Facing the Portal
When did you first deploy your campus portal, and how has it developed
delivered its portal about three years ago, with very little functionality—just
one or two capabilities in the beginning. And it was not used very much at that
time. We had focused on some class information for the students. They made it
clear that it would be much better if they could read their e-mail and get their
grades on the portal. So over the past three years we’ve really built
up capability in our portal, My UW-Madison.
S:Do you consider
it a fully developed portal now?
AS:I would say it’s still
an early portal, but it’s getting richer. After we had deployed it, we
realized that unless we put some really basic functions into it, it was going
to be poorly used. And the big, basic function we wanted to add was e-mail,
so that people could log in and get their e-mail on the portal. Calendaring
was another key function. We spent a lot of time and energy getting e-mail and
calendaring systems up and running and integrated with the portal.
S: What were some of your objectives
for My UW-Madison?
AS: One objective was a single
sign on—so you would not have to log on multiple times. And I will tell
you, making that work was a challenge. We had to figure out how to get that
running in a secure way between our e-mail system, our calendaring system, and
And we’ve gradually added more and more capability. Most recently, Finance
has put up employee salary statements, so you can now look at your payroll history
on the portal. This is of great interest for faculty and staff, and I’m
not sure anything was very much of a draw for staff before, except that they
could get e-mail from any place in the country. We’ve also added some
interactive functions like ordering tickets or computer equipment, and we’re
trying to build that capability out further.
What we’re beginning to put in place is a portal system that supports
your daily work. For students, you can check your grades. For staff, you can
look into your paycheck. So, it’s a way to connect with your personal
information. And I think that’s the bonus. The highlight of the portal
is that it supports your relationship with the university—your electronic
relationship with the university—without having to remember the address
of this or that Web site, or having to log on to several different applications.
You log on once to My UW-Madison and you can find the information that supports
your life here.
S: What are some of the challenges
of deploying and maintaining the portal?
One of the real challenges with the portal is integrating it with
enterprise applications. We’ve got the Registrar’s office using
PeopleSoft for all their student processing work; everything that
Registrars do to maintain student information.
a portal that supports access to that kind of information, for the
functional departments, the Registrar’s office, the Bursar’s office,
as a well as for the students. We’ve got Desire 2 Learn, our course
management system on campus, and you can use its portal to get at
your class materials if you’re a student. And for some other administrative
applications, we’re bringing up the Lawson payroll system. There’s
a portal associated with that. Each of those applications has its
own associated portal. The challenge on a campus is, do you use
specific portals for specific activities, or do you work at integrating
the information that people could see in specific portals into a
single portal that’s more generic?
We continually face that decision because it’s easier at the development
level to just say, "Sure, we’ll use the PeopleSoft portal because
PeopleSoft provides it; you’ve got all that information in their databases."
But it’s not nearly so easy for the user and it d'esn’t give them
an integrated picture of the information they want. Plus, it d'esn’t give
them everything else about the university. So they would have to go separately
to the PeopleSoft portal and then to the Desire 2 Learn portal. We’re
trying to pull all of that information together. In my mind, that’s a
S: Do you consider portal technology
AS: Well, sort of, though we’ve got a
way to go to make it more reliable, more robust, easier to use.
But, the real question is, is this integration process that we’re
in the midst of mature? I don’t think so. You know, I think that
we’re doing hard work here in trying to put the picture all together
with one single sign on. But it’s a challenge. It remains a challenge.
S: How would you characterize the problems with the single sign on?
AS:Think about this: We’re
using Sun’s mail system, iPlanet mail. And we’re using a calendar
product now supplied by Oracle. We have the Desire 2 Learn course management
system and the PeopleSoft student information system. So we’ve got those
four applications that people want to get information from, integrated—or
we’re trying to integrate them—with our portal. This is a development
task—a technical task—as well as a challenge in terms of working
with the vendors to be sure that what we accept as a net ID and password is
acceptable to that application. That’s the first part. Second, we need
to be sure that we can pass the ID and password on through, as opposed to having
the users directly log on. And then there is the whole business about building
something that lets you hang onto the logon information in the portal so that
you can then pass it on through to the next application, while at the same time
protecting passwords. We had a challenge to make all this happen, but I believe
we have solved the problem. So you log on to the portal once and that’s
Some Systems and Applications Integrated
with the My UW-Madison Portal
Calendaring (Oracle Calendar)
Course management system (Desire 2 Learn)
E-mail (Sun’s iPlanet)
Student information system (PeopleSoft)
S: Are there perceived security
issues with the single sign on?
AS: Everybody worries that there
are security issues with single sign on. And certainly there are, but we’ve
addressed them so that we are managing this, we believe, in a very secure manner.
S: With the portal, part of the
attraction, I suppose, is that the user is able to customize their view.
S: Are there any privacy issues
with that? In other words, d'es the system keep track of data on you?
