Portal power

February 7, 2003

Portals are virtual gateways to information sources filtered specifically for the user. Pat Leon looks at why more and more universities are investing in them

Three years ago, Craig Gibson, a placement student with Nottingham Trent University's communications and information technology development group, was playing around with the university's web email interface when he decided to customise it. He took it apart, rearranged it, wrote his own code and turned it into an e-learning portal.

"It was a bit flakey," Gibson admits. Nevertheless, students and staff were soon testing it out on all kinds of courses. They posted and pulled up timetables, reading lists, lecture notes, messages, web links and other course material to run discussion boards and conduct assessments. The fine art department even let students set up an interactive gallery of their work.

University campuses are technological jungles: they house many species of varying ages doing different jobs. Some have followed a "best of breed" systems strategy for finance, student records, timetabling, the library, virtual learning environments (VLE) or content management. No two university configurations are alike, but they all share one problem: their software is not always compatible.

Portals offer a solution by allowing computing systems to "talk" to one another. They browse multiple sources of information and present the results on one screen. They do not house content but are gateways to, and filters for, institutions, subjects, communities, networks and other media such as images.

Last September, the Nottingham Trent portal, running on Microsoft Exchange 2000, went university-wide with more than 30,000 potential users. When a student logs on, the first screen they see is their own page, configured to taste and displaying content that tutors deem necessary, plus the student's own favourites.

The NTU portal is "the poor man's virtual learning environment", says Richard Massey, who heads the team where Gibson works full time.

"All we've done is used standard software," Massey says. "Eighty-five to 90 per cent is out-of-the-box Microsoft. We've just dressed it up in a suit, put a wrap around it and stumbled on the way. We've not got as many bells and whistles as off-the-shelf products such as WebCT and Blackboard, which dominate the market, but we are more reactive to what the customers want."

And as the university has already paid Microsoft licence fees for all staff and students to be on Exchange, there has been little extra cost other than that of a couple more servers.

The NTU story is typical of much of higher education and the world beyond.

A bunch of "techies" working in isolation was charged with a task - in this case maximising the university's investment in Microsoft's Exchange email system - when someone hit on an idea. Wendy Hannah, who works in the team where Gibson was based, says: "We didn't twig there was a whole industry doing the same thing."

This industry is cashing in on the growing number of universities and colleges searching for simpler ways for staff, students, alumni, applicants and visitors to find the exact online information, services and resources they want quickly.

Richard Spencer, executive director of e-business at the University of British Columbia, says portals offer the possibility of "re-engineering" administrative tasks, such as the admissions system, that are clogging up universities and distorting their main goal: the transmission of knowledge.

But in binding traditionally isolated university agendas and budgets together, portals also make transparent the good, the bad and the inconsistent.

Europe lags behind North America in building portals. But in the UK, at least, some higher education communities are starting to realise the power of the portal. The Joint Information Systems Committee launched a "portals and fusion" programme in late 2001 as part of its new information environment strategy. Chris Awre, portals programme leader, says Jisc started work last September on a portal to link learning and teaching websites of agencies, such as the Institute for Learning and Teaching and the Learning and Teaching Support Network. Other portals are planned to provide one-stop gateways for images, time-based media and geospatial data.

Across town from Nottingham Trent is the University of Nottingham, which hosted the first European meeting on portals for post-16 education last July. Portals 2002 attracted not only techies keen to demonstrate their wares but also senior managers anxious to keep abreast of the e-strategy game.

Nottingham vice-chancellor Sir Colin Campbell says portals are becoming a strategic necessity, especially with the globalisation of higher education.

Increasingly, students will enrol for courses in another country and expect much of their learning and administrative tasks to be virtual. "Their expectations will be high and they will be looking for sophisticated e-learning products," he says.

Paul Browning, information strategy coordinator at Bristol University, is monitoring UK universities' uptake of portals and portal frameworks. He says portal enthusiasts are split between those who want an open-source framework that they can customise and those who prefer to buy off the shelf from the big vendors.

Kingston University is taking the commercial route. Demetra Katsifli, head of academic information systems, believes commercial systems are more cost effective in the long run because they are robust and reliable. Like more than 40 other universities in the UK, Kingston uses Blackboard for its VLE but is evaluating groupware products, such as Microsoft, Lotus and Novell, to give portal "functionality", Katsifli says.

Kingston is not, however, pumping big money into portal development for what it reckons is an information integration problem that its virtual and managed learning environment strategy linked to groupware can solve.

Nottingham, on the other hand, plans to bring together a number of portal-like developments for students, staff and alumni, under the project name Compass. The university has invested in uPortal, an open-source web platform used by many North American universities to integrate a variety of software.

Other uPortal advocates include Hull, De Montfort, Liverpool John Moores, Selwyn College Cambridge, and Birmingham universities. Karen Stanton, Nottingham's director of information services, argues that uPortal combines the benefits of an off-the-shelf package with the flexibility of developing in-house.

Flexibility is a key component in the choice of virtual learning packages, one of the fastest-growing spending areas. Here the balance between technology and academic culture is important. NTU's Massey says his team provides the infrastructure but not the content. "The big push needs to come from academics and it is not just posting lecture notes but thinking about the process of learning online," he says.

Stuart Lee has been leading Oxford University's procurement of a VLE for the past year. "We looked at all the major contenders and came to the conclusion that none suited our needs. We felt that the ethos underlying the commercial systems was flawed. We therefore went for the Bodington system developed by Leeds University," he says.

Lee says it matches the needs of a traditional university. "Commercial systems pushed the idea of students signing up for a course or courses.

This meant that when they logged on, they could see only the courses they were part of, unless someone had put up taster sessions for others.

"This seemed alien to us and went against the trend of encouraging multidisciplinary approaches." A portal would depend on the procurement of a centralised student information system, he adds.

Browning says cost is still a big hurdle. "The cost is not just hardware and software but licences, aftercare and technical support. If we have learnt anything these past ten years, it is that the big vendors want to keep you in their fold. They don't want a university picking and mixing.

The cunning institution or chief technology officer, however, will be making shrewd decisions about what mixture of technology they want. They will want to cherry-pick the best."

To see which university is considering what portal framework go to: www.bris.ac.uk/is/projects/portal/portalbytes

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