Google has a relatively new offering called Google Apps for Education. It is part of its Business Solutions branch of services. Google Apps for Education is a suite comprised of Gmail, GTalk, Google Calendar, Google Page Creator, and the Google Start Page customized for your school. This option is also available, though in a slightly different format, for businesses. Both the Google Apps for Your Domain and the Google Apps for Education are in beta production, and a limited number of schools are being offered the service free of charge during the beta period.
With Google Apps for Education, students, and faculty could benefit from integrated Web tools, many of which they use every day. Just imagine a campus where students could easily IM faculty from their e-mail accounts, check a faculty member's calendar for office hours, or create their own start pages with all of the things they need. The benefits are almost endless.
For librarians who spend much of their time liaising with faculty, this has the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with them. Google Calendar and Gmail are easy-to-use applications superior to what most colleges and universities are currently using. I know from experience that many Web campus e-mail interfaces leave much to be desired. I would be overjoyed to have Gmail as my campus e-mail client. Using Gmail would allow easy searching and labeling, something most other e-mail clients do not support well or at all. Many campuses struggle with spam, and Google has an excellent method of catching and detaining spam offenders.
Librarians would have access to a campus-wide IM service, GTalk, which would enable them to reach faculty with greater immediacy. As many of us know, e-mail can be easy to ignore, but a blinking IM is less likely to get hidden in an inbox.
The calendar feature of Google Apps for Education would give librarians the ability to create meetings with faculty members to discuss collection issues, information literacy, or their research needs for the next semester. Because Google's API is open, there might be opportunities for libraries to build unique widgets for their students and faculty to place on their Google start pages.
If Google continues to add things to the Education suite, there might be the possibility of using Docs & Spreadsheets, Google Groups, and even Picasa in this environment to add usability and versatility for colleges and universities. Many librarians serve on campus committees, and these tools would only enhance the experience of collaborating with faculty on projects. This is, of course, speculation on my part, but a girl can dream, can't she?
There are some IT concerns that should be considered when thinking about Google Apps for Education. This is a hosted service, and thus some of the control will be out of the hands of local IT. It seems that Google is willing to be very flexible as to the look and feel of an institution's Google Apps. There is also the issue of archiving of digital material. Although Google ensures storage, it does not provide for archiving. Institutions operating under a public-record requirement would need to make arrangements for retention of those kinds of documents. Campus staff would have to be moved around as the IT department makes a workflow shift of this nature. While I would be the first to jump at a chance to have Google Apps on my campus, it is important to keep these issues in mind.