Portal Integration and a Scalable, Flexible Enterprise System
Integrating the institutional portal with better, personalized services
is a goal that can be accomplished with scalable administrative systems.
Advancements in technology and the adoption of standards are steadily moving
higher education toward the attainment of a single, integrated enterprise system.
This achievement will enable institutions to maximize their knowledge base,
ensure the integrity of their data, gain new efficiencies, and provide even
better services to their constituents. However, in order to realize this vision,
progress must be made in two areas: increased personalization of services and
resources within the portal to the enterprise system, and the integration of
underlying auxiliary applications.
The introduction of the portal to higher education has truly elevated and
unified the accessibility of an institution’s services and resources,
presenting users with what appears to be a single enterprise system. Using a
single sign-on, learners, faculty, and others can register for courses, submit
assignments, attend study groups, purchase tickets to athletic events, check
the weather forecast, send and retrieve e-mail, and execute numerous other activities
in support of their academic and personal goals.
More than an Interface
The mere expansion of resources and services available through an institution’s
portal is not sufficient. These services and resources must also be personalized
and relevant to each user. A student may—or may not—find the information
he or she is seeking. For example, students might never find their way to student
groups that have the potential to enrich their campus experience. In order to
be truly effective, the views and information presented must be personalized
to each user. At Lehigh University, our goal is to increasingly personalize
our portal to the needs of each individual user and to make it their primary
For example, in 2003 we conducted our summer freshmen orientation completely
online through our portal. All the resources that freshmen needed, from “meeting”
with counselors and library services, to gathering information on residence
halls and food services, were available online. The students even took their
calculus readiness exams online. The information presented to each student was
personalized based on his or her role that we identified from the data in our
SCT Banner Student system. The first year arts and sciences majors were presented
with all the arts and sciences resources that they needed, in addition to general
information about the university. Likewise, engineering majors saw course information
related to their area of study.
By eliminating our summer on-campus orientation, we saved the university considerable
expense and also prospective students the time and cost of traveling to Lehigh.
The response from students, deans, and others was overwhelmingly positive. Over
90 percent of the students found the portal information useful or very useful.
Equally important, this initial and extensive interaction with our portal indoctrinated
the freshmen to view the portal as their initial and primary source for campus
information and resources. The virtual orientation was complemented by our standard
three-day orientation held the weekend before school began.
Lehigh will soon be live with a MyLibrary portal, which is an open source
initiative, started by Eric Lease Morgan from University of Notre Dame. Lehigh
is partnering with Notre Dame to implement this within the SCT Luminis portal.
Currently, some of our faculty view our portal as simply a place to check that
latest sale bulletin board, to read the New York Times headlines, or to view
the weather forecast. This library application will pull them into the portal
and help them understand its potential as a powerful, personalized resource.
The application will integrate and personalize various library resources through
For example, a physics instructor will be presented with all the electronic
journals, databases, and library contacts pertinent to his or her field of study.
A math instructor will be presented totally different, tailored resources. This
is accomplished through integration at the presentation level and through the
Students will also be presented with this resource. A music major, for example,
will see library catalogs and holdings that relate specifically to music. A
very powerful aspect of MyLibrary is that new content will be dynamically offered
to faculty or students based on their discipline. In addition, users can customize
their page to limit the displayed resources to those they are personally interested
in. By placing MyLibrary in the portal, we are offering instant possibilities
for personalization and customization of library resources.
Creating Better Services
These are just a few examples of how Lehigh is personalizing our portal applications
to meet the individual needs of our users. Our goal is to meet 90 percent of
the users’ needs so that they do not have to seek out the information
elsewhere or recreate their views on the portal. In addition, we continually
expand our portal capabilities to include extended and unique applications.
By doing so, we are able to provide high-quality, personalized information and
services, and extend the value of our existing investments.
When learners enter an institution’s portal, they are greeted with what
appears to be a seamless fabric of integrated and accessible services and resources.
Beneath the tapestry of the portal lie disconnected auxilary databases and applications.
This is the layer where the next evolution of integration must occur in order
for institutions to achieve a true single enterprise system where data and messages
are exchanged in real time.
