ITS considers switch to Gmail

Information Technology Services Director John Ellis has begun soliciting feedback about a proposed outsourcing to Gmail for student email accounts. After researching and presenting the idea to various organizations and departments on campus, Ellis has created a Blackboard discussion board to allow students to offer feedback and raise concerns.

"I think Blackboard was best only because everyone can see what is posted and it's an open discussion board and I wanted to keep it as open as possible," Ellis said.

According to Ellis, all student e-mail addresses would remain the same. The email interface would look like the current Gmail setup, but would be customized with the Saint Rose logo and colors.

Of the topics raised in the Blackboard forum, one of particular importance to students was the issue of security.

"We are confident in their ability to be secure," said Ellis, of Google. "What we've done is talk to other colleges and universities that have gone to Gmail or other outsourced emails and find out what their experience has been and how did they address concerns over security."

Some of these other colleges and universities include Hofstra, Adelphi, Arizona State, and Notre Dame.

The primary concern is over the Federal Educational Record Privacy Act (FERPA), and the College has been advised by legal counsel to keep a careful eye on making sure they do not violate either FERPA or HIPPA, which deals with health information.

"It's nothing we're just jumping into; we realize it's a very important and very serious thing to do because it's a very important mode of communication for students," Ellis said.

Another concern was over whether students would still have access to Saint Rose student and staff contact information.

"It'll be easy on the students to find other students but what we have to work on making sure students can still easily look up faculty and administrators and staff," Ellis said.

There are some marked benefits to the switch.

"The biggest reason is to be able to get students a lot more storage for email and other documents," Ellis said. The new email system, if approved, would also incorporate GoogleDocs, providing students with online file storage. The College had previously looked into obtaining more storage space on the current system and found that it would be very expensive.

Another benefit of switching to Gmail is the price tag. Gmail is free to both students and the college, and students would not receive any advertising until they have graduated or left the College. According to Ellis, the current e-mail system is bundled in with other campus services such as Microsoft Word. The cost of the current email system is $5 per student per year for the licensing, which at about 7,000 email accounts adds up to an estimated $35,000. However, Ellis points out that because of the way the services are bundled, switching to Gmail would not actually yield a direct savings of that amount.

Faculty e-mail would also still remain on the current system.

"We have more obligations dealing with the employees where we have to be able to retain an archive of any email because it's considered official correspondence," Ellis said. "Student email is more of - we're providing a service. With employees they're expected to communicate officially through email."

Ellis said that they are not ruling out looking at Gmail for faculty e-mail down the road, but are focusing on students for now.

Ellis made a presentation and has gained permission from the Presidents Cabinet to continue looking at the issue, and is also working with the Academic Computing Committee which is made up of students and faculty, including students Sherry Walenski and Cheryl Ruggiero. On February 10 Ellis also made a presentation to the Student Association (SA), who also gave Ellis the go ahead to solicit feedback from students on the issue.

"They basically talked about the benefits of it and explained the issue," said Schuyler Bull, president of SA. Bull also mentioned that the discussion would be continued in the Academic Computing Committee, and that details from the presentation could be found in the SA minutes posted on Blackboard.

The Presidents Cabinet would have final approval over the decision to switch to Gmail, and there will be at least one more presentation before Student Association.

"If they say no, we won't pursue it. To a large degree it's the students that are going to decide whether we do this or not," Ellis said.

To access the Blackboard discussion group, select the 'Campus Technology' discussion board under the 'Community' tab after logging in to your Blackboard account. While Ellis prefers all comments to be posted at the discussion board, he can also be contacted at ellisj@strose.edu.

© Copyright 2009 The Saint Rose Chronicle

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