Laurier more tech-friendly

After a prolonged effort by Wilfrid Laurier University’s information technology department and administration, as of the last week of August students are now experiencing the much-touted upgrades to the university’s tech offerings.

Along with the “MyLearningSpace” replacement for WebCT and the MyLaurier web portal, a replacement for the old student email system was unveiled based on Google’s Gmail platform, and the university has announced that a smartphone application is in development.

The new email, learning management and web portal are all now fully-functioning while the smartphone app will be available in the month of September according to assistant vice-president of academic services Tom Buckley, who has overseen the university’s technology-focused initiatives of late.

Laurier: On your smartphone

“There will be a Blackberry app and an iPhone app that students can download and choose which communications they wish to receive,” he said. Expanding on the reasoning behind such an app, he added, “Email today to all students blankets everybody … this allows students to opt-in to channels of communications for specific groups.”

“Students are bringing these devices to university with them, now they can utilize them to stay connected to Laurier,” Buckley said. The app will launch in partnership with five areas of the university: communications, public affairs and marketing; student recruitment; residence life; athletics and career services.

The university’s app is distinct from the students’ union’s own offering which will launch roughly the same time and was created by the same development firm. “We’ve chatted with WLUSU, we want to avoid competing with each other,” Buckley said. “They have a channel; student events and notices will be one channel, and Laurier as an institution will be have others.”

Brian Dusselier of Sherpa Digital in Kitchener worked with WLU in developing the app, along with creating applications for 7 other universities or students’ unions. “It’s not a matter of if universities will have mobile applications, it’s a matter of when, it’s an absolute must,” he said, adding that emphasis was placed on ease-of-use for the university, making effective use of the application easy.

The Gmail question

Until details on the deal were finalized in late August, the university would not discuss which third-party service it was working with to develop a new student email system. After prolonged negotiations with Google, the choice was revealed to be the Google Apps for Education email offering rather than a comparable alternative from Microsoft. The new email accounts provide 7GB of space, improving over the old Groupwise email’s meager 25MB storage.

“When we looked at where Groupwise email was being redirected, a large majority was being redirected to personal Gmail accounts,” Buckley said. Laurier’s new system isn’t the same as a regular Gmail account however, he said. “There is no advertising, [and] they don’t data-mine the way they do on a retail Gmail account.” Google’s calendar and document applications will also be available in students’ accounts and they will also be able to use Google Sync to synchronize with a smartphone.

When other Canadian universities have adopted Gmail for their student and faculty operations, questions have emerged surrounding ‘data sovereignty’ – the threat that U.S. law enforcement would be able to access Canadian students’ email without notice under legislation including the Patriot Act because Google’s mail servers are located in the U.S.. The University of Alberta and Lakehead University have adopted Gmail-based email and there was press coverage about the privacy issue when the University of Ottawa examined it over the summer.

“We did take it very seriously,” Buckley said of the speculation surrounding this possibility.

“We followed the University of Alberta and what they did in their privacy assessment, we conducted a privacy assessment ourselves working with the university solicitor and there will be information made available to students on what exactly that entails.”

Still, he said, since email isn’t ever truly secure against intrusion by investigators or otherwise, “The risk is really best managed by the individual, if you’re concerned about someone seeing something, don’t send it.”

Ontario’s privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, was reassuring in her assessment of Laurier’s position and said that as long as due diligence had been taken by the university, the risks are minimal for students.

“You’re lucky to have Gmail,” she said.

“All Gmail users now get the highest level of security, so they have incredibly secure communications,” she added. “That’s what I think you should be pleased about in using this service with confidence.”