Wednesday, February 23, 2005

First Serious Post

This begins daily reflections on learning technology. Unlike other blogs in this area - this one will stick with my personal reflections, rather than become an amalgam of developments in the field.

My current pet theme is on the software that Google provides - both Groups and Blogger, I'm less interested in Gmail - and whether we should use those comfortably in academe as collaboration tools or if we should shy away from them and provide our own alternatives. The overriding haunting theme is that innovation will follow the market. Google operates in a big market, much bigger than Higher Education. It has greater incentives to innovate and get things right from the user's point of view to build up market share than do companies that provide to higher ed or open source that is coming from within higher ed. So one can readily envision that it's tools will evolve in ways to capture the user's imagination and to make things easy for them. Of course Google is not the only game in town. But it is hot right now and it has relatively current tools. The Groups tool is in beta now.

Compared to what we currently support in CITES, Listserv and WebBoard, the Groups tool is much easier to manage especially regarding users, anyone can do it, and there is the added benefit that the recent activity of the group can be syndicated so as to appear on other Web sites. This allows an insiders/outsiders approach. The insiders participate in the group via posting. The outsiders lurk. I find this intriguing. It might work well for groups that focus on particular tools that CITES supports, such as Illinois Compass and Netfiles.

The Groups tool is currently weak on sharing images. Links to Web pages (or images) work fine as straight links with no html code needed, but images can't be embedded. I'm guessing that won't be a problem in 6 months. Of course Blogger has an html editor that allows embedded images.

There is an issue about the ads. Actually, if one email subscribes to a group (and one can send out blog posts to a group so this is also true for subscription to a blog), there are no ads. The ads are only visible when one actually logs into the group. My way of thinking as a user, not as a campus administrator, those ads are there when I log into the New York Times site. And I get pelted with email from the various ecommerce sites I visit,, for example. So if the ads are the concern, by my way of thinking that is not a big deal.

More troubling is that Google is getting profile information on anyone with an account (and maybe anyone who posts to a group via email even if they don't otherwise have an account). So there is a privacy concern and the potential that the profile information will be exploited. If that happens via Google peddling its own stuff --- no big deal, that is expected. But it could go beyond that.

Right now, Google seems extraordinarily sensitive about spam and deterring that. This is one reason why Google is attractive with its toolset as compared to its competitors. The fear, I suppose, is that Google may sometime in the future look not so hot. In that event, as its financial fortunes suffer it will be more tempting to exploit the profile info for profit. I think that is the real concern.

But I'm wondering if that makes sense on a practical level. Is the stuff I'm sending in email now, the same sort of thing I was sending 3 or 4 years ago? Does a profile based on old info have a lot of market value? If Google does head south, I'd likely abandon it. There may be some inconvenience of spam after that, but is this something that I should really fear? And as long as Google's fortunes are going strong, doesn't it have incentive not to cash in on my profile? What am I missing?

Some of my colleagues might like the "stronger commitment" that would come from a service CITES provides about protecting privacy. But given the financial environment, would CITES' commitment to the service itself be as strong as Google's?

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