s a real pain because you don’t have access to online versions of programs like Word or PowerPoint.

Microsoft’s “solution” is Office 365 – the online version of their Office Suite. Once again, however, this is expensive. Office 365 Home will set you back around £80 per year for the privilege of access to the above four apps plus:

• Publisher (Microsoft’s expensive, Very Ordinary and Just-A-Little-Bit-Clunky DTP).
• Outlook (an email client that has better and cheaper (i.e. free) competitors such as Mozilla Thunderbird) and
• Access (a very good database but, be honest, how often do you use a database in your everyday teaching / learning?).

The solution – whether it’s to the problem of cost or portability – is Microsoft’s offer of free access to the online versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote (an incredibly-useful note-taking, storage and organising app. Once you experience it you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it).

Just sign-in using your Microsoft account (either your personal account – if you’re using Windows 10 it’s the same as your Microsoft Store account – or one that’s been set-up by your school) and you have access to the four programs.

One small(ish) caveat is that if you’re used to using the desktop versions you’ll experience a slightly-reduced functionality online. However, unless you’re a power-user of some description you won’t find this much of a restriction.

Why So Generous?

While I can’t claim to have any Special Access to the thinking of Microsoft’s Marketing department, those of you old enough to remember a time when Bank’s charged you Actual Money for the privilege of opening an account with them, students were afforded the luxury of Free Banking. This was done on the calculated basis that giving students “something for nothing” for a few years would very likely capture a customer for life (on the tried-and-trusted basis that moving a bank account back then was even more difficult than opening one).

Although students probably had little spare cash while studying, the bet was that once they graduated they would move into well-paid employment and their bank would have access to large amounts of their spare cash to lend at exorbitant rates.

I’m guessing the same thinking is behind Microsoft’s offer. If they can get students using free versions of programs like Word and PowerPoint they can achieve “customer capture”; i.e. why would you want to change to a rival Wordprocessor or Presentation program, with a new learning curve, when you’ve been comfortably using Word and PowerPoint for a few years? The hope, I suppose, is that users of the free versions will, at some point, move on to using the paid versions…


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