Magazine article Technology & Learning

Proliferating Portals

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Proliferating Portals

Article excerpt

Like The Blob, they're big and getting bigger--and no one's exactly sure what they are. Here, we take a look at the burgeoning trend of education portals, examining a diverse sampling to discover what claims they have to the name and what elements they share.

Once-humble search engines such as Yahoo! and Excite are beefing up into "megaportals" with health, travel and other services; techie-haven Cnet. com is morphing into a "specialty portal" with links to rivals' content; and burly ESPN is opening up as an "umbrella portal" for other sports sites. It's looking, feeling and smelling like portal time, folks. But what the heck is a portal?

"Launch pad," "gateway" and "doorway" are the generally accepted metaphors for portals whose primary function is to act as a starting point for moving out onto the larger Internet. Beyond that, the general idea of a portal is to center around a certain topic, or range of topics, with some portals housing their own content, and others merely pointing to Web sites with content on a particular topic.

How are portals different from plain old Web sites? In the education world, the answer seems to lie in the extent to which content is fine-tuned to a specific audience.

Homing In on the Target Audience

Newcomer portal school.aol.com is a good example of how the narrowly focused portal can serve users. Designed to be a useful everyday tool for schools, it prioritizes its audience to the extent of offering six individual grade-level-specific portals through which students "matriculate" as they advance. Primary, elementary, middle school, high school, teacher and administrator components aim to fill the very specific needs of users via customized, age-appropriate interfaces and links to educator-reviewed math, language arts and other content area sites. Executive director of education Mark Nixon says the idea was to go beyond the "bucket o' sites" hotlists provided by many of the education Web sites out there, and really target specific users.

Partnering for High-Quality Content

Partnering seems to be another key ingredient of education portals, and not just in the sense of linking to other sites, but for the purpose of creating or identifying high-quality content as well. The AT&T Learning Network (www.att.com/learningnetwork/), a pioneer in education portals, relies on collaborations with Penn State University, George Washington University, and many other institutions to form a robust Virtual Academy where teachers can work on credentialing requirements or take classes on technology integration. …

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