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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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