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Digital Detox #4: Habits, Data, and Things That Go Bump in the Night: Microsoft for Education

Today, I want to spend some time looking at a tool that has become just about ubiquitous in education: the Microsoft Office365, and particularly Microsoft Teams.  For most of us working in post-secondary, the Office suite has traditionally been wallpaper: it’s just there, used in our offices and offered to our students, but not part of our teaching and learning landscape. But since the pandemic, Microsoft has made explicit moves into the courseware space with its Microsoft for Education offerings, and I increasingly encounter folks who are using it for lesson delivery, as a replacement for the LMS. This has always made me uneasy, because I don’t think Microsoft’s corporate ethos is good for pedagogy, but this week I’m diving in to explore my misgivings more.

The fact is Microsoft Office, while very annoying, is not all bad — not at all. Last week on my podcast I had the opportunity to talk about accessibility, and Word in particular is a piece of software that has made making accessible documents easier. Its sheer size and scope means that it is designed for ADA compliance. Used properly, this is a critical resource for teachers.

But other Microsoft products are just exhausting to use. Outlook seems to be professionally incapable of consistent functionality, which is an interesting choice for an enterprise-level email solution, and the internet is littered with people complaining about sync issues — to their phones, to their tablets, to other Microsoft products like To Do, which is the hell I find myself in — but for some reason we seem to have all agreed that we’re okay with it. Microsoft Teams is such an inexplicable resource hog that my aging MacBook Air sounds like it is melting from within when I try to use it; sure, seems reasonable to require more-than-consumer-grade processor power for a team communication tool. Whatever. Microsoft has made a career of being just functional enough and wildly predatory. It’s like, what, I’m going to learn a whole new suite? Exhausting. Better the devil I know and deeply, profoundly resent.

Microsoft’s ubiquity, however, is sometimes mistaken for banality. Because it is everywhere, because we have all used it forever, we assume we can trust it. I noticed this when it was announced last week that Microsoft Edge would now partner with Proctorio to provide an out-of-the-box e-proctoring solution, and many folks in EdTech — folks who I know care about these issues — expressed surprise at Microsoft’s choice to engage with Proctorio. I didn’t feel surprise. I want to talk today about why.

Early in the pandemic (remember that?), there was outrage about another Microsoft surveillance effort: the productivity score. In reality, it was a tool that had been available to Office 365 corporate installations since 2019, but Microsoft did a bit of a splashy rollout of it in October because they were ghoulish enough to recognize that employers were even more interested than usual in spying on their employees. Productivity Scoring, part of the Workplace Analytics suite, allowed employers to see a numerical representation of their employee’s engagement with O365 tools. The scale was out of 800 — I know nothing about the SATs, but I had flashbacks to every YA novel I’ve ever read, which is a lot of YA novels — with 100 points associated to each of communication, meetings, things like that. The idea is that you get points for collaborating on documents, attending meetings, I presume even posting on Yammer, if you hate yourself. Microsoft claims that the purpose of the tool isn’t to monitor individual employees but to get a sense of how your workplace as a whole is adapting to remote work — which would have been believable if individual data reports weren’t turned on by default. Anyway, Microsoft changed some details and aggregated the data and walked it back in December, but, like, yikes. Yikes yikes yikes.

Because here’s the thing. User names have been, in Microsoft’s words, “removed from the product,” but they’re still collecting that data. They still know the details of how individuals access Office 365 — and for this tool to ever have been functional, workplaces were gleefully sharing that data with Microsoft. Pricing structures logically must have been built at least in part with the recognition of that data being part of the deal. There is, of course, no way to not collect that data. Microsoft can stop showing it to you, but it’s still there. Where is going? What is it being used for? Who knows.

So that got me thinking about Microsoft for Education, and particularly the O365 product Teams, which early in the pandemic Microsoft began to push hard on as a replacement for the traditional learning management system. This is appealing to university IT departments already stretched thin — hey, this is infrastructure we already have and support! — and it looks slicker than a traditional LMS. Students are courted by the idea of working in a “workplace-ready” online space.

