Mascot network launched at Williams

When students and faculty arrived on campus this fall, they discovered Mascot Network, a new online resource serving the College. Its presence raised debate about the direction of Williams’ online resources, the privacy of student information, commercialization of campus systems and the process of decision-making on campus.

Late last spring, Mascot Network representatives presented a prototype of the system to the Office of Information Technology (OIT), including Perry Hanson, then chief technology officer. “Hanson concluded that this could be another piece of software that would allow students to communicate with each other and add a virtual dimension to the student community,” Dinny Taylor, interim OIT chief technology officer said.

Through a decision made primarily by Hanson and the Dean’s Office, the College signed a one-year trial contract with Mascot Network for their online service.

According to Williams Mascot account representative Mike Pergola ’97, “Mascot Network’s goal is to invigorate college online communities, offering customized portals that engage, inspire and demonstrate the full potential of the Web.”

Mascot Network will consolidate multiple information sources, including the Daily Messages, the Weekly Calendar and group listserves, into a single web page. “When I was at Williams [as a student], it was difficult to find information that was relevant to me,” Pergola said. “Mascot Network filters all announcements to your personalized start page based on your identity card.

“Students self-identify with groups they’re interested in and receive messages from them,” Dean Kerry Christensen said, one of the key supporters of Mascot Network on campus.

“Our goal at Williams is to enhance student life by providing a service that makes it easier for students to communicate, find people with similar interests and take full advantage of appropriate resources on the Web,” Pergola said.

Several major concerns have emerged from discussions of Mascot Network, including the lack of student and faculty consultation, commercial interests, the release of student information, out-sourcing college system management, the overlap between Mascot Network and Williams Students Online (WSO) and the hassles associated with being a pilot school, working through bugs in the system.

Decision-making

Failure to solicit broad student and faculty input before signing a contract with Mascot has also come under criticism. “A movement like this into uncharted territory should require broader consultation with the community and a full explanation of why we are moving in this direction,” Kim Bruce, the Frederick Latimer Wells Computer Science Professor said.

Students learned about Mascot when they arrived on campus, and several expressed frustration about the lack of information provided and input they had.

Todd Rogers ’01, College Council (CC) Class of 2001 representative, said “Many students have complained to the CC that they don’t understand what exactly Mascot is or why it’s here. Mascot seems to represent a shift in the College’s way of dealing with the student body’s web use, one that is important enough that it should have been discussed with the student body before any decisions were made.”

WSO also expected more consultation before the College signed the contract. “We had been lead to believe that we would be consulted again before any contracts were signed,” Jason Healy, staff-member of WSO, said.

Release of information

The College provided information to Mascot about students and faculty as allowed by the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The information is the same as appears in the Williams Facebook, including name, email address, campus phone number and address. Information is only available to students signed into the network, and students can hide information by altering their profile. The information is only available to members with passwords.

Pergola assured the College that the information will not be shared: “Mascot cannot and will not sell or market individual student information with third party organizations. Only the student may choose to share their information.”

Despite guarantees of confidentiality and safety, many students and faculty object to the information being stored in Mascot’s off-campus database, since students and faculty at large were not consulted or informed before the information was released.

Commercialization

Concerns about the safety of the information are closely related to concerns about the commercial nature of the Mascot Network. On its homepage, Mascot Network invites companies to advertise on its college sites, “Mascot Network’s partners enjoy unparalleled opportunities to harness the spending power and brand loyalty of the lucrative college community.”

Using aggregate information about Williams students’ gathered from their activity on Mascot, companies choose whether to advertise on the part of the Mascot system customized to the Williams population.

“Several people have noted that the same information gathering and selling of access happens at other sites such as Netscape, Microsoft and Yahoo.The difference here is that we are essentially delivering our member communities to this company in return for their services. Perhaps this is a good deal, but perhaps not. I think we need at least to think about the possible consequences. Indeed there is no such thing as a free lunch or free Internet service,” Bruce said.

“Think of how people would react to ‘outsourcing’ our traditional means of disseminating information on campus,” Professor of Computer Science Thomas Murtagh said. “How would we feel about having some outside organization publish the College catalog, the Weekly Calendar and the Daily Advisor at no cost to the college on the condition that they could include advertisements in these documents?”

In defense of Mascot, Christensen stated that no advertisements appear on pages bearing the Williams College name (Williams will soon be removed from the address of the commercial page), and that any use of the system is completely voluntary. No one is forced to use the commercial links Mascot provides.

The issue of choice is not as clear to all members of the College community.

