Google Apps: Is the Time Right?

I do not like to be the first to adopt a new technology. Better for the sake of the school’s resources and sanity to wait until the technology has matured. I also prefer to proceed most conservatively with core network services, which hold critical and confidential school information.

If we adopt Apps, what strategy should we pursue? Here are some preliminary thoughts. I would appreciate your comments, especially if you have felt skeptical or cautious about adopting Google Apps.

Collaboration

The ability to easily share or co-author a document or calendar with others is quickly becoming a standard, expected feature. Our Windows file server and Moodle course websites do not provide this service. Exchange shared calendars work great, unless you want to view them from a Mac. Some students use personal Google accounts to work together on projects. It is time for our school to provide such a service, and the self-hosted options currently available appear to be much less robust.

Data Collection

I provide Drupal’s Webform for staff members to build data-collection forms on our public-facing website, and a custom survey tool for teachers and students to survey our community. In three years, students and teachers have created over 300 surveys using this tool. However, I still build custom Perl scripts, using CGI.pm, for custom needs such as signup forms. Google Apps would extend people’s ability to build their own online forms and require us to build custom web forms less often.

Community

Why launch Apps at all, if students already use Google services with personal accounts? Providing Google Apps for our domain would raise the profile of the services across the school, encourage people to use them together, make more predictable the identification of Google usernames, and introduce the possibility of sharing items to our entire community.

Off-campus Access

Currently, students can only access our file server from on-campus, since it is on the LAN, and we are not about to open the school’s LAN to external traffic! Providing Google Apps would allow students to keep files in one place and access them from school and from home.

Variety

Google recently made all of the rest of its services available to the Apps platform. We can avoid the awkward dichotomy of school/personal accounts on the same email address that people have used as a workaround up until now. Will we automatically be able to share bookmarks, video playlists, and feeds within our organization?

Moodle Integration

Moodle 2.0 treats Google Docs as a content repository. Users can access their documents directly from the Moodle file picker, making it really easy to author a document in Apps and share it with a class or teacher through Moodle.

Stability

A few years ago, reports of long periods of Google Apps downtime were common among our peer schools. IT staff were frustrated that Google support was so unresponsive. I rarely hear such complaints anymore. Is the platform acceptably stable and reliable? Will our user base tolerate four hours of downtime?

Privacy

I remain concerned that the likelihood of someone gaining unauthorized access to a Google Doc is greater than the chances of someone hacking into our file server. I would recommend that faculty and staff not publish sensitive or confidential content to Google Docs.

No Mail

One can launch an Apps domain with Mail turned off. The cost of running Exchange is very low, and we would compromise on some important qualities of our mail system if we moved to GMail. Under Exchange, if we lose Internet access, we do not lose access to email on campus. To the extent that sensitive conversations are conducted via email, that content is safely stored on campus servers. We can easily package the mailbox of a departed employee and give it to his/her supervisor for future reference. In cases of harassment, the school counselor or division head can work with us to examine the contents of a student mailbox. We can assign permission for some employees to open generic mailboxes (alumni, webmaster, etc.).

Keep Office, Too

Even after some years of Google Docs, Microsoft Office is still the best word processing and spreadsheet tool. You just can’t do everything in Google Apps that we do in Office, nor as easily. Apps may be great as a collaboration platform but not a primary authoring platform, especially for media-rich content.

Image source: bradleypjohnson on Flickr

25 comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Richard Kassissieh, davidwees. davidwees said: Google Apps: Is the Time Right? http://bit.ly/gjqDIM #edchat #edtech […]

  2. Furnival says:

    We are rolling out moodle2.0, google apps, alfresco, and mahara – sso to our portal. For gApps, we were able to negotiate much better privacy terms for our community than they would get on their own. If you include costs for Exchange replication to remote site for disaster recover and other costs- those costs are considerable. (Teachers College, Columbia University)

  3. Hey Richard,

    Another really nice feature is accessibility across OS platforms, form factors/device types, etc. I really like that we don’t have to take a stance on one phone operating system over the other, for example. And because set up is so straightforward across devices, users are empowered to do their own configuration (I’m amazed at the number of students who are accessing services from iPod Touch, Android, iPhone, etc).

