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You've Come a Long Way, Baby!<br>eLearning Portals

We can all agree, long gone are the days when static information was simply pushed through Internet and intranet networks for those who happen to come upon it by a search engine or by navigating a Web site. Today’s savvy users pull and consume more intellectual capital than can be pushed, and no one is savvier and more information-hungry than today’s college student. Portals are a means for keeping their educational experience full.

Back in 2000 during the dot-com frenzy, portals were largely content-driven destinations and many popped up to serve the education sector. But they are not merely a way to market a university’s academic departments, or provide general information about its faculty, administration, and registration requirements. Much can be learned from the corporate sector, where portals play a more critical role in the market as the user interface to fact-based solutions.

Today’s Portal Advances

Enterprise-level portal solutions within the corporate sector, such as CA CleverPath Portal, are well established. Successful organizations are mastering how information is organized and exploited with corporate dashboards, elaborate reporting tools, business intelligence mining, and predictive analysis capabilities. Combined with this ability to deliver relevant, just-in-time information on demand, and the option to collaborate and access training, portals have already made for a complete performance-enhancing solution in the corporate sector—and now, they are beginning to do so in higher education.

Technical enterprise-level advances revolve around access and security. How do students securely access the internal campus network from a wide area network (WAN) like the Internet? They connect through a virtual private network (VPN) connection. With software they download to their computers, such as the Contivity VPN Client by Nortel, users securely tunnel into the network. Worried about network security? You should be, but single sign on (SSO) solutions such as CA eTrust Single Sign On and CleverPath Advanced Access Control Option can provide seamless integration with the portal. With respect to user compatibility, any portal is system agnostic because the user logs in from a Web browser. This means any student with the proper VPN software and signon credentials can access the portal from any location as long as she has a computer with Internet access.

On the server side, where information and services are distributed from the campus, the portal is relatively easy to administer and provides for a standardized look and feel important to today’s colleges and academic departments. Instructors are able to deliver courseware and information specific to any curriculum or class through easy-to-update ‘channels’ and ‘portlets,’ both of which organize information specified by its respective owner and are updated only by those with the appropriate credentials. If designed and built correctly, solutions such as Macromedia Breeze, Flash, and Authorware can deliver easy-to-build and updatable course content. While the portal provides centralized access, an ideal model includes a learning management system (LMS). In short, an LMS tracks and coordinates distribution of courseware and student progress. An LMS can provide augmented scheduling, login, and attendance tracking that can include time on task and record test scores. Robust LMS solutions can customize curricula or courses based on valid learning objectives, pretests, and posttests.

On the client side, customizable interfaces allow students and instructors alike to organize subject-based portlets and set up class-specific workplaces that provide access to homework, templates, and relevant information sources. Portlets for e-mail clients, scheduled calendars with assignments automatically populated by the instructor, dictionaries, encyclopedia, and anything else one might decide to display from the Web can simply be clicked and dragged to a workplace.

Instructional Options

At a synchronous level, meaning a live instructor is present, portals are the initial interface to applications delivered by solutions such as Macromedia, PlaceWare, and InterWise. Like corporate trainees, college and university students can attend online classes or seminars. They can interact with a live instructor, guest speaker, and each other, through slideshows, audio, video, instant messaging, and real-time polling that allows the student to provide feedback. Collaborative options allow for whiteboards along with demonstrations through application sharing. Web instructor-led learning solutions can automate the attendance process and even allow for the administration of exams in multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the blank, and essays—whether timed or not—submitted on demand or at the pace of the student.

Portals are filled with content, and in academia some are just beginning to enhance instruction through learning management systems, asynchronous distance learning and online classrooms.

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