Campus Portals: Future Hope, Past History, or More Hype?

Campus portals have the potential to connect an institution’s constituents, both on campus and external, to appropriate campus resources through a highly personalized interface. But how close are colleges and universities to taking real advantage of portal technologies? Here, David Eisler provides an update on the progress and challenges of portals in higher education.

Just as the white-hot boom of the dot.com economy has been replaced by a more circumspect approach to e-commerce, so has the campus portal market retrenched, with revised business plans, the demise of some early providers, and the continued consolidation of others. In this more cautious time, what is the value and future for campus portals? Given the economic constraints placed upon higher education and the developing concerns regarding tuition increases, should campuses continue to create, develop, and implement portals? If so, what are reasoned approaches to portals, and how do campuses make informed decisions about the true value of these efforts?

The State of the Art

Portal projects still come primarily in three flavors: self-developed, JA SIG’s open source collaborative effort, and vendor solutions. Common characteristics of portals include single sign-on and authorization capability, personalized information provided in a secure environment, access to channels of information from external sources, and the ability for users to customize the portal in terms of content and appearance.

Self-developed portals require significant technical expertise on campus and the commitment of resources. Nevertheless, some of the best-operating campus portals have been created by campus efforts. There are some excellent examples that allow guest access (see box, page 16).

The Java Special Interest Group (JA SIG) continues to grow and expand with operating campus portals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. For reasons that are not entirely clear, some lead institutions for this project have only implemented demonstration versions of this portal. SNAP (Simple Navigational Access Portal), from the University of California Irvine provides a good example of the working features from the latest JA SIG portal. While the computer code for this portal is available without cost, JA SIG portals require substantial campus technical expertise.

An area of continued success for portal vendors is among those institutions that have partnered with administrative software companies. Campus Pipeline has moved from the advertising-generated model, repositioned itself as a middleware vendor, and continues to benefit from its partnership with SCT and the Banner software platform. Jenzabar has purchased a number of administrative software companies including Campus America, CMDS, CARS, and Quodata. Campus Cruiser has partnered with Datatel. Other companies have worked to develop portals to complement their software. PeopleSoft created a portal designed to interface with its administrative software. Blackboard has developed a portal to complement its course management system.

Most of the startups that proposed creating portals at little or no cost are gone. These include firms that enjoyed significant acceptance like Mascot, zUniversity, and MyPersonal.com. While the vendor marketplace is less crowded and more stable than in the past, it remains important to discern between products and features that are installed and those that are planned or in development. As with any major software purchase, campuses are well advised to check carefully with present and past company clients.

Deciding About a Portal

Some lessons from the past two years are obvious. Just as approaches based on ad revenue did not work in the e-economy, the same is true for campus portals. Portals are not free, and banner ads will not pay for portal software. But it is now possible to look at a potential portal project with the benefit of case studies and experiences from other campuses.

For those developing portals, the maintenance of content channels requires significant and extended commitments of time. Single sign on authorization, while in some cases difficult to create, is attainable, convenient, and can save users significant amounts of time.

Effective portals need to be reliable, logical and simple to use, and provide quick system response. In most cases, unless required to access campus information sources, portals have not gained the same level of acceptance as e-mail or campus home pages. And the majority of portal efforts concentrate on campus users with little available data on acceptance by people in the external community.

Two continuing areas of campus technological evolution can benefit from and help support a portal project. The continued Web enabling of campuses has created a significant change in the ways institutions interact with students, faculty, and staff. For example, today it is not unusual for more than sixty percent of university students to register via the Web, and many colleges no longer send paper grade reports. Another promising area of integration is with course management systems. Faculty can use these combined systems to continue the flow of class information and announcements beyond the class meeting period, and students can use them to coordinate small group efforts outside of class.

Experience a Portal

Decisions about portal projects are too frequently made by people who have not used them. Before beginning a campus portal project, it is beneficial to configure and use one. Choose a personal information portal from Excite, Netscape, Yahoo or Yodlee, or one of the self-developed campus portals that permit guest user accounts. Among the commercial products, the Yahoo portal is especially interesting to experience, as it permits the creation of multiple user-determined pages and can include e-mail access. Free guest accounts with Yodlee allow users to bring together a significant amount of personal financial information in one place, providing single sign-on access to online banking, credit card, and frequent flyer accounts, and allowing access to a broad selection of information sources.