AS: You know, that might be possible,
but we’re not having any privacy issues with our portal. You build a front
page for who you are. Most of the time when people customize their view, they’re
saying something like, “I want you to show me the weather in Timbuktu
or in my home town of Paoli, Pennsylvania; I want to track the campus calendar
for sporting events; I always want to be able to look at my classes.”
So in terms of customizing, it’s pretty benign information that you can
put on your home page.
S: It sounds like you’ve
integrated the e-mail system, calendaring, the CMS, and the student information system. Some
of the functions potentially overlap. For example, how do you handle grade input?
AS: As a matter of fact, we’re
struggling with faculty grade input and whether it should come in through a
course management connection to the portal or whether it should come in to the
student information system connection to the portal. That’s the type of
issue that you face as you begin to make this capability available. We’re
integrating as much as we can of information, or parts of applications, that
people want to use to manage their campus electronic life in the portal.
S: I’m wondering what
the long-term maintenance issues are, given a portal strategy. For example,
if you were to migrate to a different CMS, or maybe a different e-mail system,
are those migration issues very much complicated by the portal?
AS: Yes. Actually, they are. I’m
trying not to say that, but sure, they are. The portal is another big technology
to manage. When you make major changes to other applications that need to be
integrated with the portal, you’ve got work to do; work with the portal.
These are not inconsequential adventures.
Annie Stunden began her position as chief information officer and director
of the Division of Information Technology (DoIT) at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison in February 2000.
UW-Madison is a 40,000-student research
university with a major commitment to transformational change of the teaching
and learning environment through the use of technology. Stunden is leading
an organization of about 550 staff members and 250 student staff in this
position. From 1996 to 2000, she was director of Academic Technology at
Cornell University; and she was director of Academic Technology and Network
Services at Northwestern University from 1991-1996. Stunden is active
in professional organizations, currently serving as Chair of the Recognition
Committee at EDUCAUSE and a member of the Internet2 Network Policy
and Planning Advisory Council (NPPAC). She has numerous writing and speaking
credits, including a recent article published in the Nov./Dec. 2003 issue
of EDUCAUSE Review, “The Muscles, Aches, and Pains of Open
Source.” Beginning this spring, Stunden will write a monthly column
for Syllabus magazine covering enterprise technologies.
S:And at some point will you
be considering a new portal?
AS: One of the things we’ve
just done is a portal evaluation. Our current portal software requires a major
upgrade this summer. We decided it was time to evaluate whether we are using
the right portal architecture. As a result, we’re migrating from our current
portal, to uPortal this coming year. That in itself is a big migration. And
then we have to assure that all of our links are in place and working with the
other applications. We had dreams of having it done by this summer. But, it’s
clear that we can’t do that because the decision was just made in January.
So it will be sometime in the fall.
S: Who are the key constituents
served by the university portal? You have students, faculty, and staff. Do you
AS: No. Our alumni organization
has its own portal. But one of the things we’re working on very hard is
trying to figure out what our other constituencies are and how to identify them
and give them access. The next constituency we’re working on is [student]
applicants. And after that, parents.
AS: That’s right. And the
reason it’s going to be parents is that parents are the folks who pay
the bills a lot of the time. They want to see their students’ financial
records. Some universities are already providing this access, authorized by
S: So, there’s more role-based
access you have to figure out
AS: The message there is that
we also have to be able to identify what they can and cannot have access to.
One of our big projects in the past two years has been developing what we call
an identification, authentication, and authorization system (IAA). So we need
to know who you are. We need to know that you are who you say you are. And then
we need to know what you’re authorized to look at. For example, a faculty
advisor is not eligible to see all students’ records, just the records
of the students that they’re advising—that’s the authorization
S:Will your portal expand to
serve users outside the campus community?
AS: Some. For example, there is
a hospital that is not actually part of the university, but it is on our campus.
We share parking services. So the parking folks want us to get the hospital
people into our identification system so that the hospital can use a portal-based
application for parking permits and so that people can find out whether they’ve
got parking bills outstanding. The world gets more and more complex, and we’re
trying to figure out how to grow this thing, reasonably, rationally, nicely,
to support our campus departments, functional departments, and our end users.
That’s the portal.
S: What is a federated portal?
AS: Our portal is a federated
portal to some extent. As an example, I’m not developing the parking portal
application. The parking application is going to be developed by the people
in parking, but they’re going to develop it in such a way that the My
UW-Madison portal can get you to the parking portal, you can work with the parking
information and when you are done, end up back in the My UW-Madison portal.
You won’t have to log in beyond the My UW-Madison logon to do this.
S: What other groups outside
the university community will you include for access to My UW-Madison?
AS: Well, I think the next interesting
population could be university friends and donors.
S:That is interesting.
