Learning from Experience: Points to Ponder about Portals

The beauty of a campus portal lies in its ability to provide information, instantaneously. But sometimes immediate access to information can be too fast. Gettysburg College allowed students immediate access to their final grades on the campus portal. But as instructors were still administering their last exam during finals week, students who had already received their final grades flooded faculty offices demanding attention, hampering the end-of-term wrap-up of final exams.

These are the lessons that come with experience. With a campus portal in full production since 1997, Gettysburg College has learned many lessons—the hard way. Development of CNAV (College NAVigation) began in 1995 and has continued, with modules for employees, students, and faculty available since conception, and additional functionality added each year—parents and accepted students in 1998, alumni in 1999, student portfolios in 2000, and online administrative tools such as helpdesks, inventory management, timesheets, and forms in 2001.

By their very nature, portals and online course tools continuously evolve, sometimes at a rapid pace. Because new features are continuously added, it's a good idea to develop the business processes early on to allow portal decisions to be made in an inclusive and timely manner. When going through a portal implementation process, schools will learn which business rules are well defined and which are not. Portal implementations tend to bring flaws in the rules to the surface, and a process will need to be in place to handle decisions concerning them. Gettysburg's decision-making process includes committees of representatives of all the necessary departments and constituents—including students—with a stake in these decisions. This consensus-based process allows the school to bring new features online quickly without anyone taking issue with them. Gettysburg has also learned that having the portal's mission support the strategic goals of the college gains the involvement of the chief academic officer and the office of the president to support portal initiatives. The provost's request to faculty to keep their biographical information up-to-date in the portal carries more weight than a request from the data organization.

Privacy and Security

With each new portal feature comes a new privacy issue and a tradeoff between usefulness and privacy. In 1997, the big questions at Gettysburg were who should have access to student transcripts, what control individuals should have over their online information, and what rights advisors should have to limit who could see their comments. When, in 1998, the school allowed parents to have an account on the portal and added a parent-student interaction function, it was faced with the new question of whether to allow parents easy access to their sons' and daughters' faculty members and advisors.

Gettysburg has implemented a role-based security system that allows users access to information depending on their "role" at the university. Using role-based security, the institution can grant faculty, students, administrators, and even parents their own access privileges, and maintain security for specific groups. Although this type of security is popular in portal development these days, defining who belongs in each "role" is more difficult than it seems.

Typical roles include prospective students, enrolled students, parents of students, alumni, faculty, and staff—each requiring different views and security elements for data. Definitions for these roles need to be clear. For example, do retired faculty belong in "faculty" or "other"? How about trustees and board members—"employees" or "other"? Or what about step parents? Are they considered "parents" or are only birth parents allowed this role? Is a student who works for the institution a "student" or "employee"?

A surprising number of people have multiple roles, and it is important that the portal be flexible enough to allow these users access to tools germane to each of those roles at the same time. For example, Bill Wilson is a staff member, a faculty member, an alumnus, and a parent of a student at Gettysburg College. A parent of a student might not have access to a faculty member's home address and phone number, but a faculty member might. Access for someone who is both a parent and a faculty member would have to be determined based on both roles. At Gettysburg, slightly more than 7 percent of the people using the portal have multiple roles, far greater than expected when the portal was under development. Committees constantly meet and continue to refine these roles.

Regrettably, an institution will occasionally have a situation, such as a death on campus, that requires the sensitive handling of information. It is possible that everyone wanting to get or share information will use the portal simultaneously, and sometimes inappropriately. Early in the operation of the Gettysburg portal several unfortunate situations occurred in which an individual was the focus of a troubling news story or campus incident. In a case of harassment, the portal was heavily in use by people on campus to learn about the situation. Users of e-mail and discussion boards gave credence to rumors and roused some students to take inappropriate action. The college public relations department had a difficult time containing the rumors, and outside media sources scanned the online directory—which was publicly accessible but was constructed from data contained within the portal—in an attempt to contact students close to the case. An emergency privacy policy went into effect to override privacy or operational settings to monitor and protect individuals in the portal community.

