Portal to success

University of Sharjah's new bilingual portal puts power to create back in the hands of colleges and students.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  October 7, 2007

The University of Sharjah was the first higher-education institution launched in the emirate and it has just unveiled its new web portal, offering vastly improved access to online services, for both existing students and future applicants.

A staff of 35 administers the IT system - which incorporates a number of Microsoft products - at the university's computer centre. The network also extends to the Khorfakkan branch, as well as covering the housing units for both students and faculty.

What is the cost of not progressing? There are certain things we do not do to get money out of them.

Prior to the implementation of the new portal, the university employed a static website which had two key disadvantages. The first was that all content had to be approved by the central computer centre, meaning long delays in updating the website, while also preventing the various colleges from generating their own content. The second problem was a need to manage content in two languages - Arabic and English.

Inconsistencies between the two versions meant some confusion for parents and students - many of whom only spoke one language.

Dr Nabil Kallas, dean of academic support services, explains the project's genesis: "A standing committee was established to deal with the development of the new portal. They put in the framework for what the website would look like, the structure of every college. We also hired a branding company that streamlined the different forms and worked on the different logos."

The university conducted a one month trial of Microsoft SharePoint 2007, after considering other alternatives. Following a successful test, the implementation team found themselves in need of a partner.

"We contacted Microsoft, who recommended ITWorx to us. We managed to move the content and tune the system, within, I think, one month. From there we started to do our own customisation and modification," says Ghassan Sadallah, web administrator at the university.

The main driver behind the portal project lay in a desire to improve the image of the university, since the portal is the first point of contact for both potential students and the rest of the outside world. Another requirement was to decentralise content and move production to the external colleges, which would be induced to collaborate and compete in the development of best practices. There was also a need to separate external content - such as programme information - from internal content regarding students and staff. The portal would attempt to streamline the mass of information that clogged the pages of the old website and create a more navigable structure.

When he joined in late 2006, Kallas quickly realised that the static website could no longer successfully represent the university: "It was OK when we had four colleges and 2000 students but we grew to 12 colleges and a minimum of 9000 students. We needed something that would be appropriate and grow with us."

"The work done prior to the preparation stage was very helpful - we involved the entire administration of the university in providing additional resources and funds and all the necessary logistics. Once we got to know the package and became very efficient, we transferred the expertise to the co-ordinators," explained Kallas.

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