The Evolution of Information Access

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From Dedicated Terminals and Dial-Up Service to the Power of the Enterprise Web

Until the late 1960s, Betty Schweizerschool districts had no access to computing power, electronic teaching resources or centralized means to make common use of school district data. Then in ’68, the first online, real-time administrative data processing option for schools arrived with the advent of dial-up access to a remote mainframe computer. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that educational computer service providers transitioned from dedicated high-speed lines to Internet access, giving school systems random access to multiple server-based modules as well as to a myriad of administrative and teaching applications.

Today, the best-equipped school districts have access to multiple integrated functions and data sharing through multiservice providers. Applications include student record keeping, finance, transportation routing, learning and technology systems, e-mail, human resources, as well as payroll and benefits management. However, experience has demonstrated that having virtually unlimited options d'es not necessarily lead to optimum efficiency for districts.

In a functional sense, the current situation of Web-based access to informational services parallels the days when there were stacks of paper on the desk and rows of file cabinets with important student, teacher and HR files scattered around various offices. Sure the information was all available, but it was inefficiently distributed. While a multiplicity of resources currently can be found on the Internet, each resides at a unique URL and each requires its own login step.

Since the seemingly endless array of content, applications, services and support resources available to school districts via the Internet cannot be efficiently accessed, the user’s experience is generally complex, inconsistent and time-consuming. Yet, based on their status or specialized needs, educational users are still required to move from one URL to another without assistance.

While the current best-case educational environment with districts or groups of districts tied to a multiservice provider Figure 1offers vast improvements over earlier options, it continues to suffer from workflow complexity as well as document and content management limitations. Furthermore, the conventional education model offers limited potential for effective collaboration between individuals and groups. In contrast, the typical business computing environment offers virtually all the required computing functions and content for each class of user from the vantage point of a “home” screen reached via a single login.

The Enterprise Web Option

Large business organizations are typically equipped with a portal that delivers the sum of the company’s systems, information and services across the Web - organized and easily accessible as service-oriented applications.

Figure 2

Such applications combine data and processes with shared services and are managed within the administrative framework of the corporate portal.

Every new application coming online complements the existing infrastructure and systems, and can be integrated into a larger experience typically known as the “enterprise Web.” This framework is open to various development environments, languages and application servers - all of which are transparent and immediately accessible to the user. This means that new service-oriented applications can be quickly assembled and implemented.

The ability to access all resources with one login through a portal results in a seamless, transparent interface that can be customized to the needs of the organization as well as individual users. The portal puts all applications in view and makes them available to the user at the click of a button. The Web portal concept has been widely and successfully adopted in the commercial realm, but development and implementation costs have placed this effective user interface beyond the reach of most educational institutions. Through a consortium, however, Web portal technology can be affordably purchased and leveraged by multiple districts.

Enterprise Web’s Benefits

The ability of a service provider to offer portal capabilities to school districts will likely result in significant user savings in time and money. A portal would give all users the ability to search across domains and conduct work seamlessly, with immediate access to every category of needed information. Individual districts would be able to create smaller portals based on custom content, making useful data constantly available from the same source. In addition, a portal would make communication with selected audiences easy, systematic and secure so that multiple customized groups could function simultaneously without conflict or delay.

If a portal-based system saved each user as little as minutes per day, the cumulative benefit in this area alone would be significant to yearly budgets. Commercial experience shows that once in service, portal flexibility prompts users to conceive new efficiencies and applications based on real-world conditions. A portal-based login screen also can be customized to the needs of individual user categories. For example, an administrator might desire home access to finance and budget resources, HR records, attendance information and discipline records, as well as personal data such as pay records and employee benefits. A teacher would be interested in the same personal information as well as links to teaching resources, gradebooks, class attendance records and parent/guardian contacts. In addition, parents could link directly to their student’s assignments, grades and attendance, while students would likewise have immediate access to assignments and selected learning resources by means of a single login.

A strategic potential for portal operation is the ability for users to collaborate efficiently and securely, as well as to share content selectively without the security and distribution compromises of e-mail. Thus, working group members who are normally required to assemble in person would be able to meet at the desktop for online video-based discussions. Online conferences would eliminate travel time, transportation costs and, possibly, the need for substitutes. Online meetings could even be supported with language translation for cross-cultural conferences - within buildings, across districts or even worldwide.

Implementing a Portal

Implementation of a portal system should be straightforward, beginning with formatting and content organization based on various user categories. It would be necessary to prepare district trainers so they could distribute application knowledge down to the building and classroom levels and, in turn, provide assistance to their users. You can also expect that training new groups of users on Web portal tool sets (making use of the portal in the process) will be simpler than the current task of mastering nonintegrated and inconsistent applications.

The Web portal provides an excellent framework for delegation of responsibility, but careful planning and phased implementation are required to achieve even results. Smooth portal operation will entail ongoing district-level administration and management. Portal users confirm that once a portal system is in place, the work effectiveness of users tends to evolve based on individual work requirements and personal styles. Thus, the Web portal concept represents an opportunity for a fundamental shift in the way work is accomplished. It also delivers the full power of the Internet to the user in an organized and efficient format.


TIES Launches Web Portal Solution for K-12 Education

TIES, a nonprofit consortium that provides technology and information resources to school administrators, educators and students, is currently implementing the Plumtree Portal, which is the first portal-based service for K-12 education. This product is initially being delivered to the 37 Minnesota member school districts (representing about 400 schools and more than 245,000 students) that own and govern TIES, but will eventually be open to other districts as well. Similar to TIES’ member districts, future districts also will be free to determine content and organization in accordance with local needs. For more information on the new enterprise Web portal solution, visit www.ties.k12.mn.us and click on “TIES Web Portal.”

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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