Campus Portals: Future Hope, Past History, or More Hype?
Campus portals have the potential to connect an institution’s constituents,
both on campus and external, to appropriate campus resources through a highly
personalized interface. But how close are colleges and universities to taking
real advantage of portal technologies? Here, David Eisler provides an update
on the progress and challenges of portals in higher education.
Just as the white-hot boom of the dot.com economy has been replaced by a more
circumspect approach to e-commerce, so has the campus portal market retrenched,
with revised business plans, the demise of some early providers, and the continued
consolidation of others. In this more cautious time, what is the value and future
for campus portals? Given the economic constraints placed upon higher education
and the developing concerns regarding tuition increases, should campuses continue
to create, develop, and implement portals? If so, what are reasoned approaches
to portals, and how do campuses make informed decisions about the true value
of these efforts?
The State of the Art
Portal projects still come primarily in three flavors: self-developed, JA SIG’s
open source collaborative effort, and vendor solutions. Common characteristics
of portals include single sign-on and authorization capability, personalized
information provided in a secure environment, access to channels of information
from external sources, and the ability for users to customize the portal in
terms of content and appearance.
Self-developed portals require significant technical expertise on campus and
the commitment of resources. Nevertheless, some of the best-operating campus
portals have been created by campus efforts. There are some excellent examples
that allow guest access (see box, page 16).
The Java Special Interest Group (JA SIG) continues to grow and expand with
operating campus portals in the United States, Canada, and Europe. For reasons
that are not entirely clear, some lead institutions for this project have only
implemented demonstration versions of this portal. SNAP (Simple Navigational
Access Portal), from the University of California Irvine provides a good example
of the working features from the latest JA SIG portal. While the computer code
for this portal is available without cost, JA SIG portals require substantial
campus technical expertise.
An area of continued success for portal vendors is among those institutions
that have partnered with administrative software companies. Campus Pipeline
has moved from the advertising-generated model, repositioned itself as a middleware
vendor, and continues to benefit from its partnership with SCT and the Banner
software platform. Jenzabar has purchased a number of administrative software
companies including Campus America, CMDS, CARS, and Quodata. Campus Cruiser
has partnered with Datatel. Other companies have worked to develop portals to
complement their software. PeopleSoft created a portal designed to interface
with its administrative software. Blackboard has developed a portal to complement
its course management system.
Most of the startups that proposed creating portals at little or no cost are
These include firms that enjoyed significant acceptance like Mascot, zUniversity,
and MyPersonal.com. While the vendor marketplace is less crowded and more stable
than in the past, it remains important to discern between products and features
that are installed and those that are planned or in development. As with any
major software purchase, campuses are well advised to check carefully with present
and past company clients.
Deciding About a Portal
Some lessons from the past two years are obvious. Just as approaches based
on ad revenue did not work in the e-economy, the same is true for campus portals.
Portals are not free, and banner ads will not pay for portal software. But it
is now possible to look at a potential portal project with the benefit of case
studies and experiences from other campuses.
For those developing portals, the maintenance of content channels requires
significant and extended commitments of time. Single sign on authorization,
while in some cases difficult to create, is attainable, convenient, and can
save users significant amounts of time.
Effective portals need to be reliable, logical and simple to use, and provide
quick system response. In most cases, unless required to access campus information
sources, portals have not gained the same level of acceptance as e-mail or campus
home pages. And the majority of portal efforts concentrate on campus users with
little available data on acceptance by people in the external community.
Two continuing areas of campus technological evolution can benefit from and
help support a portal project. The continued Web enabling of campuses has created
a significant change in the ways institutions interact with students, faculty,
and staff. For example, today it is not unusual for more than sixty percent
of university students to register via the Web, and many colleges no longer
send paper grade reports. Another promising area of integration is with course
management systems. Faculty can use these combined systems to continue the flow
of class information and announcements beyond the class meeting period, and
students can use them to coordinate small group efforts outside of class.
Experience a Portal
Decisions about portal projects are too frequently made by people who have
not used them. Before beginning a campus portal project, it is beneficial to
configure and use one. Choose a personal information portal from Excite, Netscape,
Yahoo or Yodlee, or one of the self-developed campus portals that permit guest
user accounts. Among the commercial products, the Yahoo portal is especially
interesting to experience, as it permits the creation of multiple user-determined
pages and can include e-mail access. Free guest accounts with Yodlee allow users
to bring together a significant amount of personal financial information in
one place, providing single sign-on access to online banking, credit card, and
frequent flyer accounts, and allowing access to a broad selection of information
Whatever personal portal is chosen, make this the start page for computers
at both the office and at home.
