Portal Integration and a Scalable, Flexible Enterprise System

Integrating the institutional portal with better, personalized services is a goal that can be accomplished with scalable administrative systems.

Advancements in technology and the adoption of standards are steadily moving higher education toward the attainment of a single, integrated enterprise system. This achievement will enable institutions to maximize their knowledge base, ensure the integrity of their data, gain new efficiencies, and provide even better services to their constituents. However, in order to realize this vision, progress must be made in two areas: increased personalization of services and resources within the portal to the enterprise system, and the integration of underlying auxiliary applications.

The introduction of the portal to higher education has truly elevated and unified the accessibility of an institution’s services and resources, presenting users with what appears to be a single enterprise system. Using a single sign-on, learners, faculty, and others can register for courses, submit assignments, attend study groups, purchase tickets to athletic events, check the weather forecast, send and retrieve e-mail, and execute numerous other activities in support of their academic and personal goals.

More than an Interface
The mere expansion of resources and services available through an institution’s portal is not sufficient. These services and resources must also be personalized and relevant to each user. A student may—or may not—find the information he or she is seeking. For example, students might never find their way to student groups that have the potential to enrich their campus experience. In order to be truly effective, the views and information presented must be personalized to each user. At Lehigh University, our goal is to increasingly personalize our portal to the needs of each individual user and to make it their primary institution resource.

For example, in 2003 we conducted our summer freshmen orientation completely online through our portal. All the resources that freshmen needed, from “meeting” with counselors and library services, to gathering information on residence halls and food services, were available online. The students even took their calculus readiness exams online. The information presented to each student was personalized based on his or her role that we identified from the data in our SCT Banner Student system. The first year arts and sciences majors were presented with all the arts and sciences resources that they needed, in addition to general information about the university. Likewise, engineering majors saw course information related to their area of study.

By eliminating our summer on-campus orientation, we saved the university considerable expense and also prospective students the time and cost of traveling to Lehigh. The response from students, deans, and others was overwhelmingly positive. Over 90 percent of the students found the portal information useful or very useful. Equally important, this initial and extensive interaction with our portal indoctrinated the freshmen to view the portal as their initial and primary source for campus information and resources. The virtual orientation was complemented by our standard three-day orientation held the weekend before school began.

Lehigh will soon be live with a MyLibrary portal, which is an open source initiative, started by Eric Lease Morgan from University of Notre Dame. Lehigh is partnering with Notre Dame to implement this within the SCT Luminis portal. Currently, some of our faculty view our portal as simply a place to check that latest sale bulletin board, to read the New York Times headlines, or to view the weather forecast. This library application will pull them into the portal and help them understand its potential as a powerful, personalized resource. The application will integrate and personalize various library resources through the portal.

For example, a physics instructor will be presented with all the electronic journals, databases, and library contacts pertinent to his or her field of study. A math instructor will be presented totally different, tailored resources. This is accomplished through integration at the presentation level and through the portal integration.

Students will also be presented with this resource. A music major, for example, will see library catalogs and holdings that relate specifically to music. A very powerful aspect of MyLibrary is that new content will be dynamically offered to faculty or students based on their discipline. In addition, users can customize their page to limit the displayed resources to those they are personally interested in. By placing MyLibrary in the portal, we are offering instant possibilities for personalization and customization of library resources.

Creating Better Services
These are just a few examples of how Lehigh is personalizing our portal applications to meet the individual needs of our users. Our goal is to meet 90 percent of the users’ needs so that they do not have to seek out the information elsewhere or recreate their views on the portal. In addition, we continually expand our portal capabilities to include extended and unique applications. By doing so, we are able to provide high-quality, personalized information and services, and extend the value of our existing investments.

When learners enter an institution’s portal, they are greeted with what appears to be a seamless fabric of integrated and accessible services and resources. Beneath the tapestry of the portal lie disconnected auxilary databases and applications. This is the layer where the next evolution of integration must occur in order for institutions to achieve a true single enterprise system where data and messages are exchanged in real time.

