Google aims at universities; can students give Google+ a boost?

Google is making it easier for universities and colleges to sign up for Google Apps.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Tech companies are increasingly focusing on education not just as a source of revenue but also as a way of getting the next generation of workers used to (and perhaps even demanding) its products.

Search-to-smartphones giant Google has drawn up a framework agreement with UK education technology body Janet which will make it easier for colleges and universities to make the move to Google Apps using a contract which has been approved by Janet as meeting UK legal requirements.

This means colleges and universities don't have to conduct their own due diligence around security and data protection, which Janet said could save each one around £20,000.

A third of universities and colleges in the UK are already Google customers, and the search giant said there are more than 25 million Google Apps for Education users worldwide. Chromebooks aimed at the education sector are also beginning to appear; earlier this year Google said the devices were being used in 2,000 schools.

At an event to mark the signing of the Janet agreement, technology chiefs at universities that have already made the move to Google Apps said it has saved money and improved services.

Heidi Fraser-Krauss, IT director at the University of York, said the university moved to Google because "what we had in place before was rubbish beforehand — poor technology for staff and students". She added: "It just works – I was talking to our service desk manager about the numbers of calls we get around email and docs and there aren't any anymore. I've also saved about £300,000. If I wanted to offer the same level of storage that's what it would cost to buy new and that's just tin and not electricity and staff."

Christine Sexton, CIO of Sheffield University, said: "The biggest reason to start with was that we were offering a pretty bad service to students; our email service was awful and our prime driver for moving to cloud based services was improved levels of service."

She added: "We've made savings in tin and in people but what we've done with the people is they are now supporting learning and teaching, they're not running an email service or a calendar service they are doing something that actually adds value. I don't feel as an IT director running an email service adds value."

Martin King, Head of IT Services at Ealing Hammersmith & West London College, said his college had 70,000 accounts with 2.1PB of storage. "What we are doing now is probably impossible on the old pre-cloud-era model," he said. "This summer when we needed to add another 20,000 accounts for our students for the year ahead [we added] 600TB in five minutes."

Cloud has to be considered for every procurement, alongside the option of running a service in-house, Sexton continued. "We are busier now we've put stuff into the cloud than we ever were before because everything else is changing and we are being asked to support more and more innovative services and that's what we want to do.

"It's not always the right thing to do, there are probably some things we would not move out in to the cloud but where it's right you have to consider it. A lot of it is about providing a better service, not necessarily cost savings."

She dismissed concerns about the security of data in the cloud. "We can't afford to put the amount of money into security and protecting the data. It's more secure in Google's datacentre than it is in ours."

Even its the company's Google+ social network, which has so far met with limited success, has received something of a boost from the universities using it as a collaborative platform as part of Google Apps for Education.

However, this may be something of a backhanded compliment in that the students seem to like using it because it is separate from their social media favourites, such as Facebook which they want to protect from the prying eyes of academia.

Sexton said that the Google+ communities being used are "academic related" and added: "I haven't seen a lot of Google+ being social related and I haven't seen our students moving away from Facebook at all... They certainly don't want their tutors or anyone else in Facebook."

King added: "Before Google+ we tried a lot of projects with Facebook they were OK, but mostly the students were saying 'I don't want you seeing my Facebook profile'. [Google+] does tick a lot of boxes for education that it is separate to their own social sphere I haven't noticed that they've gone on to use it in their personal lives."

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