9 Ways that Gmail Changed Higher Ed

Marking a 10 year anniversary.

April 1, 2014

Gmail turned 10 this April 1st.  Happy birthday.

Are you a Gmail user?

Do you have a personal Gmail account? Or has your institution adopted Gmail has its official campus e-mail system? Or both?

What e-mail system are your students using?

You or your university may or may not be Gmail customers, but the larger impact of Gmail on higher ed is worth noting.

How has Gmail changed the game:

1. Consumer Platforms Are (Often) Better Than Enterprise Platforms:

Maybe we didn’t realize it 10 years ago, but the birth of Gmail signaled the eventual death of the centralized technology control. When a free (paid for by advertising and your data) platform exists that is better than the enterprise platform, people (first students, then everyone else) will go with the consumer platform.

We are still living through this transition from enterprise to consumer platforms.  We love our Android devices, iPhones and iPads. We promiscuously download, utilize, and discard mobile apps. We put our files in Dropbox or Box, create and co-author documents in Google Drive, and tell everyone what we are up to on Twitter (or at least you do).  

None of us has much love for our enterprise apps.  Actually, the best enterprise apps are architected to easily integrate with consumer tools.  One reason that Canvas has taken off so quickly is that it is so easy to integrate with the consumer platforms that our students and faculty are already using.

Perhaps Gmail didn’t have all the features of your enterprise e-mail system.  But it was fast, light, and untied to any particular university.  Gmail was the future.

2. Students Use the Platforms They Want To Use:

The BYOD (bring your own device) and BYOS (bring your own software) movement has some upsides and some downsides.

The upside is that people are more productive with the tools and platforms that they like.   And if they use these tools in platforms in college they will take this knowledge with them into their jobs and their lives.   It is never a good thing when we have our students use technologies that are almost only used in higher ed.   

The downsides of BYOD and BYOS should not be underestimated.  Beyond the need to somehow support every computer, device, and software under the sun - the lack of technology consistency can put a drag on learning productivity.  When I taught at Quinnipiac University every student in my marketing research course came to class with a Dell D600 laptop (it was early 2000’s) and a consistent set of software.   We were able to leverage these laptops and the software they contained to get right to work in class.  No fiddling with different tools and versions.   That was a good thing.

The fact that Gmail was so good helped call into question any mandatory technology program.  Gmail was a gateway drug to a riot of consumer tools and platforms.   We are still dealing with the upsides and downsides of this trend.

3. Gmail Leads Us Out of the Data Center and Into the Cloud:

How many years until the last campus data center closes?   

I know that we are not quite there yet.  For all sorts of reasons (security, connectivity, performance, business continuity) we continue to need to have local applications and local storage.  We may be consolidating and virtualizing, but the importance of the local data center has only grown more acute in the last few years.

Still, it is just a matter of time.  Eventually the issues of security, connectivity, performance, and business continuity will be solved.  The value proposition of moving our applications and data to a provider that hosts applications and data at scale will be too hard to resist.  Our key applications (SIS systems, financial and payroll systems) will move to cloud designed systems.   We will rent rather than own.

When this shift finally occurs we should give Gmail some credit for helping it along.  

Back when Gmail was getting going we wondered if it was prudent to allow our precious e-mail to live outside of our campus gates.  Very few of us worry about that anymore.   Gmail showed us how good (if not perfect) a cloud solution can be.  Gmail showed us that we don’t need perfect.

4.  Gmail Caused Us to Rethink Digital Scarcity:

Gmail launched with 1 gigabyte of storage space.  (Today we get 15 GB).  Before Gmail we took it as a given that we kept too much e-mail.  That request to clean out our inboxes from campus IT was perhaps annoying, but at least it made sense.  (Storage is scarce).

Gmail challenged the whole notion of digital scarcity.  If Google can give us endless space, and it was free, why can’t central IT?

