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All Roads Lead to Portal

In the journey toward ultimate campus portal evolution, there are any number of routes to take and, sometimes, roads that should remain less traveled.

Campus Websites :: All Roads Lead to Portal Heard the latest? Portals are taking off on campuses nationwide. According to Campus Computing 2006, the Campus Computing Project’s survey of 540 two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities across the US, portal deployment for four-year public residential universities jumped from 28 percent to 74 percent of responding institutions between the 2002 and 2006 academic years; from 20 percent to 38 percent for private four-year universities; and from 23 percent to 43 percent for community colleges. Yet, as more and more campuses buy into the promise of single sign-on and integration of information and services, needs and realities of implementation can diverge. To get a better sense of the “state of the portal” in higher ed, it’s important to look at the differing stages of maturity and the wide range of technology choices in the portal journey.

‘Discovering’ the Ideal Communication Vehicle

Kelley Bradder is CIO and VP of information services for 2,000-student, three-campus Simpson College (IA). She has very specific ideas about how she’ll know whether her institution’s portal initiative is a success, but claims that will be when the tool becomes transparent to faculty who use the portal to communicate with their students, and when students use the space to collaborate with faculty and learn—and “not because it’s the new technology gadget on campus.” She admits that the school is still in the midst of a lengthy discovery process, however.

“Back ‘when,’” she recalls, “portals were really inexpensive as long as you allowed advertising on them. But I couldn’t figure out how that would work in a small college; there just weren’t that many eyeballs to view advertising, to promote ad revenue.” The dot-com era came and went, and that approach to funding portals evaporated, but Bradder continued to evolve the campus portal. “It made a lot of sense,” she notes, “but as we added more systems, usernames, and passwords, confusion grew.”

For a time, she considered the open source uPortal, yet, “For a small college with limited staff, supporting an open source product didn’t seem to be the correct fit,” she says. At the time, she even explored using it and bringing on another company to support the open source portal.

Now, the campus is planning to move to the next major release of Datatel’s ActiveCampus Portal, which runs on top of Microsoft Office’s SharePoint Server 2007—a suite of services that provide content management, enterprise search, and collaboration features. The new release from Datatel, due to ship in July, will leverage information drawn from the school’s implementation of Blackboard’s WebCT v.4.1 and Datatel’s human resources management program.

Bradder was drawn to ActiveCampus for its mobility features, plus single sign-on and customization capabilities. “It combines with web functions like wikis and blogging, and it has a social networking feel,” she explains. “It also incorporates RSS feeds, which allow users to move things around on the page, and gives them the ability to subscribe to news, calendars, and events. You’re not pushing information,” she maintains; “they’re choosing their own information. That’s critical to a second-generation portal.”

Portal Maturity

How Do You Know You’ve Arrived?

JOHN SAVARESE, consulting principal for Edutech International and a frequent contributor to Campus Technology, reminds clients that they should consider their campus portals as part of a larger vision. “You’re not just building services,” he advises, “but a relationship between the institution and all those it serves.”

As student populations grow and automated self-service becomes the norm, the information systems the school implements actually become the “personality modules” of the institution. “If the personality module fails—if we can’t remember who you are or don’t remember that you’re married—we’re not convincingly there,” he maintains, and “it weakens the sense of having a real relationship.”

So, how do you know if you’re really there? According to Savarese, one of the tests of a mature portal implementation should be: “How many people do you have to tell when you change your address, change your name, or change your marital status? If you have to tell multiple people, that’s disheartening.”

Another concrete sign of portal maturity, says Savarese, is to empower the person receiving a message to choose the medium for delivery, rather than leave the choice to the person sending it. “Let’s say there’s an urgent communication from the school to the student: ‘Your financial aid payment hasn’t come through because you haven’t signed the forms, and that’s going to put a hold on your registration for courses, so come in and sign the forms.’ How should that happen? It ought to happen the way students want it to happen,” says Savarese. “The portal should offer, ‘How do you want urgent messages delivered to you?’ Then students can indicate a text-message or e-mail address, or request an automated voicemail message to a particular number.” Few schools have reached that level of unified messaging.

