More Than a Portal: Unifying the Digital Campus

Campus portals are facilitating better communications on campus and extending institutional resources on the Web. The next important challenge is to integrate the many components of the portal and ensure interoperability, both internally and with campuses across the Web.

How many digital resources do you have on your campus? Do you know? If you did, could you keep them straight? Could you manage them—coordinate their creation, availability, and use in the best interests of all your constituents? Is your institution able to integrate administrative, learning, and community activities?

It is now time for institutions to have the answers to all those questions. “We have a campus Web portal” is not the full answer.

Systems are needed to support the activities of the institution and manage all the details and documents seamlessly, tied into an intelligent network that promotes interoperability of software and systems as well as interactivity among people. Content management, server integration, and Web portal services are a few of the necessary components in the new realm of the unified digital campus. We at Appalachian State University learned this firsthand.

In August 1999, the university launched a campus Web portal using Campus Pipeline Inc.’s Web Platform, which allowed us to provide campus announcements, e-mail, and administrative services from a single point of online access.

At that time, portals were all the rage, and we were glad to show students our newfound ability to provide custom news and weather. Looking back, however, that initial solution was actually simplistic and provided very little integration between systems. But it accomplished several objectives that were novel at the time, including synchronization with our student information system in real time—a big win. But many other incorporated systems did not carry that level of integration.

The Challenges of Portals

We quickly learned that a nonintegrated digital campus was a short-term solution at best. Students perceived that everything within our portal was part of a single system, which presented a couple of challenges.

First, if any system on campus went down—from the network, to the student information system, to a department’s Web site—our students believed that the entire portal was down. More importantly, the students expected simplicity and were baffled by data discrepancies between incorporated and nonincorporated information sources.

Second, we began to realize that, although unified in look and feel, our digital campus still presented a fractured overall experience for our students. We wanted more integration between technologies and greater personalization for individuals.

Although we moved early on the portal trend, we took no time to rest on our laurels. We spent the following two years working aggressively to enhance student experience with the development of a truly unified digital campus.

Toward a Unified Digital Campus

Our first priority was to address stability issues across all of the systems incorporated into our digital campus, so our team underwent a lengthy investigation of stability issues and fail-over solutions. We are now implementing a clustering solution in order to manage fault tolerance in the most vulnerable aspects of the system.

Next, we began creating a true single sign-on process for the most frequently accessed systems on campus. Through our involvement in an industry partnership program sponsored by Campus Pipeline, we could learn from other universities’ experiences. Pepperdine University’s PepperdineXpress, for example, incorporates Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange, the SCT Plus Student Information System, course tools from WebCT, and a library system through Campus Pipeline technology. It serves as a good model for what we hope to accomplish.

Like Pepperdine University, we utilize myriad products and solutions from a long list of vendors, so we need to bring those technologies into one unified environment. This requires Web integration, content management, and a portal infrastructure. And we need to deliver those services and information in a personalized way to our students, faculty, administrators, and alumni.

Reaping the Benefits

Our efforts in building a unified digital campus have already begun to bear fruit. In addition to the benefits of integration, we find that improvements in operational efficiency, facilitated by the data integration of our communication tools and student information system, have impacted the off-line experiences of students. We also save faculty and staff time, freeing them for more interaction with students.

We now realize that all of our strategic technology decisions have become easier, and we are saving money because we already have our Web operating system in place. Our technology team now evaluates new technologies in the context of their ability to integrate with and support our existing Web platform. Because many core technologies are included in the infrastructure for our digital campus, we save hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing costs and staff hours.

Most importantly, our nontechnical users find it much easier to contribute to the long-term vision of the digital campus. As faculty members discover the profound impact technology can have on their personal communications with students, they are engaging in more and more discussions on the topic. Leaders from our student government organization provide ideas for new tools as they have become more familiar with the capabilities of the system.

Suddenly, there is an open dialogue across campus about what our digital campus should and could be: a Web forum for the exchange of knowledge and a timesaving tool to free students, faculty members, and administrators for greater interaction with one another.

Appalachian State has been lauded by Time magazine for exceptional support of first-year students. That success comes from a far-reaching effort that spans all departments and includes our digital campus initiative.

Future Directions

The university aims to meet student needs—online or off-line. This means that our digital campus must be a continually evolving place in which all of the information and services that constituents need are at their fingertips. We work very hard to stay abreast of all technologies capable of further personalizing the digital campus experience for individual users.

Toward that end, we are lending our voice to a consortium of colleges and universities guiding the development of Luminis, Campus Pipeline’s Web integration product suite, which is designed to unify, manage, and extend the digital campus. The goal is to make sure the software delivers highly personalized information, Web services, and community interaction to every one of our campus constituents. Through this collaborative effort, we have the opportunity to impact the direction of a mission-critical campus resource, and recommend and test the technologies we’d like included in our core Web infrastructure.

We have also been actively involved in the Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA-SIG), which has developed a shareware portal framework for higher education, and we are pleased that this has also grown into a larger collaboration with Campus Pipeline. We also plan to take advantage of a student portal being developed by the University of North Carolina’s Shared Services Alliance and integrate its functionality into our own digital campus.

In addition, we developed a Personal Announcement and Notification System (PANS) to ensure that all of the information from various campus sources comes together so that students receive the information most pertinent to them.

Now, rather than seeing new technologies in a vacuum, we evaluate their potential impact on our entire digital campus and have a strategy for bringing those initiatives together.

Recommendations

Looking back over our experience in unifying Appalachian State University’s digital resources, we have a few observations and recommendations for those envisioning a comprehensive digital campus for their university:

First, for a digital campus to be valuable, it must build on your existing technologies and regularly grow with new technologies that enhance the value of those resources. Spend time early in the process to understand the technologies you already have. Then phase in the new ones to match the needs of your institution.

Second, define which aspects of the digital campus project will be controlled and managed by your information technology staff and which will require broader support. Ensure that the project is poised for success within your university’s unique political climate. We found it particularly beneficial to share some components of our digital campus with users early in the planning process, although we were aware that the initial offering would fall short of meeting their needs. By doing this, we were able to gain insights from all campus constituents, which has been critical in building a shared vision for our digital campus.

Finally, we have seen great success in collaborating with peer institutions and private companies, contributing our expertise and learning from the experience of others. Our partnership with Campus Pipeline, Drexel University, Mississippi State University, Pepperdine University, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the University of Akron, University College Dublin, and the University of Miami has exposed us to best practices and industry trends, and advanced the development of our digital campus.

Today, the mission driving the unification of our digital resources is much the same as it was in 1999. Appalachian State University seeks to offer the most comprehensive, personalized service available to each of our constituents. As a result of our close collaboration with our vendor and other leading technology institutions, we now have a much more comprehensive plan for fashioning our digital campus into a powerful relationship-building resource.

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