UTmail through the ages

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UT will be transitioning from Blackboard to Canvas next fall, giving students the opportunity to submit documents and collaborate with classmates and professors via Google Drive using their UTmail accounts. 

UTmail is a service of Goolge Apps for Education that provides current and former students, faculty and staff access to a version of Gmail conducive to educational purposes, according to Dennis Klenk, an Information Technology Services project manager.

Klenk said there have been different generations of email systems offered to the University, dating back to the 1990s. 

“At the time that UT began offering an email system, an email was something that was not widely available to people,” Klenk said. “Not everyone had Internet service providers, so we were making the Internet available to people. Part of that was to provide email.”

The email service in place before UTmail was known as the University Mail Box System. Klenk said the initiative to pursue a more up-to-date service originated in Student Government. 

“Email systems evolved and our email system evolved as well, but not as fast as the commercial systems,” Klenk said. “There came to be a point at which [the University Mail Box System] was viewed as being outdated and not as friendly to use. There was actually a student initiative in some aspect of Student Government that made that a priority, to see if they could convince the administration to get something more modern.” 

Esther Raizen, associate dean for research in the College of Liberal Arts, said UT looked into developing a relationship with Google in order to establish an email system for students and faculty that could address issues of capacity and the longevity of the accounts that existed with the previous system. 

“In terms of the Google and Gmail history, there were two issues,” Raizen said. “The capacity and the ability to keep the accounts for life. Previously, student accounts internal to UT would be closed shortly after they left UT.” 

Associate Business Contracts Administrator Terri Shrode said the contract between UT and Google was finalized in February 2011 and is set to expire in 2015, with a potential for renewal.

Klenk, who helped negotiate the contract with Google, said UTmail is provided at no cost to the University. But he said an outside company, SADA Systems, was hired to facilitate the transition and create the pages students see when they sign up for an account.

While students utilize UTmail exclusively, Klenk said certain departments operate using different email systems provided by the University. He said this separation of services has been changing, and there has been a consolidation to UTmail and a system called Austin Exchange Messaging System. 

“Faculty, staff and administrative staff use the Austin Exchange Messaging System, which is primarily a Microsoft Exchange-based system,” Klenk said. “An email may look like it’s on the UTmail system but it may not be, it could just be an alias of one of the other systems.”

According to Klenk, there are currently 104,373 UTmail accounts in existence, with 25,619 registered to alumni. He said the contract with Google provides more security features than those provided by public Gmail accounts.

“Something you notice right off the bat is that there are no ads, and that’s by contract,” Klenk said. “In general, there are more privacy kinds of things and certain things that Google says it will do and won’t do with data. Functionality wise, it’s the same product [as Gmail].” 

Klenk said another benefit to UTmail is the storage capacity compared with regular Gmail accounts. UTmail provides users with 30 GB of storage, while regular Gmail offers only 15 GB.

Klenk said these benefits contributed to the decision to allow students to interact with Canvas only through a UTmail account. He said this pairing will increase the functionality of Canvas and protect students’ privacy.

“It’s possible for Canvas to integrate with public Gmail, but if you think about what the scope of Canvas is, potentially dealing with a lot of personal, identifiable information … those kinds of things need protection and privacy,” Klenk said. “Some of those privacy terms and conditions are in the contract with Google. Once you get outside of that, into public Google, those terms and conditions are different and may not apply.”