Web Case Study

Portal Power at Western Michigan

Imagine that everyone who enters your college or university is guided through a single main gate onto campus. You need only one road in, one welcome sign, one gate--and, if you choose, you can easily monitor who comes and goes. That’s the beauty of Web portals, or main entry pages to an entire Web site. They’re a great solution for college and university websites because they offer a single entry point for all students, and can reduce excess passwords, searching for features, and site management efforts overall.

At Western Michigan University, the GoWMU portal allows students and other users to enter the site through a portal and navigate about in a custom online environment. There, they can register for courses, apply for and check on financial aid, change their addresses, read and send e-mail, access courses within the WebCT e-learning system, and access a host of other administrative functions, as well as tools for collaboration and communication. The portal is built on Sungard’s Luminis platform and Banner student administrative system.

A benefit of the platform is the seamless environment GoWMU offers users, in which the portal’s features work together to make integrated enterprise applications, like those from Sungard, PeopleSoft, and other vendors, easily available to users from a single entry point.

One big advantage of portals, according to Lynn Kelly-Albertson, executive director of career and student employment at WMU, is that they make it much easier for newcomers to the university, whether perspective students, parents, faculty, or new students, to navigate the site. “It takes the guessing out,” she says, “in trying to be sure you’ve covered everything” in site design and layout. In addition, the university’s confidence in the system’s security has allowed them to triple the lead time for registering for classes, opening up registration far earlier than they used to without the portal and underlying architecture in place. “Since we can allow only those with a secure login to register,” Kelly-Albertson says, “that’s allowed us to feel safe and secure about who’s using the system.”

Despite the fact that the portal launched in Fall 2005, a continuing challenge getting long-time users to realize that there is now a single entry point for accessing all the services they need. Instead, users who have built their own methods for navigating the site over time, and their own links, tend to continue to rely on them. It’s the newest users--first-year students--who use the site the most naturally, Kelly-Albertson says.

“It’s been a huge culture shift, and we’re still shifting,” she says. The site has been particularly successful for transactional business that has been moved inside the portal and is no longer available through other access points. WMU is still working at cleaning up items and their associated links that can be accessed from both inside the portal and outside it.

Student feedback has been a crucial feature of portal’s design, and continues to shape its usability. To make sure that the portal applications can be easily navigated and understood, WMU continues to involve various user groups in its design. Faculty, staff, and student groups review relevant GoWMU tools and applications before implementation.

 “Students are very eager to speak up. When you genuinely ask them for their input, students will give you all kinds of feedback,” Kelly-Albertson says.

As the portal evolves, WMU continues to conduct focus groups with students to learn more about how they use it, and how their needs may change. Students are asked which applications they use in the portal, and how and where they get information about administrative processes and campus activities

In the near future, WMU plans to add additional applications to the portal. GoWMU users will be able to register vehicles, pay parking tickets, and access the university’s extensive library system, all from a single signon.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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