Judging by the number of articles written and conferences organised around them, portals are undoubtedly a hot topic in higher education, and seem likely to remain so for some time to come.
This article reports on two portal-focussed conferences held in Canada and the UK during the summer of 2002. It also introduces some of the work underway at Hull to build an institutional portal, and the way in which a JISC-funded project shared between Hull and UKOLN will demonstrate the role of institutional portals in bringing resources provided by the JISC and others to the attention of those working within an institution.
The conferences in question are the June 2002 meeting of the Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA-SIG) [1, 2] in the Canadian city of Vancouver, and the Portals 2002 conference  organised by the University of Nottingham and JISC here in the UK. Both events drew over 200 participants, predominantly North American in Vancouver, and predominantly British in Nottingham. This year's Institutional Web Management Workshop [4, 5] also included discussion of 'portalisation', and by the time that this paper is published, a number of portal presentations will also have been delivered to EDUCAUSE  in Atlanta.
According to their web site , "The Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA-SIG) is an independent organization designed to increase the flow of information between educational institutions and companies involved in the development of administrative applications using Java technology. Today, with the benefit of object oriented technology and Java, we have a great opportunity in higher education to do things better as colleagues. The purpose of JA-SIG is, first, to share our experiences as we build applications with Java, and second, to develop a common infrastructure upon which we can build shareable components. We welcome the participation of both educational institutions and commercial enterprises in this effort."
Despite the heavy emphasis upon administration in the name and mission, this may be considered a testament to the group's origins, and disguises the direct relevance of this effort to what readers of Ariadne might more comfortably consider to be digital libraries, e-Learning, and similar activities.
One major activity of the JA-SIG is the creation and ongoing development of the Open Source portal, uPortal , and it was discussion of this upon which the Vancouver conference focussed.
A clear message arising from the conference was that there is great interest in the technology and methodology, with a number of significant institutions including Columbia, Cornell and Princeton actively deploying uPortal. Vancouver's University of British Columbia is also at the forefront of deployment, with the portal playing a key role in delivering services to both staff and students.
In the UK, deployment is currently on a smaller scale, with development work underway at Hull, Nottingham, De Montfort and — now — Bristol. The emphasis in the UK is also different, with more consideration given to integration of external content, and models such as that proposed for the JISC's Information Environment . Paul Browning at the University of Bristol maintains a useful register  of UK institutions and their progress towards implementing various portals. He would welcome notification of any that he's missing!
Sun Microsystems has been a long-time supporter of the JA-SIG, and key Sun personnel were present, including their Chief Technology Officer responsible for iPlanet (now Sun ONE), their Chief Technical Evangelist (a title that beats Interoperability Focus any day), and others. Sun and Java freebies were also much in evidence, marking a welcome bucking of the recent trend towards freebie-light events across our sector.
The Mellon Foundation, too, is supportive of the development of uPortal, having funded much of the current version's development. Ira Fuchs, the Mellon's Vice President for Research in IT, presented the conference's closing Keynote.
This conference, hosted at the University of Nottingham, aimed to brief managers and decision makers from across UK Further and Higher Education on the role of portals within their institutions. Presentations focussed upon generic issues, as well as including examples of both open source and commercial solutions . Given interest in this event, and in portal issues in general, there is clearly scope for similar events in subsequent years.
As with the JA-SIG conference, the majority of presentations from Portals 2002 are online and available for viewing. Portals 2002 also includes a web cast of the proceedings .
The Vancouver Sheraton, home to the conference
There are as many definitions of a portal as there are purposes to which portals are put. Our interest in Hull is focussed primarily upon the institutional portal as part of the Digital University Project . Our working definition of an institutional portal is of;
a layer which aggregates, integrates, personalises and presents information, transactions and applications to the user according to their role and preferences.
Such definitions differ somewhat from those that might be applied to the enterprise portals of big corporates, or to commercial Internet portals of various forms. As thinking on both is at a relatively early stage of development, there are also occasional differences of perspective within Further and Higher Education between those with a predominantly institutional imperative, and those scoping the potential for portals at a national level. See, for example, some earlier discussion of these in Issue 30 of Ariadne .
