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Business Officer Magazine
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Portal Power

To improve student services, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte built connections instead of a building.

By Karin Steinbrenner

Visit UNC Charlotte’s portal project Web site at www.uncc.edu/portal/info/projdoc.asp.

From runaround to clickaround—that’s the switch our students were able to make once the University of North Carolina at Charlotte became a virtual provider of student services. We created a portal in response to two challenges: a projected increase in enrollment of about 5,000 students over the next five years, and a desire to provide a better quality of student services.

As is the case at many institutions, our students had long been subjected to traversing from one building to another to tend to administrative processes like registering and paying for courses. Initially, the university thought the answer to providing better service and addressing increasing enrollment was the construction of a multimillion-dollar administrative building that would house all student services. However, we concluded that a virtual one-stop portal could provide the same services at considerably less cost. Although we did not do a cost analysis, it would be conservative to estimate that the cost for construction of a building would be about 10 times greater than what we ultimately spent on development of our portal, the 49er Express. (This name comes from UNC Charlotte’s mascot, a miner, in honor of the 49er miners who found gold in North Carolina prior to the California gold rush.)

Some users think of a portal as merely a gateway for easy access to services and information with a single sign-on. However, it is actually an integration platform with benefits that go much deeper than a presentation layer. First, the portal provides an IT infrastructure layer that allows us to integrate disparate technologies and bring a host of applications to the portal environment fairly inexpensively and easily. Second, the portal creates a true user-centric environment. And third, by sharing a common user interface and navigational elements, we not only make it easier for users to log in, but we also make it easier for them to find what they are looking for, resulting in a substantial increase in usage.

Infrastructure Eases Integration

The ability to integrate disparate technologies is an important element in the portal platform. Because our platform, SCT Luminis, is based on open standards, our technology team can tie into—and add value to—existing legacy systems and future technology choices. At UNC Charlotte, these technologies include but are not limited to directory services; departmental applications; utilities such as mail and calendaring; our course management system; and information access and delivery. The IT infrastructure layer allows us to add myriad Web-based software applications at a minimal cost.

The channelized content and layout feature within the solution lets us turn almost any Web-based content or application into an information or service “channel” accessible through the campus portal. For example, the university wanted to conduct a student survey recently. The capabilities to reach the intended audience in a secure environment were already available through the portal. A possible future application is bringing electronic portfolios, which are becoming increasingly popular with faculty and students, into the portal. By doing so, we would make these e-portfolios accessible to users where they are already conducting most of their university activities, rather than requiring users to leave the portal and click through to their portfolios. Another possibility is the addition of an electronic information dashboard. This is a user interface that, similar to an automobile’s dashboard, organizes and presents information in a way that is tailored to the portal visitor and is easy to read. These are just two examples of Web-based applications that we can now deploy readily into the portal.

Because the portal has quickly become the first and primary electronic services resource for our students, we plan to integrate additional applications and make them available in the future. In fact, we have set a standard that requires any new application to be accessible through the portal—otherwise new services would be hard for the user to locate.

Catering to Users

The single, integrated platform enabled by the software is also methodically moving us away from various standalone systems and eradicating the barriers among our departments. Services such as housing and financial aid are no longer separate entities controlled by various departments. As a result, our university processes are now optimized for users, not for departments.

For example, the library had requested a single link on the student portal. But via focus groups and surveys, students told us that they did not want a single link. Rather, to reduce clicks, they wanted direct access from the portal to distinct library services such as interlibrary loans, loan status, and other services. In fact, students also told us “books are books” and suggested that information about the bookstore be presented within the portal framework along with links to library resources.

The user focus is further enhanced by the personalization of services and information to each user. When students enter our 49er Express portal, they are greeted by name and their course schedule is displayed. They are reminded of upcoming events and impending actions, like the need to register for courses or pay tuition. This customized information has been culled from the systems of various departments, yet the boundaries between those departments are transparent to the users. The portal integrates what used to be standalone services and puts the user in the center. Students no longer have to visit departments—physically or electronically—to obtain the services they need. All departmental services have been organized in one location to best meet the visitors’ requirements. That’s what makes the portal concept so unique and so popular with users. Students have been vocal and quick to express their satisfaction.