Whatever personal portal is chosen, make this the start page for computers at both the office and at home. Several lessons will become immediately apparent. For frequent Internet users the transition to a portal will require changing what have almost become intuitive habits in terms of Internet use. The differences in interface and page layout will create an adjustment and learning curve. Over time, examine the value of this experience. If certain Internet sites are accessed regularly for updated information, and this is integrated within the portal, the advantages will soon become evident. D'es the portal bring together all the information needed, in one place, and through this convenience save you time and effort? If so, and the portal page provides the functionality and easy accessibility desired, it will be difficult to return to the previous home page.

Some important lessons can be learned from personal experience with portals. A thoughtfully configured and effective personal portal is much more than a Web page. A well-constructed portal provides, in one place, multiple sources of information that previously had to be accessed individually. Coupled with customized data and providing access to course materials, the campus portal may in many ways become a “killer app” for higher education.

Future Directions

Portal projects and products continue to evolve in terms of customization, but unfortunately still depend on predetermined information channels. This works against the basic characteristics of the Internet, which allow users access to an unlimited array of information sources. Imagine if a user had the opportunity to select portions of favorite Web pages for information sources—for example, portions of the New York Times, CNN, ESPN, or local and campus newspapers. This would permit the assembling, on portal pages, the actual content desired. While this exciting and useful concept is technologically possible, it is a not yet a part of mainstream portal projects.

Just as with customization, there are still many more possibilities for campus portals in terms of personalization. Many users at Amazon.com are familiar with software there that captures pages the shopper visits on site and creates a personalized Web page based on this information. The result generated both displays pages accessed and suggests items that might be of interest. (To experiment with this feature from the Amazon home page, choose “personalized recommendations.”) Consider if campus portal pages could do the same, evolving to reflect user interest and access patterns, and suggesting places of interest and value.

Perhaps the area where campus portals have least met expectations is in helping create new campus communities. Imagine if portals could recognize and help connect students, faculty, and staff with similar academic, research, or pedagogical interests, both within and among campuses. This potential power to create and connect new virtual communities of interest and practice seems an evolutionary step for special interest groups, disciplinary societies, research groups, and student organizations.

Portal projects tend to focus too much upon what the technology permits rather than what people need. Until portals enable, rather than restrict information sources, they will only appeal to a portion of the potential users. Personalization needs to move beyond the choice of color schemes to an intelligent coach, helping users to evolve an interface that anticipates and meets their needs. The true potential of campus portals to create new patterns of interaction both on and beyond campus is yet to be proven.

Is a campus portal in your future? While the answer may be yes, just when this will be likely depends on campus technology needs, funding resources, strategic priorities, and the continued evolution of the solutions available. The initial craze that promised something for nothing and delivered far less than expected has passed, but campus portals should not be dismissed as another glittery Internet concept to be played with and then discarded. Although their full potential has yet to be realized, campus portals remain a promising and worthwhile approach to organize and electronically connect universities, both today and in the future.

Examples of Campus Portal Development

UT Direct from the University of Texas has a forward-looking approach to portal access. Create a user name and password and you can have access. One of the more unique features allows users to create sticky note reminders. https://utdirect.utexas.edu/utdirect/index.cgi

My UCDavis has a different approach to access. Guests may use a customizable page that demonstrates the functionality and channels available. This portal demonstrates the ability of portals to combine customized information and static Web resources. http://my.ucdavis.edu

RaiderLink from Texas Tech is built on open source tools. In addition to a variety of campus services, this includes instant messaging and a gaming module. https://www.raiderlink.ttu.edu

BLINK from the University of California San Diego provides access to staff information and processes. While MyBlink, the actual portal application, is not accessible, it is easy to get a feeling for the effectiveness of this portal. http://blink.ucsd.edu/Blink/1,1052,,00.html

David Eisler is provost at Weber State University. deisler@Weber.edu. Portal examples and additional information on campus portals can be found at http://faculty.Weber.edu/deisler/syllabus2002.htm.

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