Last month, University officials notified students of a planned IT migration from Google Suite — including Gmail, Google Drive and Google Calendar — to Microsoft’s Office 365 platform — including OneDrive and Office Online. The transition is set to take place at the end of this academic year and was primarily justified with the fact that University faculty, staff and students will all be on the same platform. Currently, faculty and staff use Office 365 while students use Google. The migration came as a surprise — there was scant communication from the University prior to the formal announcement. As such, students were swift to reply with negative comments, including an online petition to stop the switch. Currently at about 5,300 signatures, the petition argues the current system is not broken and does not need fixing.
In its email to students, the University argued the switch will reflect how the professional world operates, with many companies using O365. This may be the case, but this widespread use in and of itself does not mean O365 is a quality service. Its apps are clunky and glitch frequently, and its user interface is confusing and unintuitive. Technically, its cloud storage service OneDrive does not share the same level of integration as Google Drive nor does the suite offer some of the more niche features that Google does — like Google Keep or Maps. Chrome, Google’s web browser, is also the most widely used browser in the country. The integration of the browser with Google Suite helps streamline student productivity — everything is all in one place, all from one service provider. Most importantly, O365 is unfamiliar to students. Many of us have been using Google Suite since our first days of middle school, if not earlier. Our educational career has been constructed around it. Asking students to change essentially their entire approach to learning is a tall order.
The transition also poses a number of logistical questions which have been left unanswered by the University. Google Suite allows students to easily share notes, collaborate on group assignments and study for exams together. While O365 also has this functionality, its unfamiliarity will add another obstacle to completing group work and undoubtedly hinder students’ productivity. Students have also been using their University email accounts to “log in with Google” on other websites — such as social media platforms and online streaming services. This means that they have linked their Google account to these other websites’ accounts and use the same login for both. The University has offered no information on whether or not the switch to O365 will impact these third-party accounts. In a worst case scenario, students will lose any data associated with their third-party accounts.
We cannot criticize the O365 migration in a vacuum. This announcement was made amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 was outside of anyone’s control, the rapid transition to online learning with Zoom classes and digital assignments required students to rapidly adjust their study habits. For months, COVID-19 restrictions on Grounds have been changing based on the state of the virus in our community. Capacity limits rose and fell, mask mandates were eased then strengthened and vaccine mandates have gradually been added to University events. All the while, students were expected to adjust their lives to match the University’s decisions. These public health policies are important and necessary, but students have still been struggling to adjust academically and socially. Now, with the first glimmer of normalcy in almost two years, the University throws us another curveball and demands we re-learn how to use essential academic softwares.
Most troublingly, student input on the migration was not widely solicited. Only 18 students across the University were consulted in focus groups — not nearly a large enough sample to gather adequate feedback. This change alters literally every aspect of the student experience — from how we complete assignments to how we participate in student organizations. It should have been studied extensively and publicly, with strong student representation and voice, before a decision was made.
The University should continue the use of Google Suite for its current students. Instead of switching us overnight in May, it should grandfather in new classes of students with the new software. That way, current students are not asked to re-learn what they have been doing since their first days here — we can avoid another abrupt and unforeseen change. The student body has been through so much over the last two years — give us a break.
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.