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When E-Mail Is Outsourced

November 27, 2007

In 1998, Dartmouth College was considered at the forefront of campus e-mail. Its homegrown system, BlitzMail, continued to reflect the college's reputation for being ahead of the curve on technology.

Dartmouth students still rely on BlitzMail today, downloading their messages with a traditional Windows- or Mac-based client. But nearly 10 years later, even David L. Bucciero, the director of technical services, calls the service "archaic." It lacks some of the "bells and whistles," he said, that most students take for granted with the personal Web-based e-mail accounts they take with them to college. Such features might include the ability to view and compose messages in HTML, which allows the customization of fonts and colors, or virtually unlimited storage space.

Those inadequacies -- combined with occasional downtime -- explain why Dartmouth might go back to the drawing board. And in rethinking its e-mail strategy, officials there will confront similar issues as many other colleges and universities in a time of rapid shifts in messaging habits and in the economics of Internet applications. Bucciero and a planned study group will soon consider whether it's worthwhile to continue maintaining BlitzMail, or whether Dartmouth should consider for e-mail what colleges routinely do for many other basic operational functions: outsource it.

In the world of e-mail, outsourcing means two things: Google or Microsoft. Both have been marketing Web-based messaging services to small businesses, nonprofits and other groups, and they've focused more intensely on the higher education market over the past year. Besides services that are completely free and interfaces that are familiar to students, they offer a wide array of features, tools that let people collaborate in real time -- and of course, the cool factor.

The availability of viable options outside of the university IT department has forced administrators to consider the consequences of abandoning their in-house e-mail systems. Does it make financial sense to keep spending resources on aging proprietary software when it's available on the Web? Do colleges' services still offer advantages over those reflexively preferred by students? And in offloading a primary function of the campus information technology infrastructure, what role would remain for administrators who previously oversaw e-mail services?

These are some of the fundamental questions that will be raised as Dartmouth and other institutions evaluate their technological offerings at a time when Web applications are becoming increasingly popular, with not only e-mail but word processing, spreadsheets, calendars and other basic tasks available online -- no downloads or upgrade patches necessary. And with outsourcing e-mail an increasingly popular option, colleges are considering some of the other benefits of making the switch, such as integrated collaborative tools that could also change the way students learn in the classroom.

At Dartmouth, Bucciero and his colleagues will weigh the possibility of taking "BlitzMail to the next level," switching to another system entirely or enlisting a third party. It's the last option that would raise the most concerns -- about security and privacy, if data were migrated offsite; about accessing messages through clients offline, if they're readable primarily through the Web; about support services, if the current IT help desk can no longer administer the system; and about the ability to send mass e-mail blasts.

Despite those concerns, there is plenty of reason to believe that over the next few years, third-party Web services will become the standard at most colleges and universities. Already, Google Apps Education Edition has been launched at individual campuses of large public systems (such as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Texas at San Antonio) as well as some private institutions such as Hofstra University and Abilene Christian University. It recently formed a customer advisory board for the service comprised of several early adopters, including Arizona State University, the University of Southern California and Northwestern University.

Jeff Keltner, Google's enterprise specialist for collaboration products, said institutions at six of the seven continents use its education services, with several hundred thousand active users logging in at a regular basis from several thousand campuses around the world. The senior product manager for Microsoft's Live @ edu program, Bruce Gabrielle, said the company has some 450 higher education clients, which ballooned from 300 since the end of June. "A lot of awareness is spreading virally," he said.

The services are expanding to include community colleges as well. Among others, Butler County Community College has adopted Live @ edu, while Central Piedmont Community College has gone with Google.

While many colleges universities have yet to make the switch to Google or Microsoft, several (like Dartmouth, Cornell University, the University of Connecticut and Ohio State University) are in the process of exploring their options or issuing requests for proposals. Both companies offer integrated e-mail, chat, calendar and publishing tools without advertisements and without any cost to colleges or universities -- no exclusivity required. The standard Google contract is one year, with three one-year auto-renewals; for Microsoft, the typical length is two years. Both preserve universities' ".edu" e-mail domains while offering the functionality of a typical Gmail or Live address.

If that doesn't sound like a winning business model, that's because the companies have future customers in mind. When students graduate, the advertisements kick back in (although for faculty members' accounts, Google recently announced that participating colleges can opt out of ads completely), and both Google and Microsoft hope that they'll have won users for life. "We think students are going to take these tools out to their personal lives, their professional lives," Keltner said. For Microsoft, especially, whose search engine lags behind Google's in popularity, the service represents an opportunity to get its search bar in front of ever more eyeballs.

Once colleges get used to the idea of allowing an outside technology firm to handle their e-mail services, there's no telling what else they'll be receptive to. Already, "software as a service" has been catching on in the business world and in higher education, as institutions realize that they can more easily (and more cheaply) manage basic functions by using Web-based software that's hosted externally. An increasingly popular example is "customer relationship management" software, which colleges use to handle vast contact lists and create profiles of alumni, prospective students and potential donors. The latest versions of the major packages available in the higher education realm are entirely Web-based.