And yet. Microsoft does not have a good track record with data privacy or even learner privacy. They own Linkedin, which collects and resells huge amounts of data not just about job hunters, but about users of their Linkedin Learning service. It also, like, steals your friends’ emails from your address book, but whatever. The user tracking functionality in Windows 10 scraped so much unnecessary user data that it ran afoul of French law. And the Dutch government was scathing in its analysis of how Microsoft tracks and stores data on Word and O365 users, referring to the practices as “systematic” and “covert,” and noting:

Microsoft has included separate software in the Office software that regularly sends telemetry data to its own servers in the United States. For example, Microsoft collects information about events in Word, when you use the backspace key a number of times in a row, which probably means you do not know the correct spelling. But also the sentence before and after a word that you look up in the online spelling checker or translation service.

When I think about this kind of tracking, and I think about how a Microsoft service like Linkedin packages what it knows about us in the aggregate to sell our profiles, and I consider the kind of functionality built in to Office365, which we are now widely and largely uncritically rolling our students’ data into… well, I have questions.

The kinds of analytics that were being used to determine “productivity” are the same kinds of analytics that learning management systems typically use to measure “learning.” Did you click the clicky things often enough? If yes, you can be employee of the month and have this degree, apparently. We’ve talked about the limits of learning analytics in the learning management system, and why I think you should both disclose them to your students and mostly stay away from them yourself. Analytics aren’t evil, but they are a troubled tool that is easy to misuse. Microsoft calls their equivalent to learning analytics Education Insights, and it’s offered as a “free” add-on for Education customers. It functions much like the Productivity Score, but it’s more open about its intention: it is designed so that you can observe how a single student is making their way through your course materials. This includes a lot of data that I don’t think instructors have any right to know, including how early in the morning or late at night students work on assignments, which Microsoft refers to as Habits. Some instructors argue that this is critical information to spark conversations with students. I think it’s creepy as hell. 

Indeed, I think this is an example of the overreach that has become distressingly commonplace in Covid-19 teaching. Instructors don’t have any right to students’ homespaces, and yet from requirements to turn cameras on in sessions to e-proctoring to policing who else is in the room or what students are doing during class, we act as though we are entitled to it. I suppose we are all feeling out-of-control and powerless, but we seem to be reverting to the kinds of punitive, controlling strategies typical of the first-time instructor in a rigid instructional setting. The idea that I am entitled to know when my students access their assignments, that I am entitled to that kind of insight into their private lives, unsettles me, just as it would unsettle me, as a faculty member, if my director had critical comments about how late at night or early in the morning I write these posts (Hi, Brian). If I initiate a conversation about work-life balance, that’s one thing; if he logs in to check a report on what time I was writing this post in Word, that’s another. (As if. I write these essays in Scrivener. Obviously.) Or, maybe as an even more apt example: how about we release Habits details to students about when their instructors mark their papers? Maybe it could spark a conversation? Ha.

Also, like — I wrote a lot of papers for university at four in the morning. I worked a lot of different weird jobs, yes. But I also procrastinated a lot, played a lot of Paper Mario, drank a lot of Diet Coke, and insisted on learning a lot of lessons the hard way. And I also just really liked writing early in the morning! I always have, until my toddler stole the concept of mornings from me. I would have been mortified if an instructor knew my “Habits,” much less initiated a conversation about them. Surely our students have a right to a private life and personal choices. Surely some things are none of our damned business.

There are also huge assumptions in-built in the idea that these kinds of  so-called Habits are things that require an instructor’s intercession. What shapes our understanding of when and how “good” students go about their work? I am particularly concerned about the kinds of ableism that shape our assumptions about when work should be done and how students should comport themselves.

I assume this functionality has emerged out of the “personal productivity” MyAnalytics component of Office 365, which appears to invite the user to tell their employer all kinds of private mental health data, but is also designed to let you see your working practices and adjust them if needed; one of the things is does is remind you not to send email during meetings. Well then when am I supposed to send emails, Jan. It also tells you if no one opens your emails, which is something I don’t need to be told as I can feel it inside my soul. (The MyAnalytics horror stories on Reddit are a good wasted afternoon.) There’s a lot to say about that from the perspective of worker’s rights, but the power dynamics in the student-faculty relationship make this kind of recycling troubling. Also, MyAnalytics are allegedly private — though I doubt it. Insights are designed for individual tracking.

And then there’s the little matter of what happens to all this data in the future? As Microsoft is increasingly a cradle-to-grave software company, whose tools we use at every stage of our lives, how long will a students’ data follow them? Does the profile Microsoft builds, based on all of those Habits, follow the student to grad school, or into the workforce? Integrated solutions always threaten our right to be forgotten, and I particularly worry about that when it comes to teaching and learning data collected at a time when people are growing and developing. I don’t write my essays at four in the morning anymore, for example. (It’s barely even midnight.)

