Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Selective Outsourcing

Following on the heels of IHE, there's a story in the Chronicle about several universities (Northwestern and Arizona State among them) giving up their own internal email systems in favor of Google's gmail. I'll admit, it strikes me as one of the best ideas I've heard in a long time.

If you haven't tried it, gmail is free, almost always up, and backed up with storage capacity you wouldn't believe. The actual physical servers are heaven-knows-where, which means they're separate from most campuses. (In the event of natural disaster, that's no small thing.) And it's free. Did I mention that?

Anybody who has ever tried to contact students via their campus email accounts knows that you're frequently better off relying on a carrier pigeon. Students rarely use their campus email, rendering the system as useless as it is expensive. They'd be likelier to use something they can take with them wherever they go, and that offers enough storage to use indefinitely.

I think I personally drove our previous IT guru to retirement with my constant nagging about 'open source' that and 'free' that. (See this post from 2005 as an example.) His responses started off generous-but-condescending -- “that's an interesting idea, but as you know, we don't have the staff to support it” -- and eventually became downright testy. But it struck me as a good idea then, and it strikes me as even more so now. In a time when we're shrinking the cadre of full-time faculty to save money, why the hell are we buying servers and paying staff for our own internal email system? Why not use gmail (or something similar) and use the savings to, I don't know, hire faculty?

Going farther, why the hell are we sending boatloads of cash to Microsoft for a gazillion Office licenses when AbiWord and OpenOffice are out there for free? (Google Docs shows promise, too.) For that matter, why not try Linux instead of Windows? Let Bill Gates absorb the hit, rather than my English department. He's better able to take it. And the time we save with fewer system crashes wouldn't be trivial.

And have you tried Blackboard/WebCT recently? Sheesh. I mean, Sakai and Moodle are just sitting there...

The only semi-persuasive argument I've heard for continuing to feed the Windows pig is that it's the “industry standard.” That's true, but circular. It's true until it abruptly isn't.

Usually, pushing for new technology involves spending more money. This is that rare case in which pushing for new technology would actually save money.

I'm not usually a big fan of 'outsourcing,' but I'd much rather outsource email and embrace open source – and apply the savings to just about anything else – than continue to outsource our teaching to adjuncts while paying ever-higher licensing fees to software monopolies.

Has your campus tried any of the open-source or free stuff out there? Has it worked? Is there a relevant downside I'm not seeing?