Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Facebook for edu ??

Universities have traditionally, well since sometime in the nineteen eighties, provided staff and students with email accounts automatically.

The reason why they continue to do this is largely historical - universities were enthusiastic early adopters of email and used it as a primary means of communication between staff and students replacing these typewritten yellow official memos we used to know and loathe.

Over time the world changed, but universities still went on providing email accounts despite the increasing cost of doing so, and despite the availability of alternative email providers. Ofthen universities justify the continued provision of email as a way of ensuring the timely delivery of communications such as course assignments etc.

Given the sometimes unreliable nature of university email services this may not be a valid argument, but the need for ensuring timely delivery and proving that a message has been delivered is important where it is the primary means of communication.

So universities have three options:

1) continue as before

this means that they continue to provide email and accept the ongoing storage, support, and staff costs

2) outsource

this moves the problem and puts a contract in place between the outsourcer and the university. Google and Microsoft offer outsourced zero cost services in the form of google apps for education and windows live for education. But of course zero cost is not zero cost. Bandwidth is not free and there is a valid reason to only outsource student email and keep staff email in house in order to maintain confidentiality and protect intellectual property.

And while the service is reliable,the forensic information obtainable in a dispute may not be as rich as if it was your own system with total control.

Once all that is taken into account let's say they're cost neutral, but as the majority is based around traffic costs they are at least more predictable - no hardware costs or nasty changes to the licence model

3) stop doing it

Basically this means that you stop providing student accounts. The arguments for continuing to provide staff email still hold, but free accounts are widely available from gmail, windows live, yahoo and so on. So in the way we don't give students phones, but ask them for their phone numbers we stop providing email and ask them to provide an email address.

This is not so radical - a number of universities in France and Italy never got into the student email game and now expect students to use their own email accounts (and perhaps their own computers ...)

But then we have the problem of getting assurance that key messages have been read. So much in the way that Facebook will send you a message when someone inside of the Facebook borg sends you a message we could envisage a similar sort of system, where you send messages out to tell students to read their bulletin board messages. Better still you could envisage a system that required students to acknowledge that they had read particular communications, such as exam dates and due dates for assignments.

Sounds a little like Facebook for edu. And I must admit, when I started thinking about it that's what I though it would be.

But it isn't. It's an extension of the learning management system. Most universities have them, tests and term papers are lodged electronically in a lot of cases, and access is authenticated and they ususally have built in bulletin board or wiki systems. Add in the ability to mail out to student lists and basic acknowledgement tracking.

So all we need is an enhanced LMS - it has all the pedagogic features needed and most of the closed social network features required. It would probably not be a whole lot of work to enhance Sakai -despite it being fairly loathsome as an LMS - or Moodle to deliver that sort of functionality at considerably lower cost than continuing to provide student email.

But would any university dare? It's high profile and could be seen as making the learning experience not as good as elsewhere. Being different is not always seen as being better ...

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