E-mail and online collaboration used to be problematic for many students at the University of Toronto, but thanks to a recent partnership with Microsoft Canada the post-secondary learners will have access to a host of Web-based office software and collaboration tools for free.
When completed, the initiative will enable no less than 77,000 students of the university to join a growing community of 11 million other students from over 10,000 schools world wide who now use [email protected] e-mail and document management service. The cloud-based collaboration suite includes: Windows Live SkyDrive, Microsoft’s Web-storage space; and free access to Microsoft Office Web Apps, the online version of the company’s office suite software products such as PowerPoint, Excel and Office.
Some of the services available in [email protected] are:
- Communication services: Free, hosted e-mail and calendaring tools with a 10 GB inbox and instant messaging capability through Outlook Live
- Collaboration services: The ability to access, share and collaborate on projects through SkyDrive, with 25 GB of free online storage
- Productivity services: The ability to create, view, edit and share Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote files online with SkyDrive
“Purchasing these solutions on our own could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Cook.
The university is in the process of hooking up an initial batch of students to the service, according to Robert Cook, chief information officer for U of T. Through July and August, the school will roll out the service to new students. After issues around porting existing Web content and programs held by older students are dealt with, the [email protected] will be made available to the rest of the student population, said Cook.
If results are favourable, Cook said, there is a possibility that [email protected] would be extended to university staff and faculty.
“There is such a big demand for better e-mail service and online collaboration capability in campus. The general feedback I get is:’ When will we get on with this already?,” said Cook.
Under the agreement, [email protected] will be made available to users as a “co-branded” suite under the U of T’s own Web portal. Access to the [email protected] and licenses to the software are provided to users for free and students do not need to pay any additional fees to the university for the service, said Cook.
Providing the service for free is part of Microsoft’s broader strategy to expose potential users to Microsoft tools at a younger age before they join the workforce.
“We want students to get used to Microsoft services as early as possible because these are the tools they will be using in their work environment,” said Anil Verma, product manager, education at Microsoft Canada.
Microsoft is currently locked in a battle with Google over a cloud computing market worth an estimated $5 billion. Many of the e-mail and collaboration tools available in [email protected] are contained in Office 365, which is considered Redmond’s answer to Google Apps.
Students demand better e-mail, collaboration tools
Cloud wars aside, Cook considers the Microsoft partnership a real boon for U of T`s students.
“The traditional image of the student pouring over books in his dorm room alone no longer applies,” he said. “Today, students are more likely working on group assignments by e-mailing each other, using instant messaging and collaborating online in real-time on a single document.”
The U of T encourages this way of learning, he said, because this is the way students will be working in the real world.
Cook said survey of student needs conducted by the U of T last year placed e-mail and collaboration tools as priority issues.
Unfortunately the university is unable to provide such tools. “Even the university’s e-mail service not up to standards,” said Cook.
The school’s e-mail service only provides 50 MB of space. There is no standard provisioning for online storage space – space allocation varies from department to department and some just do not offer free online storage. There is no access to collaboration tools.
“The result is that students go outside the university technology platform to obtain their tools,” said Cook.
Students maintain two to four additional e-mail accounts and calendaring services from providers such as Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail. They also purchase on their own various software products. E-mails and documents, he said, are frequently “forwarded” to outside accounts.
“The big downside is that this is being done outside the U of T platform where students are guaranteed privacy and security,” said Cook.
Students are subjected to a barrage of unwanted online advertisements, run the risk of downloading viruses or becoming phishing victims, he said.
Better protection and functionalities
Verma of Microsoft Canada said [email protected] can provide a more secure cloud computing environment for students because the service can be ran within the protected U of T site.
“Apart from the 10 GB e-mail storage from Outlook, students also get free 25 GB password protected online storage space through Microsoft’s SkyDrive,” he said.
The Calendaring tool of the suite will also enable users to view the availability of team members that might not share the same schedule as theirs.
Whereas the old U of T network did not have online collaboration capabilities, Verma said, [email protected] will enabled users to access these feature from SkyDrive.
“Multiple users such as members of a study or assignment group can now view, edit and manipulate the same document even when they are using different machines and working from different locations,” he said.