Several lessons will become immediately apparent.
For frequent Internet users the transition to a portal will require changing
what have almost become intuitive habits in terms of Internet use. The differences
in interface and page layout will create an adjustment and learning curve. Over
time, examine the value of this experience. If certain Internet sites are accessed
regularly for updated information, and this is integrated within the portal,
the advantages will soon become evident. D'es the portal bring together all
the information needed, in one place, and through this convenience save you
time and effort? If so, and the portal page provides the functionality and easy
accessibility desired, it will be difficult to return to the previous home page.
Some important lessons can be learned from personal experience with portals.
A thoughtfully configured and effective personal portal is much more than a
Web page. A well-constructed portal provides, in one place, multiple sources
of information that previously had to be accessed individually. Coupled with
customized data and providing access to course materials, the campus portal
may in many ways become a “killer app” for higher education.
Portal projects and products continue to evolve in terms of customization,
but unfortunately still depend on predetermined information channels. This works
against the basic characteristics of the Internet, which allow users access
to an unlimited array of information sources. Imagine if a user had the opportunity
to select portions of favorite Web pages for information sources—for example,
portions of the New York Times, CNN, ESPN, or local and campus newspapers. This
would permit the assembling, on portal pages, the actual content desired. While
this exciting and useful concept is technologically possible, it is a not yet
a part of mainstream portal projects.
Just as with customization, there are still many more possibilities for campus
portals in terms of personalization. Many users at Amazon.com are familiar with
software there that captures pages the shopper visits on site and creates a
personalized Web page based on this information. The result generated both displays
pages accessed and suggests items that might be of interest. (To experiment
with this feature from the Amazon home page, choose “personalized recommendations.”)
Consider if campus portal pages could do the same, evolving to reflect user
interest and access patterns, and suggesting places of interest and value.
Perhaps the area where campus portals have least met expectations is in helping
create new campus communities. Imagine if portals could recognize and help connect
students, faculty, and staff with similar academic, research, or pedagogical
interests, both within and among campuses. This potential power to create and
connect new virtual communities of interest and practice seems an evolutionary
step for special interest groups, disciplinary societies, research groups, and
Portal projects tend to focus too much upon what the technology permits rather
than what people need. Until portals enable, rather than restrict information
sources, they will only appeal to a portion of the potential users. Personalization
needs to move beyond the choice of color schemes to an intelligent coach, helping
users to evolve an interface that anticipates and meets their needs. The true
potential of campus portals to create new patterns of interaction both on and
beyond campus is yet to be proven.
Is a campus portal in your future? While the answer may be yes, just when this
will be likely depends on campus technology needs, funding resources, strategic
priorities, and the continued evolution of the solutions available. The initial
craze that promised something for nothing and delivered far less than expected
has passed, but campus portals should not be dismissed as another glittery Internet
concept to be played with and then discarded. Although their full potential
has yet to be realized, campus portals remain a promising and worthwhile approach
to organize and electronically connect universities, both today and in the future.
Examples of Campus
UT Direct from the
University of Texas has a forward-looking approach to portal access. Create
a user name and password and you can have access. One of the more unique
features allows users to create sticky note reminders. https://utdirect.utexas.edu/utdirect/index.cgi
My UCDavis has a different
approach to access. Guests may use a customizable page that demonstrates
the functionality and channels available. This portal demonstrates the
ability of portals to combine customized information and static Web resources.
RaiderLink from Texas
Tech is built on open source tools. In addition to a variety of campus
services, this includes instant messaging and a gaming module. https://www.raiderlink.ttu.edu
BLINK from the University
of California San Diego provides access to staff information and processes.
While MyBlink, the actual portal application, is not accessible, it is
easy to get a feeling for the effectiveness of this portal. http://blink.ucsd.edu/Blink/1,1052,,00.html
David Eisler is provost at Weber State University. deisler@Weber.edu. Portal
examples and additional information on campus portals can be found at http://faculty.Weber.edu/deisler/syllabus2002.htm.