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Just a Distraction?: External Content in Institutional Portals

Ruth Martin and Liz Pearce reflect on stakeholders' views of external resources within institutional portals and highlight the findings of recent PORTAL Project research.

The PORTAL Project [1], funded under the JISC’s Focus on Access to Institutional Resources, (FAIR) Programme [2], aims to explore a range of issues relating to the deployment of institutional portals within the UK tertiary education sector [3]. In issue 35 [4], Liz Pearce discussed the ‘Stakeholder Requirements for Institutional Portals’ report [5] which formed Work Package 3 of the project. Building on both the data and the analysis of Work Package 3, the recently published report ‘Stakeholder Requirements for External Content in Institutional Portals’ [6] focuses on the issues surrounding the inclusion of external resources within institutional portals.

There are two key reasons for the work package’s specific focus on external content: firstly, as portals are a relatively new concept within the UK academic sector, (inevitably, the first question asked in stakeholder consultation sessions is “what are they?”), it has been valuable to examine both what the information resources included should be, and how users might want to access such resources. Secondly, given the internal administrative focus of a number of developed institutional portals [7], it was pertinent to question the need for institutional portals to offer access to external content at all.


In order to obtain end-user views on the issues relating specifically to external content, additional focus groups were held with staff and students from two institutions: an FE college [8] and a “new” or post-1992 University. Focus group sessions attracted students, teaching and research staff and explored the resources currently used by participants, gauged their opinion of a number of JISC resources and assessed their likes and dislikes regarding various search facilities and presentation formats [9]. As a follow-up to these focus groups, a number of other stakeholders were interviewed. Librarians were identified as key institutional intermediaries and interviews were conducted with library and learning resource staff at four institutions. Similarly representatives of content providers, brokers and agencies including MIMAS, EDINA, Resource, ALPSP, Wiley and the Institute of Physics Publishing were interviewed in order to establish their views regarding the potential of institutional portals for presenting external content. This article will concentrate primarily on the findings of the focus groups involving FE and HE staff and students.


The conclusions of the ‘Stakeholder Requirements of Institutional Portals’ report indicated that access to both internal and external content were of value to potential institutional portal users. The table below indicates the rankings awarded to those external content features included in the online survey [10]:


Rating by All Participants

Search Your Favourite Resources


Library & Quality Internet Resources Alerts


Careers Information


Internet Search


Conference Alerts




Internet Bookmarks


Teaching & Learning Information


Access Other Email





38th (Last)

Figure 1: Rankings awarded to external content features in the online survey

Whilst some external content features were rated highly by respondents, most notably access to search facilities and library and quality internet resource alerts, a number of qualitative participants were unconvinced about the value of including external resources in institutional portals. One focus group participant noted that:

“I’ve got rid of voicemail and if I could stop people knocking on the door I might get some work done, the last thing I want is all these external distractions” Higher Education Teaching Staff

A number of staff indicated that to be of value external resources must be closely related to the teaching, learning or research focus of the individual portal user:

“the key thing for the portal is to offer educational services - what is important for teaching and learning - the news should relate to educational subjects”. Further Education Teaching Staff



Since the ‘Your Portal Priorities’ online survey indicated that ‘search your favourite resources’ was the most popular overall institutional portal feature, we were particularly interested in the methods of searching and search interfaces that portal end-users might wish to access. It will perhaps come as no surprise that the Google search engine emerged as the most widely used method of Internet searching, though participants did mention other tools such as Yahoo, Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves and Dogpile. One Higher Education lecturer indicated that since starting to use Google he rarely users any other discovery tools. Most participants used the simple search option for the majority of their searching, with one FE staff member commenting “I didn’t even know that [the Google advanced search] was there”, and others reported that they had been put off advanced search options because they “looked daunting” or seemed “too complicated”. Despite such concerns one HE student participant remarked that he preferred the Google advanced search as it located results more quickly than the simple search. Where participants mentioned alternative search engines many evidenced strong ‘brand loyalty’ and were keen that they should be able to select, or be given a choice of internet search facility.

Despite the popularity of internet search engines many participants raised concerns regarding the quality and objectivity of the results returned by standard search engines suggesting a clear role for quality assured resources. A number of participants commented on the potential for companies to ‘buy’ higher rating in commercial search engines and one FE student pointed out that:

“I was looking for information on the book ‘The Naked and the Dead’ - simple Google searching was just too dangerous!” Further Education Student

Whilst complex advanced search features were often unpopular, participants appreciated search facilities which enabled users to control the resources returned by format (images; pdf files); by geographical region; or by type of user (children for instance). Participants did recognise that advanced searching added value to simple search options: “something half way between simple and advanced [searching] would be best.”

