Plymouth State College's Solution to the Build vs. Buy Portal Debate

Higher education decision makers are faced with a question that has serious organizational and monetary implications: Is it more effective to task campus IT staff with building homegrown portal applications, or is it more efficient to implement a third-party infrastructure to unite campuswide technology resources?

Plymouth State College was one of the first institutions to seek a solution to the build versus buy dilemma. In the mid-1990s, the New Hampshire-based college began actively developing a portal technology called the Student Information and Library Access System, otherwise known as MySILAS. The homegrown portal offered students, faculty and staff access to campus information and services, including online registration, grades, class rosters, syllabi and financial account status, long before such online services were available at other colleges and universities.

But, Plymouth State's build versus buy decision stems back to a time even before the development of MySILAS. During our search for a vendor solution we noticed that most of the software on the market was proprietary and didn't meet our integration needs. So we decided to take on code development ourselves, starting on an expedition that turned into a gold rush. And as the portal caught on, the entire campus community wanted more.

The need to improve Plymouth State's antiquated processes, such as requiring students to stand in line to register for classes, was the catalyst for MySILAS. When the portal was launched, it received overwhelmingly positive feedback just for the time it saved. As MySILAS inspired continual use from campus constituents, it also generated increasing requests for the information technology services (ITS) team to develop more advanced service-specific applications.

Vendor-Developed Infrastructure

On the surface, MySILAS appeared to be a successful development, but the portal required extensive maintenance. Although the ITS team received content and miscellaneous contributions from the residential life, undergraduate studies, finance and help desk departments, the small MySILAS development team struggled to keep up with coding demands, as well as an increasing need for security and content management. Because of the strain on the ITS team, application development projects became back-burner undertakings.

There were also inherent liabilities. If our small IT department was to suffer a turnover, portal applications and business processes would be put at substantial risk. The success of MySILAS made it increasingly difficult for our IT staff to maintain the portal code while developing new applications. We became so entrenched in the details of code development for MySILAS that our mission to support constituents and business processes through new technology applications seemed to vanish.

After substantial evaluation, the ITS team decided that if Plymouth State was to advance through the application of technology, its core competencies would have to shift from code management to strategic application development. This became the factor that led us to make an evolutionary decision. We could either continue to update and maintain coding for MySILAS, or we could partner with a third-party technology vendor to create the enterprisewide infrastructure.

The ITS team determined that purchasing a vendor-developed infrastructure would allow them tofocus their talents on building custom service applications, which enhance the reach and influence of the digital campus. With unanimous support for the project, Plymouth State's decision makers and technology leaders evaluated their needs. They then set out to find a technology partner who could speak to their mission as well as provide intuitive Web-based services for campus constituents. Plymouth State set basic criteria the technology solution would have to meet. It would need to:

  • Present a scalable and secure architecture, provide substantial baseline functionality, and remain technologically concurrent with the rapidly changing e-business realm;
  • Enable the ITS team to focus more attention on leveraging and applying technology to its educational community, and less time writing and maintaining a growing code set; and
  • Adhere to open standards to support system integration, since the college had already successfully implemented several third-party and homegrown technologies, including uPortal, MySILAS and SCT's Banner student information system (SIS).
  • Selecting the Right Solution

    The ITS team monitored the evolving landscape of various portal solutions and models. The Java in Administration Special Interest Group's (JA-SIG) uPortal initially became the solution of choice based on its ability to offer proven open source software. However, the team soon realized that JA-SIG did not offer the support structure to ensure a smooth implementation and ongoing maintenance. The team also began identifying other costs and issues associated with the consortium's software model that were not consistent with the college's overall technology objectives.

    It became apparent as we experimented with the software that there would be significant overhead in maintaining the uPortal code. We recognized there would eventually be so many variants of the application base among JA-SIG participants that compatibility, upgrading and code management would become burdensome. As a result, we looked to another solution that could provide the same strict adherence to standards-based technology with the capacity to offer extensive implementation and maintenance support.

