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Well, if They're Already Using It ...

October 25, 2007

If recent history is any guide, students' online behavior is not only unpredictable, but it would be futile to try to change it.

That statement, or something like it, lurked in the background on Wednesday as educators and campus technology officers at the annual Educause conference here in Seattle discussed, engaged and sometimes struggled with the dilemmas posed by the e-mail and social networking habits that students routinely bring with them as incoming freshmen. Again and again, officials suggested a version of that statement, upending notions about accommodating students' preferred methods of communicating and searching for information.

Is it best to let students lead the way, with colleges kicking and screaming in their wake? Should institutions try to anticipate what students want and provide it themselves? Or should they get out of the way and cede the online territory completely?

Participants in a morning session at the meeting of Educause, the nonprofit organization that promotes the "intelligent use of information technology" in higher education, grappled with these issues as they apply to campus e-mail services, while an afternoon discussion covered just about everything else, from social networking to Wikipedia and instant messaging. In some cases, the presenters admitted that they had more questions than answers, and it was clear from some of the questions that many in the audience, too, weren't sure what various Web 2.0 trends added up to, and what they should do about them.

The implication was that if there's this much confusion among educators -- who are supposed to serve as a resource on the validity and accuracy of data found online -- imagine what's going on in the students' heads.

Or maybe it's the students who should be doing the teaching: In the session titled "Social Networking Technologies: A 'Poke' for Campus Services", a presenter asked how many in the room had Facebook accounts. Nearly everyone -- at least 100 people -- raised their hands, but when she followed up the question by asking how many thought they used the site the way most students do, almost all of the hands dropped.

"We have a gap," concluded Kathy Christoph, director of academic technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

One area in which colleges have begun adapting to students' patterns of online behavior -- and where the answers are a bit more concrete -- is e-mail. Most today have proprietary systems accessible through the Web, provide their students with specific e-mail clients, or offer some combination of the two. But as with many aspects of online life, most students have settled into their own preferred way of checking messages long before setting foot on campus.

At Northwestern University, the "aging e-mail infrastructure" -- as Wendy Woodward, the director of technology support services there, put it in the morning session -- wasn't necessarily ideal for students, many of whom were already dedicated Gmail users. So it was the student government that initiated change by asking the administration to adopt that service, in the form of Google Apps Education Edition, which essentially allows colleges to outsource their e-mail system to the online search giant.

Woodward, who is also on Google's Higher Education Collaboration Advisory Board, described the decision-making process that led to selecting the company, and the path toward switching fully to Gmail for the next incoming class.

For one thing, she said, the university had to consider how students used the existing campus e-mail system. Woodward found that an increasing number were forwarding all their messages to separate personal accounts on Gmail, Yahoo or other services, and that alumni were taking less and less advantage of the e-mail forwarding service from their old northwestern.edu addresses.

Gmail, meanwhile, offered a free solution that integrated a calendar (until then only available to faculty and staff through the university's proprietary system), word processor, customizable portal, discussion groups and instant messaging. "We picked Google because it was a good fit for us," Woodward said; many students were already using it, and migrating to a Windows-based system would be burdensome for a campus in which there is a "modgepodge of systems and [operating systems] and everything else."

When a student using the new system logs in -- either with a Google account or a university netID -- he or she will see what looks like a regular Gmail inbox, with a few differences. There's a purple Northwestern logo, for instance, and a link to the university directory next to that for Google's Web-based calendar application. And instead of an address ending in gmail.com, as with a regular free Gmail account, the account has the @u.northwestern.edu domain, which is also what officials dubbed the service.

There are also no advertisements.

That's a key part of the agreement, which also provides the system, and its maintenance, to Northwestern free of charge. It was enough to make Woodward wonder: "What’s the catch?" An official at Google's Educause booth told Inside Higher Ed that part of the company's strategy is to get "users for life": students who rely on Google services early on and will take those habits with them after graduating. Sure enough, Woodward said that if students decide to continue using the service after leaving Northwestern, the ads reappear.

During an opt-in period leading up to the deployment of the service as the default e-mail option next fall, some 75 percent of freshmen signed up, Woodward said. Switching addresses is made easier by tools that let students, in theory, transfer their messages from existing e-mail accounts to the new Gmail-based one. They might have to leave their old Gmail (or Yahoo, or MSN Hotmail) accounts behind, but there's always the forwarding option.

In describing the process of aligning all the stakeholders on campus and pushing the initiative through the administration, Woodward outlined two major issues of concern: pushback from IT managers, who facilitated the existing proprietary system, and security concerns. She addressed the first problem by holding meetings and addressing the problem head on. "It’s not IT’s job to jam technology solutions down people’s throats," she said, and in this case she hoped to offer exactly what students wanted rather than an outdated service no one was asking for.

But confronting the potential privacy and security issues took some work:

  • The graduate school, for example, worried about sensitive research data residing on Google's servers. As a counterargument, Woodward pointed out that students can forward their mail wherever they want anyway -- and do. In the end, sensitive data can end up in any number of places, and the way to clamp down on potential security breaches is to educate students on their e-mail habits, she argued.
  • The university insisted that student data (which could be protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) not be shared for marketing or any other reasons. Google agreed, and the upshot, she said, is that any subpoenas for student data contained in e-mails will now be directed where they're stored. ("We’re glad we’re not going to handle these subpoenas anymore!”)

If Google provided what both Northwestern and its students wanted, participants in the social networking session were less sure what that means for Facebook, MySpace and other Web applications. Should colleges worry that their students are often bypassing the library to do research on Wikipedia? Should they try to co-opt Facebook and offer their own networking services? Or could they partner up with those sites the same way colleges do with Google?

The gap Christoph referred to was in full display when her afternoon audience was asked to split into two roles -- incoming students and university "providers" -- to brainstorm how to look for a roommate. The most immediate outcome was that neither group spoke to the other -- indicative of the common practice of Facebooking future classmates before arriving to campus, independent of official university channels. One person suggested searching on Google (which wouldn't be useful for penetrating walled-off high school Facebook or MySpace profiles, although a high school football star might show up in a local newspaper article); another suggested Wikipedia.

Then the Web 2.0 solution rose out of the audience, eliciting sighs of approval: build a Facebook application that would allow incoming students to search for roommates based on an online questionnaire. But that nagging question remains: Should colleges try to intervene in students' online habits by offering their own services?

"It doesn’t mean we always have to provide everything that they’re wanting," suggested Lori Berquam, Madison's dean of students.

 

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