Indeed, the evolution of the portal is creating the need and the issues surrounding
integration of systems “behind the scenes.” From within our portal,
faculty have an option of entering grades in either SCT Banner, our administrative
system, or in Blackboard, our course management system.
This creates a need for real-time data exchange between Blackboard and SCT
Banner Student. Otherwise, the data would be out of synch; or possibly it would
require data re-entry, which is inefficient and prone to errors. There are numerous
other examples where we need automatic population of data to corresponding systems.
Examples include posting library fines to the finance system, and integrating
health services, university student smart cards, parking, performing arts, and
other auxiliary applications and services to the institution’s core administrative
system. Vendors have achieved integration among their core modules, like human
resources, finance, financial aid, alumni development, and student, but more
progress is required to integrate auxiliary applications from other vendors
or those developed by an institution into the core administrative system.
Vendors have been working to address this challenge and are currently delivering
integration technologies for third-party applications. But integration is, by
nature, very complicated and dynamic. Implementing the integration technologies
requires overhead and time on the part of the university’s technical staff.
Data Standards and
a Modular Approach
An important development in easing the integration hurdle is the acceptance
and adherence by vendors to open standards for data passing and message passing.
Already we have made inroads that we weren’t even discussing two years
ago, like the real-time exchange of data between our SCT Banner Student system
and our course management system, Blackboard. Lehigh also utilizes Touchnet,
a payment gateway application that allows prospective students the ability to
pay their application fees online using a credit card. Alumni and other constituents
can also utilize this application to make gifts to Lehigh online using their
credit cards. A degree audit and reporting system (DARS) is another third-party
application that is integrated with SCT Banner. This application provides students
with the functionality to ascertain their academic standing related to the courses
needed for graduation.
By taking a modular approach, we can integrate these third-party applications,
and others—like dining services or health services—of our choice
rather than being forced to purchase and license a broad package of applications
that we do not want or need. Likewise, this approach allows institutions to
select a variety of third-party applications that meet the needs of individual
service groups, like parking.
While vendors continue to evolve the technology, institutions need to tackle
an internal cultural issue if they want to achieve an integrated enterprise
system. That is, sacrificing some functionality within the administrative system
for the sake of integration. For example, a vendor’s administrative system
might have a weak grant application. Some institutions might opt to purchase
that application from a different vendor. It is possible to repeat this scenario
over and over, from department to department. Also, some institutions might
feel that their legacy systems as a whole, or a particular in-house application,
have functions that they cannot sacrifice.
Over time, these institutions are faced with maintaining and integrating multiple
vendor or in-house systems, just in support of their basic administrative functions
of finance, HR, financial aid, and alumni development. These simply cannot be
maintained effectively and efficiently. More importantly, it creates a significant
and added barrier to eventually integrating the auxiliary applications in order
to achieve an enterprise-wide integrated system. In addition, these multiple
shadow systems degrade the integrity of an institution’s data.
For example, if the alumni department has a separate external system where
they are updating alumni addresses, there is no reliable, real-time method for
that data to be updated in the institution’s master student system.
Scalability of a Single Enterprise System
Integration within the core administrative system is available “off the
shelf” from vendors, and institutions should take advantage of the benefits
enabled by this integration. Existing systems can scale and evolve as needed
with the integration of third party systems. But institutions also need to overcome
the mindset that their needs and processes are so unique that they need to build,
connect, and modify these core administrative systems. Even if an institution
has a large and skilled IT staff, it needs to consider whether developing new
custom applications is the best use of their time in support of an institution’s
Twenty years ago, it was not possible to share and exchange information among
the primary administrative departments. Individual departments maintained their
own discrete data systems, often with conflicting data. Information can be shared
seamlessly between financial aid, finance, the student, human resources, and
alumni departments. And the portal is providing constituents with a user-friendly,
24-hour access to these databases and other university resources and services.
The next frontier is the integration of additional auxiliary systems. The
creation of this single enterprise system will require time, effort, and expense
on both the part of institutions and vendors. However, it is achievable. As
a result, institutions will be able to make even greater strides in maximizing
the knowledge base of the institution, ensuring the integrity of their data,
gaining new efficiencies, and providing even better services to our constituents.