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Transforming Portals from Gateways <br>to Enablers of Institutional Goals

For some institutions, the term “portal” brings to mind a gateway to an institution’s online resources and services. Sophisticated portals and integration technology enable much more than just a unified gateway. Portals have the potential to become the ultimate point of organizational integration, where the university community can access electronic services and resources in support of quality teaching and learning.

Like most institutions, Webster University has been doing a pretty good job of delivering basic Web services. We now offer students complete degree programs online. Yet, the students can’t conduct all of their university business electronically. Currently, Webster University’s Web services have more to do than meet isolated functional needs—they must be woven together to serve the university’s overall goal of providing increased access and convenience in support of teaching and learning.

We determined that we must implement new portal technology that would achieve the following three objectives:
• Distribute the capability for Web content management throughout the institution while maintaining consistent presentation and navigation.
• Provide centralized and customized access from a single sign on.
• Integrate all underlying data and applications.

We are currently in the process of implementing SCT’s Luminis software to achieve these objectives. We expect the implementation to be complete at the end of 2004.

Maintaining Consistent Presentation and Navigation of Web Content
Like other institutions, we place an emphasis on allowing easy and flexible access to our resources and curricula. We have 100 educational centers throughout the U.S. and seven international sites including Switzerland, China, and Thailand.

Each of our extended sites has a unique identity and message to convey to the students. Individual departments want Web pages and a Web presence, but not every location has access to a knowledgeable graphic designer or a good writer. It is impossible for our IT staff to reach and train individuals at all our sites on how to develop good content for the Web and link it well. Our challenge is to provide authors in this distributed environment with the tools they need to get their content out on the Web while maintaining a consistent and user-friendly Web presence.

To address this issue, we licensed content management software that will give non-tech users throughout the world the tools needed to easily publish their unique content within an attractive and navigable framework. In addition, these tools will allow our various sites to keep their Web content up-to-date, which is essential to the success of our Web efforts. We’ve learned the hard way that creating Web pages is only the beginning. Those pages must be kept current, otherwise, the effort is wasted.

When implemented, this content management model will allow our staff worldwide to manage content within a framework that provides ease of use, accessibility, and a consistent presentation of the university’s image online.

Providing Centralized and Customized Access from a Single Sign On
Once the information is up on the Web, it needs to be readily accessible to users. Webster University's current online information is not accessible from a single point of access, and the onus is on the student to figure out which department handles what function. The process is frustrating and time-consuming. In the past, students have accepted the difficulties and complexities of conducting business with the university. But, now, we’re dealing with undergraduates who have interacted with the Internet since they were 12 years old, and sophisticated adults who have a much higher expectation for online services.

To tackle this challenge, we implemented technology that will provide centralized and customized Web access to campus information, services, and communities from a single sign on within the portal. Users will be able to read only the announcements targeted specifically to them, check their e-mail, collaborate, and of course, attend classes—all from within one portal, with one sign on. At the same time, the portal will provide intuitive navigation to orient users as to where they are within the framework of Web services, whether they are paying bills or taking a course online.

The portal we will offer students will have advanced messaging tools like forums, a chat interface, and message boards. Having those community elements available within the portal—rather than only within a course management system—will allow extensive access for instructors to create a cyberspace where students can chat and collaborate, as well as provide a discussion forum for student groups, faculty projects, and other communities.

Integrating Underlying Data and Applications
A final challenge is integrating the back-end databases and applications throughout our university. This challenge grows almost every day as different departments and colleges request that access to their information or services be made available online. For example, development offices want to communicate with alumni via the Internet; Career Services, the Registrar, and many other stakeholders have unique online communications needs. Of course, online education presents a challenge all its own.

Many resourceful students and faculty at our university have found ways to get their services or information online. The result is a myriad of subsystems that are not integrated. We currently collect data through various Web-based sources, then reconcile the information into our administrative system—by hand. This process is time consuming and inefficient.

We need to make all of our current and emerging online services available to users through a single point-of-access, and we need to integrate all the corresponding data that flows from multiple sources. This type of technology provides for integration of services and applications that underlie the portal. In the future, we will have data integration and sharing among our diversified campus systems, applications, and databases. For Webster University, this means that information and services from our Jenzabar CX administrative system, our WebCT course management system, e-mail system, calendar, other applications and databases will be integrated and available from within a single portal. The benefits of the movement of data between these systems will be significant, including automatic creation of e-mail accounts, online courses, calendars and forums. The resulting digital campus will be open, interoperable, and extensible, allowing us to continue to bring new applications online, as they become available.

Admittedly, the integration will present some challenges internally. It will force a cultural change, bringing together departments and people that seldom interacted in the past and who will have concerns about losing control of their data and business processes. In order to gain consensus on a solution, we will need to collaborate with, and get buy-in from, people in various departments, on the other side of the country, and even on the other side of ocean. But the integration, as well as the other tools and enhancements we are bringing to our portal, is essential.

Ultimately, the integration consolidation, and availability of self-service applications from a single sign-on, will prove beneficial to our user-base, resulting in an increased use of important back-end systems, increased communication between constituents, and decreased administrative burden. As a result, our portal will be more than a point of entry to the university; it will be an essential enabler of the institution’s goals.

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