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MyU portal.

The digital doorway to the U

MyU portal eases communication and creates community

By Martha Coventry

Published on October 21, 2005

Ever wondered what it would be like to literally have the University at your fingertips? Students in the class of 2009 have had that opportunity before they even stepped on campus. The University might still be a big place, but these students can bring it down to size with the Class of 2009 Web portal--their unique gateway to the U. And increasingly, faculty, staff, and other undergrads on all campuses are getting the same benefits with their own particular portals.

So what is a portal anyway? It's simply a doorway, and when it comes to a Web portal, it's a doorway into the World Wide Web. For example, if you go to the yahoo.com home page--a typical Web portal--you can surf around to check the weather anywhere in the country, catch up on celebrity gossip, or read the latest news and market reports. If you're a Yahoo! client with a password, you can read your e-mail or customize your own Yahoo! opening page with just the news and features you want--as if the front page of the newspaper carried only the things that interest you.

The U's home page--www.umn.edu--is also a portal, where visitors can look for addresses and phone numbers, read University news, visit other campus sites, find out what's happening on the weekend, and--if they're students, faculty, or staff--do things like verify recent paychecks or register for classes. The home page is public, and it gets more that 200,000 hits a day from people all over the world. Unlike Yahoo!, though, the U home page is not customizable--each time it opens, every visitor sees the same content.

But if you look in the upper right corner, you'll see something called MyU--the University's answer to the growing popularity of customizable portals. MyU recently had nearly 58,000 users in 30 days. On October 18, just shy of 10,000 people logged on in 24 hours, according to Scott Wilson-Barnard in the Digital Media Center.

View portals

No matter what your affiliation with the University, you can view the portals for the Class of 2009, undergraduates, and general faculty and staff.

For the Class of 2009 and undergraduate portals, see the MyU undergraduate welcome page. At this site you can also submit possible content for the portals.

To view the portal for most faculty and staff, go to MyU.

"Obviously, we're meeting a very specific need," says Billie Wahlstrom, vice provost for distributed education and instructional technology. Wahlstrom is the driving force behind the portal initiative.

The portal joins a host of other changes at the U designed to improve the freshman experience, including a revitalized Coffman Union, a restored Jones Hall that will serve as a welcome center, streamlined class registration and financial aid services, and the rebirth of convocation.

When you click on the MyU icon, you're taken to the University's main log-in page, where the system verifies your information and opens the view that applies to you. MyU has several different views--pages with looks all their own for specific audiences. It is so specific that it will even take you, if you qualify, to a view just for graduate medical students in dermatology. (See the sidebar to find out how to see portals for the Class of 2009, undergraduates, and general faculty and staff.)

"With 1.6 million pages within the umn.edu domain, we have an abundance of information at the U," says Wahlstrom. "One percent of all Internet traffic comes to our pages. We want to provide information for our MyU users that's really focused at them."

As a student, once you're in your particular view, you'll find information relative to your college and your area of interest, along with general University news and information. The U can send focused e-mail through the portal without having to bombard students with mass mailings. In the My News section, you can customize what news feeds you want to get from the Web or the U--for some it will be stories from The Economist, for others, it might be The Onion--check the weather around the country, and create links to your favorite Web sites, among other things.

The My Toolkit section is the most revolutionary feature.

"In My Toolkit, people can post documents, create simple Web pages, and design polls, and they can strictly control who sees those materials," says Wilson-Barnard. "It gives extra programming power to just regular people. Not many people know about this feature yet, but ultimately it will be the real power of the portal."

Using My Toolkit, students can also--with their original log-in info--do things like access their e-mail, chat with friends, do research, contact their advisers, and check their calendars, courses, grades, and financial-aid status.

"Our goal with the portal is to serve and delight," says Wahlstrom.

Marla Fabishak is a freshman in the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences and a regular user of the Class of 2009 portal.

"I like that the school I'm in appears when I log on, and I get updates that are important to me," says Fabishak. "The links suggesting fun and new things to do in the Cities are helpful, especially for those of us who don't know much about this area. The study aids have helped me transition to college, with the added work and more difficult exams and midterms."

Each portal view has its keeper--someone in day-to-day charge of the site and its content. At this point, there's a view for the freshman class, all other undergraduates, all faculty and staff, and people in the Academic Health Center, University of Minnesota Extension Service, and at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

Andy Howe is in charge of the undergraduate portal. One of the main reasons the U established this portal--it had its trial run last year with the class of 2008--was to create community.

"We wanted a way to help students develop a sense of class identity even before they came to campus and connect with others in their class," says Howe. This year, with the class of 2009, according to Wahlstrom, there were 10,000 postings on the portal message boards as students introduced themselves and did things like set up rides to campus and organize an intramural volleyball team before they started school.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the portal is how hard and how seriously the U is trying to make it work well. Wahlstrom bought the portal "out of a box" instead of creating a whole new program, as other universities have done at the cost of millions of dollars. Others at the U are in charge of adapting it specifically and carefully for the University's needs. New views are added and improved all the time, making the portal better and better for users.

"Our goal with the portal is to serve and delight," says Wahlstrom.