Portal to higher learning

JA-SIG gives schools an invaluable platform for everything from administrative functions to library information

When a few top universities went shopping for affordable portal software in 1999, all they could find was software that required them to accept advertising, which they felt was too commercial.

Instead, they teamed up with the Java Architectures Special Interest Group (JA-SIG) -- an independent organization that promotes Java within higher education -- and a handful of software companies focused on higher education to develop an open source portal framework called uPortal.

Although the Java-based project began in 2000, the XML-based uPortal hit critical mass this year, adding major functionality, spreading to several hundred schools and other organizations around the world, and gaining momentum as a development platform by a slew of third-party developers.

The software, which can be downloaded free from JA-SIG or purchased as part of third-party products, is similar to commercial portal products in that it includes single sign-on authentication, administrative functionality, role- and device-based presentation, and portlet capabilities. Typical applications delivered via the portal include campus administrative systems, library information systems, learning management systems, even the cafeteria lunch menu.

“Its spreading beyond my wildest dreams,” says Ken Weiner, project manager and author of the original uPortal prototype, who adds that uPortal is quickly becoming a platform for channels such as calendaring, discussion boards, classifieds, Web-based mail, and content management systems.

The current core uPortal developer group includes Columbia, Yale, Cornell, and Nagoya Universities, the Memorial University of Newfoundland, plus three for-profit companies. The development team holds face-to-face meetings twice a year to overcome the project’s biggest obstacle: “Its an ongoing struggle to manage a group of people who all have other priorities,” Weiner says.

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