Within institutions, there has been something of a tendency to present the institutional portal as the universal solution to the problems of managing and presenting information and web-enabled applications to entire communities of users. Experience of implementation tends to suggest that whilst the development of a portal is an essential component of that solution, it forms only one part of an interlocking range of services developed as part of an overall institution-wide strategy.
In terms of JISC's evolving Architecture for the Information Environment , there is the notion of portals (whether institutional or otherwise) that are either 'thick' or 'thin'. In this context, and bearing in mind the Architecture's working definition of a portal;
- (JISC IE Architecture Glossary)
thin portals are seen as capable of providing a shallow degree of linking to external resources and services, possibly with reduced or limited functionality. Thick portals, on the other hand, provide much richer capabilities, as well as deep linking and extensively integrated access to remote functionality. Thick portals would, therefore, appear to provide more of the functionality that a user might actually wish; linking straight through to an Ingenta  article or incorporating Ingenta's search functionality, rather than providing a link to the Ingenta search page, for example. Work beginning within the PORTAL project (below), ongoing in EDNER , and doubtless under consideration elsewhere, will be important, of course, in assessing whether assumptions such as these really match what users want.
In thinking about the functionality of the portal, there has been a marked tendency to aggregate functionality within the institutional portal itself. Some institutions are effectively replacing departmental or section web sites by a series of nested portal implementations, in addition to providing an interface to back-end systems. These "heavy" portals, which incorporate applications within themselves, may be contrasted with the (preferable?) "light" portal, which attempts to aggregate and integrate access to a range of services and functions which remain independent of the portal itself.
The portal being built at Hull, for example, is intended to be as thick as possible, whilst remaining no more than a light layer between the user and a wide range of diverse applications.
Many people now have experience of institutional intranets. It is fair to say that the line between intranets and portal appears to be blurred. Based on experiences at Hull we would suggest that an intranet should be considered a portal when it can aggregate and integrate diverse sources of information. In addition it must provide its users with personalised content and the ability to control what content they see and how it is presented to them.
If, as seems likely, aggregation and presentation of information is one key function of the institutional portal, it is vital to consider the processes by which that information is produced. Where a portal draws on existing software systems, such as those supporting the library or administrative databases, it is likely that processes exist, however imperfect, to enter and maintain the data contained in them. The same is not always true of information contained in the institutional web space. Indeed, the great variety of web providers within many institutions, and the unsystematic manner in which web content is often provided introduces huge variations in the quality of information presented. For this reason Katya Sadovsky's presentation  at the JA-SIG conference highlighted the issue of web content management as a further central component of an Information Strategy currently being addressed by those institutions which have begun portal implementations. If part of the portal's role is to aggregate information, including information from institutional web sites, a content management solution will at some point be required to ensure the validity of the information aggregated.
At Hull, too, the importance of the CMS has long been recognised, and effective implementation of this technology is seen as a vital strand in the building of the Digital University.
A key element of the Digital University Project has therefore been to source or develop a system of managing web based information which does not impose a huge time overhead spent learning complex software. It should further remove the need for every individual maintaining web pages to become a web page and graphic designer, or information architect. Such a system should be easy to use and present users with a familiar interface. It should be supported by the storage of text-based web content in an online database. Such a database-driven system will enable web sites to be built automatically in accordance with predetermined and predesigned templates. A content management system opens the door to a range of possibilities, including the re-use of information for a range of audiences. With text entered in a database, for example, a version of a web site can be published which is optimised for a standard web browser, and a version published simultaneously for screen readers which allows access to pages for users with impaired vision.
Investigation of commercial content management systems found them to typically be expensive, often created with the needs of business users in mind. After evaluation of several such packages, the project team at Hull decided on an approach based around buying some components (the text editing tools embedded in the authoring and editing environment), basing data storage on the University's Ingres database software, and developing workflow appropriate to the circumstances of those providing the information.
Workflow diagram for the Hull Content Management System
For a portal to effectively meet the needs of its users there is a need to move beyond rendering content, and to embrace the issues around integrating and aggregating a range of services and related functionality. Importantly, these services are often closely matched to some of the core business processes of an institution, such as the efficient registration of students .