    We started using Google Apps for document collaboration for a year before migrating our mail services over…while we had pretty decent adoption/use, when we turned on email the degree of document, calendar, wikis/sites and sharing went up dramatically.

    I completely agree on keeping office (or any other locally installed suite like iWorks, Open Office, etc). Google Apps, to me, is all about team productivity and collaboration…it works great well as a companion and extension for office tools.

    Regards,
    Matt

  4. Richard says:

    Furnival, can you tell me more about negotiating privacy terms? Are you referring to how the school still owns the content? I am more concerned about accidental security vulnerabilities as reported in the past — people gaining access to GMail accounts.

    The cost of offsite Exchange backup for us is quite low, and low-tech. We use tape and a local safe deposit box.

  5. Richard says:

    Matt, please tell me more about these points. We currently have the same situation with Exchange and computing/phone platforms. We support Entourage and Outlook, but Exchange is compatible with Mac Mail and all phone platforms (via ActiveSync). In fact, I use ActiveSync to connect my iPhone to my personal Google Apps domain, and it works better than the iPhone’s GMail setting. So I don’t see that as an advantage to moving to GMail.

    Can you explain how using GMail leads to an increase in use? I was envisioning a future in which people received Docs notifications on their Catlin Gabel accounts. What’s the advantage of actually receiving the mail on a GMail account?

    Richard

  6. Richard,
    I should’ve been clearer regarding the phone integration…previously we were using FirstClass, which had zero integration with phones. Actually, I believe it worked with BB, but even there it wasn’t pretty.

    I think the increase in document, sites, calendar collaboration when we started using mail had to do with everything being a click away. Since users were already in mail, clicking the documents link in Google Universal Nav menu became that much easier. And of course the email notifiers for site updates, documents/calendars being shared, etc helped out a bit as well.

    That said, your strategy sounds fantastic…kinda the best of both worlds, really. You get the benefit of client apps and LAN computing coupled with cloud collaboration, sharing and publishing. I know Google just released some type of google apps plugin for Office on the Windows side. Hopefully they come out with a Mac version soon.

    Best,
    Matt

  7. Richard says:

    Thanks, Matt. I can see the convenience and persistent reminder of having the Apps links just a click away (plus SSO).

    Given your experience, do you think that email notifications would work with an external (non-Google) email system? I think they would work just the same, but I’d like to confirm.

    Thanks for the tip to the WinOffice integration. I didn’t know about that. I am delighted with Moodle 2.0 – Google Docs file picker integration.

    Richard

  8. Furnival says:

    Richard: When you sign up for Google Apps for Education you sign a contract with Google. This contract can restrict how much data mining Google can do on your users’ data and for whom ads appear in emails. (I think the default is ‘no’ for students but ‘yes’ for staff and alumni). I have heard that part of the agreement is that the agreement itself can not be shared with other institutions so you wouldn’t see much about this subject ‘in the wild.’ So this concerns how Google can use your data, thus privacy, not security (i.e. the likelihood that some hacker would break into Google).

  9. @Furnival – there is nothing in Google’s TOS that says they have the right to mine data in any manner. This is a myth and often times is an early stumbling block to organizations who are shifting their services to Google. The following document debunks the myths re: data ownership, privacy, mining, etc: http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=60762

    @Richard, good question…I think you could do some code monkey kinds of things to programmatically link your email system to Google to allow for notifications and what not-I’m really not certain if notifications will work with other email systems right out of the box. Even if you can’t get it to bend, I think it is still incredibly worthwhile to light up docs, calendars, sites, etc…our kids especially appreciate the convenience of having simple access to powerful collaboration spaces like sites and docs.

