REDMOND, Wash., April 21, 2006 – For three years, administrators at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland had been trying to outsource the student e-mail system but couldn’t find a way to do it cost effectively. They asked students to provide their MSN Hotmail addresses as an alternative, but students wanted addresses with the university’s domain name – caledonian.ac.uk – in order to be taken seriously when communicating with people outside the university.
Something had to be done. The university’s existing Web-based e-mail system was swamped and couldn’t handle the traffic generated by 15,000 students. The university was seeing 4,000 students enter each fall, rapidly increasing the load on the already overstressed system. A new state-of-the-art e-mail system – “kids are pretty discerning, if the product isn’t up-to-the-minute, they’re not interested,” says Les Watson, the university’s Pro-Vice Chancellor – would be a significant expense. And Watson wasn’t that thrilled to be in the e-mail business to begin with, since he regarded it as the type of “commodity operation’ that distracted the university from its core functions.
“We had a problem,” says Watson. “We took it to Microsoft and they solved it for us.”
Junk Filters, Virus Protection, Calendar, Address Book – and 2 Gigabytes
In January, the university began rolling out e-mail accounts with its domain name to all 15,000 students and plans to offer the service to its alumni as well. Students aren’t likely to bump up against mailbox limits; the e-mail accounts, now based on MSN Hotmail, each come with a 250MB mailbox and will grow to 2GB when students are switched to Microsoft’s new Windows Live Mail later this year. The e-mail service also brings the features Watson’s discerning students demand – advanced junk e-mail filtering, antivirus protection tools, calendar and an address book.
Along with the e-mail service came a big bonus. Using the same ID, the university is also deploying Windows Live Messenger so students and staff can keep in touch with free audio and video conversation features as well as text messaging; MSN Spaces for participants to share blogs and build communities; and MSN Alerts so the university can notify students of special events. Students can access their e-mail wirelessly from smart phones and Pocket PCs – a major benefit given the ubiquity of mobile devices among students and the freedom those devices give them to send and retrieve e-mail without returning to a desktop computer. And Glasgow Caledonian University didn’t have to purchase an expensive e-mail system – because Microsoft is providing and hosting this service.
Up to 100 Schools by Year’s End
Glasgow Caledonian University may be special in many ways, but its deal with Microsoft isn’t one of them. Some 57 schools worldwide have either rolled out or have contracted to roll out their own branded and customized versions of this service from Microsoft and as many as 100 institutions are expected to do so by year end. All are participating in the Windows Live @ edu program, which provides institutions of higher education with flexible, robust and reliable hosted-communications services for students, alumni, and applicants. A minimal financial and infrastructure investment is made by the university to participate in the program, with Microsoft hosting the e-mail service while helping ensure the institutions maintain full control and management, including the ability to create, delete, and store e-mail addresses for their constituents.
Integrated with Local Mail Systems – Microsoft or Not
The service is built from the ground-up for use by colleges and universities, according to Walter Harp, senior product manager with MSN at Microsoft. “Before we kicked off the program, we worked closely with universities to understand their needs,” says Harp. “We designed the program to include what universities told us they want. As a result, Windows Live @ edu is a massively scalable program with premium enterprise support services available 24x7x365. We integrate with whatever local directory and e-mail system the institution already uses, whether they are Microsoft systems or not. We enable faculty and staff to create and manage distribution lists locally so they have more control over system communications. And we’re continuing to listen to them and evolve the program to meet their needs – from providing support for single sign-on authentication for online student services, to making sure the services are implemented in a way that helps protect students from a security and privacy point of view, to adjusting our advertising in the service to meet their needs.”
Administrators at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. had explored the possibility of adding their 160,000 alumni to the university’s existing e-mail system, but were put off by the cost, which they estimated to be up to US$700,000 per year. They were attracted to Windows Live @ edu because of its ability not only to provide students and alumni with “@ballstate.edu” e-mail addresses, but to provide them with “@ballstate.edu” addresses that potentially never expire even when they move, change jobs, or switch Internet providers.
A Lifelong Relationship: Alumni, University
“Our existing e-mail service for students was a transitory service for their time on campus – we weren’t in a position to maintain it for 160,000 alumni,” says H. O’Neal Smitherman, Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Ball State. “On the other hand, the emotional relationship between alumni and the university is lifelong. We wanted to maintain and strengthen that connection with our former students but their addresses, phone numbers, and even e-mail addresses come and go over the years. We didn’t have a single, reliable, long-term way to communicate with them. Now, thanks to Windows Live @ edu, we do.”
Ball State began offering the e-mail addresses to alumni last November and added students in February. Already, Windows Live @ edu has changed the way Ball State communicates with its alumni.
“We can communicate with our alumni in a more timely way than ever before, so the quality of communication is tighter, better,” says Smitherman. “When we had to rely on paper-based communications, we had to produce big brochures because, expensive as they were, they were less expensive than a steady stream of smaller mailings. Now, we can communicate whatever’s appropriate, whenever it’s appropriate, to whomever it’s appropriate – we have better communications and there’s no marginal cost.”
Smitherman says that alumni response to Windows Live @ edu has been positive, which will in turn have bottom-line benefits to Ball State. “Alumni are our best recruiters for new students,” he says. “Keeping them excited and better-informed about the university will help with our recruitment effort. It will also help with our fundraising effort. We’re already resetting our goals for fundraising because Windows Live @ edu is making it easier for us to communicate with alumni and making those alumni more excited about us.”
In addition to e-mail addresses, Ball State students and alumni are taking advantage of free personal MSN Spaces to post blogs, pictures, and favorite links. For students and alumni, the service is a way to share personal stories, photos and information with their friends, family, or whomever they want – and only with whomever they want.
Like many of the institutions that are adopting Windows Live @ edu, the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, Tex. is making the new e-mail service an option, rather than a requirement, for students.
“Windows Live @ edu is better than our legacy e-mail system in every respect,” says Gary Wiggins, executive director of Information Technology at University of Texas Pan American. “The interface, mailbox size, IM, and ability to blog are all superior to what we offered before. We hope and expect that the vast majority of our students will make it their primary e-mail address. But an e-mail service hosted by a third party can cause concern. We’re glad that we can offer it as an option alongside any other e-mail solution we care to offer; it’s helped to ease acceptance.”
Who Says There’s No Free Lunch?
There is a popular saying that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” so universities might reasonably be looking for the catch in a free service from Microsoft. Walter Harp invites such scrutiny.
“‘Why is Microsoft doing this?’ I get this question all the time,” says Harp. “If we provide great services at virtually no cost to students, alumni, and others at colleges and universities, we get the chance to show them what we can do. If they like what they see, we get the chance to win them over as customers of the future. There are a lot of choices for online communications today and we know we have to continually delight our customers to win their business, and Windows Live @ edu is meant to do just that.”
To Les Watson at Glasgow Caledonian University, that Microsoft investment has already paid off. “Microsoft knows more about e-mail than I ever will and I know they’ll continually enhance and upgrade the service,” he says. “They got the system up and running for us quickly and they worked hard to make it work for us. If I can get a company like Microsoft to run a professional, state-of-the-art e-mail system for me and to do it for free – that’s really a no-brainer, isn’t it?”