Indeed, the evolution of the portal is creating the need and the issues surrounding integration of systems “behind the scenes.” From within our portal, faculty have an option of entering grades in either SCT Banner, our administrative system, or in Blackboard, our course management system.

This creates a need for real-time data exchange between Blackboard and SCT Banner Student. Otherwise, the data would be out of synch; or possibly it would require data re-entry, which is inefficient and prone to errors. There are numerous other examples where we need automatic population of data to corresponding systems.

Examples include posting library fines to the finance system, and integrating health services, university student smart cards, parking, performing arts, and other auxiliary applications and services to the institution’s core administrative system. Vendors have achieved integration among their core modules, like human resources, finance, financial aid, alumni development, and student, but more progress is required to integrate auxiliary applications from other vendors or those developed by an institution into the core administrative system.

Vendors have been working to address this challenge and are currently delivering integration technologies for third-party applications. But integration is, by nature, very complicated and dynamic. Implementing the integration technologies requires overhead and time on the part of the university’s technical staff.

Data Standards and
a Modular Approach

An important development in easing the integration hurdle is the acceptance and adherence by vendors to open standards for data passing and message passing. Already we have made inroads that we weren’t even discussing two years ago, like the real-time exchange of data between our SCT Banner Student system and our course management system, Blackboard. Lehigh also utilizes Touchnet, a payment gateway application that allows prospective students the ability to pay their application fees online using a credit card. Alumni and other constituents can also utilize this application to make gifts to Lehigh online using their credit cards. A degree audit and reporting system (DARS) is another third-party application that is integrated with SCT Banner. This application provides students with the functionality to ascertain their academic standing related to the courses needed for graduation.

By taking a modular approach, we can integrate these third-party applications, and others—like dining services or health services—of our choice rather than being forced to purchase and license a broad package of applications that we do not want or need. Likewise, this approach allows institutions to select a variety of third-party applications that meet the needs of individual service groups, like parking.

While vendors continue to evolve the technology, institutions need to tackle an internal cultural issue if they want to achieve an integrated enterprise system. That is, sacrificing some functionality within the administrative system for the sake of integration. For example, a vendor’s administrative system might have a weak grant application. Some institutions might opt to purchase that application from a different vendor. It is possible to repeat this scenario over and over, from department to department. Also, some institutions might feel that their legacy systems as a whole, or a particular in-house application, have functions that they cannot sacrifice.

Over time, these institutions are faced with maintaining and integrating multiple vendor or in-house systems, just in support of their basic administrative functions of finance, HR, financial aid, and alumni development. These simply cannot be maintained effectively and efficiently. More importantly, it creates a significant and added barrier to eventually integrating the auxiliary applications in order to achieve an enterprise-wide integrated system. In addition, these multiple shadow systems degrade the integrity of an institution’s data.

For example, if the alumni department has a separate external system where they are updating alumni addresses, there is no reliable, real-time method for that data to be updated in the institution’s master student system.

Scalability of a Single Enterprise System
Integration within the core administrative system is available “off the shelf” from vendors, and institutions should take advantage of the benefits enabled by this integration. Existing systems can scale and evolve as needed with the integration of third party systems. But institutions also need to overcome the mindset that their needs and processes are so unique that they need to build, connect, and modify these core administrative systems. Even if an institution has a large and skilled IT staff, it needs to consider whether developing new custom applications is the best use of their time in support of an institution’s mission.

Twenty years ago, it was not possible to share and exchange information among the primary administrative departments. Individual departments maintained their own discrete data systems, often with conflicting data. Information can be shared seamlessly between financial aid, finance, the student, human resources, and alumni departments. And the portal is providing constituents with a user-friendly, 24-hour access to these databases and other university resources and services.

The next frontier is the integration of additional auxiliary systems. The creation of this single enterprise system will require time, effort, and expense on both the part of institutions and vendors. However, it is achievable. As a result, institutions will be able to make even greater strides in maximizing the knowledge base of the institution, ensuring the integrity of their data, gaining new efficiencies, and providing even better services to our constituents.

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