More Than a Portal: Unifying the Digital Campus
Campus portals are facilitating better communications on campus and extending
institutional resources on the Web. The next important challenge is to integrate
the many components of the portal and ensure interoperability, both internally
and with campuses across the Web.
How many digital resources do you have on your campus? Do you know? If you
did, could you keep them straight? Could you manage them—coordinate their
creation, availability, and use in the best interests of all your constituents?
Is your institution able to integrate administrative, learning, and community
It is now time for institutions to have the answers to all those questions.
“We have a campus Web portal” is not the full answer.
Systems are needed to support the activities of the institution and manage
all the details and documents seamlessly, tied into an intelligent network that
promotes interoperability of software and systems as well as interactivity among
people. Content management, server integration, and Web portal services are
a few of the necessary components in the new realm of the unified digital campus.
We at Appalachian State University learned this firsthand.
In August 1999, the university launched a campus Web portal using Campus Pipeline
Inc.’s Web Platform, which allowed us to provide campus announcements,
e-mail, and administrative services from a single point of online access.
At that time, portals were all the rage, and we were glad to show students
our newfound ability to provide custom news and weather. Looking back, however,
that initial solution was actually simplistic and provided very little integration
between systems. But it accomplished several objectives that were novel at the
time, including synchronization with our student information system in real
time—a big win. But many other incorporated systems did not carry that
level of integration.
The Challenges of Portals
We quickly learned that a nonintegrated digital campus was a short-term solution
at best. Students perceived that everything within our portal was part of a
single system, which presented a couple of challenges.
First, if any system on campus went down—from the network, to the student
information system, to a department’s Web site—our students believed
that the entire portal was down. More importantly, the students expected simplicity
and were baffled by data discrepancies between incorporated and nonincorporated
Second, we began to realize that, although unified in look and feel, our digital
campus still presented a fractured overall experience for our students. We wanted
more integration between technologies and greater personalization for individuals.
Although we moved early on the portal trend, we took no time to rest on our
laurels. We spent the following two years working aggressively to enhance student
experience with the development of a truly unified digital campus.
Toward a Unified Digital Campus
Our first priority was to address stability issues across all of the systems
incorporated into our digital campus, so our team underwent a lengthy investigation
of stability issues and fail-over solutions. We are now implementing a clustering
solution in order to manage fault tolerance in the most vulnerable aspects of
Next, we began creating a true single sign-on process for the most frequently
accessed systems on campus. Through our involvement in an industry partnership
program sponsored by Campus Pipeline, we could learn from other universities’
experiences. Pepperdine University’s PepperdineXpress, for example, incorporates
Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange, the SCT Plus Student Information System, course
tools from WebCT, and a library system through Campus Pipeline technology. It
serves as a good model for what we hope to accomplish.
Like Pepperdine University, we utilize myriad products and solutions from a
long list of vendors, so we need to bring those technologies into one unified
environment. This requires Web integration, content management, and a portal
infrastructure. And we need to deliver those services and information in a personalized
way to our students, faculty, administrators, and alumni.
Reaping the Benefits
Our efforts in building a unified digital campus have already begun to bear
fruit. In addition to the benefits of integration, we find that improvements
in operational efficiency, facilitated by the data integration of our communication
tools and student information system, have impacted the off-line experiences
of students. We also save faculty and staff time, freeing them for more interaction
We now realize that all of our strategic technology decisions have become easier,
and we are saving money because we already have our Web operating system in
place. Our technology team now evaluates new technologies in the context of
their ability to integrate with and support our existing Web platform. Because
many core technologies are included in the infrastructure for our digital campus,
we save hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing costs and staff hours.
Most importantly, our nontechnical users find it much easier to contribute
to the long-term vision of the digital campus. As faculty members discover the
profound impact technology can have on their personal communications with students,
they are engaging in more and more discussions on the topic. Leaders from our
student government organization provide ideas for new tools as they have become
more familiar with the capabilities of the system.
Suddenly, there is an open dialogue across campus about what our digital campus
should and could be: a Web forum for the exchange of knowledge and a timesaving
tool to free students, faculty members, and administrators for greater interaction
with one another.
Appalachian State has been lauded by Time magazine for exceptional support
of first-year students. That success comes from a far-reaching effort that spans
all departments and includes our digital campus initiative.
The university aims to meet student needs—online or off-line. This means
that our digital campus must be a continually evolving place in which all of
the information and services that constituents need are at their fingertips.
We work very hard to stay abreast of all technologies capable of further personalizing
the digital campus experience for individual users.
Toward that end, we are lending our voice to a consortium of colleges and universities
guiding the development of Luminis, Campus Pipeline’s Web integration product
suite, which is designed to unify, manage, and extend the digital campus. The
goal is to make sure the software delivers highly personalized information,
Web services, and community interaction to every one of our campus constituents.
Through this collaborative effort, we have the opportunity to impact the direction
of a mission-critical campus resource, and recommend and test the technologies
we’d like included in our core Web infrastructure.
We have also been actively involved in the Java in Administration Special Interest
Group (JA-SIG), which has developed a shareware portal framework for higher
education, and we are pleased that this has also grown into a larger collaboration
with Campus Pipeline. We also plan to take advantage of a student portal being
developed by the University of North Carolina’s Shared Services Alliance
and integrate its functionality into our own digital campus.
In addition, we developed a Personal Announcement and Notification System (PANS)
to ensure that all of the information from various campus sources comes together
so that students receive the information most pertinent to them.
Now, rather than seeing new technologies in a vacuum, we evaluate their potential
impact on our entire digital campus and have a strategy for bringing those initiatives
Looking back over our experience in unifying Appalachian State University’s
digital resources, we have a few observations and recommendations for those
envisioning a comprehensive digital campus for their university:
First, for a digital campus to be valuable, it must build on your existing
technologies and regularly grow with new technologies that enhance the value
of those resources. Spend time early in the process to understand the technologies
you already have. Then phase in the new ones to match the needs of your institution.
Second, define which aspects of the digital campus project will be controlled
and managed by your information technology staff and which will require broader
support. Ensure that the project is poised for success within your university’s
unique political climate. We found it particularly beneficial to share some
components of our digital campus with users early in the planning process, although
we were aware that the initial offering would fall short of meeting their needs.
By doing this, we were able to gain insights from all campus constituents, which
has been critical in building a shared vision for our digital campus.
Finally, we have seen great success in collaborating with peer institutions
and private companies, contributing our expertise and learning from the experience
of others. Our partnership with Campus Pipeline, Drexel University, Mississippi
State University, Pepperdine University, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology,
the University of Akron, University College Dublin, and the University of Miami
has exposed us to best practices and industry trends, and advanced the development
of our digital campus.
Today, the mission driving the unification of our digital resources is much
the same as it was in 1999. Appalachian State University seeks to offer the
most comprehensive, personalized service available to each of our constituents.
As a result of our close collaboration with our vendor and other leading technology
institutions, we now have a much more comprehensive plan for fashioning our
digital campus into a powerful relationship-building resource.