With Google, U follows student e-mail outsourcing trend

Students can opt-in to use Google apps starting fall 2009.
April 21, 2009

Starting next fall, University of Minnesota students, staff and faculty can opt-in to replace Gophermail with Gmail as their official campus mail, and to use a set of University Google Apps like Google Docs, Calendar and Talk.
The University is planning to gradually transition all students to Gmail by making it the official University e-mail for incoming students (likely beginning next spring semester), but they won’t force students already using University e-mail to make the switch.
Dan Wagner, who’s managing the University’s Google Initiative team, said the change was motivated more by the collaboration tools Google offers than by the potential cost savings that could come with outsourcing or dissatisfaction with the current e-mail system.
“A lot of students come to the University already having a Google account,” he said, “so they’d like to continue that in the University environment.”
Already, 2,336 current University students forward their University mail to Google, along with an additional 6,493 alumni and former students.
They do expect cost savings in the long run, he said, but that wasn’t the University’s primary reason for making the switch. Depending on how many people opt-in to use Gmail, Wagner said, the University could end up saving money on technical support and hardware.
Those opting in will keep the same e-mail addresses — everyone will still have a @umn.edu address. University Gmail will look and work much like individual Gmail accounts, but they will not show advertisements to students, staff and faculty. Students can keep their e-mail when they graduate, but they will see advertisements.
Students, faculty and staff can still set up a Google account to use Google Apps through the University, even if they don’t switch to Gmail.
A recent report on communications in higher education, published in March by the nonprofit Educause , found “explosive growth” of student e-mail outsourcing. Nearly 20 percent of the 342 institutions surveyed outsource student e-mail to a commercial provider.
But far fewer — only 2.3 percent — outsource faculty and staff e-mail. The report cited confidentiality, control, security and support as concerns that may be preventing this type of outsourcing.
The University doesn’t plan on requiring faculty and staff to use Gmail. A particular issue, Wagner said, is that researchers or medical school faculty may be sharing sensitive information they don’t want in the Google space.
Google security is actually quite good, he said, but some people feel more secure using in-house e-mail. Perhaps more of a concern is that people might share sensitive information using Apps like Google Docs without being aware of the implications, he said.
It’s really an issue of making sure people know the guidelines of what should and shouldn’t be stored in Google Docs or sent in an e-mail, he said.
Groups at the University are researching privacy and security issues and coming up with Gmail use guidelines for faculty and staff, he added.
It’s less of a concern for students — they’re typically doing assignments and projects, and most often are not dealing with sensitive or private information, he said.
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said based on the University’s contract with Google, he has no reason to believe the Google-based system will be less secure than the existing system.
Some University units may not want to convert right away for reasons other than security, he added. For example, some rely on software that controls their documents and interfaces with e-mail to send attachments, and they may not want to switch if their existing program can’t interface with Gmail.
Students, on the other hand, don’t typically have a lot of software that needs to interface with e-mail.
Arizona State University, which already outsources e-mail to Google for all of its students, is looking to do the same for faculty and staff. Kari Barlow , assistant vice president in ASU’s technology office, said they don’t have any concerns about the security provided by Google.
ASU launched Google Apps Education Edition two and a half years ago as part of a strategy to “get out of businesses that aren’t core to the University,” Barlow said. E-mail and other collaborative applications like Google Docs are “just something that corporate industry can do faster and better,” she said.
The first day they made Gmail available to replace in-house e-mail, 300 students per hour were opting in, she said. Since then, they’ve moved all student accounts to Gmail. Now, they have about 55,000 ASU Gmail users.
By outsourcing student e-mail, Barlow said ASU is reallocating a half a million dollars annually to other services. In the fall, they’ll begin promoting it to faculty and staff, she said, and hope to eventually transition all of them to Gmail as well.
ASU students have been happy with Gmail and Google applications, Barlow said, and faculty are finding it a great way to collaborate with and give feedback to students.
The University’s three main concerns with outsourcing e-mail to Google were security and confidentiality of e-mailed information, ownership of that content and reliability, Rotenberg said.
The four-year contract the University signed with Google in December addresses those issues. The University is required by law to protect some health and student information, and the contract includes a clause extending that responsibility to information Google may receive.
The agreement also addresses confidentiality — in it, Google agrees not to disclose the University’s information without notifying it and allowing the University to challenge the request.
And it stipulates that the University and e-mail users own e-mail content, not Google. So, for example, Google has no rights to ideas or research results exchanged over e-mail.
“I think we’re satisfied that we reached a good agreement,” Rotenberg said.

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