An Academic Student-Centered Portal


The Universita Politecnica delle Marche (UNIVPM) aims to acquire a recognizable “look” of the university to live on the Web. One way to reach this goal is to create a site, “e-Univpm” (Ramazzotti, De Giovanni, L., Battistini, G., & Leo et al., 2005), linked to the institutional university Web portal. The principal feature of this new site is to be a convivial site offering the services online that the students usually look for in everyday life. It is a place where students would meet other students for a personal social growth. It would be a rich environment with spaces for curricula and extra-curricula activities such as concerts, lectures, exhibitions, meetings, sports, and student association activities, opportunities of lodging and trading. It is a place for expressing ideas and emotions, where students can open blog and discussion forum, and have access to Web sites of interest for an active citizenship. For these reasons, the portal “e-Univpm” is named “convivial site.”

All information, in particular about events, is not a simple calendar, but as soon as the events happen, it is published in a a section of news.

In this context, the students find a small but high quality institutional space: all degree courses, specialisations, masters, and PhDs are described by learning objectives and perspectives of job employment. Each course is presented by a metacognitive framework that collects evaluation criteria and assessment methods linking to learning resources, libraries, laboratories, and directions for participating to research projects.

The convivial site is the access point to the syllabus of UNIVPM coursers and links to teachers’ personal pages including research interest descriptions.

There could be partial overlapping of information with the student guide or the institutional faculty site. However, this information is organised according to different aims in order to stimulate the interest of portal users and to make the most of the “medium.”


According to Deans and von Allmen (2002), “portals are still very much a hot topic in industry and academic institutions.” A definition of Web portal (Thompson, 2001) extends the concept in the virtual world as a doorway to information and processes. Thompson suggests “when designing a virtual portal for a university at the enterprise-level, one needs to identify the target portal users; decide how many portals are needed; have a clear vision of what it is that the portals give access to and what levels of security are required.” Miller (2001) analyses the concept of portals, in particular referring to Internet service providers. Butters (2003) analyses the features found in various types of portals and groups portals in four categories (search engine-based, Internet service provider-based specialist, vertical, and academic). He constructs an indicative features list collected in the following macrocategories: utilities, user profiling/content filtering, resource discovery, news/news feeds, community communication, subject-specific (portal’s specialisation), advertising, education-based, leisure, miscellaneous services, and assistance with site use. According to him, no single portal is likely to serve all purposes; different portals will require suitable sets of features as appropriate to the job at hand. Particularly for the academic portals, not all the features are present.

In thinking about the functionality of the portal (Dolphin, Miller, & Sherratt, 2002), there has been a marked tendency to aggregate functionality within the institutional portal itself. Some institutions are effectively replacing departmental or section Web sites by a series of nested portal implementations, in addition to providing an interface to back-end systems. These “heavy” portals, which incorporate applications within themselves, may be contrasted with the “light” portal, which attempts to aggregate and integrate access to a range of services and functions, which remain independent of the portal itself. An example of a portal with more “convivial” features and a lighter look is “MyUCLA” (2006). Swisher (1998) describes MyUCLA as an innovative, personalized Web site that greets the students by name, reminds them of class times and counselor meetings, lets them chat with other undergraduates, and dynamically changes to meet their changing needs.

Moreover, it would be right to devise the convivial site following the main goals of usability and accessibility. For Looney and Lyman (2000), “… portals gather a variety of useful information resources into a single ‘one-stop’ Web page, helping the user to avoid being overwhelmed by ‘in-foglut’ or feeling lost on the Web.”

According to Nielsen (2000, 2003), usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process. Usability is defined by five quality components: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction. There are many other important quality attributes. A key one is utility, which refers to the design’s functionality. Usability and utility are equally important: it matters little that something is easy if it’s not what you want.

The accessibility denotes strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities (WAI, 2006). During 2003, “European Year of people with disabilities,” Italian Parliament approved “Stanca Law.” This law requires accessibility for all public administrations sites, therefore also for universities’ ones; the convivial site is going to be designed following such guidelines.

Therefore, the Universita Politecnica delle Marche is developing a convivial site (besides the institutional portal) that is able, at the same time, to observe the goals of usability and accessibility. For this reason it is used as a compliant commercial platform, E-NTRA (E-NTRA, 2006) (PHP-MYSQL). Moreover, this platform provides some communication tools such as forum, calendar, newsletter, polls, RSS, SMS, and in the future chat and blogs).


The “convivial site” is conceived to give to the “Universita Politecnica delle Marche” the image of an institution that is close to students, cares about their needs, and wants to take care and stimulate the cultural growth of its users.