  10. Richard says:

    Ditching Exchange would significantly raise the barrier to migration. Do we need to monkey at all? If Google Docs sends mail to a @catlin.edu domain, shouldn’t it just route to our mail server? One has to alter MX records to route mail to Google anyway. We would just skip that step. Do you see a flaw in our reasoning?

    Thanks for spending the time to answer my questions!

  11. Furnival says:

    These privacy issues are a subtle issue that I have looked at in detail. – Careful. (IT Admin)

  12. Mark says:

    We use Google Apps for Ed and have students fully on the system. Staff/Faculty have full access also, but still have their email routed back to our exchange server. We create “contacts” for the students in exchange so that they show in the global address book. One huge benefit is that all incoming email (external) gets filtered for spam by Google first, then our main email filtering service gets it after that, and then finally is delivered into our exchange system. I can honestly say that between the two filters, I have next to no unwanted email. Internal Faculty/staff email is delivered without ever leaving, so confidential information being “out there” is not a concern.

    The second, and in my mind greater benefit, is that if we get tagged as spam (our main exchange server… which occasionally happens to foreign countries with the volume of email coming out of our system) we can also send email using the gmail accounts… this has gotten through every time and due to our routing, shows the same as our exchange server.

    LDAP dumps keep everything in sync and calendaring really does play nice between Google calendars and Exchange.
    Give it a try, I think you’ll like it.

    -Mark

  13. Small comment– I see the benefits of Google Apps that you note, but I also remain concerned about the privacy issue. One other point– they upgrade the system according to their time schedules, and that includes altering file formats. In other words, things could change mid-year without our involvement or choice.

    The pros are considering. However, have you investigated SharePoint 2010 with web apps as a possible alternative? I have a hotmail/skydrive account that I’m testing the web versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint in, and we have a SharePoint 2010 server running for file management (which works surprisingly well on mobile phones).

    If the web apps worked from our own Sharepoint Server, we’d have ownership of the content and control over the upgrades, so those two issues would fade, but I’m sure there are other details to be tested first.

  14. Richard says:

    Thanks, Jim. We don’t run Sharepoint here, as our investigations suggest that it is very time-consuming to maintain and overlaps too much with other services that we already run. We seem headed toward a point somewhat short of rolling out all of Google’s services for everyone.

  15. check out Google’s Message Continuity…this was recently announced. Gives you cloud access to exchange services during scheduled or unanticipated outages. Probably waaaaay more redundancy than any school needs, but something to explore.

    http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/introducing-google-message-continuity.html

  16. Richard, we use Exchange and Google Apps (without mail) and Moodle and WordPress blogs, oh my! They all have strengths and weaknesses. We host Exchange in house, Google Apps in the cloud, obviously, Moodle and WordPress on Rackspace Cloud Sites.

    Google by far has the most downtime. I’m talking about at least every other week something substantial isn’t working for hours/days at a time, not to mention how often you’re just working in a Google Doc or Spreadsheet and it says some generic message like “connection lost, trying pressing refresh.” Our users don’t seem to mind too much, but they often comment on how something in Google Docs isn’t working, but it’s rare to hear them say that about any other major product we use. The calendar is by far the most problematic product with shared calendars going down far more often than is reasonable.

    We do have some users who have transitioned from Google Apps schools and they actually miss the experience. That has been an interesting conversation. People also know that Google Apps are “free” which is an interesting conversation to engage in – it’s like Moodle being “free” except for the expertise, support, bandwidth, servers, etc 😉

    Anyway, I am writing to say thanks for spelling out so many things I am thinking about. I bet we could put together a conversation on 21st century learning to really hash it out. Want to join us one day early in 2011 on the show? Vinnie has a great deal of experience with Google Apps, and I in an Exchange-Google Apps mixed world. Alex is an Exchange wizard, so between the 4 of us (and Matt in the chatroom), we could have some fun.

