Some colleges have second thoughts on Gmail

Sixty percent of colleges that outsource eMail services use Gmail, according to a 2009 survey.
Sixty percent of colleges that outsource eMail services use Gmail, according to a 2009 survey.

A small-scale backlash against Google’s free eMail service and applications has included at least three prominent universities this year, after many colleges had begun moving to the outsourced Gmail system to save money and simplify support.

The cloud-based eMail system has appealed to college students since Google launched its campus Gmail pilot in 2004, educators said, and Google officials maintain that colleges continued to adopt Gmail even as negative headlines circulated this spring.

More than 8 million K-12 and college students use Gmail and Google Apps, according to the company.

Yale University’s switch to Google’s eMail system was delayed in March when faculty members and administrators said they were concerned with the security of cloud computing, in which school eMail messages would be stored on off-campus servers. Some Yale faculty also expressed concern with Google’s large carbon footprint, caused by its many energy-intensive data centers.

The University of California Davis ended a Gmail pilot program for faculty and moved its 30,000 student off of Google Apps in May, citing similar security concerns.

UC Davis technology officials, including CIO and Vice Provost Peter Siegel, said in a letter to faculty that “outsourcing eMail may not be in compliance with the University of California Electronic Communications Policy,” adding that faculty who participated in a Gmail pilot said the campus’s commitment to privacy was “not demonstrated by Google and that the appropriate safeguards are neither in place at this time nor planned for the near future.”

The University of Massachusetts joined the anti-Gmail fray in May when IT officials there said they would completely phase out the eMail service, along with Google Apps such as Docs, Calendar, and Sites. UMass officials cited low adoption rates among students since Google services were made available through the university at the start of the fall 2009 semester.

Only 7 percent of UMass’s 20,000 undergraduate students switched from the university’s eMail system to Gmail, according to published reports and a university spokesman who confirmed those numbers.

University technology officials who have tracked Google’s educational programs said the company spurred these security concerns by launching Google Buzz this year, a social networking platform that all Gmail account holders were automatically opted into.

“That created quite a bit of vulnerable feelings when it came to security,” said James Wolf, associate professor at Illinois State University’s School of Information Technology. “[Google] really brought this on themselves.”

Google announced in January that it would make the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption—used by online banking web sites, among others—as a default setting on all Gmail accounts. In a May 21 blog post, the company lauded the security measure as “an important step forward.”

Wolf said Google’s security policy is one of the most reliable a school can have, so a faculty’s ideological bent might have played a larger factor than originally thought among campuses that have done away with Gmail and Google Apps.

“I wonder whether the concerns are real or whether it reflects the faculty’s general anti-corporate mindset,” he said. “If they’re really concerned with privacy, they would go with Google.”

Gmail still preferred on many campuses

Google doesn’t track the number of colleges and universities that use Gmail, but Obadiah Greenberg, a spokesman for the company, said there are thousands of K-12 schools and college campuses using the service today. And many schools report major budget savings.

California State University’s Fullerton campus saved $160,000 this year by changing over to Gmail after the campus was hit with a 24-percent budget reduction at the start of the academic year. Vanderbilt University reportedly saves $750,000 annually by using Gmail.

Other prominent schools that have transferred student and faculty eMail services to Google’s servers include Northwestern University, Villanova University, Case Western University, and Notre Dame. Even brief Gmail outages in the last year didn’t dissuade colleges from looking elsewhere for their eMail services, because Google’s downtime of .01 percent is typically only a fraction of that for colleges managing their own eMail systems.

“To me, you’re more than likely to find a lot more downtime when you’re running the system yourself,” said Doug Darby, director of new media at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, after Gmail was inaccessible for about 100 minutes on Sept. 1. “What service hasn’t been down at one time or another? … Two hours is nothing in the big picture.”

Forty-two percent of campuses included in a recent survey had converted to outsourced student eMail services, while 15 percent of colleges said faculty eMail had been outsourced, according to the 2009 Software & Information Industry Association’s postsecondary market report. Gmail was the most popular option, with 56 percent of campuses choosing Google.

Some estimates of Gmail usage are much higher. Eight in 10 U.S. colleges are using outsourced eMail services, according to a 2009 Campus Computing Project survey. Of those schools, 60 percent use Google. The other 40 percent use Microsoft, Zimbra, and Yahoo eMail, according to that survey.

Google’s Greenberg said his company consults with any school or college that takes issue with its security policy—including Yale—but emphasized that most colleges have been satisfied with Google’s services.

“Any time someone doesn’t like a Google product, we care, and we reach out … to understand how we can improve our products,” said Greenberg, who developed open-access education programs at the University of California Berkeley. “I think there are a couple of stories that caught some attention, but they’re relatively small compared to the bigger story, which is millions of students using our apps.”

Google responds to concerns at Yale, UMass, UC-Davis

The consistently low Gmail adoption rate at UMass, Greenberg said, might have resulted from an inadequate marketing effort on the part of the university.

“It’s unclear how much awareness was raised for their people to adopt it,” he said.

UMass officials did not respond to an interview request before press time.

Greenberg said UC Davis students continue to use Google Apps for educational purposes despite the faculty’s move away from the service. But tools such as Google Docs—which let students, their peers, and faculty view documents online—are not nearly as effective if faculty members no longer use the service, he said.

“It’s a missed opportunity if the faculty and staff don’t use the same system as their students,” he said. “They won’t be able to take advantage of the powerful tools that can help transform the way teaching and learning occurs.”

Thomas Conroy, a Yale spokesman, said in an eMail message that IT officials there have “proposed … that student eMail be migrated to Gmail,” but the issue won’t be taken up until the fall, after an advisory committee review is completed.

“The Advisory Committee is composed of faculty from across the university and reaches out to students and student groups in its deliberations,” Conroy wrote.

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