For these reasons, the site is not only a place where you can find information and take advantage of services, but it is also a meeting and communication place. In particular, the convivial Web site has the following main aims:

• to describe the university and its courses,

• to offer students useful information to help them organize and plan their studies,

• to offer up-to-date information about the courses that students are attending or plan to attend,

• to give students who come from other towns information on the cities where the university is located and help them to organise their staying in Ancona, to welcome freshmen and help them get to grips with the university and its environment, to offer students virtual places where they can meet and exchange, to offer students information on activities for their leisure time, to keep students informed about academic events, to list job and internship opportunities, to offer information about student exchange programmes with other countries, to help students to get access to libraries, giving information on timetables, locations, etc., to publish graduate students’ CVs online, and to give information to anyone who, for any reason, may need to reach the university and stay in town for a few days.

Before planning the convivial site, we analysed the university institutional site and the faculty sites of Universita Politecnica delle Marche (Ramazzotti et al., 2005) in order to find which contents and services were present and which were not, and how information was communicated. We realized that some important information was not included, dispersed, or difficult to find and that the general style of the site was quite formal.

This is the reason we decided to design a Web site based on a new philosophy with a younger, friendlier style where students could easily perceive the information they need; a site that is constantly kept up-to-date by an editorial committee. The policies of this editorial committee must involve teachers, students, and administrative staff. The style of the new convivial site was therefore changed to a more direct, informal tone; in addition, the graphic template was conceived to be perceived as friendly and appealing by the young targeted readership of university students.

The home page is really easy to use and contains all the links to the main contents and sections: this allows users to find the information or services they are interested in very quickly. This home page reflects the site structure so it is divided into three main sections: “Why sign up,” “Student life,” and “How to …,” each contained in a box and provided with a meaningful image.

“Why sign up?” and “Student life” boxes are provided with a short introductory text whose words act as links to internal subsections, while the “How to…?” box contains a simple list of links. A short description of these three sections follows.

The section Why sign up? acts as a presentation of the Universita Politecnica delle Marche and of all the cities where this university is located. It describes the whole course offer: “Laurea” (three-year) and “Laurea Magistrale” (two-years more); postgraduate courses like PhDs, MAs, and specialisation courses; and e-learning courses. Each course description provides information on learning goals, course requirements and organisation, and professional profiles of graduate students.

The Student life section has three main aims: give freshmen who come from other towns information on the cities where the university is located and on services for students, create a forum where students can communicate and exchange ideas, and inform all students of events and university activities. This section would be divided into several subsections, described in Table 1.

In the section How to do for, the student could find a set of practical information to reach the university and some possible accommodations. There will be advertisements for lodging and practical information for moving easily in the university world.

Students particularly will find a set of link to Web sites of projects related to the possibility of studying abroad: “Leonardo Da Vinci” Project, “Socrates Erasmus” Project, “Move and Study” Project.

The platform and the communication tools are based on the content management system E-NTRA based on php and mysql. It is subdivided in two parts: a part related to the system of navigation/presentation used by the students and in a part related to administration of the site managing users, contents, navigation, models, forum, polls, and so on. The software is made up of a kernel for the basic functionalities, the plug-in functionalities, and completely independent e-community functionalities—feed RSS, e-mail, and SMS active on classes of documents, forms, forums (public/private, moderate and not), and newsletters, sections of general help and of specific help to link to specific Web pages, polls, and tool for the optimisation of the paths, registration online, and so on. A third part is made up of the database (repository) and “external world” that can have an active link with the Web. A single form manages the database and the user interface and administration. The dialogue is completely based on an XML structure able to describe any type of object container in a page.

One of the most important elements of the convivial site is the syllabus. It is located in the Why Sign Up? section. The syllabus is a document provided by the instructor of a course that explains the course material, what students are expected to do, and how students will be graded/evaluated. The syllabus outlines the course requirements, grading criteria, course content, faculty expectations, deadlines, examination dates, grading policies, and other relevant course information.

The term syllabus is lively discussed in literature. For Altman (1989), etymologically syllabus means a “label” or “table of contents.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines syllabus as an outline of a course of study. We agree that a syllabus should contain an outline, a schedule of topics, and many more items of information. However, we suggest that the primary purpose of a syllabus is to communicate to one’s students what the course is about, why the course is taught, where it is going, and what will be required of the students for them to complete the course with a passing grade.

