Helping Students Find Each Other

If Friendster and Tribe are more helpful to your students than your institution’s online systems are, you may have a problem.

Columbia College Chicago is aiming to be the most student-centered arts and media school in the world. That’s a tall order for what was historically an urban commuter school, although, in a recent switch, a quarter of the 10,000 students became residential. Yet still, there isn’t even a traditional student center on campus. And in the past, students have complained that it is hard to get to know the 1,500 faculty (1,200 of whom are part-time), and difficult to network with other students who aren’t in their classes.

That’s a drawback for students, especially in the arts and media, says Bernadette McMahon, CIO and associate VP of Information Technology. “We have 10,000 students trying to find each other,” explains McMahon. “A student will say, ‘I’m shooting a film, I need a grip, and I only know the people in my class.’ We want to create a place where our students can connect with each other; a place like Friendster, but for academics, not for dating.”

Why Go Outside the Institution?

Social networking sites such as Friendster (www.friendster.com), Tribe (www.tribe.net), Friendzy (www.friendzy.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com), MySpace (www.myspace.com), and orkut (www.orkut.com) have collectively linked millions of individuals in ever-expanding circles, based on common interests and self-describing profiles. Columbia hopes to tap into students’ yearning for networking, and strengthen it with the kind of content that only a college community can provide.

In fact, the college will be using ePortaro’s (www.eportaro.com) online portfolio system—custom integrated with the school’s Jenzabar (www.jenzabar.com) student information and portal software—to provide ways for students to display their talents for the benefit of potential student co-collaborators and also for potential future employers. In the background, Jenzabar’s student system will handle authentication of students and verification of academic data about students, such as their majors and course enrollment.

The college also sees this as a way to make the faculty more accessible to students through faculty portfolios and online work. The faculty, who are bombarded with meetings and other duties, may even get a virtual place to work together on committees. “This is to augment face-to-face contact, not replace it,” insists McMahon.

Previous experience with portals gives Columbia administrators hope that moving toward more online networking will be well received. Four years ago, the college signed with an ASP (application service provider)-based portal company that has since gone bankrupt. But, “It was a real enabler,” says McMahon, explaining that “two thousand students signed up for it and they were using it right up until we pulled the plug.”

McMahon anticipates plenty of work and possibly bumps in the road to get the new system running according to plan. “It has to be integrated. Students don’t want to go into different systems to use the portfolios or to network. And we don’t want to input the student data more than once—it has to pull from the ERP system.”

This will involve pushing the envelope with the existing products, but the college has secured the cooperation of its vendors to pull it all together. There are non-technical problems to be worked out as well, such as defining etiquette, preventing harassment, protecting privacy, and setting policies for granting and revoking rights.

“It’s a great vision,” says McMahon. “I just hope we can get there.”

The Vendors Go ‘Social’

Software companies in the higher education arena are becoming aware of the potential allure of campus-centered networking. They are either planning to build social features into their products or are providing features that give students and others the experience of working within a virtual community.

Datatel (www.datatel.com) aired its concept of “presence-based awareness” at the recent Educause (www.educause.edu) conference in Orlando. Why should getting bumped out of a filled-up course be a lonely experience? A student who is online and suddenly finds herself looking for an alternative course selection should be able to turn to other students who are interacting with the system at the same time, just as if they were in the same room. Graham Tracey, product manager for Enrollment Management and Student Services solutions at Datatel, says that when Datatel’s new portal environment, ActiveCampus, debuts in 2006, its design will eventually allow administrators to add social networking functions and create a seamless experience across the entire lifespan of students.

“We want to create a place where our students can connect with each other; a place like Friendster, but for academics, not for dating.”
—Bernadette McMahon, Columbia College Chicago

As for SAP’s NetWeaver Portal (www.sap.com), that product is designed to provide real-time, virtual collaboration rooms where users can work together, no matter where they are located. SAP’s portal also integrates other collaboration tools, including shared folders, group calendars, team assignments, instant messaging, and chat rooms.

SCT’s Luminis (www.sungardsct.com) is a widely used portal solution, often teamed with SCT Banner, although it can be used with any administrative software. Still, powerful portal environments like Luminis can be out of reach for smaller institutions. So, SCT recently announced a portal designed as part of the SCT PowerCAMPUS administrative system. This new portal presents a new option for institutions that want to create the integration and personalization provided by a portal environment, but with less complexity and cost.

Then too, the electronification of the portfolio has produced a powerful tool for bringing people together on the basis of their accomplishments and special interests. Oracle (www.oracle.com) gives colleges and universities a way to extend the boundaries of their community with a new product called Oracle Personal Portfolio. The online portfolio allows students and faculty to highlight their work via a portal for use in employment searches, class assignments, accreditation, credentialing, and networking.

Explore the Possibilities

Students today are exploring the power of virtual networking, often without reference to the institutions they attend, even though the campus itself represents a powerful set of ready-to-exploit connections. This is a good time to explore the personal networking potential of the software environments that your institution has already put into place.

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