Portals and Portability

Today, I released a new portal home page based on the one I ran for four years at University High School. This upgrades the previous system in which Moodle handled everything, including home page presentation.

insideCatlin home page

The new home page was inevitable in order to coordinate links to multiple services as we introduced new tools besides Moodle. I accelerated the release of the new page in order to solve a few problems with Moodle-as-CMS. If you have enrolled in a course, then Moodle presents you with a link to it on your home page. However, if you have not yet enrolled in a course, then its link is hopelessly buried among dozens of other courses. An independent portal home page is essential to bring important schoolwide programs to the surface where they belong.

Now for the “portability” part. In this design, I successfully created a feature I had wanted to introduce for a while: a customized home page with links directly to the user’s own resources. This is possible through mySQL queries to the databases for different services. In the left column, I decrypt Moodle’s userid cookie and then query Moodle to find the user’s courses. In the middle, I query our custom public-facing web site to display the school’s current calendar and news items. On the right, I query Active Directory in order to customize program links by one’s security group (e.g., upper school library link only for upper school students). I could also query Blackbaud here for one’s schedule information, but that is on a sub-page for the time being.

Content portability is essential to the success of a good school intranet. As long as data is trapped within each separate system within the site, then content remains fractured. Users have to first know the format of a particular kind of content before they can go get it (e.g., “I know this content is in Moodle, so first I click on Moodle). Since it is unlikely that you can find a single solution that will meet all the needs of a school, multiple solutions are necessary. Getting the multiple solutions to talk to each other is the challenge. Thankfully, good people are working to make it easier. Authentication and subscription plug-ins are becoming more common in major open-source releases, and initiatives such as OpenAcademic promise to make single-sign on and object portability a standard part of commonly available packages.

Security is handled in a manner similar to the Yahoo! model. The Moodle cookie persists longer than the Moodle session, so it is available for use more of the time. Even when you are not logged into Moodle, the portal still knows who you are. This enables the site to personalize your home page content even before you have logged in. Once you actually request one of these personal resources, then you log in. This gets you access to non-sensitive personal resources as quickly as possible.

One comment

  1. Chris Lehmann says:

    Beautiful.