November/December 2002 // Case Studies
The University at Buffalo's Personalized Service Portal
by Rebecca Bernstein, James T. Gorman, and Robert Wright
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Rebecca Bernstein, James T. Gorman, and Robert Wright "MyUB:
The University at Buffalo's Personalized Service Portal" The Technology Source, November/December 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In a campus of over 60,000 people, students can easily get lost and never discover the myriad resources available?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe very resources that ensure academic success and build a sense of community. For this reason, retention during freshman year is particularly challenging at large universities. By increasing communication between faculty and students, however, online technology can help to address this challenge. In addition, it increases the proliferation of learner communities, a phenomenon that has been documented as having a direct effect on increased quality of student life and therefore on retention.

In September 1999, the University at Buffalo (UB) was one of the first Association of American Universities (AAU) institutions to implement a student computing access program, iConnect@UB. By requiring access to computers, we are able to deliver state-of-the-art computing on a number of levels. Not only do we provide electronic and multimedia support capabilities for students in class, but also in labs, in residence halls, at the library, and off campus. In addition, the program provides the capability for students to access services virtually (e.g., course management platform, Web registration, Web-based advising, and online tracking of student progress towards degree completion).

iConnect@UB represented UB's strong commitment to becoming a "click and mortar" university both on the academic and service side. However, there were still some significant issues to be resolved. Prior to the iConnect@UB initiative, UB's Web presence was made up of "silos" of niche Web sites, 17 Web servers, and over 250,000 catalogued Web pages, as well as an enormous number of uncatalogued pages. Since we wanted to make good on our technology pledge, and to bring the full spectrum of online campus services to all students, we needed a vehicle that had the capacity for centralizing access of online services and thereby reaching every student with meaningful, useful information. This environment was ripe for the development of a portal that organized and selectively linked all the available student services and applications, and provided a one-stop approach to finding information.

MyUB, our university Web portal, was developed with these goals in mind. MyUB is the institutional infrastructure that provides students access to a wide array of research resources, instruction, and student services, and acts as an information platform for faculty, students, and staff. In this article we provide an account of the planning, development, and implementation of MyUB, with particular focus on the issues and challenges we confronted during this process. In accounting for these factors, we provide our recommendations for institutions that may be facing similar initiatives, or that may be in the midst of consolidating student services through their campus networks.

Project Vision and Goals

The vision for MyUB was to create a personalized service portal that would decrease the distance between students, faculty, and student services, and foster a sense of community.

Fundamental to that vision was the requirement that the portal provide fine-grained, time-based delivery of information, which means that each user who views MyUB will see different information based on his/her role at the university (Figure 1). Fine-grained delivery means that we are able to deliver information on one-to-one, one-to-many, and one-to-all levels. Student attributes such as major(s), minor(s), class level, and division (undergraduate/graduate) are used to deliver specialized and timely information and services directly to the student (Figure 2).

There are a number of specific goals established for MyUB that relate to improving the quality of campus life for students, faculty, and staff. The goals include:

  • making it easy for students to find the information they need by providing an easy-to-navigate, personalized, and customizable portal;
  • creating a portal that would coach students from orientation through graduation, growing and changing with them;
  • encouraging the use of MyUB as a proactive university communication tool;
  • having a tool that establishes learner communities and therefore aids in retention of the students;
  • extending the services currently available by providing a secure platform and framework on which to introduce future Web services;
  • demonstrating full support of the iConnect@UB initiative;
  • showing that UB is committed to a complete IT infrastructure to support students' needs; and
  • gaining recognition from and establishing collaboration with peer institutions.

We also developed an application for content management (Figure 3) and assigned a "Cybrarian" to mine deeper for the right sites: not just the top pages, but also the hidden gems that can match the needs of our students. Links that personally and actively reach out to students act as a system of online coaching and mentoring to make sure that students have access to the resources they need when they need them; by the same token, the portal can also provide specialized information to remind students of deadlines and responsibilities (Exhibit 1). MyUB also builds awareness of the many virtual and physical campus services available to students.

Encouraging proactive university communication, MyUB provides students with a sense of control over their academic and administrative records. Because MyUB provides status information?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùgrades, majors, course schedules?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùstudents can "see" their data as administrators do and can proactively determine if it is accurate. Before classes even start, students are able to clear up misinformation with their advisors. The same is true for grades and schedules: by giving students a sense of control over their records, MyUB alleviates the frustration of "being a number" that students sometimes feel at large universities.

