Google is fast becoming a significant force in the UK education sector. Earlier this month, it signed a landmark framework agreement with UK education and research network operator Janet designed to makes it easier for colleges and universities to sign up to Google’s free cloud services such as Gmail, docs and spreadsheets.
According to Janet parent company Jisc, the Cloud Services for Education Agreement will give colleges and universities that sign up for Google Apps for Education “peace of mind in relation to security, resilience, legal and data compliance, cost and functionality”.
Someone who has seen the search giant’s growing involvement with UK education institutions at first hand is University of Sheffield (UoS) CIO Christine Sexton (pictured), whose dealings with Google began back in 2006 after UoS began looking for a new, more mobile-friendly email system.
Lotus, Novell GroupWise and Microsoft solutions were all considered, but it was the nascent Google cloud services Gmail, Calendar, Sites and Docs that finally got the nod from Sexton – once she was assured the services would indeed be free and that users would not be subjected to pop-up ads and data mining.
The university formally adopted Google Docs and Sites in May 2007, with Mail and Calendar deployment following a few weeks later.
Sexton says one of the main benefits of Google Apps is easy administration, the ability to “turn things on and off” at will. And as Google Apps has grown in complexity over the years, Sexton has remained impressed with the reliability of the service, which has gone down only once since 2007.
“We had trouble with our network in getting to Google Apps once, but it was BT’s fault – cutting three redundant lines,” says Sexton.
The move to Google Apps was very much driven by Sexton’s belief that the university would increasingly have to cater for the needs of mobile users. Back in 2006, relatively few students required access to university resources while away from their rooms or the library, but the situation is very different today. To underline this change, Sexton reveals that earlier this year, the university saw 4,000 students wielding 10,000 new mobile devices join its network within 36 hours of it opening its doors for a new term – and this was before the actual beginning of the term, when even more students logged on.
Google Sites, meanwhile, has transformed the way many of the University’s departments present their resources online.
“In areas of the university that didn’t seem particularly tech literate, that were very traditional, we discovered they’d set up Google Sites,” says Sexton, again highlighting the issue of ease of use. “We haven’t had to teach or show anyone how to do it. We do run ‘Google Days’ where we have people come and demonstrate what they’ve done, but we‘re not running training courses.”
Even Google+ has its place, according to Sexton. While the wider world still seems to favour Facebook over Google’s social network, Sexton argues that this is the very reason students enjoy collaborating on Google+, and using Hangouts to work together.
“They are hesitant to add lecturers or other university staff on Facebook,” says Sexton, “so they love being able to separate their academic and social lives by using Google+.”
But bearing in mind Google’s increasingly blotted copybook in terms of data privacy, having been accused - and taken to court - on matters ranging from Google Mail ad-skimming to SEO-fixing in search results, does Sexton worry about what’s happening to the data students feed into it every day? Does the University of Sheffield really trust Google?
“We do. And our contract is already pretty watertight with Google,” explains Sexton.
“To be honest, I think there are some parts of the press that like to Google-bash a bit,” she continues. “I’d say that when there was a lot [of US Patriot Act protocol] being talked about a few years ago, Google was very open about saying, ‘We don’t know where your data’s stored; we know it’s fragmented all over the place. We’re not denying it’s not going out of Europe, but we will guarantee it’s stored under the following contractual obligations, safe harbour etc’. I actually asked the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] whether they were monitoring this and they said ‘Yes, of course we are’.”
While Google promises not to share or use any data it holds on its Apps for Education customers with third parties, or use it for any kind of marketing, the question of what Google has to gain from its 25 million users is still up for debate. Sexton believes the company simply wants “exposure”.
“In Sheffield, they get 25,000 students who are all going to graduate and go off into the big wide world and get jobs,” Sexton tells Computing.
“And I imagine Google hopes they will either stick with using Google Apps personally - and by then it won’t be free - or they’ll go into an enterprise and ask ‘Why haven’t you got Google Apps - it’s brilliant’.”
And as Google keeps donating Raspberry Pis and its own cloud-reliant Chromebook hardware to schools and colleges, it’s hard to argue with Sexton’s logic.