But, says Savarese, “The most important thing is to enable a student to plan his academic career—degree audit, or degree requirements—with ‘what-iffing.’ If at 11 pm, a student tells her mother she’s fallen in love with math and is going to change majors, and her mother responds, ‘Well, how many years will it take you to graduate?’ the answer should be, ‘Let me look at this online degree audit and find out.’ You don’t want the answer to be, ‘Well, I’ll find out tomorrow when the offices are open.’ “

What’s happening here,” says the analyst, “is a whole revisualization of what an institution is. Institutions now have students and faculty all over the world. The portal is really a shorthand instrument for making an institution accessible across time and space.”

Also critical was getting campus community input, which she encouraged via tool demonstrations: “One faculty member told me the portal had to be easy to adopt; they had to be able to learn [to work with] it in the first few weeks before the semester started because that’s when all their work got done.” And a particularly popular feature was the ability to feed alerts to students when they hit the portal page. One faculty member asked Bradder, “Can you have that working by tomorrow? I have something I forgot to tell my class about the exam on Friday….” And when Bradder asked student government representatives, “On a scale of one to 10, how cool do you think this is?” they responded, “13.” The following day, she received a plethora of e-mail from students volunteering to test the new system and give feedback—even over the summer.

Bradder hopes to introduce the portal to students returning in the fall—“a perfect rollout time,” she maintains. “We might not have all the services. But to have the students, faculty, and staff collaborating all in the same space—that will make it a powerful communication vehicle for us.”

Building Portlet Power

While Simpson College is just embarking on its portal journey, Pomona College (CA) launched its portal process about five years ago. The college was just moving off a legacy administrative system and onto Jenzabar for enterprise resource planning (ERP) operations, when officials realized that the same vendor offered a portal that integrated with the system. According to CIO Ken Pflueger, the ERP and portal implementations were a joint undertaking of the five undergraduate colleges that make up the Claremont Colleges. They were seeking a way to accomplish cross registration among the undergraduate students, which had become crucial. (For instance, although Pomona has about 1,550 full-time students, it has another 1,300 students from the other four colleges taking one or more classes.)

Also attractive was the ability of Jenzabar to work with portlets; applications typically written in Java, which run within a portal channel and can extend the functionality of the basic portal platform in unique ways. Pflueger’s team has since created a portlet that allows staff members to make audio recordings of each new freshman pronouncing his name, as he arrives for freshman orientation. Those MP3 files are then linked to student pictures, so that “when faculty members go into the portal to view class lists, they can look at student pictures and hear the students pronounce their names,” Pflueger explains. Currently, the function is available only to faculty and key administrators like the dean, who relies on the portlet to prepare him for graduation, so he doesn’t fumble with names.

And because students requested the ability for course syllabi to be made available outside of the course management system (CMS)—so that individuals not already enrolled in the courses can view the syllabi too—now when a department assistant types up a syllabus, a portlet enables simultaneous publishing to a syllabus site within the portal.

Podcast Portal Mania

INDIANA UNIVERSITY, a founding member of Sakai (, has announced that it will make available three different mechanisms for publishing and accessing podcasts by the end of 2007, one of which involves building its own podcasting portal to allow community access for podcasts (and not just those that are courserelated, which will be offered through the school’s Oncourse open source course management site). The portal, expected to go live May 1, will give podcast creators a way to store and register audio files via a single website. Though the services offered through Oncourse require authentication, the podcasting portal will be publicly available. Elizabeth Van Gordon, director of learning technology operations, says the contents will be searchable, although not all podcasts may be downloadable. Her group is still sorting things out.

In any event, she says, “This is one more way of making university content available 24/7, and it complements other initiatives designed to meet the needs of a mobile and wired population of learners.” And while she agrees that a recording can’t substitute for the classroom experience, “We’re hearing that students listen to podcasts when they miss class, or when they study for exams. They also say they feel the podcast helps them when they don’t understand the notes they took.”

