thoughts about e-mail @ Illinois Wesleyan

Like any tool, e-mail can at times be either useful or frustrating. The office of Information Technology tries to provide a campus e-mail system that is flexible, powerful, and easy to use. Considering the limited resources available for technology services on campus, striking a balance between all the e-mail feature requirements of a diverse campus community of students, faculty and staff is no small feat. Here’s a high level overview of the tactics we use to provide e-mail services at Illinois Wesleyan.

The basics

Illinois Wesleyan’s e-mail system relies on three server technology solutions to send, receive and restore e-mail.

  • Spam filtering – is provided from a Barracuda network appliance. This lets us mark messages as spam, and, optionally, store potential spam in a quarantine folder for each person on campus.
  • Mail sending – is accomplished using open source software called Postfix. This runs on a linux server we call “smtp”. We require all mail sent from campus to come from an authenticated NetID sent through the smtp server.
  • Mail receiving and storage – every person with a NetID gets 100Mb of mail storage. We use SunOne Messenger software to provide access to stored e-mail using IMAP and POP e-mail client software.

Personal e-mail clients

Since our mail system supports IMAP and POP, there are many e-mail client software packages that can read e-mail from an Illinois Wesleyan account. Examples of this type of software include:

  • The webmail application within the my.iwu portal
  • Thunderbird
  • Eudora
  • Apple Mail
  • Microsoft Outlook

Each of these client software applications have their strengths and weaknesses. We recommend my.iwu webmail or Thunderbird.

Group e-mails and mailing lists

Along with our ability to have people choose from a number of tools to use for their personal e-mail, we also have a number of tools for people to use for sending group e-mails. These include:

  • my.iwu course and group tools
  • my.iwu targeted e-mail messages
  • mailman mailing lists on lists.iwu.edu

The folks at University Communications can help people on campus decide which is the best method for sending e-mail messages to groups.

Future

Our existing server infrastructure for e-mail is in need of an update to keep up with the demands for e-mail services on campus.

  • At times our barracuda spam filter has trouble keeping up with all the incoming mail. (Incoming spam can exceed 90% of all incoming messages.) This can cause delays in delivering mail.
  • Our smtp server is old and needs replacement. A second, load balanced, smtp server would provide redundancy and better handle mail sending during peak times.
  • The server space we have for mail storage is over 85% full. Because we allow graduates to keep their @iwu.edu e-mail accounts this resource will become critical soon. We also need to address student, faculty, and staff demands for additional e-mail storage beyond the current 100Mb limit.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be funds in the University’s equipment budget for these replacements in fiscal 2007-2008.

In the meantime, we are also watching with interest as other institutions experiment with moving campus e-mail to services like Google mail. While this seems like it may be an attractive option, it would likely place additional demands on the University’s Internet bandwidth.

Summary

Providing a flexible, powerful, and easy to use e-mail solution for everyone on campus is a challenging proposition. We believe we have selected the correct tactics with our current software/hardware solutions, but getting sufficient funding for e-mail support continues to be a challenge. While we continue to look for ways to best use our funding, we are not averse to exploring alternative solutions. What’s important is that e-mail needs to function well for our campus community.

2007 Student Techqual Survey Analysis

The student survey analysis is posted and is available on the IT Reports webpage.

The analysis includes most of the earlier blog post and three new graphs. Additional insights include:

  • Female students perceive campus Internet bandwidth to be above their minimum expectations, while male students see it below minimum.
  • The class of 2007 is more satisfied with IT services. They only rate bandwidth and wireless as below minimum.
  • In addition to wireless, bandwidth, and helpdesk speed, the class of 2008 sees the opportunity to provide feedback on the direction of the institution’s web site as being below minimum expectation.
  • The class of 2009 is most dissatisfied with IT services. They rated 7 of the 25 service questions as failing to meet their minimum expectations.
  • The class of 2010 appears to be most satisfied with IT services. Only access to wireless networking was rated as below their minimum expectation.

