Microsoft rolls out free Office 365 for Students, but hits activation snag

Microsoft offered a self-service model for students to get Office 365 for free, but many students hit a snag as the activation process failed.

Microsoft Way
ToddABishop (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

If students want Microsoft Office 365 for free without jumping hoops with a school’s IT department – as in waiting for the school to create, activate, and order a license for an Office 365 account, then it’s currently a good news/bad news scenario for you.

The good news

On Monday, Microsoft announced that students age 13 and older located in the U.S. can skip the IT department and sign up for Office 365 for Students. Previously, it was on the school to initiate the service, create an account for the student, and then order the Office 365 license for that account.

The new self-serve model allows students to go to Office 365 for Students and enter a valid school-provided email address. Qualified students are then given the following for free:

  • The latest versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access and Publisher
  • Installation on up to five PCs or Macs, and Office apps on other mobile devices, including Windows tablets and iPad
  • 1 Terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage
  • Office Online

If you aren’t a cloud hater, then 1 TB of free storage is pretty sweet!

Microsoft rolled this out to U.S. students on Sept. 22, but will expand the self-serve model worldwide later in 2014. Starting on Dec. 1, faculty and staff will also have access to Office 365 ProPlus for free, so teachers will be using the same versions of Office with the same features as students. Teachers in the U.S. can sign up starting in October.

The biggest disclaimer for all of this is that schools must have “purchased Office organization-wide for all faculty/staff via the Microsoft Volume Licensing program.” There is no mention of how long the free subscription to Office 365 for Students is valid. Licensing programs come in subscription or perpetual flavors. It seems logical that Microsoft would require students to re-validate their .edu email address every year or so. Otherwise, students would have Office for free for life, and there’s no way Microsoft would do that.

Allowing students to sign up themselves removes “unnecessary friction and delay,” Microsoft said. Except after the massive surge in students jumping on free Office 365, the delay did not go away and an unknown number of students were unable to activate their new Office 365 for Students.

The bad news

Yesterday afternoon on the Microsoft Office 365 community forum, Microsoft started a thread for “Office 365 Education for Students activation.” It currently has 202 replies and is 14 pages long, as the self-serve model is apparently not activating and making frustrated students want to pull out their hair.

Microsoft originally advised students who could not activate their Office 365 installation to wait 10 minutes and try activating again using the same email address and password. If that didn’t work, then students were encouraged to post their question. Most replies dealt with activation issues, as people were getting an error stating that their school email address wasn't "associated with this Office product. To activate this install, please sign in with the account associated with your product."

A few were kind enough to include screen captures of the error.

Office 365 for Student activation error LandonHemsley
Microsoft free Office 365 for Students activation errors KaranPatel2184

By last night, Microsoft updated the status:

We are actively investigating reports that some students are experiencing difficulty in activating Office 365 Education for Students. As soon as we have an update we will post to this forum. In the meantime, we want to remind everyone that you have 5 days to activate Office and can use all the features and functionality that Office provides. We apologize for the inconvenience.

By the wee hours of the morning, Microsoft updated the status again:

Status Update 23-Sept 01:58 UTC -8: Engineers have identified the source of the issue and are in the process of implementing a fix. No ETA at this point.

A few students called Microsoft for assistance and apparently went on the epically long customer service merry-go-round, such as being “passed to five different agents.” Another student suggested, “Some of your reps need to be educated on the issue I think, some tried to trick me into buying versions of the software.”

It’s been 16 hours and Microsoft has not yet implemented a fix. By the time free Office 365 rolls out to students in other countries, Microsoft should have the signup and activation process smoothed out.

Moments before I hit "publish," Microsoft updated the status again:

Status Update 23-Sept (8:11 am PDT): Unfortunately due to an unforeseen issue some students have run into a delay activating the Office ProPlus clients after download. We have investigated the issue and are currently finalizing an update to the service. In the meantime, to ensure students have a great experience we will disable new students signing up for the offer for a few hours while we deploy the update. New students regardless of eligibility will see the following message: “Sorry, your school isn’t on our list of eligible institutions. We’ll check to make sure the list is up to date, so try again in a few days…”

Users who have installed Office on Windows have a 5-day grace period in which all features and functionality are available. After installing Office, affected Windows users can close the activation sign-in page to continue using Office until we resolve the problem. We’re sorry, but there is no workaround for Mac/iPad users.

We are working to update the service as soon as possible. Once the service is updated, new students will be able to sign-up and students who already installed Office (on Windows, Mac, and iPad) will be able to activate successfully.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 hot cybersecurity trends (and 2 going cold)