A Portal in the Hand

When it comes to designing institutional portals, it’s all about putting the right information in your audience’s pocket, at the right time.

Ask a young person for the time these days, and chances are she’ll pull out her cell phone rather than glance at a watch. This is a connected generation; small, portable devices easily fit into young people’s lifestyles and keep them connected to the things they care about, whether by phone, instant messaging, or even mobile Internet.

Importantly, there is one small but crucial distinction between the glance at a watch and one at the time display on a cell phone: The watch keeps its own particular time, but the cell phone tells its owner what time the rest of the world thinks it is. Because the time is constantly updated via synchronization with a mobile phone service, the cell phone display works more like a newsfeed than like a personal appliance.

That really represents a whole new way of looking at time-telling. It also highlights an amazing new prerogative that today’s college generation calmly takes for granted: access to up-to-the-second information without interrupting a walk across campus. The only questions may be: Should a student’s cell phone (BlackBerry, PDA, or other pocketable device) also display the grade from a physics test that the instructor just graded? Should it alert the student that his class will be meeting in a building other than the one originally scheduled?

Eras of Campus Connectivity

In Era I of the Information Immediacy Age (beginning in the late 1990s), portals and self-service Web interfaces to integrated enterprise systems responded to our constituents’ desire to get vital information without having to visit an office or go through an intermediary. Era II began a few years later, when institutions began to build out wireless infrastructures that blanketed the campus, and greater proportions of students started to count a wireless notebook computer as part of an essential college kit. At that point, the portal established a beachhead in student-center lounges, coffee shops, and the back rows of lecture halls.

Are we standing at the dawn of a new era, marked by the coming of the “portal in a pocket”? One place to see the future is at technology pioneer Drexel University (PA), the first school in the country, back in 1983, to require every student to have a computer. For the past three years, Drexel has rolled out a sequence of functions for students on the move. DrexelOne Mobile is a natural extension of the university’s DrexelOne portal built on SunGard SCT Luminis and SCT Banner (www.sungardsct.com) and the campus’s Dragonfly wireless network (inside.drexel.edu/networking/wireless).

Drexel: Portal in Pocket

With their newfound mobile connectivity to the campus portal, Drexel students can use any device with Internet access, no matter how small, to check grades and class schedules, and receive notifications from the system about schedule changes, records holds, or other significant events. Drexel portal administrators even discovered that students were checking their grades from their mobile devices as often as eight times a day—notably, when they had completed one final exam and wanted to find out if they passed, before taking their next one. (With the new system, as soon as the instructor enters the course grades into Banner, the student is paged to let him know his grade is ready; no more waiting until all grades are submitted.) Most recently, Drexel rolled out mobile access to the campus calendar system that is hosted by the Luminis portal. Now, students and faculty can double-check an appointment or a to-do item while heading to the next class.

Still, the university hasn’t tried to duplicate its entire portal on the PDA-top. “We looked for services that were time-critical and didn’t require lots of input from the user, or complicated output,” says Kenneth Blackney, associate VP for Core Technology in the university’s Office of Information Resources & Technology. Drexel keeps selectively expanding what is available through a mobile device. Blackney’s next vision is to enable students to handle eCommerce online. “I see a student lining up for his graduation cap and gown, only to be told that he has an outstanding fine at the library and is on financial hold. While still in line, that student would be able to use his PDA or cell phone to pay the fine and get the hold removed.”

More Mobility

Drexel’s mobile portal connection was a unique in-house project, in keeping with its reputation for advanced technology. But there are signs that more generally available support for in-the-hand functionality is on the way from system vendors. SunGard SCT has identified admissions counselors as a ripe audience for pocket portals and has recently introduced SCT PocketRecruiter version 2.0. Using a PDA, a recruiter on the road can find out the latest information about a prospective student, including ranking, test scores, and application status, as well as data about the institution that the prospective student attends. When planning a recruiting event, the admissions counselor can quickly create a package of all the prospective student information that will be needed, and download it to the PDA. What’s more, the recruiter can place a new prospective student into the system, directly from the PDA, and a duplicate-checking function screens the entries by name, address, and phone number. No waiting either: The new record is immediately available in the system. The recruiter can also easily update the records of prospective students already in the system.

“Drexel students can use any device with Internet access, no matter how small, to check grades and class schedules, and receive schedule changes and other important notifications."

But pocket portal access isn’t just for campus recruiters and the average overscheduled student. No one is on the go more than third- and fourth-year medical students, which is why Harvard Medical School (MA) went mobile some time ago with a package of functions especially valuable for that group. Since nearly 100 percent of Harvard Med School students already have a PDA, providing information via their device was a natural choice for the school’s MyCourses service. The MyCourses system was developed by the school, along with a third-party integrator, ArcStream ( www.arcstreamsolutions.com), using iAnywhere’s M-Business Anywhere software (www.ianywhere.com).

As the medical students make their hospital rounds and attend classes, they routinely check their PDAs for updated patient information, animated anatomy illustrations, lecture notes, or class schedules. The information on the devices can be updated in real time over wireless connections, or the students can synchronize their PDAs via a desktop computer. Importantly, the connection can upload information as well as download it, and students can even log case notes during patient rounds, using the PDA. Not insignificantly, the school also has saved money on paper and time by converting many surveys and evaluations to the new system.

What’s Next?

Now for a bit of future fiction: If we look at student lifestyles for more clues about where demand for information access might be heading, we can’t ignore the portable electronic music player—whether the Apple iPod (www.apple.com) or a smaller MP3 player like the flash-memory-based iPod Shuffle—tucked in a shirt pocket. Students have insatiable appetites for entertainment downloaded to their players. Maybe that’s why Duke University (NC) and New York City’s Brearley School have recently announced plans for selected groups or even all students to have iPods; they’re banking on curricular materials getting similar play. If that’s so, can portal information on the iPod be far behind?

In the ’90s, we spoke of the “battle for eyeballs,” referring to the effort to get a visual message in front of as many online viewers as possible. Now, we’re about to launch the battle for the earbuds. How long will it be, then, before institutions provide content and even mix in notifications that now travel via portals, e-mail, and wireless devices? Perhaps some surprised student of the near future will find a personalized message (automatically generated by the campus information system) tucked among the tracks of his most recent downloads, urging him to come in and sign his loan application.

Certainly, no one is saying that PDAs and cell phone displays will replace full-fledged computer screens and keyboards next week or next month. But certain types of information cry out for timely access not restricted to places where there are desks and chairs. By the way, is it lunchtime yet? And is today sushi day in the dining hall? Check your cell phone and let me know.

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