Open Menu Close Menu

Facing the Portal

Syllabus: When did you first deploy your campus portal, and how has it developed since then?

Annie Stunden: UW-Madison first delivered its portal about three years ago, with very little functionality—just one or two capabilities in the beginning. And it was not used very much at that time. We had focused on some class information for the students. They made it clear that it would be much better if they could read their e-mail and get their grades on the portal. So over the past three years we’ve really built up capability in our portal, My UW-Madison.

S:Do you consider it a fully developed portal now?

AS:I would say it’s still an early portal, but it’s getting richer. After we had deployed it, we realized that unless we put some really basic functions into it, it was going to be poorly used. And the big, basic function we wanted to add was e-mail, so that people could log in and get their e-mail on the portal. Calendaring was another key function. We spent a lot of time and energy getting e-mail and calendaring systems up and running and integrated with the portal.

S: What were some of your objectives for My UW-Madison?

AS: One objective was a single sign on—so you would not have to log on multiple times. And I will tell you, making that work was a challenge. We had to figure out how to get that running in a secure way between our e-mail system, our calendaring system, and so on.

And we’ve gradually added more and more capability. Most recently, Finance has put up employee salary statements, so you can now look at your payroll history on the portal. This is of great interest for faculty and staff, and I’m not sure anything was very much of a draw for staff before, except that they could get e-mail from any place in the country. We’ve also added some interactive functions like ordering tickets or computer equipment, and we’re trying to build that capability out further.

What we’re beginning to put in place is a portal system that supports your daily work. For students, you can check your grades. For staff, you can look into your paycheck. So, it’s a way to connect with your personal information. And I think that’s the bonus. The highlight of the portal is that it supports your relationship with the university—your electronic relationship with the university—without having to remember the address of this or that Web site, or having to log on to several different applications. You log on once to My UW-Madison and you can find the information that supports your life here.

S: What are some of the challenges of deploying and maintaining the portal?

AS: One of the real challenges with the portal is integrating it with enterprise applications. We’ve got the Registrar’s office using PeopleSoft for all their student processing work; everything that Registrars do to maintain student information. PeopleSoft offers a portal that supports access to that kind of information, for the functional departments, the Registrar’s office, the Bursar’s office, as a well as for the students. We’ve got Desire 2 Learn, our course management system on campus, and you can use its portal to get at your class materials if you’re a student. And for some other administrative applications, we’re bringing up the Lawson payroll system. There’s a portal associated with that. Each of those applications has its own associated portal. The challenge on a campus is, do you use specific portals for specific activities, or do you work at integrating the information that people could see in specific portals into a single portal that’s more generic?

We continually face that decision because it’s easier at the development level to just say, "Sure, we’ll use the PeopleSoft portal because PeopleSoft provides it; you’ve got all that information in their databases." But it’s not nearly so easy for the user and it d'esn’t give them an integrated picture of the information they want. Plus, it d'esn’t give them everything else about the university. So they would have to go separately to the PeopleSoft portal and then to the Desire 2 Learn portal. We’re trying to pull all of that information together. In my mind, that’s a big challenge.

S: Do you consider portal technology mature?

AS: Well, sort of, though we’ve got a way to go to make it more reliable, more robust, easier to use. But, the real question is, is this integration process that we’re in the midst of mature? I don’t think so. You know, I think that we’re doing hard work here in trying to put the picture all together with one single sign on. But it’s a challenge. It remains a challenge.

S: How would you characterize the problems with the single sign on?

AS:Think about this: We’re using Sun’s mail system, iPlanet mail. And we’re using a calendar product now supplied by Oracle. We have the Desire 2 Learn course management system and the PeopleSoft student information system. So we’ve got those four applications that people want to get information from, integrated—or we’re trying to integrate them—with our portal. This is a development task—a technical task—as well as a challenge in terms of working with the vendors to be sure that what we accept as a net ID and password is acceptable to that application. That’s the first part. Second, we need to be sure that we can pass the ID and password on through, as opposed to having the users directly log on. And then there is the whole business about building something that lets you hang onto the logon information in the portal so that you can then pass it on through to the next application, while at the same time protecting passwords. We had a challenge to make all this happen, but I believe we have solved the problem. So you log on to the portal once and that’s it.

Some Systems and Applications Integrated with the My UW-Madison Portal

Calendaring (Oracle Calendar)
Campus events
Computer purchasing
Course management system (Desire 2 Learn)
E-mail (Sun’s iPlanet)
Student advising
Student information system (PeopleSoft)
Work records

S: Are there perceived security issues with the single sign on?

AS: Everybody worries that there are security issues with single sign on. And certainly there are, but we’ve addressed them so that we are managing this, we believe, in a very secure manner.

S: With the portal, part of the attraction, I suppose, is that the user is able to customize their view.