    At EDUCAUSE 2001, JA-SIG and Campus Pipeline announced a relationship that enabled colleges and universities to integrate with standards-based applications developed and shared by other higher education institutions. The collaboration gave institutions the ability to benefit from a larger developmental community focused on creating and sharing portal channels compatible with the uPortal specification, while having a solid foundation on which to build a campuswide infrastructure. Campus Pipeline's strict adherence to open standards meant that Plymouth State would be able to customize, organize and distribute Web-based content to its constituents without being limited to proprietary software.

    The ability to employ an enterprisewide digital campus, while having the flexibility to create additional custom applications, motivated our team to select the Campus Pipeline Web Platform to become the foundation for the digital campus. The Web Platform provides a network that integrates data, portals, calendars and other campus technologies under a single online roof. Therefore, the digital campus would give campus constituents access to a wealth of campus information, services and communities from a single sign-on entry point. In addition, by partnering with Campus Pipeline, Plymouth State's ITS team could achieve its goal of creating a more strategic long-term vision for its digital campus.

    What Will It Do for Us?

    One condition the ITS team had when considering a vendor solution was visual integration - the visual interface had to be consistent across campus technology systems and applications. The Web Platform's ability to provide seamless visual and data integration with WebCT course tools and the SCT Banner SIS would improve current administrative processes. For example, if a particular student is recognized in the SIS as a graduating senior, Banner automatically transfers the information to the Web Platform. It then sends the student graduation information via e-mail, or displays the information on the student's personalized portal after the student logs into the digital campus.

    Currently, our new infrastructure lets us integrate much of our MySILAS technologies into our new digital campus. So rather than reinventing the wheel, we are thinking in terms of salvaging our current systems. We are now spending our energy in a different way, becoming more strategic and less reactive. In line with its integration strategy, the ITS team plans to extend the reach of its digital campus by implementing bookstore, course management, library, financial aid, student services and alumni fundraising software. To accomplish this, Plymouth State will implement the Campus Pipeline Luminis family of platform, content management and integration products. These technologies deliver improved operational efficiencies as well as access to services, and are extendable because of their standards-based framework. By implementing the Luminis products, Plymouth State's digital campus will gain endless integration possibilities and the freedom to add components as they are required.

    Today's economic climate demands that every dollar spent toward technology must contribute to improved operational efficiency, enhanced campus experiences for constituents and increased access to services. The decision to purchase our technology infrastructure, rather than continuing to build it, has worked out in our favor. It has given us the opportunity to focus our vision on expanding our digital campus instead of just managing it.

    Enhancing the Campus Experience

    Through its digital campus, Plymouth State is using technology to enhance the college experience for students, faculty and staff, as well as building a more holistic community, incorporating the interests of parents, alumni and friends of the college. We are turning that vision into a reality by creating an exceptional academic experience for all of our students based on their individual needs.

    The ITS team is currently developing a variety of technology applications that can be accessed from the digital campus, including a portfolio creation system that performs reflective assessments for students. So far, the team has developed a pilot application based on JA-SIG code, which records a combination of academic and student activities for three classes in the education department. When complete, the portfolios will contain faculty evaluations for 50 to 75 students studying early childhood education. The career services department plans to use this application as a resource when helping graduating students find jobs. The digital campus' value has also been recognized as a vehicle for disseminating information using integrated e-mail and personalized alerts as a means for facilitating group contact.

    Plymouth State is also looking to leverage the features of the Web Platform to serve all communities based on role. For example, the ITS team is using iCalendar, powered by the Sun ONE Calendar Server (formerly iPlanet Calendar Server), to facilitate collaboration and planning among online constituents. This collaboration includes distributing up-to-date information among the entire user base by updating all individual calendars in real time.

