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.

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