It is normal to assume, for example, that an institutional portal should be capable of allowing staff and students to query and interact with a range of information pertaining to them, as held in a variety of institutional databases. You might also look for transparent logins to services on and off campus, with the portal handling the task of mapping various access rights, roles, usernames etc. as required, and presenting the illusion of seamless access to the user.
Personalisation of the content selected for display — and the manner of that display — is also a commonly perceived requirement, and personalisation of various forms was touched on several times by speakers in both Nottingham and Vancouver. Dinner table debates on the dangers of over-personalisation, and a consequent narrowing of scope and perspective to the detriment of the user, remained inconclusive, but this is an obvious area for research in the near future. Are we distracting users by presenting them with a battery of personalisation options before they get to use a site for the first time? Are we in danger of producing dangerously narrow views on the information landscape, in which a user is only presented with 'interesting' or 'relevant' resources that they have already classified as interesting or relevant, removing the possibility of serendipitous leaps off into related resources? Should we build portals which, for their 'digital library' component simply offer two options; one that points to Google, and the other to the OPAC? We can do more than that, surely?
Within the institutional portal, there are two main forms of personalisation available to the user; the definition of look-and-feel and selection of available channels within the portal framework itself; and personalisation within the various applications to which the portal facilitates access.
For uPortal, an important aid to the integration of these external legacy applications is CWebProxy, presented in Vancouver by Andrew Draskoy of Canada's Memorial University . The screen shot, below, shows CWebProxy in use within the Hull portal to allow students to update their emergency contact details in a database managed by Corporate Systems. This database certainly existed previously, but the portal offers a means by which students may be allowed to access and modify their own records, rather than having to pass changes through administrative staff or — more likely — not keeping such data current at all.
An example of a legacy system, embedded in the Hull portal
As Greg Barnes from the University of Washington  suggested in Vancouver, the average member of a university is bombarded by date-dependent information from a wide range of sources. Most of us need to track our social lives, our teaching (or learning, if we're students) commitments, deadlines for papers, coursework, etc., departmental events, university events, holidays, etc. Much of this information exists online in course pages on the VLE, departmental notice boards or intranets, university almanacs and the like, but it is left to the individual to aggregate them, and to relate them to his or her personal engagements.
In an effort to manage this plethora of dates, Greg is working on an open source Calendaring channel for uPortal. The Calendar is already deployed at the University of Washington, and is available for download .
In uPortal's terminology, discrete applications, services, or content feeds are known as 'channels'. Thus, you might have a calendar channel, a channel displaying RSS-fed news from the BBC, etc. Current industry effort around the development of shared standards for the exchange of these fragments of information (the JSR 168 Portlet specification from Sun and IBM , and OASIS' Web Services for Remote Portals ) refer to effectively the same thing as a 'portlet'.
Ken Weiner from Interactive Business Solutions and Jim Weaver of Learning Assistant Technologies spoke  about work they had been doing to develop mechanisms for sharing the definition of uPortal channels between different instances of uPortal. As with much else in this arena, their work is tied to the emergent notion of Web Services , and they believe it has some similarities to the Web Services for Remote Portals (WSRP) specification, likely to be released by OASIS around the end of 2002. It was suggested that the uPortal-specific technique they have developed will be migrated to full conformance with WSRP, once a stable specification exists.
Rima Patel, one of Sun's Technology Evangelists, spoke  about the evolution of portlets in general, rather than restricting herself to uPortal. She spoke in some detail about the ongoing development of JSR 168 and WSRP, both of which are due to be released towards the end of the year. The extent to which the two final specifications might overlap — or contradict one another — is as yet unclear, but hopefully a significant degree of shared membership between the committees will prevent too much divergence. Rima also suggested that the related development of a Web Services for Interactive Applications (WSIA)  within OASIS is worth keeping an eye upon.
Virtual Learning Environments have been important for a long time within the Further Education sector, and are becoming increasingly significant in Higher Education too. As such, it is necessary for any portal that seeks to present itself as a serious contender to be the sticky first port of call for members of an institution to be capable of integration with the campus VLE (and other monolithic legacy systems, such as the library system).
