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Google Mail for Students – Need Your Input!

Posted on: August 16th, 2011 by kfg

Google offers a service called “Google Apps for Education” that includes Google mail (Gmail). The Office of Information Technology (IT) has been exploring Gmail behind the scenes for over a year and now seeks input from the campus community on whether this would be a good option for UM students.

As of Fall 2009, about 30% of U.S. universities had outsourced student email, but the vast majority were still hosting employee email in-house, mostly due to security and privacy concerns. This past year, UM employees were migrated to a Microsoft Exchange environment, which includes full-featured email and calendar functionality that is well-suited for professional use. This work has paved the way for making changes to the student email platform, if that is what we choose to do.

Pros

The major advantages are that Gmail offers substantially more disk space than UM is able to offer, and Gmail offers better support for mobile devices.  We anticipate that these two features would be highly appealing and may lead to more students using their university-assigned email accounts.  Other universities that have outsourced to Gmail also cite the availability of Google apps as being a major advantage.  That is, they chose Google Apps for Education for Gmail, but they found that the other services such as Google Docs were just as valuable.  There would be some initial technical effort to get set up with Google, but over time this change could free up IT staff to focus on other, higher priorities.

Cons

The major concerns among universities considering outsourcing their student email are security, privacy, support, and long-term availability.  The security and privacy concerns exist with any outsourced system and would need to be addressed in the contract.  For example, we would want to make sure that the provider does not exploit student accounts in any way such as selling the email addresses or data mining messages for marketing purposes.  If we outsource to Google there may be support issues, particularly related to account management and archiving.  Some of these services are available for a fee, but, generally, support is very limited with the free education version.  Some have concerns that Google may begin charging in the future, but at least for now Google seems to be committed to offering core services to education for free (see http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?answer=139019&hl=en).

Accessibility

Google has been in the news recently over the accessibility of its interfaces.  In March 2011, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) asked the Department of Justice to investigate several institutions that use Google apps for Education, because, according to the NFB, these institutions had adopted technology that was not accessible to the blind.  Google responded with an aggressive plan for making its interfaces accessible by the end of this year.

The Decision Making Process

A committee has been established to guide the decision-making process and subsequent roll-out if we decide to go forward.  The committee members are:

  • Ashleigh Elkins, Student
  • Maurice Eftink, Associate Provost
  • Kathy Gates, Chief Information Officer
  • Suzette Henry, Manager of Systems Administration
  • Kyle Ketchings, Student
  • Anne Klingen, Director of Independent Study
  • Denise Knighton, Associate Registrar
  • Teresa McCarver, Helpdesk Manager and Instructor in Computer Science
  • Robin Miller, Deputy CIO and Director of Technical Services
  • Coulter Ward, Assistant Dean of Students for Student Organizations

Students, faculty, and staff are invited to express any concerns and provide input on this important topic in several ways.  First, there will be three face-to-face focus groups in early September:

  • Tuesday, September 6, from 11 am until noon in Union 404 A and B
  • Wednesday, September 7, from 11 am until noon in Union 404 A and B
  • Thursday, September 8, from 5-6 pm in the Union Ballroom

Second, a student poll will be available in myOleMiss beginning Tuesday, September 6, and will run for about two weeks.  Third, comments can be submitted by contacting any of the committee members directly or by sending email to it@olemiss.edu.

All of this feedback will be used to make a final decision.  If the decision is to outsource to Gmail then the target implementation date will be February 2012.   Please consider this topic and share any opinions and concerns that you have.   We hope to have a final decision by September 30.

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