AS: Yes.

S: Are there any privacy issues with that? In other words, d'es the system keep track of data on you?

AS: You know, that might be possible, but we’re not having any privacy issues with our portal. You build a front page for who you are. Most of the time when people customize their view, they’re saying something like, “I want you to show me the weather in Timbuktu or in my home town of Paoli, Pennsylvania; I want to track the campus calendar for sporting events; I always want to be able to look at my classes.” So in terms of customizing, it’s pretty benign information that you can put on your home page.

S: It sounds like you’ve integrated the e-mail system, calendaring, the CMS, and the student information system. Some of the functions potentially overlap. For example, how do you handle grade input?

AS: As a matter of fact, we’re struggling with faculty grade input and whether it should come in through a course management connection to the portal or whether it should come in to the student information system connection to the portal. That’s the type of issue that you face as you begin to make this capability available. We’re integrating as much as we can of information, or parts of applications, that people want to use to manage their campus electronic life in the portal.

S: I’m wondering what the long-term maintenance issues are, given a portal strategy. For example, if you were to migrate to a different CMS, or maybe a different e-mail system, are those migration issues very much complicated by the portal?

AS: Yes. Actually, they are. I’m trying not to say that, but sure, they are. The portal is another big technology to manage. When you make major changes to other applications that need to be integrated with the portal, you’ve got work to do; work with the portal. These are not inconsequential adventures.

Annie Stunden

Annie Stunden began her position as chief information officer and director of the Division of Information Technology (DoIT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in February 2000. UW-Madison is a 40,000-student research university with a major commitment to transformational change of the teaching and learning environment through the use of technology. Stunden is leading an organization of about 550 staff members and 250 student staff in this position. From 1996 to 2000, she was director of Academic Technology at Cornell University; and she was director of Academic Technology and Network Services at Northwestern University from 1991-1996. Stunden is active in professional organizations, currently serving as Chair of the Recognition Committee at EDUCAUSE and a member of the Internet2 Network Policy and Planning Advisory Council (NPPAC). She has numerous writing and speaking credits, including a recent article published in the Nov./Dec. 2003 issue of EDUCAUSE Review, “The Muscles, Aches, and Pains of Open Source.” Beginning this spring, Stunden will write a monthly column for Syllabus magazine covering enterprise technologies.

S:And at some point will you be considering a new portal?

AS: One of the things we’ve just done is a portal evaluation. Our current portal software requires a major upgrade this summer. We decided it was time to evaluate whether we are using the right portal architecture. As a result, we’re migrating from our current portal, to uPortal this coming year. That in itself is a big migration. And then we have to assure that all of our links are in place and working with the other applications. We had dreams of having it done by this summer. But, it’s clear that we can’t do that because the decision was just made in January. So it will be sometime in the fall.

S: Who are the key constituents served by the university portal? You have students, faculty, and staff. Do you have alumni?

AS: No. Our alumni organization has its own portal. But one of the things we’re working on very hard is trying to figure out what our other constituencies are and how to identify them and give them access. The next constituency we’re working on is [student] applicants. And after that, parents.

S: Interesting!

AS: That’s right. And the reason it’s going to be parents is that parents are the folks who pay the bills a lot of the time. They want to see their students’ financial records. Some universities are already providing this access, authorized by the students.

S: So, there’s more role-based access you have to figure out…

AS: The message there is that we also have to be able to identify what they can and cannot have access to. One of our big projects in the past two years has been developing what we call an identification, authentication, and authorization system (IAA). So we need to know who you are. We need to know that you are who you say you are. And then we need to know what you’re authorized to look at. For example, a faculty advisor is not eligible to see all students’ records, just the records of the students that they’re advising—that’s the authorization piece.

S:Will your portal expand to serve users outside the campus community?

AS: Some. For example, there is a hospital that is not actually part of the university, but it is on our campus. We share parking services. So the parking folks want us to get the hospital people into our identification system so that the hospital can use a portal-based application for parking permits and so that people can find out whether they’ve got parking bills outstanding. The world gets more and more complex, and we’re trying to figure out how to grow this thing, reasonably, rationally, nicely, to support our campus departments, functional departments, and our end users. That’s the portal.

S: What is a federated portal?

AS: Our portal is a federated portal to some extent. As an example, I’m not developing the parking portal application. The parking application is going to be developed by the people in parking, but they’re going to develop it in such a way that the My UW-Madison portal can get you to the parking portal, you can work with the parking information and when you are done, end up back in the My UW-Madison portal. You won’t have to log in beyond the My UW-Madison logon to do this.

S: What other groups outside the university community will you include for access to My UW-Madison?

AS: Well, I think the next interesting population could be university friends and donors.

S:That is interesting.