It turns out that there are very good and very real reasons why central IT could not, and still not, give you as much e-mail (and other) storage space as Google.  Central IT is not advertising to you based on the content of your messages.  Central IT needs to keep your platforms running 24/7/365, but cannot spread the costs of infrastructure over millions of users.   

All these good reasons, however, mattered very little to the end user.  All the student (and sometimes the professor) saw was that at Google space was abundant, and on campus space is scarce.

This is another one of those issues that we are still working out on our campuses.  IT departments are put in impossible positions, and IT end-users are faced with never-ending frustrations.   We can thank Gmail for at least part of this predicament.

5.  It May Be Possible (Even Desirable) To Live in the Browser:

Back in the day (before Gmail) the world was simple.  Rich client applications (such as Outlook - or Word) were robust, web applications were crappy.   

The web was good for consuming content, but not very good for producing.

Gmail, with its AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) architecture started to change all that.

Gmail didn’t need to reload the entire page every time that you did something.

Gmail was fast.

Gmail taught us that it was possible to live (almost totally) in the browser.  And the browser is where students mostly wanted to be.  (Now they want to be in the app, but that is a different story).

The LMS (learning management system) has taken far too long to live up to the promise of the web app goodness that Gmail first helped us glimpse.  But the destination (at least before the smart phone ate the world) seemed clear.

6.  Gmail Changed How We Think of Privacy:

It might be hard to remember now, but when Gmail came out everyone was freaking out about how our e-mail would be scanned to choose which ads were shown.  (Although Microsoft doesn’t want us to forget).

It did seem like some sort of trespass that Google would read our e-mail.  (This was before we knew that the NSA was reading our e-mail).

Today, this Google’s Gmail advertising just doesn’t seem like a such a big deal.  At least I hardly give it a thought.  

If Google wants to give me a great free e-mail service, and tons of free storage, I’m totally fine with Google’s computers scanning my e-mail and popping up relevant keyword ads.  I don’t think that I even notice the ads, but enough of us must click on them to make this lucrative to Google.

Gmail helped change our sense of privacy, a change that has accelerated our acceptance of consumer technologies.  So much of the business models of many consumer platforms are based on advertising, and collecting our data, that we hardly think twice anymore about this business model.   

7.  Gmail Changed How People (Particularly Students) Used Platforms - Search Kills Browse:

The world is divided into two groups of people.  Those that sort their e-mail into folders (the Outlook people), and those that don’t sort but rely on search to find anything (the Gmail users).

These two groups don’t understand each other.   

It is a truism and an exaggeration to say that students search and everyone else (you and me) sorts and browses, but there is some truth to this statement.

Watch someone under 30 do e-mail (and it will usually be Gmail) and you will see very little sorting and lots of searching.    Yes, you may be somewhere older than 30 and you may be a searcher and not a sorter, I said that this is a generalization.   Still, I’d say that the point basically holds.

One impact of Gmail has been that we want (and our students really want) everything to be searchable.   Why our LMS platforms are not built around robust search continues to boggle my mind. 

8.  Gmail Paved the Way for Google Docs:

Google Docs (now Google Drive) came along a couple of years after Gmail.  By the time Google Docs was released Google had gotten experience with building web applications, and we had become comfortable creating in the browser.

The power of Google has always been less about lots of feature, and more about the ecosystem.  Google platforms hang together.  They don’t have every option, but Google tools enable us to easily collaborate and share information. 

Once we all had Gmail addresses it became that much easier to collaborate with Google Docs.   The platforms worked together, and the barriers to entry were low.
9.  Gmail Caused Microsoft to Evolve

My campus is not a Google campus.  We use Office 365.  It’s really actually pretty great.  The Outlook Web client is almost as good as the full Outlook application.   My campus e-mail is in the cloud.

Microsoft seems to have done a pretty good job getting schools to sign up for Office 365 for Education.    

This is good for Microsoft, and it is good for Google, and it is good for us - as more competition is always better than less.

Google pushed Microsoft to move to the cloud, and Gmail is part of that story.  

How do you think that Gmail changed higher ed?


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