Issues remain about the need to effectively disaggregate such behemoths, and embrace approaches such as those made possible by Web Services in constructing more modular applications, but the reality of most current e-Learning systems is somewhat different. Are document upload facilities or chat rooms really a core function of a VLE, for example, or a shared service upon which the VLE, the departmental notice board, and the portal itself should be able to draw at will?
Recent work has made it possible to offer a degree of integration between uPortal and at least three VLEs; Campus Pipeline, WebCT, and Blackboard.
Papers in Vancouver from Mike Zackrison at Campus Pipeline  and David Rosenbaum and Ian Hyatt of WebCT with Wilson Lo from the University of British Columbia  demonstrated some of what is possible. The WebCT paper, for example, showed the my.UBC portal  with a WebCT channel clearly displaying relevant information from the modules for which the student was registered. The figure below, kindly provided by Wilson Lo of UBC, demonstrates the concept.
WebCT course information, displaying in the UBC portal.
Announcements from Blackboard  and WebCT  on the JA-SIG site show the extent to which this drive towards integration has been taken, and we look forward to further announcements in a similar vein.
Academic Services Interactive Media at the University of Hull, working in partnership with UKOLN, has been successful in bidding to the Joint Information Systems Committee's (JISC) recent call for proposals under the FAIR Programme. The project, Presenting natiOnal Resources To Audiences Locally (PORTAL) , will run over 18 months, and is funded to explore issues around the deployment and use of institutional portals within the higher and further education community. It has the potential to play an important role in shaping thinking on portals and their growing place in both the national and institutional information landscapes.
As well as exploring the surfacing of institutional content, a key aspect of PORTAL is the integration of external resources - such as those provided within the JISC’s Information Environment. The project will be working closely with the Resource Discovery Network (RDN)  and will also seek to build relationships with other JISC services and external content providers.
The PORTAL project is closely aligned to the University of Hull’s ongoing Digital University Project . Further, the project will enable the wider community to benefit from work on the issues surrounding the implementation of portals and the integration of information resources.
By the time this is published, all of the PORTAL staff will be in post, and more in-depth articles on PORTAL and its findings will appear in future issues of Ariadne.
Institutional portals are here to stay.
At the University of British Columbia, probably one of the main adopters of uPortal to date, they are supporting some 25,000 registered users of their my.UBC portal , and seeing 15,000 logins per day. The wide range of services available through my.UBC means that many of these users are spending some time in the portal. On a purely financial level, Richard Spencer estimated during his keynote to the Nottingham conference  that users of the portal save 15 minutes per week in completing basic administrative tasks; a saving of $CAN 1,500,000 per annum to the institution already.
According to Ron Yanosky of the Gartner Group, speaking in Vancouver, the institutional portal is a key strategic resource for rationalising and personalising the online user experience. He also pointed to a clear trend onwards from mere presentation of data towards meaningful integration.
The portal is not, though, a panacea. Amongst other things, it offers a framework by which a range of back-room processes can be made more visible, and brought closer to those upon whom they directly impinge. This very increase in visibility for these processes offers possibilities to challenge the assumptions upon which they are based, ultimately creating the potential to radically restructure the ways in which our organisations gather, store, and divulge information. Controversial, definitely. Terrifying, possibly. A good thing? Almost certainly.
Finally, it also worth remembering the remarks of Karen Stanton  at the Nottingham conference. As with all technology projects, expectation management is as important as the development work itself; if you offer users the world, and only deliver them a broken form to register their interest in buying the university Christmas card, they are unlikely to be impressed. Institutional portals do have great potential. Other than a very few visionary institutions, the sector is a very long way from realising it.
There are several mailing lists and web sites devoted to discussion of portal issues. One that is extremely valuable for those working in UK Further or Higher education is the
list on JISCmail.
To join this list, send a message to
with the body of the message reading
join portals Your_Firstname Your_Lastname --
join portals Paul Miller --
Attendance at the JA-SIG conference in Vancouver was made possible thanks to financial support from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).
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 Facilitating Access to Institutional Resources (FAIR) Programme.
Head, Academic Services Interactive Media
University of Hull
Academic Services Interactive Media
University of Hull