See the report for more…

IT Annual Report 2007 – People, Processes, Pedagogy, and Projects

I’d like to call your attention to Illinois Wesleyan’s office of Information Technology’s Annual Report for 2007: People, Processes, Pedagogy, and Projects. It’s a 6 page pdf document somewhat buried in the “About IT” section of the IWU website. It does provide some insight into internal and external factors affecting technology planning at Illinois Wesleyan.

Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

“In considering how Information Technology can best respond to the challenges of the University’s strategic goals, I propose we consider factors affecting information technology services by examining these four dimensions: people, processes, pedagogy, and projects. The people dimension speaks directly to the human resources strategic goal. Reviews of processes are critical to our goals for financial resources, identity, human resources, and student development. Our ongoing relationship with the University’s most strategic technology partner, Sungard Higher Education, is also considered in our discussion of processes. Thinking about the role of technology and the University’s teaching and learning provides an opportunity to reflect on course pedagogy. Finally, we present a summary of projects we expect to pursue in the next year as tactics in support of these goals. With computers and information technology playing such an important role in shaping the work of everyone on campus, it is of critical importance that the University allocates appropriate technology resources in support of its people, processes, pedagogy and projects. The University needs to shift from seeing as IT as a cost, to seeing IT as an investment in its future.”

What do you think of the IT House metaphor on page 6?

IT Annual Report 2007 – People, Processes, Pedagogy, and Projects

2007 Techqual Student Survey – early results

Our Techqual+ survey of student’s perception of IT at Illinois Wesleyan closed last Wednesday. I’ve started to do some analysis and thought I’d share some early results.

Regarding response rate, we had 180 students out of 2077 complete the survey. That’s about a 9% response, which isn’t too bad for a web survey. Part of the low rate I attribute to us running the survey during finals/commencement. I also think the survey instrument needs some improvement. I don’t have the exact numbers yet, but last I looked more students had started, but not finished the survey, than had actually finished. I believe Illinois Wesleyan was the fourth institution to use the survey, so there is room for improvement.

As far as survey results, of the 25 questions, there were four where Illinois Wesleyan was not meeting minimum student expectations:

  • Having my help desk request resolved in a satisfactory amount of time
  • Having adequate capacity (speed, bandwidth) on the wired network
  • Having adequate capacity (speed, bandwidth) on the wireless network
  • Having wireless network coverage in all the areas in which I teach, learn, work.

Not enough wireless network coverage was the single biggest deficiency measured in the survey, and was not a surprise. Illinois Wesleyan only provides wireless coverage in public areas; no residence hall coverage and only a few classrooms. We are continuing to add wireless coverage as budgets allow.

Not enough bandwidth was a bit of surprise. We increased our bandwidth from 18Mbps to 45Mbps just over a year ago. (We have one more year to go with our current Internet service agreement.)

We did not exceed desired expectations in any area. However, the areas that the survey showed most exceeding minimum expectations were:

  • Having a variety of software packages that meet my needs
  • Having the latest and greatest computing equipment available to me
  • Classroom technology that enhances the presentation of information in my courses

Interestingly, while these classroom technologies exceeded minimum expectations, they were not the all the same areas that came closest to meeting desired expectations. Areas that came closest to desired expectations were:

  • Classroom technology that enhances the presentation of information in my courses
  • Having a campus portal that helps me in my role as a faculty, staff, or student
  • Having a web presence that represents the entire institution
  • Having a campus portal that is easy to use, easy to understand, and easy to navigate

Interestingly, we can clearly see from this survey that Illinois Wesleyan students have much higher minimum expectations for web resources over classroom resources.

Brief report from the 2007 IWU Techqual+ Student Survey

I have also begun to analyze the open ended responses. One theme clearly emerging from those responses is the need for more resources for IT training.

There’s also more detail comparing responses by class year and male versus female. I hope to get to completing the assessment analysis in the next few weeks.

This fall we’ll also be survey faculty and staff perceptions of IT services at Illinois Wesleyan.