About This Guest Post
Tracey Stanley has spoken at three IWMW events: IWMW 2002, IWMW 2003 and IWMW 2004. In this post she looks back at the panel session on “Avoiding Portal Wars” she participated in at the IWMW 2002 event.
The Portal is Dead. Long Live the Portal!
Back in 2002 I took part in a panel session at the IWMW 2002 event on “Avoiding Portal Wars“. The main premise of the session was that we needed to work together across our institutions to deliver a joined-up web presence for our users rather than developing our separate ‘library portals’, ‘e-learning portals’ and ‘research portals’ in silos, and that the emerging institutional portal technology was the way to go for bringing all of this together into a coherent, and highly satisfying, whole, using open standards.
We were all getting very excited about web portals in higher education back then, and many of us put these at the centre of our institutional web strategies. Designed as a one stop shop home page, where you could aggregate news and other content alongside access to systems and services such as email and the library catalogue, the Institutional Portal could be seen at that time as representing a major shift in our thinking about the purpose and design of our web sites. The idea was that these should become much more customer-centric – with the philosophy that our content should be driven by our users’ (diverse) needs rather than by our complex and often byzantine institutional organisational structures.
In 2002, many of our web sites were chaotic. They’d been largely born and nurtured by individual enthusiasts, with little corporate oversight. They’d reached that awkward teenage stage; unloved, unwashed and grown beyond control. Our institutional websites had, up until that time, been loosely controlled and perhaps ignored by our institutions. Recruitment and Marketing were just beginning to wake up to the idea that the web was actually a really powerful tool , and we were starting to see the emergence of corporate styles which were applied to the top-level pages, but once you navigated further in to the site you quite often found that the pages looked drastically different as you moved from department to department, with different departments free to develop their own look and feel, and not necessarily even follow the navigational structures imposed at the top level.
Lack of consistent design and navigation left our users feeling that they had entered a whole different space – the institution couldn’t be viewed as a coherent whole, but instead became a series of mini-organisations all following their own rules. The poor hapless user has to re-learn the navigational mores of each area of the site. Most information was openly available to all and there was no attempt to segment content by different types of user. The result was a spaghetti junction of a mess which could hardly be said to support institutional marketing or recruitment priorities, or to provide a joined-up and coherent experience for the user. As websites grew and grew the content became ever more difficult to navigate and make sense of, and also much more difficult to web content authors to manage and keep up to date, relevant and current.
The Institutional Portal was perhaps seen at that time as a panacea by Senior Managers, Marketing and IT staff alike. Managers and Marketing wanted to separate out content for prospective students and external audiences and put it onto a flashy institutional website over which they could have complete control. Internal Communications were keen to find new ways of presenting internally-focused content – and the Institutional Portal offered the promise of delivering this in a way which segmented it according to the different internal audiences, so that users were only presented with the stuff that is most relevant to them. IT staff were keen to implement single-sign on so that the Institutional Portal could act as a one stop shop to all the web systems and services increasingly proliferating on campus – from the Library system to the Student Information System, and the VLE. They were also excited by the opportunity to develop and present information from various systems in integrated portlets – so that users could see at a glance how many books they had out on loan or which course modules they were signed up to, without needing to visit lots of different systems.
Sounds great doesn’t it? So what’s happened?
Many of us were quick to buy into Institutional Portal technology – including IBM Websphere, uPortal, Luminis, Sharepoint and other products. Pretty much all of these products are still around, although some have had greater market penetration than others.
Let’s take uPortal – the open source portal offering. This was enthusiastically taken up in the United States, although had less of a presence in the UK. However, it was integrated into a number of commercial offerings – including CampusPipeLine (which became Luminis), and sold with support. uPortal is still being developed, and the last release of the product – version 4.2.1 – was released in October 2015. It doesn’t appear to have an active roadmap for further development, and the pages for uPortal Developer meetings have not been updated since 2008[i]. It’s now managed through Apereo – a network of educational institutions developing and maintaining open source software.
It’s still being used by a number of institutions including University of Bristol, University of Hull, University of Chicago and University of Waterloo (Canada), although some of them are looking pretty tired.
Many institutions in the UK still have Institutional Portals – for example, University of Hull, University of Edinburgh, University of Leeds, University of Nottingham, University of Bristol. Others didn’t progress with proposed developments (University of York) or have now withdrawn their production services (Cardiff University). Cardiff University withdrew its Institutional Portal in summer 2014, and has replaced it with a new University Intranet. The University York appears to have gone down the same route with its ‘personal student homepage’[ii].
So, there’s still interest in Institutional Portals out there, but I can’t help thinking that the concept hasn’t gone much beyond the original early adopters, at least not in the UK. I don’t hear much about other institutions launching new portals these days.
The model of aggregating everything into a single place on a web page perhaps makes less sense when increasingly users are accessing content through their smartphone or tablet. Why bother with a Portal when you can set up all your favourite apps on your phone and there’s no need to log in each time you want to access them – the app holds your credentials and authenticates for you. Institutions who are still focusing on their portal for their internal web market may be missing a trick by forgetting that many of their users will be expecting to access these services via their mobile device instead these days. Does the Portal have a future in a mobile world?
There was an interesting talk at IWMW in 2014 from Dr Martin Morrey, University of Edinburgh, called ‘Rebooting MyEd: Making the Portal Relevant Again’, which covers their experiences working with uPortal, and their work to re-envision their Portal as an app. This noted that whilst the existing Institutional Portal was receiving in excess of 300,000 visits per week (10% of the traffic coming via mobile), the app received fewer than 1,000 visits per week. Martin concludes that it’s more about having a single place for users to go which works across all platforms rather than developing separate interfaces for different devices, which become increasingly hard to maintain and keep up to date.
And what of our friends, the commercial players? Microsoft is re-imagining Sharepoint as a collaboration platform, and increasingly repositioning the Office 365 suite of products as a ‘nextgen portal’ – for those of us who have implemented Office 365 for institutional email, will these products eventually replace our Portal offerings?
Microsoft is entering some interesting territory which overlaps with many traditional Portal functions, with products such as Yammer – an organisational collaboration tool, and Delve – an organisational knowledge management tool which will enable people across organisations to find people and expertise. Microsoft describes this as a ‘virtuous circle of discovering people through content, content through people’[iii]. Plus, it’s all mobile-ready.
The challenges for institutions are, as ever, about adoption – many technologies come and go without ever successfully leveraging institutional buy-in and hitting that critical mass. As ever, there’s also competition on the crowded institutional stage of systems and applications – will Universities use a tool like Delve to share expertise internally if they’ve already invested in a Current Research Information System (CRIS) for example? Will we be building our portals (and intranets) on Office 365 and other enterprise systems in future or will niche systems continue to dominate? Can we get to a point where we use more and build less – by using what we already have as building blocks for custom portals?
[i] uPortal Developer Meetings, https://wiki.jasig.org/display/UPC/uPortal+Developer+Meetings (accessed 01/03/16)
Tracey Stanley is Deputy University Librarian at Cardiff University, where she has worked since September 2010. She has over 20 years of experience in higher education, having previously worked at the University of Leeds, University of York and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). She was Programme Director for the University of Leeds Institutional Portal project from 2002 – 2006 and also Programme Director for the JISC-funded EVIE Project which developed a prototype portal for research (JISC Virtual Research Environments Programme). At Cardiff, she is currently Programme Director for the WHELF Shared Library Management System initiative.
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Image credit (portal image) [Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons]