University of Alberta students go Google

(Edmonton) University of Alberta students are being encouraged to make the switch and “Go Google” today as the university begins to utilize the Google Apps for Education suite.

“This is a huge project that we need to roll out in a staged fashion. Step one is get all the students switched over correctly,” said Jonathan Schaeffer, the university’s vice provost (information technology). “Students are Internet savvy; they’re leading edge. In many ways, today's students are driving change.”

More than 38,000 students—graduate and undergraduate—are the first to have the new suite available to them.

The U of A announced in December 2010 that it came to an agreement with Google to provide the university’s faculty, staff and students the use of the free education edition of Google Apps. The agreement means the university community will begin using Google mail, calendaring, document preparation and other tools.

“Most students are already living and working in a mobile, web-enabled world,” added Schaeffer. “Nearly all carry a cell phone and within the next five years almost all will carry a smart phone.”

Those students will benefit from the switch, said Joshua LaForge, a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who was part of the Google project’s beta testing group.

“I think if you're a student who mainly uses the webmail interface or is doing a lot of communication from a mobile device, there's a huge benefit to this new system,” he said. “The web interface for Gmail is just one of the best ones out there right now.”

And Gmail allows for larger file attachments (25 megbytes) and more storage space (7.5 gigabytes) than the U of A’s current webmail client, said LaForge. For those who just want their email to be email, the switch to Google shouldn’t cause too many ripples, he added.

“Functionally, the transition was really easy—seamless. Just point Outlook, or whatever you're using for email, at the new service and it just goes. You're probably not going to notice much of a change.”

But, in the testing phase, many of those who were resistant to change ended up embracing it, said Simon Collier, one of the project leads.

“We found a lot of people who had initially planned to stay with their original email client ended up switching over to the web client after a while, because then it's a consistent experience no matter where you are,” he said.

The U of A project team ran the project using the communication and collaboration tools in the Google Apps suite, to put the utilities to the test, said Collier. The team found that the Google video chat allowed for impromptu meetings that included team members at different U of A campuses, and even occasionally, different time zones. And Google Docs—the online documents and spreadsheets application—slashed the time needed for larger groups when editing documents.

“Instead of creating a document and passing it around—people making their edits and sending different versions of the document back to the first person—it can all happen at once. What might have taken us days is happening overnight,” he said. “It doesn't matter where you are, and it doesn't matter what time it is. That's transformed the way we do work.”

“This improves the email service for everyone at the U of A,” said Schaeffer. “The move to Google Apps for Education and uAlberta Gmail offer tools for collaboration and communication that the university community will embrace and benefit from.

“We are aiming to be transformational, not just transitional, as we roll out new tools and technologies,” said Schaeffer.