The PORTAL Project , funded under the JISC's FAIR Programme, aims to explore a range of issues relating to the deployment of institutional portals within the UK tertiary education sector. An introduction to the PORTAL Project was provided by Ian Dolphin, Paul Miller and Robert Sherratt in Ariadne Issue 33 .
The project began in September 2002 and work is well underway on the project's diverse work packages. Work Package 6, 'Standards for the Description of Portal Users', is now available  and both technical and research work is ongoing. Key to the work of the PORTAL Project is stakeholder consultation regarding the development and use of institutional portals. Along with an Evaluation and Usability Study (WP13), two stakeholder requirements studies form Work Packages 3 and 4 of the project. The first - with which this article is concerned - relates to the requirements for institutional portals themselves, whilst the second (ongoing at the time of writing) focuses on the requirements for external content, such as that provided by the JISC IE, in institutional portals. The results of Work Package 4: Stakeholder Requirements for External Content in Institutional Portals will be published at the end of May and will be highlighted in a future issue of Ariadne.
Around 80 staff and students at five tertiary education institutions around the country participated in interviews and focus groups dealing with their expectations, needs, likes and dislikes with regard to institutional portals. The participating institutions included an institute of higher education, an FE college, a 'new' or post-1992 university, a research institution and a red-brick university. Participants included teaching staff, undergraduates, postgraduates and FE students, senior managers and administrators. Two JISC representatives were also interviewed to highlight the views of external policy makers.
The qualitative data collected at the research sites was augmented by the results of an online survey. Whilst the 'official' survey period ran from November 2002 – February 2003 the success of the data collection method, which employed a reusable Learning Object from the Iconex repository , has led to the survey remaining available. It can be accessed via the project website and remains available to provide a rolling view of user needs and, potentially, to track changes over time.
The survey was completed by a total of 557 respondents, of whom some 265 were students.
Figure 1: The PORTAL Project's card sorting exercise, powered by a reusable Iconex Learning Object
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Despite low levels of awareness regarding what a 'portal' is, the concept of the institutional portal was well received, particularly amongst students. Both in interviews and in the online survey – where comments were optional – students made comments such as: "I think this is a good idea... I hope to use the portal soon", "I think it's really a very good idea - it will help students be more organised" and "I think it's a great idea, I can't really see any problems with it". Concerns were raised, however, about the value of a 'one-stop shop' or 'department store' approach to resources and services. The fear that an 'interface to everything' would provide only superficial access to resources was voiced by a limited number of both survey and interview participants.
The top 10 rated features based on the results of the online survey are as follows:
|Search your favourite resources|
|3rd||Access or update teaching materials|
|5th||Library and quality Internet resources alerts|
|6th||Access your institutional email|
|9th||Access or update reading lists|
There are, predictably, differences in feature popularity across sectors and user groups. For example, whilst rated 8th overall, 'Deadline alerts' were the top scoring feature for students and, though rated 5th overall, 'Library and quality Internet resource alerts' took the number 2 spot for staff in the Further Education sector. Consistently in the top ten for various groups were both 'Search your Favourite Resources' and 'Library and Quality Internet Resource Alerts', providing a clear indication that access to external content is a key priority for the potential users of institutional portal systems.
Perhaps as revealing as the top-rated features are those which ranked as the least popular. The bottom five features were revealed to be:
|34th||Vote in student elections|
Both the news and the weather, presented as RSS feeds, form popular - near-ubiquitous in the case of the weather – portal features, yet they formed the lowest rated features over all. Whilst such features are often included as 'stickiness' enhancing items, the weather was the only feature to receive a consistently negative score. Unlike other items, which despite low survey scores, were highly valued by qualitative respondents, the weather fared no better amongst interviewees and focus group participants. Laughter was a frequent response to the inclusion of a weather channel in the portal and the title of this article indicates that, for one student, weather channels were perceived to be a portal's only negative feature.
A more detailed analysis of the stakeholder requirements work conducted as part of Work Package 3 of the PORTAL Project is also available .
Whilst the online survey provided respondents with the opportunity to rate existing and planned portal features, interviews and focus groups provided a sample of the FE and HE community with a forum to suggest features and raise issues. As well as revealing a (hopefully) useful set of stakeholder requirements, the consultation work undertaken has confirmed the extent to which such consultation is both valuable and valued by users. One respondent noted that "I think what people like about this is that they feel they can have some sort of say... its not getting landed on us at the last minute with features that they thought you might like without knowing". The low ranking of 'quick win' portal channels – such as the news and weather – indicates the extent to which institutions need to discover user needs in order to deliver information and services which genuinely meet them. As one member of teaching staff lamented: "There is a huge danger with this that because you can do it – you do. Who needs some of it?" Whilst the debates surrounding the value and impact of institutional portals will continue, one suspects, for many years to come, the work of the PORTAL Project provides a view of potential users’ current needs - information which can help us shape this rapidly developing field.
The Presenting natiOnal Resources To Audiences Locally (PORTAL — http://www.fair-portal.hull.ac.uk/) Project is a joint activity of UKOLN and Academic Services Interactive Media at the University of Hull, funded under the JISC's Focus on Access to Institutional Resources (FAIR) Programme.
Academic Services Interactive Media
University of Hull