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School Portal Gets a New Facelift

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

On Monday, August 17, GW Law traded in its old Portal for a newer model.  It came as a shock to many when, instead of finding the familiar logon screen of the old portal, they were met with a new pop-up login box requesting their username and password.  Once past this new login process, students were met with a sleek new portal design with tabs across the top and the side, instead of a long list of links on the side.  The new portal also puts students' classes at the forefront, whereas they too, used to be a series of links on the side bar.  The look and feel of the new portal is impressive, but why the switch?

SBA President John Sorrenti provided some of his thoughts on the change: "I think there were some concerns with the old portal that it just listed a number of announcements in a long list and many of them went unread.  I know with the new one and its filtering capability the school hoped to allow students some more ability to manage the announcements.  I also think the old portal was a bit, well, old and the school wanted to update it, but that is just a guess.  If you notice, however, the school has been slowly revamping all their online resources, starting with the Law School website, then the University itself revamped one of its websites, and now the portal.  I suspect this was in the works for a little while."  Sorrenti's comments definitely make sense from a user perspective, but what about from a technology perspective?  According to Mike Briggs, Director of Information Technology at the Law School, there were several technological reasons for moving to the new portal.

One reason, Briggs explained, was that "[w]e needed to switch platforms to reduce development times."  In non-IT language, this means that the software behind the old and new portals is different, and that the new software will allow the IT department to make changes and improvements to the portal faster.

Another reason for moving to the new portal is that the IT department, and assumingly the school "wanted to use a product designed specifically for law schools.  The new portal software is being adopted by many law schools."  In discussing the benefits of the new portal, Briggs further explained, "The new portal rides on top of a new platform and software suite that is purpose[ly] built for law schools.  This will allow us to share the burden of improvements as more schools adopt the technology.  By not having to maintain the entire system ourselves, we should be able concentrate on adding more functionality."  This is a big plus for all users of the new portal, and will perhaps get more students using the portal.

The last reason for the switch is that there was a need "to implement certain features that would have been difficult to do on the old system."  It's not entirely clear what some of those "certain features" are, but the portal does present a whole host of new functionality; giving students, professors, and departments in the law school the power to do things that simply could not be done on the old portal.  Briggs explained, "an out of the box feature with the new system is the ability of participating departments within the law school to create content themselves.  On the top menu bar, under the item "Department Info" is a list of these departments.  Departments can also provide information directly to the new "docket" feature."  But what does this mean for law students?  "Using these features, departments can now target information to a specific audience.  Hopefully, this will let students find information they need more quickly."

Another new feature students should explore is "the ability to be notified via RSS or email of changes to certain information contained within their course sites."  Sorrenti also chimed in on the benefits of the new portal, "Students should expect a more streamlined portal that gives them the ability to filter the portal announcements based on category or specific keyword.  In addition, while the portal is new, and may take some time to get used to, once students have used it, they should expect a more straightforward process and procedure that is more easy to understand and follow (hopefully)."

Additionally, each course page now lists the classroom where the class is held, provides a student drop box, which is a function that was once almost exclusively used on Westlaw's TWEN site, and has a course calendar, blog, and wiki.

Not only does the new portal provide increased functionality to students and law school departments, but professors and deans running student competitions are also enjoying some of the new portals enhanced features.  For instance, Dave Myers, President of the Mock Trial Board discovered recently that Dean Johnson had added him as an "Assistant" to the course page for this fall's internal mock trial competition, Cohen & Cohen.  This new functionality allows Myers to view the class roster, email all enrolled students for that course, and post items on the course calendar and in the course documents.  It's less functionality than the professors of the course have, but more than regular "enrolled" students.  This is a vast improvement over the old portal, where students in authority positions could only be added as regular "enrolled" students and had no extra functions at all.

Although the new portal boasts great new features and functionality, students should be aware that it is still new and they should be patient will the system goes through its growing pains.  Briggs explained, "As with any new system, there will be some adjustments to the way things are done, we hope everyone can bear with us during this process."  Sorrenti echoed this comment by saying, "While there are likely to be some bugs and kinks to be worked out, hopefully the new portal will be up and running at full speed soon and will provide the students with a better experience than the last one."