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Not Your Mother's Portal — A New Architecture to Access Campus Info

A Q&A with John Robinson

For many years, portal technology has served institutions well as a means to offer campus constituents access to information via a Web-based interface with traditional hyperlinks and familiar Web-page navigation. The campus portal has been great for desktop and laptop PC users, opening up many windows — literally — to browse and link to whatever is important to them. But today's students have grown up in a culture of mobile devices, finding what they need with simpler search protocols, usually with just one click. So is it time to dump the portal and invest in more up-to-date technology? Campus Technology asked rSmart co-founder John Robinson to comment on that question and on a new architecture for campus information and service discovery: technology originally developed at Indiana University and now marketed by his company as "OneCampus."

Mary Grush: Recognizing the strong move toward mobile devices on campus and the fact that most campus portals were designed for desktop and laptop users, institutions are beginning to see that the campus portal is not able to meet user expectations as well as it did in the past. What are the options institutions have to address this gap?

John Robinson: The question is no longer whether students are using mobile devices for campus business — we know they are! Now IT leaders are asking about the ways their institutions can assist students in using their devices for efficient and meaningful information and service discovery.

But campus leaders have to be mindful of budgets and other restrictions, and look at this question from where they are today, with the idea of leveraging the work and enormous expense the school has gone to over the years in making useful information available — and eliminating and avoiding additional expense where possible.

Option one: One answer to our question, proposed by some, is that with great expense the institution can re-architect its systems: a complete overhaul of the way the portal interacts with mobile users and locates and displays information from related systems like the SIS. Does that sound like the best answer? I don't think so.

Option two: I think the answer that resonates better, is that the campus can segue into a new architecture that enables the user to rely on their mobile device, with all the features that makes that device so compelling. The key is a search capability that greatly facilitates locating and accessing information and services, usually with just one click.

Grush: What would this involve on typical campuses?

Robinson: Basically, most campuses have spent many years creating competent ERP systems capable of generating the information constituents need. This is good and has been very important. Yet they have front-ended these systems with portal capabilities to allow folks to be guided into the information they need. Herein lies the biggest problem: This process requires laptop-sized screens and patience to navigate the multiple steps needed to actually access the desired information.

Now however, there are schools that have implemented a new architecture — technology that circumvents those limiting issues. And, very importantly, it employs the search capability designed for the users' mobile devices. Plus, it is built on architecture that is not merely a bolt-on to an institution's existing systems. This light-weight, portable architecture augments systems already in place while it paves a new road to the way we will communicate using our mobile devices for years to come.

This technology, that rSmart is introducing to the education market as "OneCampus," was developed by Indiana University to make a major leap enabling access from mobile devices across its campuses. The technology will prove transformative because of the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices and the fact that its deployment will lead to truly individualized information communications for campus users.

Grush: So, are you saying this can be an easy transition without a major overhaul of the old portal system or the campus resources it accesses?

Robinson: That is correct. Again, deployment can be accomplished by leveraging much of the already-available information on campuses today. And the choice of whether or when to retire the old portal system — or run it in parallel with the new technology for a time — is truly the institution's decision.

Grush: Then do you see institutions flat-out replacing their portals with this new technology?

Robinson: In some cases institutions will simply retire existing portals and, as we have said, in other cases they will run the existing portal in parallel with the new deployment. This is somewhat dependent on the institution's attention to how it wishes to guide its using community.

Grush: How can this new technology be merely added on and not be considered just an incremental add on?

Robinson: Because its architecture is literally stand alone to the existing on-campus system and has been designed to employ search and app-like functions, both which parallel how the mobile devices are being used so easily and simply. Thus, it is new architecture that has been designed to respect the desire or need not to replace existing and available information.

Grush: Is this a cloud offering that is not invasive to a campus environment?

Robinson: Yes, and with proper single sign on capability, another step is simplified: the user's time and security. An institution's data does not leave its campus. Further, the operational hosting is off campus, with full backups.

Grush: Is this technology likely to be with us for a long time?

Robinson: It is, partly because its analytics allow us to be totally aware of how the using community is experiencing their multiple information sources. Where there are issues or lack of expected use, it is the campus "information owners" who are updated in real time mode and who, therefore, can make the necessary alterations to what is presented and how. Thus, these "owners" will be visibly accountable to keep their information useful and up to date.

Grush: So whether an institution plans to continue to maintain its legacy portal or not is its own choice. Clearly, there are opportunities to eliminate some costs if you retire your portal. But the new technology implementation will have some costs associated with it. What factors will help keep the new deployment and ongoing costs reasonable?

Robinson: This technology is offered from the cloud and requires little initial implementation attention. It has been our goal to keep costs very reasonable for institutions. And the costs are reasonable, partly because the system has been designed and continues to be enhanced by the collaborating university community.

The enhancements ahead will include interactions and analytics that will increase student performance and improve an institution's total operation. While this has begun in many of the installed schools, the improvements that will be generated longer-term by the growing user community will further individualize interactions, thus making the user experience very pertinent and timely.

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