Google in higher education

Paul Canning reports

News that Portsmouth Uni has moved all of its students into the cloud with free, multi-lingual access to an advertising free version of Google Apps, including webmail with 7gb capacity, online documents, spreadsheets and calendars, chat and collaboration and site building functions.
A win-win in the cloud for UK Public Sector?

We’re going to see this played out throughout the public sector as IT budgets and performance come under close scrutiny. It raises significant data protection and privacy questions which need public policy examination.
Google say “Google is signed up to the Safe Harbour Act which commits a US company to comply with European data protection standards, even when information is stored outside Europe.” Does that answer all the questions? The potential commercial value of data about the university population is enormous. We don’t have a precedent for any company or organisation holding as much data about people as Google will.
It’s also the case that concerns about maintaining UK and european standards of data protection offer convenient protection against competition from cloud vendors for employees of UK IT departments. The other main beneficiaries of this protectionism are Microsoft and vendors of closed VLEs like Blackboard.
Google’s education and collaboration tools are already credible alternatives. Not necessarily the best, but University managers have heard of Google.
The choice between in-house IT and the cloud is going to become more acute with the release of Google Wave. The research community wants Wave. Wave could be hugely important for e-learning, distance learning and workgroup collaboration. Low-cost start-ups in education, whether commercial or open access not-for-profits, could have better tools than the incumbent providers, and they can have them for free.
Google have a fine record in supporting education: free licences, summer of code internships. They have successfully negotiated issues of openness in software licensing in ways which have earned the respect of the developer community.
Where the end-users have a choice, it’s not difficult to predict what are they going to do. Free is a difficult price to beat. Just as important, you don’t have ask permission and wait for budget approval to start using tools which allow you to work better.
What’s less clear is whether public scrutiny of the information policy issues will happen.

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