Sample publicly available IU podcasts at:

Still another portlet automates the college’s voting process for “faculty of the year” awards. Once the nominating process is complete and the bios for the nominees are posted, seniors can enter the portal to vote. The portlet then tallies votes and rank-orders them to establish the winners.

The Jenzabar platform also enables students to tap into the career development portion of the campus portal and search the alumni/development offices’ directory of graduates, to make contact with professionals working in the fields they’re interested in learning more about. And though it’s common for students to be able to access information about financial aid through their campus portal, Pomona goes one step further and offers an option to parents, so that they can gain access to the portal in order to view a modified version of their child’s bill, and get information about making payments online.

Pflueger continues to focus on the integration of systems and the blending of data, even though he admits that his team still hasn’t tackled some of the “harder pieces.” For instance, they’ve haven’t yet figured out how to allow faculty to use the gradebook feature of the school’s Sakai CMS and have that information transmitted up to the Jenzabar applications. Currently, grades need to be entered twice: once in Sakai for students to view, and again in the ERP system so that grades can be uploaded to the Registrar’s office. He’d like to see this process better managed via the portal.

Pushing Paradigm Shift

At Huntington Junior College (WV), with 800 full-time students and 50 to 75 part-time enrollees, the focus is on health- and business-related education. One popular Huntington program, for example, trains students to become court reporters and broadcast captioners. But once that program became available in distance-ed mode, says Cathy Snoddy, the school’s assistant director, she recognized the need for a tool that would allow students to have access to Huntington 24/7—a challenge, with an administrative staff of only 12 people. Yet, the school was determined to offer students greater flexibility while still maintaining its oneon- one approach. So in 2005, Snoddy requested that the school beta-test a new portal system from Campus Management, which was already supplying the institution with other applications. The year of testing, says the assistant director, was the easiest part of the process.

Tougher was going after faculty, staff, and student buy-in. Snoddy began at the administrative level: “If we didn’t overcome their objections, we wouldn’t have the financing,” she explains. To grab administrators’ attention, she performed random interviews of students, particularly those enrolled in computer information services and real-time reporting classes. She then provided their feedback to the administrative staff—along with a carefully conceived rollout plan. Buy-in followed on the heels of feedback results.

She learned, for instance, that academic advising and registration typically used to take three to four weeks to accomplish, and involved scheduling and face-to-face meetings with the entire student population. The advisers would sit at their desks “never moving” as students filed through, recalls Snoddy. But using the portal, students could submit their proposed schedules to their advisers for review, and then schedule their appointments whenever they wished, handling class registration online. As for the advisers, they now review each student’s schedule and make adjustments without feeling as rushed, because “They don’t have a line of 50 kids waiting to see them,” she explains. “The portal helps us manage the time without losing that key advisory process.”

3 Dreaded Portal Mistakes—and How to Avoid Them
  • “It’s as boring as banking information; the portal is treated as a second-class project.”
  • “They slap a front end on a back end they’ve already got, without rethinking how things need to reconnect. That results in a Frankenstein of technology—one thing glued to another.”
  • “They spend a year ‘evaluating’ the project, then decide they need to spend a million dollars. By then, the industry has changed, the technology has changed, and the users are more sophisticated.”

How to prevent these three disasters? Lance Merker, CEO, OmniUpdate, advises:

  • Survey your users. “There’s no student today who hasn’t been forced to log in to a portal. But don’t survey the seniors; talk to the freshmen and even high school seniors, because they’re the ones you’ll be serving.”
  • Choose a product built on open standards. “Look for a system that is readily pluggable with other systems, whether that’s through LDAP or other wonderful APIs.”
  • Think strategically, but act in a micro manner. “Get the thing deployed in one semester; in one month even, but not six months. Get it out fast.” One last thought from Merker: For campus portals to become truly successful, they’ll eventually need to partner with MySpace and Friendster to engage students [see this month’s Seen & Heard, page 6 of our magazine].