    Plymouth State's counseling center is currently working with the ITS team to let students share their Web-based calendars with their parents. Students can also pass on pertinent information, such as tuition payment reminders and event invitations. The ITS team predicts that this role-based messaging will foster improved communication between students and parents, as well as increase retention rates.

    The ITS team is now spending less time writing and maintaining a growing, complex code set; focusing more attention on leveraging and applying technology to its educational community. Staff requirements to maintain the digital campus is equivalent to the time of three full-time employees, as opposed to the five full-time employees required to maintain MySILAS. From a total cost of ownership perspective, the money invested in the Web Platform will be more than recovered in the money we will save in decreased staff time. In addition, we now have a professional product backed by a professional company, and are able to focus on the true business at hand without putting undo strain on our pocketbook.

    Future Plans

    The ITS team expects to build on its 20th century success in Web e-business and single sign-on personalized services by extending the borders of a 21st century digital campus - creating an extended learning community. Plymouth State's decision to partner with a third-party provider led to increased flexibility of the ITS team, enabling them to focus on future IT plans instead of wiring miles of code. Through its digital campus, Plymouth State hopes to continue fostering personal and shared relationships between information and people. Out of Plymouth State's 4,000 students, about 85 percent of them have used MySILAS to access campus resources. In addition, its new digital campus is closing the gap and inspiring most students to use the technology.

    The ITS team currently has its sights set on using a particular functionality of this digital campus, called Group Maker, to create access for prospective students and parents. Specifically designed for the IT administrator, Group Maker increases targeted messaging capabilities by making it possible to target specific audiences and send announcements based on any attribute in the SIS. The team predicts that creating and administering group lists will become easier, diverting postage fees to other areas.

    The college is also looking to mirror admissions models set by Pepperdine University and The University of Scranton, which utilize the digital campus to enhance the admissions process. These universities are extending access to prospective students to make the application, admissions and financial aid processes simpler. Plymouth State plans to track Web-initiated inquiries and uses the information to pre-engage prospective students, bridging the gap between high school and college life.

    Academic planners at Plymouth State also intend to use the digital campus to help acclimate first-year students into college life, both academically and socially. For example, the college offers a class that helps incoming students connect to the academic community by teaching them basic computer proficiency, library navigation and social skills. Plymouth State plans to use targeted messaging via the digital campus to invite prospective students to participate in the program. By extending this program to students, the admissions department hopes to improve the yield between students who inquire about attending versus those who actually apply.

    When we started the decision-making process we wanted to know which tools students and faculty value. After implementing our digital campus, we found that they don't place as much value on whether the college built the campus infrastructure itself, but how the school is enhancing their campus experience. With the results we have recognized so far, we are on target with meeting constituent needs.

    Plymouth State's Formula for Success

    Five important issues educational institutions should consider when deciding to build or buy their technology infrastructure:

    1. Don't just consider the technology, consider strategy. A vendor-supported infrastructure can free IT staff of endless code maintenance, enabling them to interact with different departments and find out how technology can best meet their needs. Most importantly, the technology must meet the needs of the institution and its strategic mission.

    2. Focus on your organization's core competencies. What is your institution known for? D'es technology figure into its reputation? How can the digital campus leverage your reputation? Determine how your current or homegrown technology infrastructure is helping to position your institution. Now determine if partnering with an infrastructure vendor would help your institution achieve its mission instead of getting bogged down in writing code.

    3. Figure out the needs of all departments. Encourage application developers to visit all departments and find out how they can create new technologies that produce more conveniences, as well as make processes run smoother and more efficiently. Then, develop a technology infrastructure committee to determine the tasks that must be completed.

    4. Align strategic and technological road maps. Don't just consider the technology, find a business partner that shares some of the same philosophical beliefs and values as your institution.

    5. Standards-based technology is a must. To make the most of your institution's existing technology investments, evaluate vendor solutions that integrate with a wide variety of campus technologies as well as their ability to support future integration decisions.

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