I just returned from a visit to the famed Googleplex for the Google Apps for Education Summit. Aside from the fun of seeing the Google “campus” (and that’s a fitting term) from the inside, which felt a little like getting the Golden Ticket from Willie Wonka, I learned quite a bit about where Google Apps for Education is going to be heading, and quite a bit more about what we (at Macaulay) can be (and I think will be) doing with it.

We first made the move of our alumni email accounts to Google last year. At the time, the alumni were stuck on an aging, moribund, Lotus Notes server, and the email was slow, unreliable, often clogged with spam, constantly in need of restarts. Things totally changed for them with the move to gmail. The new Google email experience for alumni (and a small pilot group of students) was nothing short of terrific. The new email system gave them huge storage, complete reliability, and an interface (Gmail, everyone knows it!) they already knew and valued. Given a choice (and we did some extensive focus groups with students), they preferred gmail not just to their Lotus Notes email (no surprise there), but also to the Microsoft offering we were also considering.

And the transfer was accomplished (over the summer–maybe not the best time!) with very minimal pain. Google technicians were completely helpful with that. But it didn’t take much help. The system is simple to administer and simple to use.

It’s now been almost a full academic year, and for email, I really couldn’t ask for better. The many complaints that students had about the old systems, both Lotus and Microsoft, have ceased. Usage is not particularly heavy (this is pretty much what I hear from IT folks in all of higher ed. Students don’t use their official email, and maybe not any email, very much or very often. They definitely want to have it, and when they do use it it’s important to them, but on a day-to-day basis it’s not the most important communication tool in their arsenal).

So now I’m looking ahead. And I’m looking beyond just gmail. The real power of Google Apps for Education is in the apps–not the email. This is where I want to take us. Google Docs, Google Sites, Google Calendar, Google Groups–these are actually extremely powerful communication and collaboration tools. And they’re all part of the package, all included, and to some extent already familiar to students. As we start to plan for the fall’s class of incoming freshmen, I want to start thinking about how we can use these apps within the specific context of Macaulay’s consortial model. Sites for building webpages collaboratively. Docs for student assignments and projects. Groups for student clubs and other kinds of multi-person communication, with Calendar for their planning. The examples that I saw from other campuses across the country were fascinating and inspiring.

None of these ideas would make me abandon our commitment to open source tools and applications–when those are the right tools for the job (which is frequently). The Google apps are going to be right for some purposes and not for others. But there’s also a lot to be said for meeting students where they are, for using the default tools that are the most transparent to students and require the least investment of diminishing college resources.

And there’s more than that. One of the biggest takeaways I had after the visit to Google was that the Project Managers for these apps have a real and sincere commitment–not just to making the best products for their corporation–but to really serving as an example and a model and a spur and an incentive for innovation and progress. They spoke at length and very persuasively about their commitment to keeping these apps accessible and available across platforms. They’re not looking to make things that only work in Chrome, for example, or only on Android. If it doesn’t work well for everyone, they don’t want to make it.

I know, it’s easy for people to say that, and easy for a corporation to co-opt that kind of energy. But I sat there and listened to and talked to those Project Managers. I can judge sincerity, and these people were listening and understanding and thinking (you could see the excitement about new ideas). And what they were thinking about was making things that would help students collaborate, communicate, and create. That’s what we all think about, and I felt very strongly that they were on the same page with that. So I think we’ll be doing more and more with Google apps (beyond just the email!) and I think we’ll be presenting some great model projects soon.

Stamp_US_1973_8c_mailmanIs email an important method of communication for you?  I hear all the time (usually in a cranky old-person voice :-)) that “kids today don’t use email.  They only care about that texting facebook machine thing.”  I’m not sure if that’s entirely true or not, and I know that I heard the same kind of thing years ago about–“kids today don’t write letters.  They only want to pick up the telephone, even if it’s long-distance.”  But for us at Macaulay, email is a fairly important and fairly efficient way for us to push information out to our students (and others).

And we’ve recently made a switch in the way we provide email accounts to our students.  In the past, like many colleges (like all the CUNY campuses) we automatically created an email address for each new student.  Then (two years ago) we switched (to reflect our new name!) to email addresses.  But we found that most students weren’t really using their Macaulay email accounts at all–or if they were, they were just forwarding to another email address (usually their campus address or a gmail or yahoo account).  So, starting last year, we did not create Macaulay email accounts automatically.  Any student who requested one, got one, but only if they specifically made the request.  We got maybe a dozen requests last year.

Then two things happened this past summer.  We switched to a new system (hosted by Google) for all the existing accounts (mostly alumni).  And Facebook finally, after two years of official requests and student petitions, created Macaulay Honors College as a “network” (like just about every other college in the country).  In order to join that Macaulay network, all you need is a Macaulay email address.  Once that happened, and we announced it, things changed.  A dozen or so students requested Macaulay email accounts in all of last year.  This year, in approximately one month, over 200 students have requested (and received) Macaulay email accounts.  So does this mean that the new email system is so fantastic that students love it and want to be a part of it? Or does it mean that Facebook is so important that students will accept an email account they don’t really need, just to be a part of that Facebook network?

You decide.  Let us know! You can leave a comment on this post, or as always, email me! (and of course if you don’t have a Macaulay email account yet, and you want one, or if you’re having any trouble with or questions about your Macaulay email account, you can email me for that, too).