  17. Richard says:

    Arvind, many thanks for all these valuable comments. It’s good to hear some straight talk about downtime.

    I’d be happy to join the show to explore these ideas in greater depth. I’ll also drop Vinnie a line.

  18. Arvind,

    Thanks for the report! We’re still considering Google Apps here as an addition to Zimbra, because of the advantages Richard listed. However, your report about downtime is the most speciifc I’ve heard. Is the downtime literally caused by the Google Servers or Network issues, entirely independent of your internal network and Internet connection?

    I guess if we were really relying on the Apps for the storage of student files, we’d get in real trouble with the teachers if the student files were inaccessable for a day or more (and messing up class projects, etc.).

    (One other thing– I need to read up on Zimbra 7– we are currently on 6. . They started down the road of Zimbra word processing, presentation and spreadsheet apps built into the Zimbra file storage system, and I need to see where that is at.)

  19. Is Message Continuity available for free for GoogleApps for Education users?

  20. Tom D says:

    Re. security: I find it fascinating how we school folks presume that our data security can compare to a company whose business depends on it. And I’m not just talking about Google, but any commercial cloud service. How many of us have biometric locks, cameras, fire suppression systems, access compartmentalization, etc., that a commercial provider will employ? Who else has the key to your server room door? A janitor? The guy in Maintenance who keeps track of *all* the keys? Does your server room have windows? And what about admin passwords on the servers themselves? Does everyone on your IT staff know them? How strong are they? How often are they changed? Do you have access accounting? Is remote access limited by IP address?

    And let’s not confuse the compromising of individual user data with actual data center breaches. For an individual’s data and email, security is only as good as the quality of that person’s password and his or her ability to keep it secret, no matter where the data resides. User password policies are dicey, because we have to strike a balance between the set of length, variability, and expiration rules that are best from a security standpoint and the desire to avoid being so draconian that we engender ill will and our staff simply avoid using our systems wherever they can.

    We all do the best we can with limited resources to offer the best services we can, but the reality is that schools can seldom afford the kind of security employed by the Big Boys.

  21. Richard, we only have one show left in 2010, the holiday gift guide show. But let’s have this conversation early in 2011. I think many schools are leaping before they look. I’m not saying it’s the wrong choice, but close evaluation is key.

    Jim, the challenges have been 100% on Google’s end. Calendar is by far the product with the most downtime for us. We use shared calendars for our grade-level test calendars and just recently we spent many days where the calendars were displaying events 1 day off. Not very useful. Here is a forum about it where you can see how many people are affected:
    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Calendar/thread?tid=680b9f298c753548&hl=en

    Calling technical support always has them write a case down for you and you basically never hear back. They do fix the problem, but generally it is a global problem not ours alone. So they are working on it and after a few days it tends to get resolved. Then days after that we get notice that our case is closed. And magically, the Google Apps status dashboard shows that there were no problems on those days:
    http://www.google.com/appsstatus#hl=en
    The case above has over 800 replies in a week, and dashboard reports no calendar problems over that week.

    Google – very free, very powerful, often very frustrating. The lack of control of the situation might be the worst part of it. The evolution of ingenious products is the best part.

  22. Richard says:

    Tom, our business does depend on security, and Google’s breaches have been well-documented. Yes, our server room has no windows, is controlled by extremely limited fob access, and not all of the tech staff know the server admin passwords. Thanks for presuming the best from us.

  23. Richard says:

    Arvind, terrific detail on these issues! It’s helpful.

  24. Tom says:

    @Richard: I am one of “us”. Based on what describe, you are very fortunate, but in my experience (~15 yrs in small public school districts), you’re an outlier. I’m sorry you appear to have been offended by my comment. No offense was was intended.

  25. Richard says:

    Not offended, just suggesting that we avoid generalizing. We have made our own good fortune here!