College E-Mail Gets Caught in Google's China Fight, and Other Overseas Adventures

Michael Okoniewski for The Chronicle

Ellen Badger, director of international student services at Binghamton U., got complaints from students in China that they couldn't get access to their campus mail, provided by Google.
July 04, 2010

The frustrated e-mails from Chinese students began arriving just days after the end of the semester at Binghamton University. "Why can't we get into our university e-mail accounts?" the students asked.

It turns out the university was caught in the cross-fire of China's public battle with Google, which provides free, Web-based e-mail service to Binghamton and hundreds of other American colleges. Google recently refused to follow the Chinese government's Internet-censorship rules—policies some refer to as "the great fire wall of China"—and in response the government there has blocked access to some of Google's servers. So when the Binghamton students flew back home to China for the summer and tried to check their university e-mail (known as BMail), they hit a dead end.

"The first day when I came back to China, I found the Web site I used previously for BMail was unavailable when I tried to check my e-mail," Wei Huang, a sophomore at Binghamton who is now home in Zhejiang for the summer, told me last week in an e-mail. "I was waiting for the notification of admission from SOM [the university's School of Management], and if I couldn't have access to BMail, I wouldn't have known that I had successfully transferred," he said.

When Mr. Huang and other students wrote to complain, Ellen H. Badger, director of international student services at the university, immediately thought of all the ways e-mail was supposed to be used during the summer—including a weekly newsletter to stay connected to the university's students (451 of whom hail from China) and many messages to new students (92 of whom are from the country) telling them about housing information, meal plans, and the like. These days colleges do so much routine business by e-mail, it is dizzying to think of how those tasks would get done without it.

In this case the solution turned out to be easy—routing students to a different Web address on the university's servers to check their mail, or encouraging them to log in to the university's encrypted network first. (Google has outlined the fix on one of its corporate blogs.) Within 48 hours of learning about the problem, the university had sent a message to all of its Chinese students with instructions on how to get around the blockade.

Making end runs around the great fire wall and dealing with the fallout of policy decisions made by giant companies are part of a whole new set of technological challenges American colleges encounter as they accept more students from foreign countries, expand their partnerships abroad, or set up branch campuses overseas.

Even if your campus hasn't gone global yet, there's plenty of reason to think it soon will. That's the argument in the new book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (Princeton University Press) by Ben Wildavsky, a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "With universities around the globe vying for market share, recruiting students and fostering overseas partnerships have become de rigueur," he writes.

So when relying on technology to deliver teaching and services, colleges increasingly need to think globally.

Here are three tips that may help colleges see this big picture and overcome the technical hurdles. They are based on several interviews with college leaders who were in the first wave of educators—and in some ways, innocents—abroad.

1. Follow the Business

When Carnegie Mellon University decided to set up a branch campus in Qatar several years ago, the first thing the university's top technology officer did was call a friend at Alcoa, the multinational aluminum giant that operates in 44 countries. "I said, 'Let's have a conversation of what you worry about as far as international,'" said the Carnegie Mellon administrator, Joel M. Smith.

One piece of advice he heard seemed cryptic at first: "Watch out for A4 paper problems." The code refers to the standard size for business paper in Europe and many other parts of the world. It's slightly longer than the 8&frac;-by-11-inch paper common in the United States. So what? Mr. Smith asked.

"Then I got a fax from Qatar that was cut off at the bottom," he said, noting that the lost inch or so of paper kept a key detail from reaching him in Pittsburgh. "That became kind of emblematic that you can't make the assumption that the rest of the world is on U.S. standards."

Tony O'Driscoll, a professor at Duke University's business school, applies the lessons he learned as a former IBM executive to help the school's global M.B.A. program, in which a class of students travels together to several different countries, including India and China. "What works for enterprise doesn't necessarily work for eduprise, but some of it does," he told me, pointing to online collaboration with distant colleagues as an example. He now requires students to use Flip video cameras to conduct interviews about business challenges in different countries, and then work online with classmates to edit the films and post them online using a multimedia dropbox called CourseCommons.

2. Know That Connections Vary

One common assumption is that Internet access will always be easy to come by. While many countries boast networks as zippy as or even speedier than those in the United States, connection can be prohibitively expensive. Other countries lack robust links at any price. "Bandwidth abroad is not universally available like it is in the U.S. or Europe," said Robert Ubell, vice president for enterprise learning at New York University's Polytechnic Institute, noting that India, China, and Africa are among the most difficult places to log on.

Such infrastructure gaps lack an easy fix. Mr. O'Driscoll, of Duke's business school, said the institution was looking into "Internet in a box" systems that let officials set up local networks if they travel to places with limited Internet service.

3. Assess the Gear You Already Have

Starting an overseas venture does not necessarily mean outfitting yourself with telemetry to run a Mars rover. For instance, videoconferencing may simply call for an expansion of what your college already uses.

The videoconference is a key tool to making global education partnerships work. Paul M. Horn, senior vice provost for research at New York University, called it "critical." Luckily the prices of video links have come way down over the past decade, and they are now reliable enough to hold class between two distant locations without fear that a glitch will force a lesson to end early.

While some colleges are buying the Cadillac of videoconference gear, institutions may already have tools robust enough for international collaboration. Mr. Ubell, of NYU, said many colleges had already purchased licenses for Wimba or other conferencing systems that they may not be using, and an international partnership may be just the time to dig out the manual and give the system a try. In some cases, low-cost systems like Skype, which allows video calls, can be enough to coordinate research by professors or student projects. "You don't always need a whiz-bang solution," he told me.

In the end, global connections create more chances for things to go wrong—especially when you can't just walk down the hall to resolve an argument. But even if just a few of their students hail from far-off lands, colleges should make sure their systems can be reached wherever students and professors may roam. So if your institution is very diverse, advised Frank Saraceno, associate director of information-technology services at Binghamton, "your approach to technology needs to be diverse as well."

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