California State Universities Move to Google Apps

More than half of the 23 campuses in the system have already migrated their students to provide better service and save money.

by Tanya Roscorla / September 27, 2010 0
A view of California State University, East Bay, where faculty, staff and students have transitioned to Google Apps for Education. Photo by Jennifer Williams

Over the past two years, more than half of the 23 campuses in the California State University system have migrated their students to Google Apps for Education. And in the coming months, other campuses will join them.

California state universities are facing a budget crunch and no longer want to invest in student e-mail, said Amir Dabirian, vice president for information technology and chief technology officer at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). And many students don't use campus e-mail — they use Gmail on their own.

But e-mail is still one of the top ways that universities communicate with students, he said. With an education e-mail address, universities can easily communicate with students and give them access to information they couldn't obtain with their personal Gmail account, such as research journals.

By moving to Google Apps, universities offer more storage and features with an education address than they could on their own. And they're saving time and money too.


Hosted applications provide more storage, cost savings

With Google as one of the universities' platforms, students will have more than 7 gigabytes of storage and no ads. And universities won't have to keep investing in the infrastructure to support e-mail, said Dabirian, who took a year off from his duties at CSUF to serve as assistant vice chancellor for information technology services and chief information officer for the California State University in the Chancellor's Office in Long Beach.

“We save money because we don’t provide equipment, and the students get a better experience.”

By January, 14 of the 23 California State University campuses will have moved students to Google Apps for Education.

California State University, East Bay, kicked off the Google Apps trend in April 2008, followed by CSUF in June. This year, six CSU campuses have completed or started migrating students, including Fresno, Sonoma State, Monterey Bay, Channel Islands, San Bernardino and San Jose State. And in January 2011, Humboldt State University plans to move students, faculty and staff, bringing the total to 14.

By moving to Google Apps, Cal State East Bay can provide better service for students, said John Charles, chief information officer and vice president for information technology.

“There’s just no way we could compete with the amount of storage available that Google was offering versus what we could afford to provide."

When faculty members saw how students collaborated on group projects with Docs, they started asking when they could have the same collaboration capabilities. In August, the university became the first campus in the system to offer the same service for faculty and staff.

By moving faculty and staff from a Microsoft-based e-mail exchange to Google, the university expects to see an annual net savings of $45,000. The student move has saved $75,000 a year.

“If we can avoid spending time and money on standing up and supporting our own separate infrastructure, that frees up that time and that money to put into academic areas that really are important in terms of the institution mission,” Charles said. 


Universities take care of privacy, security issues

The university does not pay for Google Apps, but does pay a per-user fee for Google's Postini service. By using Postini, the university can filter spam, which makes up 90 percent of incoming e-mails and takes a toll on personal productivity if it's not filtered, Charles said. The service also archives e-mails so that the university can respond to litigation holds.

Earlier this year, the University of California at Davis decided not to adopt Gmail for faculty and staff because of concerns that research information could become public if Google mines or stores it in another country.

Cal State East Bay addressed privacy and security concerns up front by working with the California State University General Counsel's office to negotiate the terms and conditions agreement with Google. The agreement covers faculty, staff and students, and it's written in such a way that all the campuses can use it. 

Privacy and security concerns are not about Google in particular, but about moving out of university data centers and into the cloud, said Anna Kircher, Humboldt State's chief information officer.

"It is a genuine theoretical concern that other people will have control of certain things that we used to have control of, and it is difficult to learn to be comfortable with that," she said. "I won’t say that Google or the cloud providers have never stubbed their toe, but I can’t say we never have either.”


Campuses ponder faculty, staff plans

When Humboldt State moves to Google Apps, the IT staff members will be able to focus on other tasks to maintain its fairly complex environment instead of spending time managing the e-mail system.

Because the e-mail system helps create and support campus community, Humboldt State decided to transition faculty, staff and students at the same time.

“We think it’s important that students and faculty be on the same system, that they have the same tools,” Kircher said.

But most other universities in the system have moved only students. CSUF doesn't plan to move faculty and staff from Microsoft's e-mail exchange any time soon because it provides a richer feature set, Dabirian said.

Cal State East Bay is considering whether to use Microsoft Live@edu for faculty and staff, even though they're already using Google's service. While the student transition went smoothly two years ago, the faculty and staff transition has a few bumps in the road. Some of the staff had trouble transitioning from the Outlook calendar to Google's calendar and developed workarounds so they can still use Outlook. But Charles is concerned that the workarounds may cause a productivity hit.

That's why he will have some of them participate in a pilot with Microsoft Live@edu starting in October. After the three month pilot, a university steering committee will decide which calendar to standardize on.

“Since these are all cloud-hosted, and we don’t have to stand up the infrastructure for it on campus, we can afford to give people choices on what they use."