Ultimately, it seems to me that at least part of the problem wth Microsoft for Education, and particularly Teams and the integrated Office 365 suite, is that it wasn’t designed for education; education is a useful revenue stream for an enterprise communications solution. So as we’re learning about the value of a multimodal learning environment for students that blends synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences, we’re looking to a video conferencing software with deeply embedded surveillance functionality as a solution. This isn’t to say that individual instructors aren’t doing incredible things with Teams — I know they are, I see it everyday. But I worry about a tool that has been designed first and foremost as a corporate solution by a company with a poor track record on data privacy, leaping into the learning management game in the middle of a crisis.

I’d love to hear about how you see some of these trends — corporate tools repackaged for education, misused learning analytics, maybe tug on that ableism thread — in the comments down below.

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  1. I just reblogged this ( because our institution, which is struggling with finding good tools for student to student engagement and collaboration, is looking at giving students access to our Teams environment and integrating it with our LMS. I still think this is a good idea as it’s a tool we are already using, and wouldn’t be the primary teaching tool for faculty, but it makes me ask the question: What on earth can we use to support student to student collaboration which we can support as an institution and also protect student privacy? That’s all…it’s akin to the eternal LMS question…

  2. Yikes yikes yikes is right. I had no idea Microsoft did all this. Rethinking how much I like Teams!

    I especially find data about when people do things concerning. How might that bias how grades are handed out? When I was doing my BA I wrote my papers in advance during the day. My best friend wrote them in the middle of the night the night before. He wrote better papers than I did (I’m still salty). But if our profs saw the data about when we did our homework would they have be biased about our habits and give me a better grade?

    One last thing – Outlook keeps telling me I have “a lot of meetings” next week and would I like some “focused time.” Yes I would Outlook but please get lost.

  3. I had a laugh out load moment when you suggested students getting insights into when papers were being marked. Yeah, that would definitely “spark some conversations”.

    I truly don’t believe that as an instructor I have a right to a lot of the data I already have access to, let along the new dystopian ideas of Learning Insights and Habits. I (very ironically) use the information about when a student has logged into the LMS to follow up with them if they haven’t attended in a week or more, but I try to keep away from any other data.

    The thing is, all this data can be gamed or inaccurate for a variety of reasons and it is ridiculous to pretend otherwise. There are so many stories of students logging into Zoom and using video background or other tricks to “attend” while doing other things. My LMS will log a student as having 0 time in the content if they download and read materials offline. On the flip side, students could click through discussion posts for the minimum time needed for the system to mark the posts as having been “read” without actually reading them. This checkbox policing of students is absolutely ridiculous especially because it is performative and doesn’t mean a darn thing in the context of actual learning or engagement.

    When Microsoft rolled out the Productivity score for workplaces it gave personal context to the idea of tracking engagement to folks who it hadn’t affected before. I was the person being a nuisance saying things like “if that would be horrible for you, imagine what it is like for students!”. I feel like instructors are like middle managers sometimes. We want and need autonomy but will inflict this terrible micro-management on those below us if we are pressured to do so by those above us. We want to be trusted but are acculturated into not trusting others.

    I know a lot of my data is out there already. I’m old (young?) enough that I was spreading my data around online well before we were educated about the potential life-long consequences. It makes me feel like my data is a lost cause at this point (probably one of the reasons I don’t often think about the analytics in my health tracking apps). BUT, there is a big difference between those choices I made and the new climate that seems to take *choice* out of it. You shouldn’t have to be subject to this level of invasive tech to get an education or be employed.

  4. An important question has to be, “why are cash strapped educational institutions spending fortunes on Microsoft contracts, when open source, or in-house solutions exist to service most of the major functions???”

    1. I think part of the issue is that the in-house support isn’t there. My institution doesn’t run Moodle (in part) because it would need at least 1.5 full-time technicians to do care and updates. It is cheaper to farm that work out to a third party. That being said, our technicians now do different, and arguably more impactful, work so we didn’t lose any jobs. But I think that cost of upkeep is a big deal.

      The line here is that “Moodle is free like a puppy is free. Sure, the initial cost is $0 but you still need to feed it and pay vet bills”.

      For some things I agree with this attitude, but for others I don’t.

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