Figure 2 screenshot (73KB): Participants were enthusiastic about clean and simple search interfaces
Figure 2: Participants were enthusiastic about ‘clean and simple’ search interfaces and
filtering options but many were unfamiliar with the concept of cross-searching


The idea of cross-searching multiple information resources was a new concept to the majority of research participants. In each Work Package 4 focus group, some participants confused the concept with that of a meta-search engine (such as Web Crawler). When the idea of cross-searching was explained, most participants said that they thought it was a good idea, but levels of enthusiasm were mixed: whilst for one participant:

“cross-search is one of the most important things for research activity” Higher Education Teaching Staff

others expressed concern that a cross-search would generate too many results to be a useful form of searching. A number of projects exploring the technologies associated with cross searching are ongoing. Both the Xgrain Project [11] and the Subject Portal Project [12] are developing cross-searching tools for resource discovery within the education sector.

Password Protection

Whilst Work Package 3 research indicated that participants were keen on single sign on, when asked specifically about password-protected access to information resources in Work Package 4, respondent opinions were mixed. Some staff and students indicated that they were put off, or actively avoided, password-protected resources, yet others acknowledged that - although a nuisance to remember - password entry was a mark of quality, with one student remarking:

“it’s not just any old thing, if there’s a password you know it’s there for a specific reason and you’re going there for that reason” Higher Education Student

This view was echoed by a representative of MIMAS who suggested that contextual information about the source and value of information would be required in order that information resources be used effectively and responsibly.

Alerts and Newsfeeds

Work Package 3 indicated that, while participants were keen to access to ‘library and quality Internet resource alerts’ covering resource, teaching and learning and research information, the format of these alerts and bulletins was problematic. Many alerting services currently use email to deliver current awareness services to users, yet both staff and students questioned whether email was the most appropriate place to receive such alerts:

“I find that having alerts of any sort coming through your email box just ties your email up - you spend all day just going through your email” Higher Education Student

Figure 3 screenshot (86KB): You've got (too much) mail!
Figure 3: You’ve got (too much) mail! HUMBUL currently provides access to its subject-based
alerts via both email and RSS. Recipients can choose from over 30 specific subject areas
within the broader ‘Humanities’ category.

Given such reservations, participants were generally enthusiastic about the concept of receiving alerts via RSS (RDF Site Summary) [13] channels within an institutional portal. In the course of the research it emerged that ‘less is more’ when it comes to the level of detail that alerts should include. Some participants suggested that key information such as subject coverage, date and author (if appropriate) were all that should be included or that keywords - perhaps in bold or coloured text - rather than full abstracts would be useful [14].

Participants were also keen that current awareness services, whatever their format, be flexible enough to respond to users’ changing needs. Having control over the regularity, duration and focus of alerts emerged as a key user requirement. One HE student commented:

“if you’re specialising in an area and doing research these will be a God-send but we’re not going to want alerts after that assignment is completed.” Higher Education Student


It was widely suggested that the usefulness of alerts would depend upon their currency and specificity. Whilst access to national and international news received a mixed response, a number of participants indicated that where such information could be accessed at a finer level of granularity its value would increase. While the BBC provides access to current affairs headlines via an RSS channel, participants saw the value of specific groups accessing finer grained resources (ie health news for Nursing or Health and Social Care students, business news for Business and Management students). The HUMBUL hub of the RDN provides a general Humanities RSS channel of ‘the last fifteen records added’ but also provides RSS channels relating to 30 specific subject areas [15]. One member of teaching staff indicated that, without such assurances of relevance, alerts “might be more distracting than useful”. The perception that resources with a broad coverage offered limited value was born out by one librarian who commented on the difficulty of attracting users to resources such as Infotrac, which, though a valuable resource, was perceived as being too generic by many staff and students.

Figure 4 screenshot (104KB): BBC News RSS channel as it appears in the University of Hull portal
Figure 4: BBC News RSS channel as it appears in the University of Hull portal.


