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September 11, 2014

Technology Corner: My Pitt Email


This summer, the University community experienced an email shift. Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD) established 90,000 accounts on a Microsoft Exchange-based service called My Pitt Email.

The move was made in order to provide a service more responsive to people’s current email habits and to reduce complexity.

Functionality aligned with email habits

Over the past year, CSSD surveyed University faculty, staff and students. Suggestions for improving the existing Pitt email service included implementation of something — anything — to replace Webmail for students and provide them with the kind of email interface used in professional environments. New features, particularly calendar capabilities, also emerged at the top of the list among the most important improvements needed.

We also conducted focus group sessions to hear people’s ideas and concerns. Individual preferences varied, but some common themes emerged. People using were much less satisfied than people using Exchange email. Security, the ability to continue to use Outlook as an email client, and the potential to provide students with persistent email addresses after graduation frequently were cited by faculty and staff as priorities.

Reduced complexity

In the past decade, the number of email users and accounts has increased, email’s role in professional communication has increased, spam and virus attacks have increased, file sharing options have increased, and the number of platforms on which people access their email has increased.

We wanted to provide the University with one email service that works for all members of our community: faculty, staff and students. We needed a service that would provide the same experience whether someone was working with email through a web browser or a desktop email client.

And we wanted a University service consistent in its professional functionality, its security and its maintenance.

Microsoft offers that kind of email service.

Implementing My Pitt Email

Over the course of a weekend at the end of July, 90,000 My Pitt Email accounts were set up to send and receive email for Pitt faculty, staff and students. Stored email messages then began to be transferred from the former system to the new accounts.

While the transition wasn’t free of surprises, the process went very smoothly, given its scope. We were able to quickly address the issues that arose and minimize inconvenience for users.

New opportunities

My Pitt Email is just one aspect of the Exchange service. What does having all members of the University community on an Exchange system provide in terms of improved communication and increased productivity?

• Mobile integration. Address lists, calendars, contacts and email all will be synchronized to supported mobile devices. When you add a contact on your smartphone, the contact also will be in your account when you view it on your desktop. Similarly, when you make a change to your calendar while working at your desk, that change will sync up on your tablet or other mobile device.

• Calendars. Now that everyone is on the same system, scheduling meetings and appointments through calendars is much easier. For instance, department meetings can be scheduled by having the administrator send out a calendar notice to everyone; upon receipt of the calendar notice, the individual either can accept it (in which case the meeting automatically will be placed on his or her calendar) or decline it. The administrator then will have a record of planned attendance before the meeting date.

Instructors can supplement office hours by inviting students to schedule appointments. The student can see which times on the instructor’s calendar are marked as busy (the student won’t be able to see details) and can send a calendar request for an appointment at a particular time; the instructor then can accept the appointment, decline it or propose a new time.

• Handling junk mail. The spam filter is integrated in My Pitt Email so that you can manage the filter directly through Outlook. If you receive an email message that you consider junk, you can flag it as junk directly from the message screen.

Instead of having to go to a separate web-based site to periodically check messages caught in the spam filter, you receive a weekly summary of messages identified as junk or spam. You can scan the list and release any legitimate messages caught in the filter, or you can just see what’s there and delete the summary.

• Extras. People who like to-do lists have new capabilities for managing those lists through the Task feature in Exchange. A map feature in Exchange can recognize what appear to be addresses in an email message, establishing an automatic link to a map showing the address location.

For more information, drop by Tech Row at the University Store: A tech support person there will be happy to show you some of the unique features of the new system.

Moving forward with My Pitt Email

From a technical perspective, the University’s email migration to the My Pitt Email service has been a success. The system works and security was maintained. We are continuing to adjust and optimize the system in response to users’ feedback.

But the real success of technology, especially at a university, is measured in more than “It works.” The move to My Pitt Email will be a success if faculty and staff find surprising ways to leverage the technology in the coming years.

How will you take advantage of these new capabilities?

Dan Menicucci is an enterprise architect in CSSD, helping to make the most effective and strategic use of Pitt’s IT assets.