AS: Or alumni—actually let me go back to our discussion of alumni. I expect that there will be a push to have alumni have access to this portal. It’s interesting because the Alumni Association is a separate organization from the university. But not very separate—it shares our campus and many resources. The Alumni Association wants to stay connected with all alumni and to maintain the flavor of that connection.

So, as we talk about alumni having access, we’ve got some interesting work to do with the Alumni Association about whether and how the Association wants that to happen, whether it could be a federated arrangement, or whether the Alumni Association’s portal needs to stay completely separate with links between the two portals.

In fact, we’ve had those types of discussions elsewhere on campus before. And I’m not sure we’re done with them. For example, the Business School and the Law School have unique constituencies. As we work together we have to determine if they want to provide their information within the university’s central portal or if they want to interest their own community with something that they believe represents them more directly. People struggle with that question. There’s nothing mandatory about putting your information in the portal. There are some things, that because the portal is a central campus resource have to be there, but by and large, if you’re the Business School, or the Law School, or the College of Engineering and you want to offer some portal services, you can choose to use My UW-Madison or do something else.

S: Are there any potential applications for libraries in your institution’s portal?

AS: Our library information is available through the portal on our campus; outside of the portal the library catalog is available to all the University of Wisconsin system campuses. So people can log on to the library from wherever they are in the system and get information about the entire holdings of the system—though that’s not really portalized, as much as it is just an online catalog.

But absolutely there is potential, and if we elected to provide a feature-rich library portal systemwide, that would offer us another challenge, wouldn’t it? And another huge community to try to support. That’s interesting to say the least. But it’s not necessarily all that difficult, because we’re already putting that entire community into our system-wide directory, our IAA hub.

S: Other than that, is My UW-Madison serving any of the other University of Wisconsin campuses?

AS: No, My UW-Madison is strictly a Madison portal right now. Could it be more? Absolutely. But it’s not at this point.

S:Are you considering open source for your next portal?

AS: Yes, we are moving to JA-SIG uPortal, which is open source-based. Related to that, we are also watching developments with Sakai, the open source learning management system infrastructure. There, the interesting thing is how that total portal environment for learning management will integrate with the federated portal environment that we’ve built for providing all sorts of resources for the campus. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet, but I think we’ve got some interesting challenges coming up.

A lot of folks have developed their own portal framework. We purchased one for our original portal. It was the fastest way to get up and going. We didn’t have to invest in the development of that.

S:Which one was it?

AS: The one we purchased was called Epicentric when we purchased it. It was acquired by Vignette. It’s a very good product. It was one of the two finalists in our recent selection process.

"... fostering the collaboration of the campus community is one of the most important things, and one of the hardest."

S:What would you say are the most important lessons learned from your experience with your portal?

AS: We learned that on a campus as big as ours, fostering the collaboration of the campus community is one of the most important things, and one of the hardest. We’re a very distributed environment so people can sort of do what they want to do. There’s very little top-down direction that dictates what you have to do. Our chancellor was certainly interested in having a portal, or at least something that looked like a portal, on campus. But we needed to champion this actively, to get people willing to put the information that they felt ultimately responsible for into the portal. That was the hardest part. We know how to do the technology. The people work is harder. Folks on campus felt that if they put the information that they were responsible for—think about student records information, for example—in the portal, that they were, in some way, losing control.

An issue still floats out there about how the portal is governed. Student Affairs manages the student information system, Finance manages the financial system, and the Graduate School manages the grants management system. But who manages the portal? Is it that awful technology organization you never trust? —Read: “Why should they be calling the shots on this?”

Well, if the central technology organization is not calling the shots, in concert with some kind of campuswide advisory or governance body, where else can you put the responsibility so that the portal d'es not become one-department centric? And the whole point is to keep the portal a campus portal, not a teaching and learning portal, not a student information system portal, not a payroll portal, but a campus portal. This remains a challenge, because distributed governance is hard. Regardless, our campus portal is becoming more and more accepted—we’re getting something like 70,000 hits a day.

S: Do you have evidence then that this is really going to be the major way people get at their information, or are there back doors that they’re using…you know, as if they would say, "I don’t think I want to use this. I’m going to go around."

AS: I don’t think so. It’s too actively addressed for me to think that people are bypassing it. And when I talk to some of my colleagues, many of them people who I didn’t think would be big users, they say, "Oh, we keep it up all the time…it’s such an easy way when I’m using e-mail to find out somebody’s e-mail address…it just gives me such easy access to directories."

S: How have the students reacted to the portal?

We have a couple of students on our Shared Governance Information Technology Committee, and we were discussing whether we should have a Web site for every course connected to the portal. And the students on the committee were saying, "Well, why wouldn’t you? You know, that’s the way we want to get our information."

comments powered by Disqus