UMN Virtual Library: Musings on Student Portals and research

I recently visited UMN’s University Virtual library ( or, for a description of the various features This is a “portal” page for aiding students in doing research projects. Three things about this site are intriguing:
– it provides a variety of search options to circumvent the student impulse to simply search on Google, and redirects that impulse towards the library’s holdings and subscribed databases
– it includes a helpful tool in the form of an assignments calendar, an open-source gadget that makes a timetable for projects and offers e-mail reminders for stages in that timetable. Another tool is a reference/bibliography manager.
– it contributes to community building by offering links to university blogs (and might be said to encourage blog use by making those links to those blogs that have been most recently active–competitive blogging, as it were). It also offers some useful Quick Links.
So, there is one model for a library portal that maintains a fairly tight focus: it doesn’t try to be a general student portal (there are no links to general university services like financial aid, etc.).
However, describing yet another portal is not quite why I am writing this note. Over the years there have been quite a few discussions of potential student portals. Much of the discussion has focused on two things: what is the right software to do the job, and, what should go on the “front page” of the portal (with the chimeric concept of “one stop shopping” being the avowed goal).
Instead of addressing those two issues, I think it would be useful to consider another approach, not necessarily as an alternative to the above, more as a complement to it.
UVM already offers a good mix of tech/IT literacy tools. We have WebCT, web space for all, blogs for all, and a growing list of online databases for research. We also have people-to-people support in the form of the Writing Center, Ask A Librarian, the various programs of the CTL, Helpline, etc. And then there are the multiple guides and helps that are scattered throughout the UVM web. TOne intent of a portal would surely be to tie these all together in a way most useful for our students.
But here’s the question that’s generating this note: what would improve the chances of a portal actually succeeding in helping students become better students? What processes would build a better content back-end to such a portal? Or, even if UVM never adopts a formal portal, what kinds of things could we do to tie together our current offerings in a way that would make them work more powerfully to aid student learning?
Especially, what could we do to build a community of practice across multiple support groups (LRG, CIT, libraries, faculty, etc.) that emphasizes reuseable modularity?
Some considerations:
– as the content that might help students would probably come from several sources within UVM, are there processes, standards, or models that we could develop together to ensure that that content is more useable? This could include the simplest things: making sure that all documentation is dated and has an author, to more complex things like communicating efforts in order to avoid reinventing wheels, or gathering input from our community before implementing solutions.
– what kinds of marketing and support strategies would work? Direct to students? Via a Library web site? Through Library education? Working with faculty to in specific courses?
For example, any UVM student (or faculty member) can create a blog. On the page they are provided with information on how to do that. If faculty want to they can attend a CTL event that gives them ideas about how blogs are currently being used. But what can we learn from the UMN site, or from that current “god” of web practice, Amazon? The UMN site provides links to most active blogs first, and then to a blogroll of all blogs at UMN. By doing so they help guarantee that new bloggers won’t have to sift through umpteen blogs with one posting that says “welcome to my blog” before they find an example of an active blog.
In practice it is analagous to Amazon’s “people who bought x also bought y” strategy. By taking that one extra step they turn the focus away from a simple “how to” and aim it squarely back at UMN “this is what we do here.” A subtle but effective emphasis on UMN as an active and learning community.

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