Session Name: Building An Educational Portal: A Single Stop for Learning Resource
Presenter: Thom Dunks, Santa Cruz County Office of Education

This session covered the work done by the Santa Cruz, California School District of some 39000 students in putting together an Internet portal or web site for the gathering of resources for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. The featured portal contains resource tabs (categories) for curriculum, research and reference, teachers, administrators, and parents. Under each tab were the resources selected at the district level and by designated bodies, such as the district curriculum committee. Many of the resources contained under the tabs represent products available from exhibitors at the NECC conference and other freely available resources. These are things such as online encyclopedias, libraries, test preparation, advanced placement, cool educational resource sites for kids – you get the picture.

The advantage of a portal, which can be pulled together at a school, district, or state level, is that it is a collection of the best resources for educational purposes. The presenter showed how using Google, a very common alternative, a student searching to obtain information on Dr. Martin Luther King could easily end up at a white supremacist web site. In other words, a portal allows a community to gather together the appropriate resources for the educational context and make those conveniently available.

For this particular effort, the work was described as encompassing three phases. The first phase includes the tabs and types of resources named above. The next phase, in early implementation, will incorporate a platform for enabling individual “course sites” through a course management system to allow online access to assignments, schedules, and student-specific resources. The third phase will add additional features for professional development.

This particular project has made use of the uPortal product for phase one and is beginning to make use of the Moodle product for phase two. Both of these products were developed originally for the higher education segment and are open source. The presenter indicated that uPortal implementation requires Java programming expertise.

It was clear from the audience questions that there is great interest in the portal category – it appears to be a higher priority than the course site category, with less than 10% indicating they had or were developing a course site capability today. It is interesting to note that for the Santa Cruz district, the portal seems to emphasize resources for students, with the assumption that these are the most likely users given their preference for the Internet. The Santa Cruz model does not address integration to administrative systems at all. However, for many districts this is a priority and in the higher education segment the portals offered by a variety of vendors (including uPortal, student systems vendors, course management platform vendors, and distinct portal vendors) offer as a primary feature integration to administrative systems and serve as the single sign-on authentication point. One can only assume that many IT shops will see this as an important feature of the portal architecture, requiring much greater security than was implemented for the Santa Cruz district.

The make or break question for schools or districts is clearly do they have enough resources, from the implementation, maintenance, and administrative aspects to implement a successful portal? And, how will they know when it is successful? Does it truly become the major touch point for students, teachers, etc. or do they still primarily use Google? This presentation did not shed light on those key topics. However, it is clear that the higher the level the portal the more potential pooling of resources. So, implementation at the state level first and then tiering down would seem to make sense from a cost perspective in not a political one. One of the nice features of portals that was not discussed in the session is that some are set up to support such tiering so that different tiers, such as districts and schools can add on customizations for their levels. One can suspect to see many more developments along these lines in the coming years. Stay tuned.

Rob Abel, Chief Executive Officer, IMS Global Learning Consortium