For their part, Huntington faculty use the portal to access their virtual classrooms, a function traditionally handled by a CMS. Instructors can log in to a given course, view the student roster, upload documents, and post grades.

To get current students used to the new portal, Snoddy and the staff held hourlong orientation sessions, one-on-one and in groups. New students learn about the portal and receive passwords at orientation. The assistant director reports that even though the school prods students to use the portal to schedule meetings with staff and faculty, check on financial aid, request address changes, check GPA status, and post resumes, students now actively “market” the portal to their peers.

Still, it’s important to know thy user, says Snoddy. For example, while social networking isn’t part of Huntington’s portal plan (“Our students are older and have other social ties,” she explains), the portal is the students’ introduction to a wider world. “Our state has low computer ownership,” the administrator points out. “We’re preparing our students to go out there and to work within a worldwide business environment. The experiences they have here—using the portal to communicate, to schedule, to manage their own lives—are the types of skills they’re going to need in a business environment.”

Evolving the Portal

Ruth Gill is the manager of application support for Montgomery College (MD), a large and diverse multi-campus community college with 23,000 full-time and 17,000 continuing-ed students from 170 countries around the world. Not surprisingly, Gill gauges the success of her campus’ portal by the number of daily logins it gets. On a Tuesday during the first week of spring classes in 2007, that number hit 23,707—up from 5,866 on the second day of the same academic week in the previous year.

At the time the MyMC portal—originally based on Campus Pipeline’s portal application (Campus Pipeline was later acquired by SunGard)—went live, “We wanted to start really small,” Gill remembers. That involved providing a front end to the campus’ SCT Banner ERP system (also acquired by SunGard). “We thought: If we can get single sign-on and get students to use the portal for registration and some administrative tasks, we’ve really done something.”

The second phase of the portal evolution was all about better communication tools. With three “different flavored” campuses fairly distant geographically, “We wanted a feeling of community,” says Gill, “and we tried to accomplish it through the portal.” The key, Gill explains, was the content—a challenge then and still a challenge now. “We don’t have a magic formula for that,” she admits, confiding that in the early days of the portal, “We had to beg people to write. Though implementation was easy, the college community didn’t understand what we were trying to do. Buy-in took a while, even though the campus librarians have been major supporters of the site and a ready source of content.” One portal team member is still serving as content coordinator: She offers information about getting channels published on the portal, then sorts through content, culling out the inappropriate. But Gill believes there should be a dedicated portal editor.

The current generation of MyMC, built on SunGard’s Luminis Platform, brands the college as much as possible. “Every time you log in, you get a different picture,” says Gill, referencing the photos of campus community members. And the portal offers federated searching. For instance, users can search all online databases at the school, via rolebased tabs for the library personnel, faculty, students, etc.

Portal governance is handled by a MyMC advisory team of 18, consisting of faculty, administration, and staff. While students aren’t part of the advisory board (“It’s hard to get them to attend meetings,” says Gill), her team actively solicits feedback from them, and current topics of discussion revolve around the possible addition of blogs and podcasts.

Recently, the college was searching for a new president, so Gill’s team set up a secure area specifically for the board of trustees and selection committee, where they could share documents and schedules related to the process. “We got really positive feedback from that,” she reports. “Now the board of trustees understands what they funded!”

When Is Development Too Aggressive?

Another SunGard Luminis client school, Loyola Marymount University (CA), has unfortunately not enjoyed a smooth route to success. While VP for IT Erin Griffin certainly sees the value of the school’s portal, the current implementation has been plagued by headaches, and she admits, “To a certain extent, we’ve made some of our own problems by taking a more sophisticated approach to it.”

Relieving Inquiry Inundations

GOT A PORTAL, but too many admissions questions coming in through it? When Clemson University’s (SC) freshman applications jumped by more than 42 percent in one admissions cycle, answering the sudden influx of daily inquiries became overwhelming for admissions staff, and administrators hunted quickly for a solution that could ride on top of the university portal, automate quick, accurate responses 24/7, and yet still maintain a personal touch with students. They also wanted to allow staff to customize and modify answers daily, and needed a system that would track the questions and their frequency to provide the university with key feedback on student/ parent needs and inquiry patterns.

