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Odvard Egil Dyrli on Free E-mail

Google's new offering can help or hurt school districts

Love it or hate it, Google's new Gmail service is refocusing attention on free e-mail issues that affect every school district. Gmail blows away its competition by providing each individual with a gigabyte of free storage--as much as 500 times the capacity of MSN Hotmail or Yahoo Mail--the equivalent of 500,000 pages. The service also features Google search tools that can find and sort messages instantaneously by keywords in the text. As a result, users will no longer need to delete e-mail periodically to free up space, or keep messages in topic folders to make them easier to find. Gmail can be stored and accessed indefinitely.

But Gmail also introduces a controversial feature where Google computers routinely scan incoming e-mail and display advertising in screen margins tied to the content. A message about an upcoming conference in Las Vegas, for example, might call up ads for shows and restaurants.

Letting staffers use free e-mail accounts at work can result in hate mail and pornographic images on school computers.

Critics are calling this an invasion of privacy, and they warn that Google may also be able to combine information from personal e-mail and search activities, and prepare detailed profiles on individuals that may be retained even after accounts are closed. However, others feel the enormous benefits of Gmail are worth the compromises, and they point out that e-mail is typically scanned for spam and viruses anyway. It is also possible that users may be interested in the ads.

Free E-Mail in Schools

Most school districts now provide Web-based e-mail accounts for each staff member, such as AOL, FirstClass and Outlook. Nevertheless, surprisingly large numbers of teachers and administrators have decided to use free e-mail accounts professionally. For example, in California's Mountain Empire School District, Superintendent Patrick Judd says administrators have not required the use of school-based e-mail, so Hotmail addresses are common in the staff directory. Other districts have policies that limit staff use of free e-mail accounts. With the new Gmail option making free e-mail accounts more alluring, this is a good time to review Web-based e-mail alternatives for your schools. Free e-mail brings unique benefits to individuals but also gigantic problems to schools.

Users of free e-mail cite numerous advantages over most school services:

Messages can be sent and received from any Web-linked computer, at home, in the community, or elsewhere

E-mail can be accessed through other Internet-linked devices including cell phones and PDAs

Messages cannot be retrieved by others in the district, so privacy in activities such as job searches is protected

Separate accounts can easily be set up for specialized applications such as school projects, and with unique names such as "JobSeeker"

The e-mail bypasses school filters, so messages on sensitive topics are less likely to be lost

The included spam and virus filters are continually updated, and may be more effective than those in the district

The e-mail is integrated with other useful services including online calendars, address books and instant messaging technologies.

However, on the negative side, using free e-mail accounts in school environments carries significant risks, and it is extremely difficult to monitor misuse. As one technology coordinator said, without district storage there is no district control, so hate e-mail, harassing messages and even pornographic images can be transmitted through school computers without detection. Some districts have established policies that ban the use of free e-mail accounts outright, while others allow limited use for specific purposes. Unfortunately, though, too many districts have not yet addressed the issues.

Free Web-based e-mail such as Gmail offers substantial benefits for you and your staff that are definitely worth exploring. But since unsupervised use in schools can lead to trouble, you also need to weigh the risks and establish appropriate policies for your district.

Web Resources



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MSN Hotmail


Yahoo Mail

Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.