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October 1, 2002

Tech Watch

By John Fritz, Director, New Media Learning and Development

myUMBC, the campus Web portal, will be changing, probably in late spring. The main reason is that the campus has discovered how to use it -- and then some.

When it launched in 1999, myUMBC won praise from students for its ease of use in academic functions like course registration, schedule look up and viewing one's bill. Faculty, too, found it easier to authorize students and manage their class lists. It even won a "gold medal" from a higher education association. And as more of UMBC's services became Web-enabled, the campus began to take advantage of this password-protected site that delivers content based on your UMBC userid and role. For example,

*Financial applications like FinWeb or E-Travel allow authorized users to manage their department's finances and travel requests.

*Faculty and staff can download the UMBC logo to create electronic letterhead using Microsoft Word.

*Undergraduates can vote in Student Government Elections.

*And all campus users can manage their own UMBC email subscriptions, verify their phonebook listings or add money to their campus ID cards.

By delivering content and functions based on your unique UMBC user id and related role (e.g. student, faculty or staff), myUMBC changed how the campus uses the Web, from merely providing information about the university, to adding customized services and interactivity that can supplement or even replace face-to-face business transactions. That's an inevitable direction for any Web site trying to develop and maintain a loyal audience. People tend to want a more personalized Web experience built around their needs. In fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported how campus portals are being used to attract new students AND retain them through better service online than their institutions can probably provide in a face-to-face format.

Unfortunately, the current version of myUMBC isn't flexible enough to meet the campus' growing needs. For example, the alumni office would like to use myUMBC so alums can change their address online or subscribe to the monthly email newsletter. Parents, too, might find it useful to be able to add money to their son or daughter's campus ID card; and admitted students might like to see what their class schedule would be or when they could register.

More importantly, it's currently not very easy to change the look, feel and (sometimes) the functionality of myUMBC because the computer code that displays your information also retrieves it from "back-end" university databases like the Student Information System (SIS) or Human Resources employee database. However, as portals have matured in recent years, developers have tended to separate these display and data layers (or "tiers") to make their applications more efficient and secure. While these "tiers" are still integrated, it's easier to develop and maintain the entire application because the underlying technical platform is modular. With a tiered architecture, you can delegate the user interface to designers and editors focused on end users' ease of use, while programmers can focus on the data structure and "business rules" of how a user's information is retrieved, presented, modified or deleted. But to provide that flexibility in how myUMBC is developed and maintained in the future, it needs to be re-engineered now.

After several months of looking at available (and affordable) options, OIT's Business Systems Group has been experimenting with uPortal, a collaborative, java-based product used and developed by many universities through the Java Special Interest Group (JA-SIG). So far, uPortal looks promising and is used by several universities including Cornell, Princeton, Syracuse, UC Irvine and the University of Delaware. If OIT decides to use uPortal, a likely redesign plan may look like this:

Determining users needs (e.g., surveys, focus groups, interviews)
Research best practices of campus portals
Interpreting and prioritizing identified needs

Initial prototype
Usability testing & refinement
Development & design

Rollout & launch

PeopleSoft HR & Finance launch
Summer orientation

If you have an idea how your department or organization could present information to users based on their campus role or affiinities, please complete the myUMBC user survey.

While it's impossible to meet everyone's needs, the process can be improved if we can identify and focus our efforts on the functions and services the campus community wants most.

Posted by dwinds1 at October 1, 2002 12:00 AM