Figure 1. Home page of the convivial

Home page of the convivial

Figure 2. Home page, accessible version

Home page, accessible version

Figure 3. A screenshot of a Syllabus

 A screenshot of a Syllabus

For Reinham (2004), the syllabus is one of the most important documents created by the teacher for the class, serving as an agreement between the teacher and his or her students. It conveys a first and lasting impression on the course he or she designs and it documents and shares his or her beliefs about teaching.

In order to define our syllabus we visited extanting national and international universities syllabus. In a national context, the more interesting syllabus is in the site of the “Universita degli Studi di Trento.” (cfr. http://www. Each course of the online degree program presents a syllabus structured in the following macrocategories: course outline, goals, course programme, assessment, evaluation, and bibliography.

In an international context, we considered the following ones: MITOPENCOURSEWARE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) (cfr. It is a free and open educational resource for faculty, students, and self-learners around the world. The portal offers a publication of MIT course materials and does not require any registration (COURSEWEB Berkeley (cfr. http://courseWeb.berkeley. edu)). In this site, for each course the syllabus contains the following elements: summary, prerequisites, course goals, reading resources, Web resources, and Extranotes.

Furthermore in the European context, the diploma supplement (EUROPA, 2006) is a document attached to a higher education diploma aiming at improving international “transparency” and at facilitating the academic and professional recognition of qualifications (diplomas, degrees, certificates, etc.). It is designed to provide a description of the nature,level, context, content, and status of the studies that were successfully completed by the individual named on the original qualification to which this supplement is appended. It should be free from any value judgements, equivalence statements, or suggestions about recognition.

Table 1. The syllabus


1 Course Information


Course title


Type of educational activity


Course number


Academic year


Year of study




Start/End Date


Subject group


Total number of credits


Global workload (n. of hours)


Number of hours allocated to: lectures

tutorials and laboratory individual study


Course calendar


Location of classes meeting


Change of location or/and course calendar


2 Teacher Information


Name of lecturer


Lecturer number


Office location






E-mail address




Office hours

3 Teaching Assistant Information


Surname and name


Office location






E-mail address




Office hours

4 Teaching Assistant 2 Information


Surname and name


Office location






E-mail address




Office hours

5 Syllabus


Course description


Objectives of the course




Introductory courses


Course contents


Teaching methods




Evaluation criteria




Assessment methods


Recommended reading


Supplementary reading

Our model of syllabus works out in order to avoid inconsistencies and to render it a reusable element for drawing up of the diploma supplement.

In our case, the syllabus is a document offering an informal presentation of the didactic purpose of “Universita Politecnica Delle Marche” (Falsetti, Ramazzotti, Battistini, & Leo, 2005). The structure of the syllabus is described in Table 1 and presented in Figure 3.

Each teacher accesses his or syllabus by username and password and uses an interface to upload and update the data of his or her course.


In a perspective of digital citizenship, the convivial site should allow the access to all the administrative services. Parts of these accesses are already supplied by the institutional portal but in the formal language of the institution: in the convivial site, the language should be closer to the students’ way.

One more issue refers to the internationalisation of the academic portals (Torras & Vaagan, 2005)—the English univpm Web portal is a short version of the Italian one and the hypertext may often link to Italian pages: this is a problem with the issue of Web quality. The quality of the Web portal is impoverished by the fact that home and international students are not given access to the same user education information and materials. Despite that, the convivial site offers a bilingual version of the site.

At last, the convivial site will be the Web door to e-learn-ing university courses for an innovative teaching way.


Academic Portal: A logical extension of the teaching and learning environment. It is a customizable community portal environment that unifies academics, commerce, communities, and administrative services online through an integrated interface.

Accessibility: Accessibility means that people with disabilities can use, perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web. For example, accessible Web sites can be navigated by people with visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive impairments. Accessible design also benefits people with older or slower software and hardware.

Content Management System: Software for facilitating the maintenance of content, but not design, on a Web site.

Convivial Site: A Web site aimed to provide a perception of university closed to the students. It offers the services online that the students usually look for in everyday life and it is the access point to the syllabus of university courses.

E-Learning: A didactic methodology providing online formative contents. A primary version of e-learning is the distance learning (FAD). The actual version of e-learning provides the possibility to design and manage lifelong learning systems in a coordinate and centralized way.

Internet Communication Tools: Services aimed to provide communication online and to foster interaction among the user. In a convivial site, the useful tools can be forum, calendar, newsletter, polls, RSS, SMS, chats, and blogs.

Syllabus: A document provided by the instructor of a course that explains the course material, what students are expected to do, and how students will be graded/evaluated. The syllabus outlines the course requirements, grading criteria, course content, faculty expectations, deadlines, examination dates, grading policies, and other relevant course information.

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