The Open University has taken the decision to adopt a suite of online tools provided freely for education by Google. In our first foray into cloud computing, Google will be hosting for our students:
- email (gmail)
- instant messaging and presence
- document creation, storage and sharing
All of our 200,000 or so students will be able to use the applications, which will also be made available to staff later. Email accounts will be provided under the my.open.ac.uk domain. We’ll also be looking at whether to bring on stream other applications as they are integrated into the Google Apps for Education suite.
Meanwhile email provision for our 8,000 Associate Lecturers will be brought into line with other staff and they will be given an account with Microsoft Exchange, accessible online or via email applications such as Outlook or Thunderbird.
Growing numbers of institutions are now adopting cloud-based systems such as Google Apps for Education, particularly in the US. The arguments for hosting your own student email are becoming increasingly weak when it can be done externally for free, or at least much more cheaply. Google will provide a service level agreement with higher levels of availability than we could achieve ourselves. In addition there are other services included such as instant messaging that we don’t currently provide to students but could help them to connect more with each other.
These systems will increasingly start to compete with some of the features of learning management systems / virtual learning environments such as Moodle and Blackboard. They provide a higher level of individual control for students and potentially remove some of the administrative burden from the university. Google’s recent integration of their Groups application in the the Google Apps for Education suite is going to present us with some interesting questions such as:
- What would be the additional maintenance issues for us in turning on that functionality so that any student can set up a forum e.g. dealing with inappropriate comments, flame wars etc?
- Should Groups be a space for informal collaboration with formal teaching taking place in Moodle forums?
Another area for investigation is the use of Google Apps as an eportfolio system. Our initial research has shown that it would work for some of the key aspects of eportfolio provision such as the storage of documents under the control of the user, the exporting of these so they can be taken with them through life, and the creation of templates for the collection of structured data for a variety of purposes. We still need to work out how we can freeze or export eportfolio content where it is being for formal assessment.
Working out the balance of what needs to be hosted internally and what can be better done in the cloud is set to become a huge and ongoing debate for educational and other institutions. Lots of interesting issues and work ahead.