Microsoft on Tuesday announced an expansion of its Office 365 service to the education market. On the good-news front, some versions of Office 365 will be free to students. But in keeping with recent Microsoft trends, the software giant has also added complexity by providing five separate versions of Office 365 for education, with per-user prices ranging from $6 per user per month to $17 per user per month for the four paid plans, each of which targets students as well as educators.

"Our mission is to help people and organizations around the world realize their full potential, and we at Microsoft believe there's no better place to make that come to life than education," Microsoft General Manager Jon Perera said. "We're committed to developing technology that can unleash student creativity and help students and educators connect and collaborate."

So what's really happening here? Office 365 is a forthcoming enterprise-class service from Microsoft that unifies a number of previously separate brands and products into a single product family. Available services include the Office Web Apps; Outlook Web App; hosted versions of Exchange Server, SharePoint, and Lync; and the client version of Office Professional Plus 2010.

Today, Microsoft offers educational institutions a free service called Live@edu, which includes access to hosted versions of Exchange, Office Web Apps, and Windows Live SkyDrive cloud storage. Live@edu is currently used by 15 million students worldwide—up from 11 million students three months ago.

Office 365 for education is the successor to Live@edu, and it will add functionality and of course the requisite tiers of service, most of which aren't free. As with other versions of Office 365, the education versions of this service will debut later in 2011, Microsoft says.

"For students, in particular, most of what Office 365 offers will be available for free," Perera says. "Students get free email and ... free SharePoint Online for collaboration. They're also getting Lync, for real-time instant messaging, voice and video chat, as well as online meetings and presence. Students will also get the Office Web Apps, the web-based applications that ... work across all the popular web browsers. Students can then work seamlessly together, on documents ... and make changes simultaneously."

Microsoft's free Office 365 service is available to students and includes the web-based services mentioned above. Beyond that are four paid plans, called A1, A2, A3, and A4, which cost $6, $10, $14, and $17 per user per month, respectively, for faculty and staff. The A1 and A2 plans are free to students, but the A3 plan costs $2 per student per month, whereas A4 costs $5 per student per month. Yep. It's confusing.

Basically, A1 is identical to the free tier except the institution is paying for faculty and staff to gain access to the same set of web-based services, and that staff doesn't gain access to the Office Web Apps. A2 adds Office Web Apps for faculty and staff. A3 adds the full Office Professional Plus 2010 desktop software, which explains the jump in price and the cost ($2 per student per month) for students. (Microsoft notes that the $2 charge per student represents a "90 percent discount" for Office.) A4, the top-end plan, includes "on-premises access to voice functionality in the Lync server."

That's a lot to digest, and I can't help but think that this can and should be a bit simpler. Still, it's nice to see Microsoft making such a comprehensive push in education—one that is certainly more capable than its current offering.