AS: Or alumni—actually let
me go back to our discussion of alumni. I expect that there will be a push to
have alumni have access to this portal. It’s interesting because the Alumni
Association is a separate organization from the university. But not very separate—it
shares our campus and many resources. The Alumni Association wants to stay connected
with all alumni and to maintain the flavor of that connection.
So, as we talk about alumni having access, we’ve got some interesting
work to do with the Alumni Association about whether and how the Association
wants that to happen, whether it could be a federated arrangement, or whether
the Alumni Association’s portal needs to stay completely separate with
links between the two portals.
In fact, we’ve had those types of discussions elsewhere on campus before.
And I’m not sure we’re done with them. For example, the Business
School and the Law School have unique constituencies. As we work together we
have to determine if they want to provide their information within the university’s
central portal or if they want to interest their own community with something
that they believe represents them more directly. People struggle with that question.
There’s nothing mandatory about putting your information in the portal.
There are some things, that because the portal is a central campus resource
have to be there, but by and large, if you’re the Business School, or
the Law School, or the College of Engineering and you want to offer some portal
services, you can choose to use My UW-Madison or do something else.
S: Are there any potential applications
for libraries in your institution’s portal?
AS: Our library information is
available through the portal on our campus; outside of the portal the library
catalog is available to all the University of Wisconsin system campuses. So
people can log on to the library from wherever they are in the system and get
information about the entire holdings of the system—though that’s
not really portalized, as much as it is just an online catalog.
But absolutely there is potential, and if we elected to provide a feature-rich
library portal systemwide, that would offer us another challenge, wouldn’t
it? And another huge community to try to support. That’s interesting to
say the least. But it’s not necessarily all that difficult, because we’re
already putting that entire community into our system-wide directory, our IAA
S: Other than that, is My UW-Madison
serving any of the other University of Wisconsin campuses?
AS: No, My UW-Madison is strictly
a Madison portal right now. Could it be more? Absolutely. But it’s not
at this point.
S:Are you considering open
source for your next portal?
AS: Yes, we are moving to JA-SIG
uPortal, which is open source-based. Related to that, we are also watching developments
with Sakai, the open source learning management system infrastructure. There,
the interesting thing is how that total portal environment for learning management
will integrate with the federated portal environment that we’ve built
for providing all sorts of resources for the campus. I haven’t thought
that far ahead yet, but I think we’ve got some interesting challenges
A lot of folks have developed their own portal framework. We purchased one for
our original portal. It was the fastest way to get up and going. We didn’t
have to invest in the development of that.
S:Which one was it?
AS: The one we purchased was called
Epicentric when we purchased it. It was acquired by Vignette. It’s a very
good product. It was one of the two finalists in our recent selection process.
"... fostering the collaboration of the campus
community is one of the most important things, and one of the hardest."
S:What would you say are the
most important lessons learned from your experience with your portal?
AS: We learned that on a campus
as big as ours, fostering the collaboration of the campus community is one of
the most important things, and one of the hardest. We’re a very distributed
environment so people can sort of do what they want to do. There’s very
little top-down direction that dictates what you have to do. Our chancellor
was certainly interested in having a portal, or at least something that looked
like a portal, on campus. But we needed to champion this actively, to get people
willing to put the information that they felt ultimately responsible for into
the portal. That was the hardest part. We know how to do the technology. The
people work is harder. Folks on campus felt that if they put the information
that they were responsible for—think about student records information,
for example—in the portal, that they were, in some way, losing control.
An issue still floats out there about how the portal is governed. Student Affairs
manages the student information system, Finance manages the financial system,
and the Graduate School manages the grants management system. But who manages
the portal? Is it that awful technology organization you never trust? —Read:
“Why should they be calling the shots on this?”
Well, if the central technology organization is not calling the shots, in
concert with some kind of campuswide advisory or governance body, where else
can you put the responsibility so that the portal d'es not become one-department
centric? And the whole point is to keep the portal a campus portal, not a teaching
and learning portal, not a student information system portal, not a payroll
portal, but a campus portal. This remains a challenge, because distributed governance
is hard. Regardless, our campus portal is becoming more and more accepted—we’re
getting something like 70,000 hits a day.
S: Do you have evidence then
that this is really going to be the major way people get at their information,
or are there back doors that they’re using
you know, as if they
would say, "I don’t think I want to use this. I’m going to
AS: I don’t think so. It’s
too actively addressed for me to think that people are bypassing it. And when
I talk to some of my colleagues, many of them people who I didn’t think
would be big users, they say, "Oh, we keep it up all the time
such an easy way when I’m using e-mail to find out somebody’s e-mail
it just gives me such easy access to directories."
S: How have the students reacted
to the portal?
We have a couple of students
on our Shared Governance Information Technology Committee, and we were discussing
whether we should have a Web site for every course connected to the portal.
And the students on the committee were saying, "Well, why wouldn’t
you? You know, that’s the way we want to get our information."