All Aboard

The portal platform allows us to offer centralized and personalized Web access to campus information, services, and communities. Students can view and act where and when they want within the portal, whether the goal is doing research, learning, performing administrative tasks, or communicating with friends.

To be authenticated into 49er Express, students enter an eight-character ID and password. This is the only time they have to log in. Then they have access to e-mail, WebCT courses, and Web for Student Services, including course registration. Previously each of these required separate logins. The system knows the role of the individual and presents an appropriate layout. Navigation capabilities within the portal allow students to access information from their perspectives rather than trying to navigate through multiple departmental Web pages.

Based on extensive research with students, we designed tabs to categorize key services and information. The tabs are: My 49er, My Records, Library and Research, Student Life, Campus Services, and My Future. My 49er includes My Courses, My Calendar, Personal Announcements, Campus Events, and Campus Announcements.

Proving the Portal’s Worth

Although we've had some Web-enabled student services for several years, the navigational ease provided by the portal has resulted in a 30 percent increase in use of services. Within a few weeks of the portal going live, almost 2,000 hits were made from the My Future section. “Considering that students do not have to use this—unlike course registration—we are thrilled,” says Denise Smith, director of the University Career Center.

The use of targeted messaging, rather than general e-mail messages, also has dramatically increased student usage of applications. For example, in response to a targeted message, a record number of students submitted nominations for the prestigious Bank of America Teaching Award. University Provost Joan Lorden notes, “If there was any question about whether or not this is a good way to reach students, these results are a striking answer.”

Our health center’s “get your immunization form turned in” message that was targeted to new freshmen resulted in increased traffic into that office. And the student government vote participation for the fall more than doubled from previous fall elections.

Input and Support Matter

Our portal’s integration and capabilities offer tremendous benefits. We believe our approach to design and implementation has greatly contributed to the portal’s success.

From the onset, we had the support of upper management, who positioned this implementation as a campuswide project, not an IT initiative. This support was especially important in overcoming the political obstacle of transitioning from a department-centric approach to one focused on the students.

We also fostered widespread involvement with participation from the entire campus. We held numerous student focus groups and conducted Web surveys to determine what should be available in the portal and where. One of our faculty members in the College of Business Administration had graduate students create a portal design, and we used many of those elements in the finished portal. We also sought out students’ suggestions for the portal name and logo. We narrowed their submissions to two, then asked the student population to vote. Involving students in the project from start to finish gave them a sense of ownership.

In addition, other members of the campus community were engaged throughout the project and participated in various project teams. These included a functional team responsible for identifying the services that are included in the portal; a facilitation team that supported communication and marketing related to the portal; a technical team that installed the equipment and software and integrated the necessary applications; and a design team that addressed multiple navigation options and content issues.

A Continuing Journey

Now we are in the process of engaging faculty to get their input on their portal, which currently has limited functionality. It was important to give them access at the same time we went live with the student portal so that the two groups could communicate and take advantage of course management features. In retrospect, it might have been better to wait to bring up the student portal until we had full functionality in the faculty portal. Going live with an interim version caused some dissatisfaction among the faculty. Some did not understand that this did not represent the fulfillment of our final goal. We are confident that faculty will be as pleased as our students once the full implementation is available.

Another upcoming initiative is the development of an employee portal. The portal will eventually provide services for other university constituents such as alumni, future students, and parents. Whether the users are students, alumni, or faculty, they will encounter customized services and information tailored to their needs.

By implementing a portal platform, UNC Charlotte has built a digital campus that helps us achieve our objectives of meeting the demands of increasing enrollment and providing better service to all our users. That’s the power of the portal: making connections with a few simple clicks. For the 49er Express, it looks like the clicks will keep coming.

Author Bio Karin Steinbrenner is associate provost for information systems and CIO at UNC Charlotte.

E-mail ksteinbr@email.uncc.edu