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Can Portals Make a Difference in the Work of Educators

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Before weget started, perhaps we should clarify exactly what a portal is meant to be. Insimple terms it’s a single entry point to a range of related resources andinformation links: a figurative gateway that you pass through on your way tosomewhere else.

 

Today we have the education portal or school portal. Only asmall handful of such portals offer school-specific, individual studentinformation — the kind of information that concerned parents and motivatedstudents are most interested in. For the purposes of this article, schoolportals will focus chiefly on those Web sites that deliver a full gamut ofsecure student information, as well as learning resources, news content andteacher tools.

 

The premise on which most portals claim to offer educationalvalue is that the information contained in, or offered through a portal, willbe of benefit to students, the parents of those students, school professionalsteaching those students, and a host of other users inside a school community.Despite the appeal of such a premise, it seems likely that very few portalshave the capability to deliver information to a level of speed, accuracy andquality that educators, parents and students would find meaningful or useful.

 

This degree of quality and integrity in the portal’sinformation is only half of the equation. It is implicit that an educationportal is designed to be appealing and easy to use. The other half of theequation is that parents and students, and to a lesser extent, the educatorswho initiate the student information, will actually want to use it.

 

Most schools equipped with an efficient student informationsystem have a wealth of information that, up until the advent of the portal,has been largely underutilized. Chancery’s K12Planet.com is a Web site and userinterface that integrates its own compatible, freshly-updated and accuratestudent information into a meaningful medium for parents and students. Bytaking information that’s already gathered, and giving members of the schoolcommunity secure access to it, K12Planet puts technology to work to addresssome very real concerns shared by PTA members, families, educators and federalpoliticians alike.

 

Technology making a difference

From an educator’s perspective, the Internet has opened upan enormous range of possibilities for improving both the resources andtechniques for learning. But in seeking to make incremental gains in thelearning process, the missing link has always been greater parent involvement —how to give busy, working parents a better chance to look in on their child’sprogress, stay in contact with teachers, and keep up to speed with schoolevents and initiatives.

 

Michael Brandmeyer, Assistant Superintendent at ShrewsburyPublic School, Mass. says, “We know that one of the biggest factors to astudent’s success in school is the involvement of their parents. Our new,hosted Web site (portal) provides an instant connection to any parent withaccess to a computer, tapping right into their child’s educational program andschool information. The Internet really provides a breakthrough in quick andeasy communication between the school and the home.”

 

According to Brandmeyer, the adoption of a portal is alogical progression for a school with a sophisticated student informationsystem. “This meets our district’s goal of ‘partnership with the community,’”says Brandmeyer. “The transition has been seamless, though not entirelyeffortless,” he adds. “There is some setup involved at the outset, with userauthorization and internal management. However, we honestly see this technologymaking a real difference, district-wide.”

 

On that point, unless a portal is supported by an accurateand easily-maintained student information system, it has very little chance ofbeing an effective window on, or measure of progress. This “direct feed” SIScapability should be a primary consideration for any school when looking atportal options.

 

Only a handful of school portals are attempting to featureindividual student information as their central raison d’etre. Commenting onthe generic category of portals, Lee Wilson, Vice President of Marketing atChancery Software, and General Manager of K12Planet.com (Chancery’s own portaloffering) explains: “The definition of portal has changed along with industryand user expectations. It used to mean a list of resources with links spreadingoutwards furthering a user’s access to knowledge. These days we’re talkingabout a lot more than that. A more meaningful use of the concept is to focus inon specific individual information delivered securely, serving a designatedgroup of people.”

 

It is this distinction that provides the opportunity foractive and useful parental involvement. And it is here that real gains ineducational outcomes can be anticipated.

 

What d'esit take to be an effective portal?

The main concern likely to be shared by most InformationTechnology Managers and School Administrators considering a Web-based portal,apart from the initial cost, is what degree of difficulty might be involved ininstalling and implementing it. How easy is this portal to set up and getrunning? School staff, and particularly teachers using gradebooks andelectronic report systems, will want to know how data and other information isentered into the portal system. How many separate regularly updated records andother sources of data are fed into it? Will it be necessary to enter data intoa Web database that has already been keyed into your school database? With mostportals it is.

 

The reality is that for the majority of portal optionsavailable, the student information they can “re-cycle” is fairly limited unlessa series of separate and time consuming data entry operations are carried out,a chore that most busy teachers will have no time to complete. For a portallike the Chancery product, which is compatible with its own automatic studentinformation system, the only extra work involved will fall to the school staffmember who oversees it. Someone must be assigned the trusted role of handlingimplementation, and maintaining and monitoring authorized users, whetherteachers, parents or students.

 

How secureshould your portal be?

Security is one of the Internet’s biggest question marksthese days, and absolutely paramount when sharing information with young studentsor eliciting personal information from them. Having built-in safeguards thatprotect the child from any kind of marketing exploitation is also critical. Parentalconsent safeguards need to be in place, above and beyond any built-in“censorship” of content. When looking at portals, look for data privacycertification with a reputable third party such as TRUSTe to verify that dataisn’t being misused.

 

Schools should also be sure to establish how a portal sitecomplies with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA). COPPAdemands that parental permission is requested and granted before their childcan visit a Web site or give information online. Compliance with COPPAregulations ensures the portal has built-in safeguards for students, and thatwhatever investment you’ve made in that portal will be protected.

 

Willportals prove themselves in the long term?

Speaking specifically about his school’s adoption ofChancery Software’s K12Planet.com portal, Vice Principal of West Vancouver HighSchool Gordon De Vito says: “I believe that as K12Planet evolves, more parents,students and teachers will become involved with it. It is paramount forteachers to keep parents and students as up-to-date as possible on the statusof the student’s education and progress. As it stands now, this portal allowsfor this conveyance of information with little effort on the part of theteachers or administrators.”

 

Conclusion

The progress of portals will be as inexorable as thetechnology that brings them to the student’s (or parent’s or teacher’s) screen.Portals not only allow people to obtain knowledge but to share it. In theprocess of greater participation, communication and understanding, at leastbetween parents, students and teachers, the learning standards of futuregenerations, and their enjoyment and experience of school will surely beraised.

 

Visit www.K12planet.com to find out moreabout Chancery’s portal offering.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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