When Content G'es Online

With the possibility of a great deal of course content soon to be available only online, it is essential to establish a policy outlining access, longevity, and intellectual property ownership for online material before a crisis arises. The policy should be written, distributed, and understood by all parties early on.

At many colleges, honors commissions or other academic fact-finding bodies reference academic materials produced by students or faculty. Dates of modification to the materials, actual copies of content at a particular date, and access rights are critical. In a case involving cheating, for example, copies of two students' online work as it progressed during the semester were considered important evidence. Sometimes intellectual property issues become the focus. Several years ago, a faculty member submitted a compilation of online coursework as part a conference proceedings, without securing permission from a student whose work was part of the paper.

In the era of paper-based course materials, access was controlled by those who controlled the paper. With a growing percentage of materials online and course data contained in databases, access is controlled by a program setting, making the issues much more complex. Now committees of people must decide who outside the course can access online academic information, and under what circumstances. What is the procedure for obtaining access? How long will the school guarantee to back up course data? In the honor code cases at Gettysburg, the school discovered early on that it needed to maintain backups of student work often.

It also discovered that it is prudent to classify online documents and messages, such as those generated by a portal or online learning tools, as "official." With an increasing dependence on the portal and online learning tools for academic progress reports and mid-term grades—and the increasing tendency for students dropped from the academic program to seek formal hearings—it is wise to ensure that any online information carries the same weight and consideration as the institution's paper-based information. Without a clearly worded and distributed policy, a student might not treat an online notification seriously, and the institution may have no provision for archiving the information. Gettysburg adopted a faculty resolution stating that any e-mail message generated by a faculty member or an advisor carries the same weight as one on paper.

Bugs in the Portal

Problems with administrative system data fed to the portal are routine. The portal itself actually turns out to be one of the best tools to find data problems in administrative systems because the number of people accessing the portal tend to ferret out errors. For instance, users discovered that the data an administrative office used to code faculty on sabbatical resulted in these faculty members being invisible in the campus directory. A faculty member who was looking up a recent graduate noticed that the graduating class of seniors had been entered into the alumni system twice—once by an automatic transfer from the registrar to the alumni system and once by hand by a new employee. And alumni will immediately inform the school when their club membership or giving records are incorrect. Gettysburg is implementing "data sanity checkers" that monitor the data interfaces for abnormalities such as large changes in the number of new or deleted records. In one case, the human resources department arbitrarily restructured the way they stored department names, and in one day hundreds of new departments appeared in the portal. The sanity checker would have caught that problem right away.

The Value of Training

Portals are perhaps the largest single piece of software, in terms of users, that a college might deploy, and training is the key to getting full value from it. But training the entire campus community, plus alumni and parents, requires creative solutions. While some of the training time at Gettysburg is spent on tools in the portal—for example, course links, links to advising areas, electronic reserve readings, e-mail aliases—a lot of time is spent reviewing with first year students how to set privacy settings, where to enter their interests, how to join groups, and how to link other Web resources into their portal information. The Gettysburg portal also has recurring training topics to keep people up to date with new features. Web-based training is available so people can access this information at their leisure without having to rely solely on face-to-face training. As new faculty arrive on campus, training covers portal resources that they can populate with additional information about their courses, their expertise, how to link to other Web-accessible information, and their interests. Gettysburg also uses key contacts within academic departments and administrative offices to serve as first-line trainers and problem solvers for the portal software. Finally, the school takes advantage of times when parents and alumni are likely to be on campus to conduct training and information sessions for them.

Poised to Take on Opportunities

Including all appropriate constituencies in the development of the portal increases the likelihood that people will use it. Schools with successful portals continuously look for new opportunities to integrate instructional materials directly into the portal and to increase the use of these materials by faculty and students. Encouraging faculty and students to use a new service is half the battle in deploying it, and if the new service is first deployed in an easily accessible system, like a portal, it will be adopted faster.

Linking a third-party online course tool—Gettysburg uses Blackboard—into the portal creates a one-stop location; students can access all links to the classes they have registered for in any given semester. This strategy increases student and faculty access to the portal, making it a true resource for the academic program and the campus as a whole.

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