A student has made a request to Trent’s Information Technology (IT) department for the university to begin using Google Apps for Education for student email. The service is a version of the company’s “online productivity tools” (including Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Documents) developed for elementary and secondary schools and universities and colleges. The IT department advised the student to bring the proposal to the TCSA for consideration. The TCSA did not respond to Arthur’srequest for comment by press time. The service, launched in 2008, is quickly being adopted by universities and schools around the world.

On 18 October 2010, Google stated it had over 10 million student users of the service. The number includes millions of public school students in New York, Oregon, Iowa, Maryland, and Colorado whose states have recently signed contracts with the California-based firm. The so-called “productivity tools” are already well-known to students, many of whom skirt Trent’s notoriously slow and outdated webmail service by having their Trent email forwarded to a Gmail account. But unlike those private accounts, the company says its education service is advertisement free. “Sponsored links” are allowed only at the discretion of the institution. Besides its popular features, many schools and universities are switching to the service for another reason: it’s free. Like with a personal account, only certain additional features such as added security have to be paid for.

“As you may know, Google was founded by a research project at Stanford University,” the education applications website reads, “and this is just one way we can give back to the educational community.” Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University became the first large-scale Canadian user of the service in 2008. According to a 2008 Globe and Mail report, with 8,000 students and faculty no longer using an internal webmail service, Lakehead was projected to save hundred of thousands of dollars a year in operating costs. Andrew Bell, Manager of Trent’s Digital Service Delivery and Administration Department sees a few important issues arising if the proposal goes forward. “Do students trust Google, as an advertising company, not to send them ads or to data mine their email?” he asked. His other concern is privacy. He points out that Canadian privacy legislation does not apply to the U.S.-based firm.

That was a concern for Lakehead as well. Faculty there were told not to share personal data, including student marks, over the system, the Globe and Mail wrote. The university is wary because under the 2001 Patriot Act, the U.S. government has access to any information held by organizations in that country. Privacy issues go deeper still. Even some U.S. universities are concerned their data may not be safe with Google. Yale University, for instance, recently backed out of a plan to phase in the education applications, mostly over concerns about how the decision to contract the service was made. Privacy was also a concern. According to the Yale Daily News, “Google stores every piece of data in three centers randomly chosen from the many it operates worldwide in order to guard the company’s ability to recover lost information — but that also makes the data subject to the vagaries of foreign laws and governments”.

The University of Massachusetts is also backing away from the service, though for other reasons. Google Apps for Education was introduced there in September 2009 as an optional service for students. The university newspaper, the Daily Collegian, says that only 7% created accounts and as a result the service was discontinued eight months later. Other educational institutions see the benefits of the free, collaborative, web-based software as outweighing the risks. Sir Wilfrid Laurier University followed Lakehead’s lead this year, implementing the service with the blessing of Ontario’s privacy commissioner. Google’s competitors in developing web-based software for educational institutions are Microsoft, which has launched a service called [email protected], and a small company called Zimbra.