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Google Apps at the U

Google Apps at the U is changing the way students, faculty, and staff interact, work, and learn. It's also saving millions.

January 22, 2013

Several years ago the University of Minnesota became the first major research university to tap Google for its ever-evolving suite of applications—email, calendaring, video chat, and more. And in 2010, the U took the leap to become one of the first universities anywhere to offer the entire suite of apps to faculty and staff—not just students.

With IT costs running nearly $200 million per year at the U, the economics of the shift from operating and supporting its own systems alone were reason enough for the move. In fact, a recent analysis by technology research firm Gartner Inc. estimated that the move is valued at more than $15 million a year. But the value that Google Apps bring to communication and collaboration between users—students, faculty, and staff—is even greater.

"We've standardized our collaboration tools, and in higher ed that's no small feat. Now the University is able to avoid the effort associated with the never-ending upgrade cycle. We removed ourselves from that pattern by adopting Google Apps. And in the process, we've saved millions of dollars." —Bernard Gulachek, associate VP for IT.

By the numbers

  • Current users in UMN Google Apps: 70,000 students, 25,000 faculty and staff, plus 5,000 alumni
  • Cost per user, per month for email before Google Apps: $12 (software, data center costs, personnel, storage, licensing)
  • Amount of data storage Google provides free for each U of M user: 25GB (2.5 million GB overall)
  • Number of 8GB iPods it would take to hold that amount of data: 312,000
  • Number of laptops (at today's average laptop storage capacity of 120 GB) it would take to hold that amount of data: 21,000

For more information, visit the University's Google website.

Apps in the classroom

Abram Anders recently contributed a chapter to the U of M e-book, Cultivating Change in the Academy, about his integration of Google Apps into the classroom. For him, Google simplified his teaching and has made his time with students more meaningful and effective.

"It replaced five or six third-party tools I had been using before Google apps—I was doing a lot of work to find these tools, and now they're all in one place," says Anders, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Labovitz School of Business and Economics.

Anders has used Google for a range of classroom activities, all organized around the theme of maximizing his time with students and their interactions with each other.

"When you can find ways to support students interacting meaningfully—which is not easy—but when you can achieve that, you reach an almost exponential growth in the quality of content and the specificity of the feedback they're getting." Anders, in his early 30s, is no stranger to using technology. But today's students are already using Google Apps in their personal lives. He sees his job evolving to help them use the technology to learn better—to interact in new and innovative ways.

"For example," says Anders. "I set up (Google) chats while students are giving presentations. I'll immediately ask students to give kudos—what is something this student did well? So they'll give a presentation, sit down, and they'll have 10 comments about things they did well. That kind of feedback, I think, is really a game changer for the levels of engagement and the kind of motivations needed for students to do well and improve."

Anders says the integration of Google Apps in education is in line with a new theory of learning out there—connectivism. It says, essentially, that a big reason we're seeing such an explosion of innovation and creativity and change in the economy is that it's allowing people with good ideas to connect with each other and with resources and tools.

"A popular term going around in education now is this idea of 'participatory learning,'" says Anders. "Students are not receptacles or products to be made, or to be filled up in a factory model of learning."

"When you can find ways to support students interacting meaningfully, you reach an almost exponential growth in the quality of content and the specificity of the feedback they're getting." —UMD professor Abram Anders.

IT efficiency

For Jim Hall, IT director at the University of Minnesota Morris campus, and until 2010, senior manager for operations and infrastructure at the Twin Cities campus, Google Apps are all about efficiency and providing value to faculty and students.

On the relatively small campus of Morris, Hall says that his staff of about seven was supporting a half-dozen email clients. "It was a big problem for our help desk. We were in real straits trying to support the different programs." Hall has written extensively (and enthusiastically) about Google Apps on his blog, which was recently named a top-50, must-read, higher-ed technology blog. Google has reduced his campus's IT costs and the resources required to support multiple email clients, calendaring, and more, which frees his staff to work on supporting faculty in teaching.

Hall has even challenged his staff to use the Google phone tool to make free long distance calls. In doing so, that staff of seven (of 25,000 U employees systemwide) has managed to cut monthly phone call costs from $75 to $9.50 per month.

Making change

That sounds like small change at an institution with a $3.5 billion budget, but it's change to be sure. And the big picture, says Bernard Gulachek, associate VP for IT in the U's Office of Information Technology and a leader in bringing Google Apps to the U, is that it has fundamentally changed the future of technology infrastructure.

"With Google—we altered the way email infrastructure is provided. And we have a single institutional calendaring system used by everyone. We've standardized our collaboration tools, and in higher ed that's no small feat. Now the University is able to avoid the effort associated with the never-ending upgrade cycle. We removed ourselves from that pattern by adopting Google Apps. And we're now tapped into Google's rapid innovation cycle. And in the process, we've saved millions of dollars," says Gulachek.

Not to mention the fact that all the data related to these tools has to be stored somewhere—and Google has taken on that task, too.

"There's no need for a new $20 million brick and mortar data center," says Hall, who was working on the TC campus in 2008 when the U began contemplating the switch to Google.

"Look, you have to buy new hardware every couple years, new storage every couple years. We were due to buy new hardware, and it's not cheap. It's very expensive. We shopped around, looked at different options, and Google provided not only the features we needed but did it at the right price: which was $0. It's really hard to beat free."

The adoption and use of Google Apps is just one of many University efforts to achieve Operational Excellence. Learn more at excellence.umn.edu.

Contact the writer at overland@umn.edu.

Twin Cities Campus: