Open Menu Close Menu

Part II: Are Portals Dead? And More

As J'e continues his report from last week, he moves from the more purely technological realm into one of definitions and functionality, based on a site-by-site evaluation of 172 college and university Web sites. Along with other observations, he draws the conclusion that "portalization" may already have reached its zenith and predicts that many Web sites already are or will be calling themselves by "portalized" names of some sort, but really aren't and won't be true portals. Enjoy!


J'e St Sauver
University of Oregon Computing Center

University "Portal" Web Sites

A few years ago, universities were under tremendous commercial pressure (as well as substantial peer pressure from those who'd already jumped on the portal bandwagon) to move to a portal model for their institutional home pages. So far, the hype hasn't resulted in much real "portal product," and likely won't.

Of course, one of the first problems universities faced was figuring out just what a portal actually is. A good definition has always been elusive, but there was fair consensus that a portal would:

· require users to log in (a process which would allow users to customize the portal to best reflect their interests-interests which could then be recalled during subsequent logins);

· somehow be inclusive enough to act as the user's default start page, having everything the user wanted or needed; and

· tightly integrate with existing administrative systems and existing teaching and learning systems (such as Blackboard or WebCT).

In some cases, portals were also billed as a way for universities to raise revenue via the sale of online advertising. Universities were told that soon "everyone" would have a true portalized home page. "Portalize or die," they were effectively told.

University administrators were also told that the straightforward secure Web sites they'd been deploying, sites which allowed students to perform administrative tasks online such as registering for classes or looking up grades, were not portals. Students would not routinely log in to Web sites of that sort (unless they had a specific administrative task to accomplish), and it was extremely unlikely that anyone would make one of these secure administrative Web sites their default home page.

So now that two or three years have gone by, where are all the university portals? Has the portalization of higher education actually occurred? No.

Not one university in our study sample has a portalized home page, and only 36 schools (about 20 percent) even have a link to a Web portal from the school's default home page, often via a not-very-prominent link. In other cases, an institutional portal may have been marginalized to the point where it is only being targeted at a smaller audience, such as current students.

We believe that university portals are currently at their zenith, and as time g'es by, those universities that did experimentally deploy a portal will most likely retire that model and return to a simpler functional model.

Other schools, still under local pressure to develop a portal by administrators who may not realize that the portal craze has largely passed, may seize upon the ambiguity in what makes a portal a portal, and simply rename their existing functional secure administrative Web sites to have a portal-like name, thereby allowing them to declare victory in the portal wars while minimizing the substantial hassles, costs, and risks they might otherwise face.

Web Animations

An area of Web page design that gets some attention is use of animation-having the pictures on the home page change slide-show style, for example, or incorporating the use of Macromedia Flash to increase visual interest or impact or to grab attention, much in the way that many commercial banner ads are animated. (In looking at whether or not a site used animation, we explicitly excluded use of rollovers, e.g., things like pull-down menus or text highlighting that occurs when a mouse is passed over an area of the page.)

With that definition in mind, when we look at our 172 study sites, only 17 sites-less than ten percent of the study sites-made any use of animation on their institutional home pages. Clearly, the perception that everyone is deploying animated images or Macromedia Flash-enabled home pages is not borne out by the empirical data from our study.

A to Z: How to Handle the Laundry List

One problem that virtually all university home pages face is how to handle the laundry list of links to departments, programs, labs, initiatives, functions, and so on, that need linking, a function that is currently handled under the home page Departments link at UO, as it is at some other universities (such as Duke, the University of New Mexico, and the University of North Carolina).

At a growing number of other sites, including 60 of the 172 in this study, the preferred name for that omnibus listing link now appears to be " A-to-Z" or "A-to-Z Index," or a full listing of letters along the lines of "Index A B C D E F G H I [...] X Y Z."

The other alternative to Departments or A-to-Z Index that is commonly seen is for that type of link to be labeled "Site Index," or "Index," or "Directory" (although that last nomenclature will often be confusing to users looking for a phone or e-mail directory).

Verbose News Items

Some universities view their home page as a table of contents, while others view the home page as more akin to a university news magazine. Universities that lean toward that latter role tend to feature verbose news items on the institutional home page. For the purpose of our study, a news item was considered to be verbose if it included a headline and more than a single sentence of accompanying text. A simple headline (with no accompanying text), or a headline with one line of teaser text was not considered to be a verbose news item. Of our 172 sites:

· 136 sites (nearly 80 percent) had no verbose news items on their home page;

· 15 had a single verbose news item;

· 4 had two; and

· 5 had four.

A few sites had a very large number of verbose news items: Georgia Tech and Lewis and Clark each had pages with 6; USC had 7; Boston College, 9; Rensellaer, 10, but clearly most sites do not view their home page as being analogous to a university news magazine.

The Final Section of Our Report

The final section of our 3 part report, which will appear in the Spring issue of UO's Computing News later this year, will describe what we saw with respect to the use of some specific emerging Web technology standards such as favicon.ico, Platform for Privacy Preferences files, and robots.txt files.


J'e will be back later this spring with another offering from his comparative analysis of college and university Web sites. He'll be taking a look at how many browsers the sites are trying to support, what document formats besides HTML are being used (CML, CSS, etc.), what Web-accessible databases are commonly found, who's making use of streaming media, what kinds of scripting are in vogue, and what kinds of local-results-only search engines are deployed. Stay tuned!

Read Part I of this article

comments powered by Disqus