Today’s generation of Web servers can do a lot of things: Run a store, provide static information, publish random writings (like mine), host sites anyone can edit (Wikipedia, specifically, and wikis in general), bring news updates instantly (RSS/Atom), and run schools. That’s right, run schools. Built on the Apache Tomcat server base, the Blackboard Learning System has been adopted by many schools, including Augsburg College (which has since switched to Moodle, mentioned below) and the notorious Houston, MN, School District, better known as MCoOL (those are the ones I know). Other platforms like Moodle don’t seem to be as popular, though Moodle, at least, runs in PHP.
I won’t go into specifics — that’s a topic for another day — but with schools like MCoOL built entirely upon Web-based activities, with no physical attendance, teachers and students need a way to communicate. Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on forum-style communication within the software (though such systems are present). Email was invented years ago, before most people even used the Internet, and we can use it for this purpose. Have an assignment to send in? No problem; just attach it to an email and send it to your teacher. Need help? Ask questions via email. It’s so convenient, especially with massive systems like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Hotmail to support students with free, feature-rich (some more than others) email accounts.
When we get into proprietary systems, however, problems arise. MCoOL, for instance, started their own Moodle server (to provide home-brew and non-Blackboard courses), with a webmail interface on another port (port 8000). This is OK, and it’s great for students just getting involved in the online world. They get an email address (admittedly, one that purges itself every year) and an easy way to get connected with their teachers, without exposing personal information to one of the giants of the Web.
When the administration tries to force geeks like me, however, into using their underpowered system, all that happens is either 1) a frustrated, begrudging geek using a horrible system or 2) an intense email war that goes on for days and eventually will probably result in 1). The situation can be exacerbated when administrators and “IT” staff (who probably have pictures of Adolf Hitler above their desks and on their computer desktops and likely wouldn’t know Linus Torvalds from 50 Cent) insist upon closing the system, disabling email from non-organizational addresses, preventing filters, blocking settings pages, and generally making the system (even more) difficult. And all this under the umbrella of “It’s more secure for our system.”
A school that has AVG Antivirus installed on all its office computers, and uses that system’s Outlook add-on vigorously, wants to attribute the “necessity” of a closed system to preventing viruses from outside emails that
may probably have better virus filtering than their own. When I send a message from Gmail, for instance, the attachment is scanned for viruses on upload, and will be blocked if it’s infected. You can’t even send EXE files, not even within ZIP archives (though there is at least one workaround). This, combined with the scanning on the other end (evidenced by AVG taglines in the messages they send), should be enough to prevent viruses.
Gmail’s not the only service with virus detection, either. Yahoo! Mail has integrated Norton Antivirus software that scans attachments, too. On every message open, just like Gmail. Even Hotmail has Trend Micro scanning (they used to use McAfee). With this plethora of free services offering antivirus scanning by default in their accounts, why insist that emails from external sources could be tainted?