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Open uPortal technology gains ground in the UK

Over a series of meetings, US representatives of the Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA SIG) outlined their open source university portal technology to a diverse sample of UK HE representatives. Result: intriguing points of contact between UK educational software projects and uPortal have been identified, and a UK JA SIG has been set up.

Like other portal technologies, JA SIG's big idea with uPortal is to enable a single access point to useful information for members of institutions that run the portal. It aggregates content from as many sources as manageable, and then selects which information to push out to the personalised page of the individual user. Gather stuff, then personalise it. The difference with other portal technologies lies in a combination of three things: it is specifically designed for higher and further education, it aims to implement open standards where possible and it is open source software. As a result, it has now become one of the most widely used portal technologies in the US.

But not just the US; a number of Joint Information Services Committee(JISC) projects have used the same technology to provide students and staff with a personal view of the online resources of the universities of Hull, Nottingham, Bristol and De Montford University. The visit of the US JA SIG representatives was essentially intended to intensify that link in an effort to further internationalise uPortal. JA SIG wants to do that not just out of a desire to do things properly, but also to build up enough momentum behind establish useful standards like OASIS' Web Services for Remote Portals (WSRP)- a means by which bits of content can be shared through portal 'channels'. The effort clearly paid off, because anyone interested can now join a UK JA SIG by signing themselves up to the JASIG-UK mailing list.

Issues that have already been tackled by the group in the very same meetings include noodling out how something like uPortal fits with other educational technology. In theory, a portal should sum up all on-line resources of an institution, including the Virtual Learning Environment(s) (VLE). Trouble is, many VLEs already have functions that are quite similar to what a portal would provide- usually just not as powerful and as flexible as those of, for example, uPortal. An additional complaint from portal implementors is that VLE functions like calendaring, chat, authentication or groupmanagement can not easily be taken out of VLE software either. In other words, there's a bit of a battle for supremacy going on between these two technologies. There are also a few differences in technical culture to overcome between the two camps: the portal people tend to be quite library oriented for metadata and therefore use the Z39.50 search and discovery standard often. The VLE people tend to be firmly wedded to IMS meta data and IEEE LTSC Learning Object Model (LOM). There are (software) bridges to be built there, but the fit is not always straightforward.

On the other hand, as Jon Maber, developer of the Bodington Common VLE, pointed out, there is often little difficulty in practice in having multiple, separate information systems. People at Leeds, where Bodington Common was developed, know that specific kinds of information reside on different services. A portal could be a useful addition there, but not necessarily one that makes everything else redundant. Ultimately, the channel idea at the heart of portals ought to be flexible enough to push content in and out of VLEs. Who then gets to publish the user's favourite page that displays all that content is perhaps not so important.

One more immediate point of contact was established between the ANGEL (Authenticated Networked Guided Environment for Learning) project and uPortal. Though ANGEL started out as another portal, it pretty much went underground. That is to say, rather than provide the conduit to everything for a user, it aims to be the interface to everything for systems. It provides a unified means of looking after copyrighted material, for example. Or takes requests for specific information (library records, learning objects) from outside an institution and passes it on to the systems that look after that information in ways they can understand. The two big issues that everyone in that area is concerned with is authentication and authorisation of users. Ideally, a person would only have to authenticate once, and have access to everything (including resources half a world away) thereafter. This is a clear area of expertise where ANGEL and uPortal could pool resources.

On a much more abstract and pedagogical level, the relation between Colloquia -the peer to peer VLE from Bolton Institute- is primarily one of contrast. Where a portal personalises content in the system, on an institutional server, Colloquia personalises it completely at the client end. Personalisation there means that the actual system is someone's own application- both a server and a client. Yet even here some common interest could be explored. If channels are made available in a standardised format, there is no reason why Colloquia couldn't capture and display it. At its simplest by displaying an appropriate webpage, but more sophisticated means (e.g. by using uPortal's XSLT technology to output to an HTML file wrapped in an IMS content package) should be possible.

Further information about uPortal can be found at the JA SIG's uPortal site. All the presentations of the UK universities' uPortal workshop have been put up at Hull's PORTAL site. You can also browse or sign up to the new jiscmail JASIG-UK mailing list

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