Figure 5 screenshot (129KB): Participants were keen to look beyond the general and access resources relevant to their subject area
Figure 5: Participants were keen to look beyond the ‘general’ and access resources relevant to their subject area. The BBC provides news in a number of specialist areas (including business, politics, health and education) but currently only provides a general RSS channel.

External Resources in Institutional Portals

Interviewees and focus group participants indicated that they used a range of external resources for teaching, learning, research and professional development. Resources ranged from subscription databases to company, government, funding council and media sites and general Web resources. Similarly, we encountered a number of participants who failed to recognise the names of what could be considered to be key JISC resources in their fields. While, in general, content providers felt that institutional portals could provide an effective means of raising the profile of resources, the integration of the external resources within institutional portals relies on content providers publishing resources via relevant interfaces. In providing access to external resources via institutional portals it will be vital to balance the range of resources valued by staff and students with the more limited number of resources making content available through appropriate standards. The need for stakeholders in institutional portal developments to engage in dialogues with a range of content providers both with and beyond the JISC Information Environment is clear.


The report ‘Stakeholder Requirements for External Content in Institutional Portals’ combines the requirements of potential portal users with those of intermediaries, content providers, agencies and brokers. During the course of this research it has become increasingly clear that portal developers must genuinely consider their stakeholders’ requirements, rather than simply provide what they think the users might like, what is easy to develop or what is provided via a particular content provider or broker. Participants were keen that resources included in institutional portals be current, relevant to their areas of interest, and easy to use and control, (whether via simple interfaces, transparent authorisation or flexible delivery modes). Content providers were generally enthusiastic about the presentation of resources via an institutional portal and a number of content providers both within and beyond the JISC Information Environment have been keen to engage in discussions with the PORTAL project. Content providers and brokers identified content branding, knowledge of appropriate technologies and development schedules as key issues surrounding the integration of external content in institutional portals. The usability and evaluation work which comprises Work Package 13 of the PORTAL project will look at the relationship between users and external resources where they are included in a range of institutional portal frameworks and assess the extent to which such resources provide a distraction or a key element of teaching, learning and research support.


The Presenting national Resources To Audiences Locally (PORTAL) Project is a joint activity of Academic Services Interactive Media at the University of Hull and UKOLN at the University of Bath, funded under the JISC’s Focus on Access to Institutional Resources (FAIR) Programme.


  1. The PORTAL project is at: http://www.fair-portal.hull.ac.uk/
  2. For further information about the JISC FAIR Programme see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=programme_fair
  3. An introduction to the PORTAL project was previously published in Ariadne: Ian Dolphin, Paul Miller & Robert Sherratt, “Portals, PORTALS Everywhere”, Ariadne 33, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue33/portals/
  4. Liz Pearce. “Apart from the weather, I think it’s a good idea”, Ariadne 35, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue35/pearce/
  5. Liz Pearce et al. Stakeholder Requirements for Institutional Portals. 2003
  6. Liz Pearce & Ruth Martin. Stakeholder Requirements for External Content in Institutional Portals. 2003
  7. Liz Pearce. Institutional Portals: A Review of Outputs. 2003. http://www.fair-portal.hull.ac.uk/WP3.html
  8. The authors would like to acknowledge the help of Anne Atkins of the Western Colleges Consortium and the JISC funded FAIR Enough project http://www.westerncc.co.uk/fair/index.html for her help in organising and delivering the FE college focus group.
  9. The presentation used a focus group session which can be downloaded as a separate appendix from
  10. The ‘Your Portal Priorities’ survey is still available for completion http://www.learndev.hull.ac.uk/portal_survey/
  11. Information about Xgrain can be found at http://edina.ed.ac.uk/projects/joinup/xgrain/
  12. Information about the Subject Portals Project can be found at http://www.portal.ac.uk/spp/
  13. RDF Site Summary, version 1.0, is available at: http://purl.org/rss/1.0/spec.
  14. Paul Miller. Syndicated Content: It’s more than just some file formats. Ariadne 35,
  15. Humbul RSS channels are available at http://www.humbul.ac.uk/help/rss.html

Author Details

Ruth Martin
PORTAL Project
University of Bath

Liz Pearce
PORTAL Project
Academic Services Interactive Media
University of Hull

Email: e.pearce@hull.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.fair-portal.hull.ac.uk/

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Article Title: “Just a Distraction?: External content in institutional portals”
Author:Ruth Martin and Liz Pearce
Publication Date: 30-July-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 36
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue36/justadist/