Via Hobsons’ EMT Answer, admissions staffers say they were able to customize content for 90 different topic areas, providing automated answers to the most common admissions inquiries (FAQs). Now, students and parents receive fast, detailed, customized responses, and staff can evaluate nightly backend reports to glean key metrics. An added inquiry-routing component prompts portal visitors who can’t find resolution through the FAQs to contact staff via an e-mail inquiry form, then sorts the e-mails and delegates them to appropriate staffers for personalized response. Clemson offi- cials say they’ve fielded more than 230,000 inquiries via the system.

The portal, ManeGate (after the school’s mascot, a lion), originally went live in August 2005. “There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for it,” said Griffin. “There was a sense that it should be a grassroots movement, and that everyone would put content up, left and right. But the content wasn’t compelling, wasn’t refreshed regularly, and there was way too much of it.” A year later, the portal was redesigned to remove much of the textual content and add more graphics. The problem now? It still has “too much of a grownup feel,” says Griffin. “Students find the content less than compelling.”

As part of the redesign, Griffin’s team also shut off access to campus applications, in order to drive students, faculty, and staff through the portal to gain entry to those same programs. In addition, new functionality was introduced, including the introduction of Xythos Digital Locker, a web-based document management system branded LionShare by the school.

In the past, Griffin explains, “We couldn’t provide the students with storage space on university servers. Consequently, there would be 30 kids in a class, each trying to load his or her file on a classroom computer. But Xythos has been a key reason that people are now coming to the portal,” she says, pointing to the 100MB allotted per student and 200MB per faculty or staff member.

Also, by establishing single sign-on to the portal, the school can now grant access to the Blackboard CMS and SunGard Banner system (nicknamed “PROWL”), for self-service operations. “We call it the one-stop corner,” says Griffin. Users can request a book from the library, obtain a parking pass, change a username and password, check the status of financial aid, tune in to iTunesLMU for course lectures and information podcasts, and more. Eventually, says the VP, the campus hopes to add an ID management system to give functionality access to a larger collection of constituents such as alumni, parents, and members of the local community.

But first, there are problems to iron out. Among them, the inability to write portlets because Luminis didn’t support the Java Portlet standard JSR 168. (That support surfaced with Luminis 4.0, released in March 2007.) And there have been authentication glitches and integration problems with Blackboard and with Banner, especially as the school implemented its latest Banner upgrade. Recently, Griffin’s team discovered incompatibility problems for people trying to use adaptive technologies in Blackboard; she suspects they’re caused by ManeGate.

Granted, says Griffin, “We will take some responsibility for the fact that we have been very aggressive in how we’ve deployed the tool; we pretty much stretch the envelope of what you can do with Luminis. But we’ve had a long series of missteps that have caused a tremendous amount of frustration around here.” The portal, she sighs, is still “a work in progress.”

For its part, during a meeting late last year, SunGard cautioned the school to perform testing before upgrading to a new version of Blackboard. “The way that Blackboard is doing integration today has been problematic in some cases,” says SunGard Senior VP of Services Brad Rucker. When Blackboard puts out a release, SunGard has to wait for that release to hit general availability in order to integrate it with Luminis, he notes. Where integration is involved, says Rucker, the key to success in a major upgrade is a two-stage process: 1) make sure the campus has current upgrades for all the products to be integrated; and 2) run through scripted tasks to make sure all major functions are retested before they’re released into production.

Is there a solution in sight for Loyola Marymount? “We’re struggling to learn a new communication model,” Griffin concludes. “There’s too much information for our 20th-century minds to assimilate. We’re just going to have to wait until the current generation gets older and empowered.” Then, hopefully, she concedes, “They will be able to manage this in a way that we have not been able to.”

::WEBEXTRA :: Case Study: Student feedback helps improve one university’s portal design.:: Consider an open source portal solution.

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