"I believe that this move by universities toward outsourcing, if you will, their e-mail, that represents the beginning of a sea change, a change in university information technology from ... direct provision of services to becoming agents of value-added applications, emerging technologies to the core business of the universities, which they haven’t really been in for a long time," said Adrian Sannier, the university technology officer at Arizona State University.

The Evolution of University IT

Through the 1980s, students in college who were affluent enough to come from households with a personal computer routinely experienced technology that was more advanced than what they were used to at home. "Over the course of the '90s and into the decade that we’re almost finished with, universities have slipped considerably from that position and have gone sort of into the position of near-follower, and maybe ‘near’ is being charitable," Sannier said.

Of course, it was universities that developed, refined and incubated the predecessor of the Internet, and they were some of the first institutions to adopt e-mail capability. But when it came time to offer the services to all students, rather than just faculty and researchers, many colleges created their own homegrown solutions. Now, some of them are suffering "from the innovators’ dilemma," as Sannier put it, as software infrastructure intended for a smaller scale is increasingly strained to match growing numbers of students and their widening expectations.

Many students have come to demand e-mail access at close to real time, integrated chat and several gigabytes of space because that's what's freely available from such competing services as Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail. The ad-supported offerings have taken advantage of massive economies of scale to effectively make storage limits and e-mail clients a thing of the past. At the University of Pennsylvania, where 2 of the 12 schools are phasing in Microsoft's Live @ edu, there was no comparison between the old 75-megabyte limit and the five gigabytes now available, said Ira Winston, the executive director of computing and educational technology services for three of the schools.

"We just can’t keep up with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo," he said. Since students are already coming in with their own accounts, and with 30 percent of them forwarding their college mail to personal inboxes, the debate wasn’t whether to partner with one of the Web services -- it was " who to outsource to."

The outcome of that decision didn't necessarily weigh heavily on Winston. Since Google and Microsoft's contracts are relatively short-term and non-exclusive, choosing a provider won't lock in a college indefinitely, and different units within an institution can potentially use separate e-mail systems. Students can still always forward their e-mail. For Winston, the most important element was "providing the best services to our students and not constraining them to any one provider,” he said. "It almost doesn’t matter who you pick.”

So, facing fierce external competition and an exponential growth curve, Winston and others have concluded that it's time to get out of the e-mail business. “It’s very clear that that game is over,” Sannier said. “Not only are we not keeping up now ... we weren’t ever going to be able to keep up.”

That begs the question: If most students come in with their own addresses, why offer e-mail service at all? The simple answer ends in ".edu." Students and faculty tend to value their domain names, Sannier suggested, but only as long as the technology is "sort of close to the state of the art." Google and Microsoft's solutions provide both: the ability for colleges to retain their e-mail identities as well as the latest messaging technology already used by millions.

The Path to Google

Arizona State University, at the heart of suburban Phoenix's population explosion, is taking its president's concept of the "New American University" seriously.

The rapidly expanding institution is on a mission to boost both its quality and its size, and an important part of that goal is innovation. With less institutional baggage than many other large research universities, Arizona State adopted Google Apps Education Edition early on. In retrospect, the partnership seems almost destined: Google opened an office on the university's Tempe, Ariz., campus last year, resulting in expanded internship opportunities for students and a collaboration between professors and Google engineers. (Some even joined ASU's faculty.)

Working closely with Google's engineers over a year ago -- before the higher education program was even announced -- ASU forged a solution within two weeks. With the push of a button, students could convert their existing e-mail accounts, saved messages and all, to Gmail -- maintaining their addresses, usernames and passwords. The initial voluntary rollout saw 300 students sign up every hour; within a month, 27,000 (out of some 63,000) had made the switch, Sannier said.

As a part of the package, students also gained access to in-browser chat functionality and a Web-based calendar, all deployed on the same day. A month later, the university was able to replace its uPortal page with Google's customizable start page -- the same as the iGoogle service available to any user. As the company released more and more features -- Google Docs & Spreadsheets came a month later, integrated into the e-mail solution -- they were automatically added to the university's offerings.

Now the university is "on the Google development curve," Sannier said, and that can have both benefits and drawbacks. The university's IT department no longer has to worry about backing up data, purchasing additional hard drive space or deploying Outlook or other software upgrades. But as the Web-based service evolves, it does so reflecting Google's priorities and those of its many customers -- not just the needs of ASU, even though it's represented on the advisory board.

One of the most noticeable immediate effects of the switch, Sannier noted, was the number of calls about e-mail problems. Once the most common issue addressed by the help desk, those requests have since "dropped off the map." As it turns out, not only are there fewer technological glitches and server crashes in the multiple-redundancy world of Web e-mail; the learning curve, for services students are already familiar with, is essentially zero.

