Google, Microsoft and HE: outsourcing the student and staff experience

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 13 August 2009

The issue of outsourcing technology-provision is emerging as a major issue for higher education managers. I know outsourcing has been around for a while – institutions have outsourced data networking and equipment maintenance since the year dot. Moreover, SOAS and Glasgow Caledonian outsourced email to Google in 2007. However, it’s only now that our institutional managers are grappling with the issue of student email provision, and as a result have to recognise the cultural and managerial implications of outsourcing the student and staff experience.

Outsourcing the student and staff user experience is what a pact with, for instance, Google, implies precisely because a Gmail implementation opens up possibilities and pressures for implementing the rest of the Google suite, and thereby changing the face of institutional communication and interaction. The impact on the core business of an institution will be seismic. Whilst such a pact may offer up opportunities for wider associations and networking, it also threatens those areas of an institution that may need to be closed (e.g. data management and processing for awards).

Outsourcing a technological solution has implications: for service provision; for data protection, privacy and confidentiality; for levering institutional, technological extensions [in Google’s case a burgeoning set of apps that have affordances for learning and teaching, rather than simply email]; and for institutional visions/blueprints of learning and teaching, especially where users can opt-in or out. It is critical that we recognise for whom this is being done and why.

There are a number of issues then in the migration of a major technological solution like student email to, say, Google.

  1. The first is the nature of the risk assessment that has been done, linked to the full business case. In fact, is there a full business case that focuses less on cost savings and more on real value? The key focus should be on the relationships between staff, students and resources within appropriate learning communities that are open and/or closed to the institution, programme, or individual. How are these best organised and supported? Outsourcing on cost alone should be a non-starter, although it seems that this isn’t always the case.
  2. Implementing, for instance, Gmail opens up opportunities for extending the rest of the Google suite that includes recent changes to iGoogle, Google Reader and Google Wave. This impacts any proposed blueprint for technologies that support an institutional vision/ethos, and which also engages non-institutional networks or communities. This has to be properly assessed by key local stakeholders in-line with their needs, rather than jumped on because students feel Google is sexy, shiny and better. Moreover, where new services have pedagogic implications, this impacts our development not only of existing tools, but critically our engagement with, development of, and support for academic and support staff. What will the services that we provide for staff and students look like, so that neither group are left behind?
  3. Oxford have argued that Gmail is not a viable solution for them for staff email given privacy and confidentiality issues. With the amount of shared group-work and collaboration needed by staff and students, delivering dual systems is not an option in their context. Given that other potentially-shared Google services are available, it is critical that both students and staff are engaged in a planned way, in order to avoid opening up a digital divide in the services are offered to support learning and teaching. That deliberation has to be set within an institutional culture that may be at once open and/or closed, and which frames decisions about data or relationships that need to be held in-house.
  4. There is a very real risk that managers are bedazzled by identification with, for instance, the Google brand, and new developments like ‘caffeine’. Google has been criticised over privacy, copyright infringement, hacking, censorship, DRM etc.. Hence the value-set of any association or affiliation needs to be deliberated properly across all institutional stakeholders. Anil Dash’s excellent piece on “Google’s Microsoft moment” asks whether Google is moving to a position where it is “favoring what’s convenient for [its] own business goals” rather than that which matters to its real-world users. He goes on to add that “The era of Google as a trusted, ‘non-evil’ startup whose actions are automatically assumed to be benevolent is over”. Most tellingly of all, he states that Google’s “protestations of ‘but it’s open source!’ are being used to paper over real concerns about data ownership, and the truth is that open code doesn’t necessarily imply that average users are in control”. We are not yet at the point of transition to the university of the people, where there is no need for closed positions. There are bigger issues here that impact local, educational user engagement, set within validated and purposeful institutional cultures.
  5. A final issue here is that of openness. Dave Cormier argued at OpenEd09 that open educational resources, including tools and contexts, are often not open for creation or re-creation or re-formation, and at best they are simply static and accessible materials. By focusing institutionally or within a community upon one service or set of services, we are in danger of excluding or marginalising by locking people into or out of specific ways of working. Empowered decision-making about relationships, technologies, services and resources demands contexts that scale choices for learners (for instance in safe, free-ranging environments). Cormier argues that the personal processes involved in learning and in engaging with communities are complex and messy. If he is right then decisions need to be made about institutional openness and engagement with shared resources, services and toolsets by a range of stakeholders, not just those who operate in isolated pockets.

This all needs clear planning with key stakeholders, with a clear rationale developed for any link with Microsoft, Google or whoever, which is based around institutional need and an institutional blueprint. Managers need to know for what issue(s) outsourcing is a solution – a technology or service or organisational change or cost saving? Why this technology and why now? What are the dis-benefits?

The implementation of, for instance, gmail is not neutral. It opens up possibilities for new technological developments. Those developments are also not neutral – they impact the management of identities, services, staffing, organisation, processes, data etc. at a range of levels, from the personal to the institutional. Some of these issues are raised by the JISC Legal Tutor Guide to Web 2.0, and again impact this debate.

Now it may well be that Google supplies solution for some of the things for which Universities need social media. I use Google services both personally and to manage the information/communication needs of a Homeless Hostel for which I am a Trustee, and I am very happy to do so. However, our Trustees have risk assessed this decision in terms of our data and resources, their management and the critical nature of our work. I see merit in an affiliation with for example Microsoft or Google, in terms of personalisation, scale and flexibility. However, there are huge cultural, curricula and working ramifications in any proposal to outsource an element of local practice to such an organisation. This is, I believe, a risky strategy that needs proper deliberation, so that institutions are not just pawns in on-going business battles.

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