Is there a silver lining in the Student email cloud?

For the last several years there has been a great deal of discussion around Cloud Services and the benefits that these services may bring.   The term Cloud Services is generally synonymous with such terms as,  above campus solutions, hosted services, and shared services….  At the end of the day these are all just referring to commodity services.  Services that are generic enough across groups/individuals that there are significant economies of scales from consolidation.

Most people have already embraced the cloud.  If you have a Google account, or use iTunes or belong to Facebook, you are using cloud services in various forms.   It is a virtual place where large numbers of users share resources, software and information over the internet.  These services are provided on demand, and are usually incredibly inexpensive per user, or even free.

Here at Queen’s we have also embraced the Cloud.  Many people already use personal cloud services like Gmail and Hotmail and personal storage solutions like Drop box. Two of our Faculties host their learning management systems in Toronto, with a company called Desir2Learn.  High Performance Computing (HPC) platforms, like HPCVL are clouds for storage and analytics. All of these allow us to take advantage of a more robust, highly available infrastructure and frees us up to focus on areas where we have a real value add.  It would be very expensive for us to provide this infrastructure and meet the expectations of always on and always available.

This spring ITS began talking to the students through the Information Services and Technology – Student Advisory Group about moving student email to the cloud.  We know students use the Queen’s email service and that here are things they value about, such as having an email branded ‘queensu.ca’ and belonging to an easily identified community.  However, we also know that our existing service is not nearly as rich as other solutions out there.  The web interface is very dated, quota is low and there is no integrated calendar.

Other institutions across Canada, such as the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto , and the University of New Brunswick, have begun to move to the cloud for email and calendaring.   In the United States, many schools have already moved to the cloud for email and calendaring.  There is a perception in Canada that it is not so straight forward here.  Ryerson University has done a open engagement and discussion on campus, that we have been following.   They have several references and insight from a symposium they held last year, where both our Provincial Privacy Commissioner and a legal expert, David Fraser, commented on such things as The Patriot Act and privacy in the cloud.  From these discussions it appears the real focus and concern needs to be on ensuring due diligence through the completion of Privacy Impact Assessments, and negotiating good contracts with cloud vendors.   These are real and significant challenges, but in no way preclude us from moving to the cloud.

 

Here at Queens we are in the middle of a migrating Staff and Faculty from JES Mail and Oracle Calendar to an in-house Exchange environment.    The Queen’s School of Business and Advancement have already made this move, and it leverages our existing infrastructure very well.  As we progress towards a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environment we want to move away from proprietary systems.   Our new exchange environment facilitates this with a robust and feature rich web interface, where it doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or Linux or a Windows System.  Mobile access is also equal across all the major platforms.

For the student solution we really want to have a seamless and integrated environment between Faculty and Students.  We want to ensure that any collaboration is seamless and effective.  At the end of the day, we can endlessly debate the merits of choosing one solution over another.  The point needs to be that any of these new integrated solutions are better than what we have today, and we need to make sure we leverage existing environments and create a common Queen’s community with shared tools.

We are hoping to create a robust integrated, and feature rich environment for students, that includes, email, calendaring and task management.   We are really excited about the potential that shared calendaring has for students in terms of fostering collaboration and enhancing time management. We see this as enriching the Queen’s community by creating a social collaboration space based on your @queensu.ca identity.

In the beginning

I am really excited and trepidatious about getting this blog off the ground.  On the one hand I look forward to sharing my thoughts, while on the other hand I worry about finding the time to keep this fresh..

In this blog I want to throw out ideas, share observations and try to stimulate discussion. I don’t want to limit things, but suffice it to say that posts will frequently focus on Information Management, Resources, Services and Technologies.  I have lots of ideas saved up from the first 5 months here at Queen’s, so hopefully the backlog can keep this fresh and I can commit the time to write.

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A question I frequently get asked is: “What was your biggest surprise coming to Queen’s?”   Needless to say there have been many surprises, but maybe the most pleasant has been the quality and engagement of the students.  The continuing refresh of students, their desire to learn, and in some ways their naivety, are things that make working in higher ed, so enjoyable.  I did my undergraduate here a long time ago, so I sort of had an idea about Queen’s students, but I was still surprised.   It certainly reflects well on this generation, and where we can go as a society.

I have tried to engage students and have had many discussions on committees, over coffee or on the train, and I can without hesitation say they were all incredible.  The students here tend to be engaged and extremely confident.  I am really excited that we have set up a Information Services and Technology Student Advisory Committee to solicit their ideas.   The first few meetings have been great

On the second day at Queen’s I was literally dragged in by a student in the ARC, while on my way to get a membership.  This student wanted to share with me the work they were doing.  They were working on the Mostly Autonomous Sailboat Team (MAST).  The were passionate, articulate and incredibly engaging. I believe it was a 3rd year student who talked to me, and the level of maturity gave me a strong sense that this would person was shaping into a future leader.  After that discussion I walked away thinking, I am really going to like it here.  To top it off, MAST is a really cool project.

I have also had a few students approach me about developing a  mobile app at Queen’s.   These students don’t simply complain that we do not have an ‘app’, they talk about what they need, why they need it and how to get the resources.  I think there are a number of hurdles around this, including long-term ownership, sustainability and standardization across platforms, but these become less challenging when you have this level of engagement.  It moves you from a client relationship to a partner relationship.

To wrap this up I just want to touch on an organization that I think is doing some great things.  AISEC is a student run organization that is “focused on providing a platform for youth leadership development, AIESEC offers young people the opportunity to be global citizens, to change the world, and to get experience and skills that matter today”.  In a nutshell, the way it works is that, the local club (at Queen’s) finds placements for students from abroad.   Each placement they find, one of their own students get to apply for a foreign placement. It is a great compliment to Intern and Co-op programs.

While at the University of Guelph we used AISEC frequently to bring in staff for special projects.  The experience was very successful.  As a reflection on the program, every single person we brought in was a success.   There was never an issue, as they were all highly skilled, motivated and team focused. AIESEC was also a professionally run organization that provided all the services around recruitment, including obtainin a VISA and  settling into the community.

I was recently asked to be on a panel screening about 14 Queen’s applicants.  Over an evening, we watched the group collectively work on two problems and then we did one on one interviews.  I had never participated in this part of the process, but now I understand why the students we get from abroad are so good, and well prepared.  A great screening process, that develops the students leadership skills and really seperates out the high performers.   Needless to say all the candidates from Queen’s were amazing,   I am looking forward to our first two AISEC students coming on board at Queen’s this spring.

That’s it for now.  In the future I would like to talk about Queen’s student’s perceptions around ‘virtual’ learning.   Virtual is a term that has a unique conotation at Queen’s.

 

Bo