"Email for Life", e-Portfolios etc with Google Apps for Alumni

At Loughborough we went live with Google Apps for our students last Christmas. This was very well received, and we are currently in the throes of launching Google for Alumni.

We have been liaising closely with Google’s developer team for several months to create a system that will allow students leaving this Summer to keep their Google Apps email, contacts, calendars, docs etc on graduation.  This is a very exciting development, and I believe we will be the first institution to have a “fully baked” system for alumni that offers true continuity of service during the alumni transition and beyond. Before our partnership with Google this would have been impossible for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably the storage required for an ever increasing alumni body’s email and documents.

Behind the scenes there are some very interesting technical things going on, such as a split simpleSAMLphp Single-Sign On configuration that authenticates to our Active Directory (for current students) and Google’s user database (for alumni), and extensive use of Google’s ATOM APIs.  We are also automatically provisioning alumni aliases for students when their account is created, so they will literally have “email for life” – or at least the life of our contract with Google 😉

Fundamentally, though, it’s about the user experience – we are now in a position to reassure our students that (at one of the most stressful times of their lives) they don’t need to worry about suddenly losing access to their digital identity as a student.  From the initial student feedback we know that this will be well received. It’s also great news for us in IT Services – the typical picture at this time every year has been a flood of eleventh hour requests for temporary account extensions and reactivations, often requiring people’s files to be laboriously restored from backups and diverting our staff from development work.

It is illuminating to consider some of the initial comments that we have had from our students.  For example,  there is significant interest in some form of continued access to course materials on our Moodle based VLE (Learn).  Our students also tell us that they have already found Google Groups and the Google Apps shared calendars and documents facilities very useful.  These are presently used for purposes ranging from group project work to student clubs and societies, and I expect that alumni will find interesting new uses for these services.  The lossless nature of the alumni transition is particularly interesting here – e.g. programatically created Google Groups for student cohorts by course and module can persist indefinitely, shared documents are still accessible, and so on.  Want to get in touch with your peers to arrange a reunion of the class of 2010?  Easy!

It’s often stated that people tend to stay with their first bank.  With the widespread interest in services like Google Apps and Microsoft Live@edu the next wave of learners could find themselves using the same provider’s technology for personal use, at school or college, at University, and again for business purposes.  This is particularly relevant where the person in question is intentionally building up a portfolio of material, although it should be noted that neither Google or Microsoft presently support the likes of the Leap2A e-Portfolio specification. The evidence from our alumni transition work is that these need not all be separate and independent accounts.  However, I suspect that we will see a move away from accounts that are curated by any one organization, and towards a looser approach based on affiliations to an underlying account that is owned by the individual.  This may have interesting implications along the lines of the “tribes” formed through in-store loyalty cards and cheap calls to other customers of the same telco.  Interesting times!