Higher ed still prefers Gmail over competitors

Sixty percent of colleges and universities outsource campus eMail services.
Sixty percent of campus technology officials use eMail hosting services for their college or university.

Although Microsoft Outlook is the preferred eMail option for many community colleges, campus technology officials are still signing up for Google Gmail accounts for their students and staff services more than any other eMail hosting services, according to a national survey released earlier this month.

The Campus Computing Project’s 2010 survey, unveiled at the EDUCAUSE educational technology conference in Anaheim, Calif., on Oct. 13, shows that campus technology officials at private and public four-year universities and public four-year colleges use eMail hosting services from Google for their campus eMail accounts doled out to students, faculty, and staff every year.

Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents from public universities who use eMail hosting services said their campus uses Gmail accounts, with 35 percent using Microsoft Outlook and 5 percent using Zimbra.

The disparity is even greater at private universities, where more than seven in 10 respondents said their school uses Gmail accounts, according to the research. Twenty-five percent said they use Microsoft.

Public four-year colleges show the most parity with their eMail hosting services. About half of public four-year campuses use Gmail for student accounts, and 45 percent use Microsoft, with 5 percent choosing Zimbra.

Gmail has not seen similar gains at community colleges, according to the survey. Fifty-five percent of community college IT decision makers said their two-year schools use Microsoft, and about four in 10 use Gmail accounts.

Overall, six in 10 survey respondents said their colleges or universities use eMail hosting services for students, and 15 percent for faculty members.

Kenneth C. Green, founder and director of the Campus Computing Project, said outsourcing eMail for students is easier than doing so for faculty for two reasons: Many students already have Gmail accounts, and “faculty resistance” to using a web-based service controlled by a company rather than the university still exists.

Outsourced eMail also has gained acceptance among students, he said, because today’s students enter college with as many as three personal eMail accounts that they regularly check. Adding another account provided and run by the college or university could be perceived by students as burdensome.

“eMail is no longer considered a rite of passage” for college students, Green said. “It’s much like having a cell phone and a phone number when you go to college. You don’t want to change [phones and numbers] when you get there.”

The Campus Computing Survey—which will be released in full Dec. 10—shows overall trust in Google’s eMail application despite negative headlines from periodic outages as recently as the spring.

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 students 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.

Prominent schools that have transferred campus 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, supporters said.

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