As a business in 2018, we have a lot of Google Alerts setup.  After all, we want to know how to best make our solution visible to people, many of whom don’t actually know how to look for it!  We have alerts setup around our competition, alerts that tell us when an RFP goes out for something we provide, alerts for technologies we hope to “plug into” ours, and more.  

As you can probably imagine, one of those alerts is for “student portal.”  A bit disconcerting is the sheer number of search alerts we receive after a student, staff, or faculty has posted a question asking how to get to their institution’s student portal.  Sigh.  But also interesting (at least to us) is the number of products which describe themselves with student portal verbiage. 

To be clear, while there are a lot of products, many of which we compete with head to head, which use the moniker ‘student portal’, most could not effectively argue that they are a digital campus.  Something that we feel strongly about is that a portal (alone) is not only a very 1990’s term, but also a very web 2.0 concept.  Almost every ‘student portal’ product out there is simply a conglomeration of links. Some may feed in a calendar or provide a few forms that add information to the system of record, they may even “recommend” certain links to certain user types, but at the end of the day, most student portals are just links (hopefully Single-Sign-On, but not always) from the portal to various tools.  They might have a mobile, albeit less capable app.  They might add in YouTube videos from the school’s channel.  But they are not a digital version of your campus.  Which is likely why students and IT professionals alike hate portals so much.  They should be golden real-estate, helping connect all of your people to other people, systems, support, and beyond, but they just don’t make that happen.  There is no ROI on a traditional student portal.

university mobile apps

Mobile Apps

But while we can discuss portal vs digital campus at any point, here we would like to talk through some things that may masquerade as a student portal, but in reality, are not.  Even if they use the right language, these platforms and systems are not actually portals.

Take mobile apps.  I’m talking about companies that started exclusively as a mobile app for the college or university, possibly adding some web functionality along the way, but which do not connect everything to everyone.  So, perhaps you have a portal already – something likely old and ensconced at the institution, but also dug in like an Alabama tick, making it hard to imagine moving to a new system.  But you know that in 2018 you also need to provide students with a mobile experience.  So you call a mobile app company.

As previous school administrators and staff, we have worked with these companies.  While pretty expensive, the tools themselves are slick.  They have workflow management built in as well as the ability to segment out the departments and other silos around the campus.  They can provide access and/or a view into most of the content a student might need, which can be helpful as so many younger students desire that mobile experience.  But are they a student portal?

Of course not.  While they may be clever technologies (or maybe not), they are not a place to connect every person to everything that matters.  The most obvious reason for that distinction is the number of people who simply do not wish to access things from a mobile device.  A bevy of staff and faculty desire web-based experiences and a percentage of students feel the same way.  People need/want access to the information, systems, and platforms they use, in whatever way they desire to access it.  So, authenticating people into multiple systems, ensuring parity across all systems, and potentially ensuring that all appropriate feeds are available to everyone, all the time, takes more than a mobile app.  Add to that some of the “heavy lifting” content designers need a full keyboard, web tools, and more, and it becomes even more clear.  While mobile apps are a student must, they simply cannot replace a true portal.

Universities using data for early alert intervention systems

Early Alert / Intervention Systems

Similarly, some schools may work with data driven, risk and success intervention systems which provide a “student portal” component or module.  Again, as previous administrators we have worked on retention and persistence initiatives with these tools with varying degrees of success.  While we are seeing a number of schools actually moving away from these systems due to complexity or difficulty with implementation, some colleges and universities find real value, visualizing predictive models for students.

Some of these companies are attempting to create “student portal” experiences, by combining data driven achievement strategies with technology pathways.  In theory this is a super exciting concept, but combining degree planning with links to all of the important tools and systems a student needs is quite a bit more difficult than any of those systems have undertaken.  So, unfortunately, you get a planning tool context acting as the central hub experience for students, when there is so much more to the university or college experience.   Some of these tools are being designed for specific students, such as transfer students or at-risk students.  And while these students absolutely can use a quick, easy way to ensure that they are mapping out the right courses and credentials, it would be a mistake to treat that single experience as the only experience.  In other words, while they may use the word “portal”, this likely is not what students need for much of their success.  It’s a bit akin to a “Career Services Portal” or an “Alumni Donation Portal.”  These portals are like offices at a campus, whereas the student portal is the hallway that connects them.

Summing Up

Hopefully this helps give a sense of what is and what is not a student portal.  While terminology is (unfortunately) misused and misappropriated, the concepts should be clear.  A portal connects all of your people to all of your stuff, hopefully across all modalities.  From there, you can iterate onward and upward.  For instance, partitioning certain resources against certain roles is a good start.  (We were recently shown an existing “home-grown” portal which had more than 200 links for students to comb through….yikes!)  After that, important feeds such as calendars, tasks, or other important “widgets” can enhance the experience.

But again, we believe a student portal should be more than that in 2018.  There is a mountain of evidence, especially pertinent, academically rigorous evidence from the past 25 years showing the power of “non-cognitive” (we hate that term) factors.  Far beyond the ability to quickly click on any appropriate piece of content or any appropriate system, students desire connection.  (Heck, people desire connection.)  Yet many schools today make that connection very difficult, assuming it is happening in the classroom, when research once again shows us it is not.  It’s like assuming your 9-year-old has friends because s/he plays soccer every Saturday with a team.  While it is safe to say the child has teammates, it is not realistic to say those teammates are friends.  Friendship requires more than time together in close proximity, after all.

Similarly, saying that students are “engaged” because they attend classes is unfair.  Some students are actually put off by some classes.  Many students today talk of feeling alone, unsure, or occasionally unwanted at college.  But when they get to connect with a person, a group, a club, an event, a cause…and if you allow them to build community around those things both in-person AND via social tools they desire…well, now those same students are more likely to persist.  Why?  Because they are connected to something that they value, not something they were told to value.

We hope you’ll ask more about how to take a portal and turn it into a digital campus.  We hope you will request some information about how to measure the points of connectivity so as to enhance your retention, enrollment, or even affinity numbers.  We hope you will ask us about how to get ROI out of the central hub experience that is golden, digital real estate.

Good luck and good learning.