Thursday, August 25, 2005

Playing with Google Tools

When I first got started with learning technology we were operating under a Sloan funded project called Scale and much of what we did followed the precepts of Frank Mayadas, our grant officer and very much a path maker in eLearning. (We called it ALN for Asynchronous Learning Networks and while that is a mouthful I still like the acronym and the discussions about what is and is not ALN.) Frank was fairly generous with his funds at the time but he wouldn’t give a dime to software development. He encouraged us to use off the shelf applications. Though he never articulated his reasons to me among the more obvious ones were: (a) this is one way to hold costs down, (b) development stuff can be flakey while commercial off the shelf stuff has to work if it is to survive a market test, and (c) if an approach works well with off the shelf software it is more likely to transfer to other situations.

I still share much of that in my own sensibility and in that I feel a bit of an outlier in the information technology organization where I work. I think most of the IT pros ascribe more power to software than I would. My view is that it matters a lot if it is bad, because then it impedes work getting done. But as long as it is usable, then it does matter so much. This may sound odd (especially to my staff and likely to folks at WebCT who know I’ve asked for a lot of features to be added to the Vista software and for more features in other software we support). Part of this is a linguistic mater – what does the word usable mean? But the other part is simply a recognition that the role of the software, even the best stuff, is limited. Teaching and learning is still fundamentally about human interaction and individual reflection.

So I spend a lot of time worrying about whether what we offer has substantial incremental value over what the market provides. And given how much attention Google has been getting the last week or so and that more than half the hits on my blog result from Google searches and that the business model for Google make its services free to the end user, I don’t think it bad to consider what the market provides to be exemplified by the Google Tool Suite, even if there are other important players to consider. So today I played with several tools that either I hadn’t tried before or hadn’t looked at for a while. These were Google Talk, Google’s Personalized Homepage, Google Desktop, and GMail.

Google Talk, seems like an ordinary IM with voice offering and in my one test of that with a friend we had problems with the audio cutting out. I have a crappy microphone and that may be part of the problem, a review in Wired said the voice part worked fine. So I’d like to try that again with better equipment. I don’t think voice chat replaces telephone service….yet. So the only thing I’ll note here is the seeming integration with GMail and I would expect that to be enhanced in future releases.

Google Personalized Homepage is remarkably easy to set up and can readily accommodate XML feeds. So in that, it is a potential alternative to a campus portal. As it is right now, the limitations from the user point of view is that if you want a lot of channels you have to scroll most of them and you can’t format the XML feed, it seems like it gives only subject lines that are clickable, but not any of the text of the message. I’ve not been a big one on portals for my personal use, but I have served on campus committees that dealt with portal provision. And in that role I recall reading a piece by Howard Strauss on portals where basically he said the only way for it to work is for everything a person uses regularly to be in the portal. That made sense to me. A campus portal will likely have campus feeds only and only very slowly allow the user to bring in other feeds. Perhaps Google will implode under its own weight, but if I were betting I’d be more comfortable putting my money on them than on the Uportal open source development effort. This is simply a matter of the scale of investment going into the activity.

Google Desktop is ok. I don’t think that finding stuff is the be all to end all that others do but it seems to me this app is the most direct threat to Microsoft and so the interesting part here is whether Microsoft will respond by an accommodating strategy (which seems to be what it is doing right now) or by a combative strategy.

Gmail is mind numbing, not for search stuff but for the quotas. We offer 10 MB of space to our students for their email (and I believe we’re in last place in the Big 10 in terms of that quota.) GMail is over 2.5 Gig of space now (and climbing every second). On things like making email compatible with your cell phone, GMail is much more likely to produce a satisfactory solution than we are on campus. The part where the campus offering wins is on privacy and security. My guess is that most students care about that less than 10% of the time and maybe for faculty and staff that becomes 20% of the time and for administrators perhaps somewhat higher. So I really do think we and many other universities need to reconsider their email strategy and think hard about where the value add really is.

None of these tools will revolutionize teaching, which is part of my point. Let’s leave to the market where it is doing a decent job and not replicate the services so we have some resources left to focus on things that will improve the quality of life on campus. At this point, I think the campus LMS does continue to add substantial value, especially for large course instructors. But in the general category “online IT services for students” the market has some pretty good stuff and replicating that will become expensive, if not in direct cash outlay then certainly in an opportunity cost sense.

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