But the most significant obstacle for IT administrators considering the future of their e-mail systems remains the issue of privacy. As they weigh the benefits of third-party e-mail services, they must also consider the consequences of moving students' and faculty members' personal data to off-campus servers over which they have no control. Often, these concerns are accompanied by institutional opposition by employees who have long been invested in the existing messaging framework.

Sannier's team had the same concerns, but he eventually overcame them: “I look at my army -- I certainly have a formidable force, they’re sharp characters, but ... compared to Google’s army? I have a police force, and they have the United States Marines.”

Keltner, of Google, preferring an aviation analogy, suggested that the primary issue is that of control. "A lot of people are afraid to fly, but they’re perfectly happy driving even though statistics tell you you’re much safer” in an airplane, he said. But even car accidents can be unavoidable; some colleges still find themselves vulnerable to hackers and security breaches.

New Ways to Collaborate

If (or when) a university adopts the new e-mail paradigm, the thinking goes, it's only a matter of time before it's applied elsewhere. And that signals an evolution in the role of IT in higher education: from playing catch-up and offering the basic technological backbone to integrating externally managed services and marshaling newly available resources for the main functions of academia and research.

"What we really want to do is help them to focus on the core educational mission of the institution,” Keltner said.

Instead of asking how to implement e-mail or manage large internal database systems, the questions become: How does the university develop its academic enterprise? How can it use technology to advance research?

One example Sannier cites as a possible future capability is the application of Amazon.com-like profiles to university Web sites. Using students' stored preferences and previous coursework, for example, a custom-made engine might suggest classes to take and allow users to share their recommendations with others. That idea represents a way to potentially streamline the hassles of the course registration ritual, he suggested.

And now that both Microsoft and Google offer tools that allow students to publish their work -- and edit it, in real time, with others -- the adoption of these Web services presents an opportunity for universities to evolve their approaches in the classroom as well. For many institutions, they come almost as an afterthought to the e-mail services they initially sought to replace. But they could lead to something as radical as posting term papers on Wikipedia to be peer-edited by classmates, or a more gradual method that emphasizes the sharing of drafts between peers before turning in an assignment.

Either way, the availability of new collaborative technologies could pave the way for more experimentation in classrooms -- although it's already underway at some institutions -- and new pedagogical approaches that emphasize the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage." Even further, the idea of turning in a single product, rather than a series of incremental components that can be refined and combined with the work of others, remains a central part of the modern method of teaching.

"I think in terms of in-class and out of class, to be able to have common classroom collaboration is a good thing," said Deirdre Woods, the associate dean and chief information officer at the Wharton School, one of the units at the University of Pennsylvania that's adopted Live @ edu. Her team is experimenting with some of the package's features, such as "clouds" that allow students to post and share links, blog entries and other content with friends and classmates.

"What is the 21st-century version of a computer lab? ... I don’t think it’s a physical computer lab," she said.

Looking Toward the Future

If Google can boast its popularity among tech-savvy students and its commitment to open standards while Microsoft emphasizes variable levels of control for different types of users and compatibility with its heavily used e-mail clients, what are the alternatives?

As is usually the case with a field dominated by the big players, there's an open-source alternative. The Horde Project's Internet Messaging Program is a Webmail client that's been adopted by the University of Michigan, where it's been considered successful enough to dispel any possibility, so far, of switching to Google or Microsoft.

And while the outsourcing model implies a top-down approach to implementing various Web-based services, there are also tools available that rely on a more viral, bottom-up method of adoption. Buzzword, a Flash-based online word processor still in the beta phase, is a startup in the process of being acquired by Adobe. Aiming at the same students who might find Google Docs useful, it initially offered features that Rick Treitman, the CEO of Virtual Ubiquity, called "term paper-ready": endnotes, spell check and word count, to name a few, as opposed to more office-centric functionality such as mail merge.

"The generation is highly collaborative and mobile, and so having a virtual word processor that you can get to anyplace and make it really easy to share documents, we thought, [was] key," Treitman said.

Meanwhile, at Arizona State, Sannier sees future potential for Gmail to be available to students when they're not online, using Google's open-source Gears technology that allows Web applications to store data for offline use (and that already works with the Google Reader). That functionality would theoretically eliminate the need for Windows- or Mac-based e-mail clients entirely. Similarly, Buzzword will eventually adopt Adobe's Air technology to let students work on documents without an Internet connection, much like users of Microsoft Word.

Sannier also suggested that some of the questions about outsourcing may soon shift to Facebook, already ubiquitous among college students and with features that many universities have tried to offer in the past. The question won't be how to replicate it, he said, but how to harness it and "try to see how does that move from a tool that exists outside the university community to one that’s sort of knit into the fabric of the university itself.”

 

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