Hunt for the killer app

November 21, 2003

From enabling access to past papers and official documents to offering a room-booking service, some portals have found what it takes to get users to log on again and again, writes Pat Leon

The term “killer app” was originally coined to describe the use (“application”) of an invention or service that had captured people’s imaginations and transformed their daily lives. For businesses, it might be the 0800 number or selling food at 24-hour petrol stations. For universities’ electronic networks, it is whatever gets students and staff logging on and coming back for more.

Email is a quintessential killer app - rare is the academic or student who is email illiterate. Search engines are another. But with universities ploughing more and more money into portal technology to link online administration, learning and teaching systems they need to be sure that people are getting personalised log-ons to the information they want, need and will use.

This autumn, a swath of universities went live with student and staff portals, among them Nottingham University. During the three-year pilot portal of SCT Luminus, an implementation group gathered information on what its staff and students wanted. Students wanted access to past exam papers, followed by a library link and a best pub guide. A poll of about 500 research staff, however, showed that they wanted to share documents and link to research opportunities and libraries.

But the surprise request, says Graham Moore, head of portal services, was that they wanted to know how much money was left in their research budgets. “Their eyes lit up when we said we could organise access.”

Last April, researchers from Bath and Hull universities published the results of a Joint Information Systems Committee-funded survey of potential portal killer apps at five institutions: Bath, Hull and Lincoln universities, the London Institute and Newark and Sherwood College of Further Education.

A cross-section of teaching, support, administrative and research staff and students ranked desirable features. Top of everyone’s list was the ability to search for favourite resources. This was followed by interactive access to the library, teaching materials, personal information, resource alerts, email, handbook, deadline alerts, reading lists and campus news.

Students were also keen to review their marks, see their timetable and get careers information. Teaching and support staff wanted access to student records, while admin staff requested access to official forms, policies and other documentation.

The trouble with such lists, however, is that the choice of what goes on them depends on who compiles it, and not everyone gets it right. Brian Morrissey, IT project manager at University College Dublin (which this

year introduced its SCT Campus Pipeline portal for first-year students and all staff), says: “We saw the calendar as the killer app for staff. However, a lot of staff won’t use it.”

It’s a good example of how portals are as much about people and their preferences as they are about fulfilling tasks. As Russell Altendorff, director of information at London Business School, puts it: “If you think a portal is just a technology project, you’ll be dead in the water. The moment I entered the portal world I discovered I had many masters. There were people and departments to see, many with conflicting interests. Negotiating a way through was a balancing act of trade-offs and deals.”

Paul Browning, head of Bristol University’s Uportal pilot, predicts his killer apps will be “basic student administrative tasks such as getting an accurate list of students in three clicks and from that list being able to email, see mugshots and download as Excel”.

For staff at the London School of Economics, the payslip page is proving very popular. But the killer app, says Chris Cobb, head of management information services, is the ability to make room bookings.

“They allow users to view available rooms, drill down on a picture, see a list of equipment and furniture, and so on, before booking. They can decide how and where their meeting is advertised. On a campus where space is tight, it’s important that we maximise its use,” he explains.

While LSE students head first for personal timetables and exam results, another much-used page is the fee statement page, which allows online payment by credit card. “The benefits to the institution are lower costs on debt notification and recovery, while improving cash flow,” Cobb says.

Postgraduate applicants, particularly from overseas, make heavy use of pages allowing them to track the progress of their application. “This has freed staff to process the applications and to improve response times,” he says.

Although the LSE is still in its early days with alumni, pages that allow graduates to find volunteer alumni mentors for career advice are also proving popular.

Life can be stressful for those who have to set up portal projects, however. Malcolm Murray, a learning technologist with Durham University’s IT service, equates the introduction of its community portal - which is based on the Blackboard platform - to waking a sleeping dragon.

“It’s political and not about programming at all. You step on toes and offend people - for example, those who run the local intranet, external website or isolated database owners,” he says.

Durham students have enjoyed one of the service’s quirkier features. “Our students love online polls, so we ran one to see if they wanted library access to exam papers; 6,346 voted, 91 per cent said ‘yes’,” Murray says.

For LBS, the killer app may well be a strong online presence, rather than a specific service. Altendorff says the strategy behind its portal, which went live worldwide last month, is to build business without buildings, that is, to spread the school’s influence. The service offered must match the best since that is what students and, increasingly, staff expect. LBS is aiming high: its benchmarks are Amazon and the BBC.

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