“If campus organizations put all of their communications through Mascot, then individuals will end up not having the option of avoiding Mascot,” Bruce said. “Certainly we expect everyone to read campus mail, respond to e-mail and respond to phone calls, but those don’t involve delivering us to particular advertisers who pay for the right to get to us.”

Mascot’s ability to change its policy also raises a concern for Bruce. “If we all become dependent on Mascot, what happens if they change their policies? They could decide to charge us a lot of money for these services, their web pages indicate that they reserve the right to charge later, or they could modify their privacy policies in ways that are much more offensive. If we become totally dependent on them for communication services on campus, the loss of the service could be catastrophic,” Bruce said.

Relationship with WSO

Many students and faculty find Mascot Network redundant and fear Mascot Network will replace WSO, since many of its services are already provided by WSO.

Upon learning about Mascot Network, WSO “felt that Mascot was a neat service, but redundant. WSO already provided many of its services—facebook, web pages, announcements—so we felt that it wouldn’t bring much to Williams that wasn’t already here,” Healy, representing WSO said.

Both systems want to be “the online presence for the Williams community,” but Mascot is “doing it according to a business model. WSO is doing this for free. Therefore, it’s a commercial/free or external/internal difference between the two.”

Those who support Mascot’s presence think that the two systems can collaborate. “WSO provides some services that Mascot offers, but it’s our hope that they will work together and bring out the best in each other, complementing each other,” Taylor said.

Pergola said, “Mascot will never take the place of WSO. In fact, WSO and Mascot will be working together to provide the Williams community with the best on-line experience in the country. WSO will have complete control over the top right section of the Mascot Network start page.”

He said Mascot has been working closely with members of WSO to achieve their cooperative goals.

Healy conditioned Pergola’s statement, “WSO has met with Mascot several times, and they have changed some things at our request. However, they have a certain model that they must stick to in order to make money, and we have found that this has prevented certain requests from being honored, or honored to the fullest extent.”

Christensen predicts that Mascot will effectively advertise WSO. “Since WSO has a big chunk of real estate on Mascot, it will increase [WSO’s] use.”

Concern about Mascot’s impact on WSO remains, however. “I think WSO has done an outstanding job performing almost all of the services offered by Mascot. I don’t see any compelling reason for choosing Mascot over WSO,” Bruce said.

Students have encountered problems within the network, adding to the frustration. Joined by Providence College, Arizona State University Colleges of Business and Engineering and Springfield Technical Community College, Williams is one of five schools testing Mascot, so the network is constantly being improved as problems arise.

“As our flagship school, Williams will provide critical input into Mascot Network refinement and new product development plans,” Pergola said. “The Williams community has been great about providing lots of important input and feedback about Mascot Network. All of this information is driving refinements and new product development plans for new versions of Mascot Network. As a result of your feedback, we’ve already corrected a number of small bugs and are planning some cool new enhancements in the next couple of weeks.”

“Probably the biggest obstacle has been the confusion about the optional CD-ROM provided with the service,” Pergola said. It was not clear to students what the Network would do to their existing Internet servers, and “there were a couple of small glitches with some of the pre-configured browser settings.”

Some students object to encountering problems before Mascot will fix them. They wonder whether the benefits outweigh the hassles associated with being one of the first schools to use Mascot Network. Others students and faculty advocate trying the system to potentially improve communications on campus.

Progress

Now that Mascot is on campus for a trial year, the question remains how the community will use it, and how it will impact the College’s information and online systems.

One option is to test Mascot Network, evaluating the system throughout the year, and decide whether or not to extend the contract. Another option is to evaluate possible impacts first, as a community, then decide how to proceed. Bruce supports this option. “It is my firm belief that we should suspend the contract with Mascot until after we have carefully examined all of the consequences.”

Whatever becomes of Mascot Network on campus, its presence has both heard and magnified a call for a more coordinated system of disseminating information.

“It seems that the Mascot Network is a recognition of, or at least an anticipation of, the need for Williams to consolidate and organize itself online,” Rogers said.

Rogers acknowledges the “incredible service” WSO provides, but also anticipates “the College administration will have to seriously review its online goals. This review should involve OIT, WSO, all academic departments, the student body—essentially, every branch of the school. “WSO looks forward to hearing more student feedback about what it can offer the community. Mascot has shown [WSO] where we can work to help give the students what they want, and at the same time, they have raised awareness of WSO’s services. WSO has been forced into a position of having to better advertise our services.

“We have now met with Deans, Faculty, and students, and I think they all have a much better idea of what WSO can do for them now,” said Healy.

Rogers and the CC agreed, hoping Mascot will “result in a more integrated, expanded and better organized Williams web. Mascot seems to be a move, or the beginning of a move, towards that end.”