Administrative and Instructional Portals

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Ways to serve the educational community better through the use of technology have increased. This is also true in government and industry, where the need for efficiency is apparent. At the Society for Applied Learning Technology's (SALT) Education Technology 2002 Conference in July, the commonality of educators was noticeable in the subject areas that the organization focused on. This year's topics included "E-Learning in Education and Industry," "Knowledge Management" and "Technical Skills Training."

Waiting for Education's Revolution

E-learning's future in education seems assured in both education and training, which is indicated in the chart below from research firm brandon-hall.com. In the SALT Conference keynote address Dr. Alan B. Salisbury, chairman of Avilar Technologies Inc., said we are still in an evolutionary mode and the revolution in education has not yet occurred. He also said that many learning issues need to be studied and resolved, including skill completion rates, time allocation, faculty acceptance and availability, domain applicability, and a special emphasis on quality.

Other notable information from the SALT Conference included:

  • The sharing of information and experiences has increased, saving time and money.
  • Collaborative software efforts are producing better results.
  • Not everyone is enthusiastic about mobile computers because of their limitations, which include tiny screens, slow processing speeds and short battery lives - typically three to four hours of useful life. They're best used in situations where large environments, graphs and extensive browsing are not provided. Mobile computers also provide performance-based assessments and specific functions independent of location or time.
  • Brandon-hall.com projects that the mobile learning industry will grow from 2.5 billion users in 2002 to 6.5 billion users in 2006.
  • What Are Portals?

    The Army's new education initiative, eArmyU (www.earmyu.com), has been in operation since January 2001. The university is an asynchronous e-learning project that offers a flexible degree program using technology anytime, anywhere. Currently, a consortium of 23 schools provides course materials for the online university. More than 80 certificate and degree programs are available to more than 72,000 students. The program is scheduled to expand to additional sites, serving about 100,000 students within four years, pending approval. Though 50 percent of Army students are new to higher education, as of February 2002 more than 10,000 courses were completed and about 5,000 courses were in progress at eArmyU. The heart of the university is a portal that contains e-learning services, such as high-quality degree and certificate programs; administrative support services, including registration, textbook distribution and announcements; and personal information.

    "Portal" has been a buzzword for a few years. At the most basic level, portals assemble a variety of useful information into a one-stop Web page, bringing about greater efficiency. Portals are also entry points to a variety of resources, such as e-mail, financial records, schedules and announcements. They allow administrative and instructional information to be found in one place to serve a community, such as a university or other educational institution, so users don't have to deal with dozens of different Web interfaces. Portals consist of a number of information channels, including:

  • Off-campus channels - news headlines, weather reports, public announcements, etc.
  • Online campus channels - press releases, school programs, listings of activities, changes to an individual's private record, exam information, schedule notification, vocational opportunities, etc.
  • Custom tools (designed for use within the portal) - e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc.
  • Well-developed portals make it easier for the user to find information. This could include academic, administrative and social information, such as registration materials, campus activities, community opportunities, test results and assignments. Students' records should be easily accessible in one place throughout their college years, as well as when they become alumni. In addition, generic entry-level portals, such as Netscape and Yahoo!, are used extensively worldwide.

    Operational Portals

    Building a portal presents challenges in providing the right content and overcoming the politics and feeling of ownership. Many departments have their own Web pages and feel they own the information under their control - the data may belong to the office of the registrar, the department of human resources, the library, etc. A portal should be dynamic, using data from a variety of sources; it cannot just be another Web page with links. Information is too frequently stored in different and incompatible databases without cross-references, and the departments that own databases frequently have difficulty relinquishing control.

    However, many successful portals are currently in operation. The federal government is supposed to launch an e-training portal that will allow about 2 million employees to access information and technology courses from their homes or offices. As part of the Electronic Government Act, which provides $345 million over four years, federal employees will be provided one online location to take courses, perform skill assessments and receive reports on their progress. This portal, located online at www.golearn.gov, was available in July 2002, and lets government agencies share reports concerning issues such as employee course registration, progress and future needs. A few of the other portals that are in operation or being developed include:

  • The California Department of Education implemented a Web portal from iAssessment Inc. called the Gateway Presentation System (GPS). It puts data collected across the state into one centralized location.
  • The University of Washington's MyUWClass Web portal (see related story on Page 34) personalizes student data, including course information, as well as the monies and tuition they owe.
  • Memphis City Schools is developing a portal designed to serve as a single point of access for parents and other members of the community. It is expected to present both administrative and instructional information. IBM is helping in the development of the portal for the school system, which serves 120,000 students and 15,000 full-time employees.
  • The University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has designed its own portal. The university is also currently discussing building one portal to serve its entire community.
  • Conclusion

    Educational institutions are populated by individuals with common interests and their need to share information. The challenge is to integrate resources, information, reports, etc., which may be in a number of places, and IT systems already in place, so that they appear seamless to the user. This can be done by building a portal, which takes a great deal of time and money to do properly; using source code developed by others; or obtaining the recommended portal software. However, the portal should avoid redundancy and result in greater efficiency. Politics in the institution also plays a large role.

    This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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