Build vs. Buy

We began to design and build prototypes for MyUB in July 1998 before the JA-SIG uPortal product, portal framework products (e.g., Epicentric), e-learning portals (e.g., Blackboard 5), and "free" higher education portals were available. We had a clear business objective and only one way to achieve it?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùbuild it in-house.

Clearly this isn't the only option available in 2002. Most software vendors (Enterprise Resource Programs (ERP), Course Management Systems, Data Warehouses, etc.) have "portalized" their products and would like to convince you that their portal should be your enterprise portal. Several portal framework products are now available (e.g., Epicentric, Plumtree, Oracle, Sun) that provide building blocks for a portal. JA-SIG uPortal has continued to mature and has been implemented at a small number of universities.

There is no clear best practice for the build vs. buy question, since each institution has its own unique integration challenges, technical resources, skill sets, organizational structure, IT infrastructure, and institutional culture. However, there is one practice that can help ensure that the correct approach is taken—before even considering the build vs. buy question, develop a clear campus portal strategy. The following describes the approach we have taken to this end:

  • Develop the strategy with a group that is large enough to attain diverse input (so you can build wider acceptance later), but small enough to get things done efficiently and effectively.
  • Develop a clear assessment of your current situation as it relates to portal development.
  • Develop an assessment of your business need for a portal.
  • Develop a list of technical principles that will guide your decision-making. Establish principles on issues such as security, integration, technical architecture, interface design, content management, personalization, customization, system availability, and the university's attitudes toward outsourcing and vendor selection (see the list we developed for undergraduate students as an example).
  • Develop a list of non-technical principles that will guide your decision-making. Make it clear where the university stands on commercialism in the portal, address the issue of one portal vs. multiple portals, decide who your primary audience will be, and decide on the primary and secondary objectives of the portal.
  • Learn from the approaches that other universities are taking and from the mistakes they have made.
  • Identify your institution's tolerance for the ongoing development and support costs associated with implementing a portal.

Lessons Learned: Deployment Strategy

UB has taken the approach of providing quality, not quantity, so we opted to implement MyUB one segment at a time. This meant introducing the project to a limited audience, getting feedback, and making improvements on existing segments while incorporating improved methods into new segments. In June 1999, we used incoming freshmen as the pilot group for integrating MyUB in their orientation experience. Students were asked to sign on to MyUB, navigate the site, and then register for their fall courses. This strategy proved successful, as we had a high return rate of freshmen to MyUB when the fall semester began (Figure 4, Figure 5).

In June 2000, we introduced MyUB to all undergraduates, rather than to the entire student body. This allowed us to focus on undergraduate content, working closely with faculty and staff to provide student support services and course materials via MyUB. In August 2001, MyUB was introduced to all remaining students.

Lessons Learned: Building Awareness to Foster Integration

The effect of good viral marketing depends on person-to-person interaction and goes beyond building awareness. It can affect user behavior and promote integration of the product into business practices and lifestyle. This relies on stakeholder-to-student communications promoting the use of MyUB, as well as student-to-student communications affirming the usefulness of the product.

Awareness of MyUB grew slowly, yet exponentially, through this word-of-mouth, integrated marketing technique. First we encouraged our colleagues (stakeholders) in academic advising, libraries, or student affairs to use it, and take "ownership" of it by integrating it into their business practices; then we encouraged them to talk about it to other potential stakeholders as well as the student population they serve. Through the stakeholders we were able to integrate MyUB into UB 101, student orientation, and key freshman courses. The challenge was the full undergraduate rollout. We were able to reach freshmen (our largest base) through programming that they were most likely to participate in (UB 101, admissions, orientation), but there was no centralized way to reach our existing upperclassmen when the full undergraduate rollout occurred.

Lessons Learned: Avoiding the Pitfalls

Some of our lessons were learned the hard way.

Develop a Committee Structure for Direction Setting. Once MyUB was implemented, we did not have a formal process in place to review and prioritize future enhancements and projects. In 2000, UB established a formal IT planning committee that received campus-wide participation. The key benefit of this committee is that every IT initiative being put forth is now in line with the goals and objectives of UB, rather than with departmental efforts that affect only a limited group of people.

Old Models for Identifying Stakeholders Didn't Hold Up. We used old models and past experience to determine what stakeholders to work with on new applications within MyUB. For example, we attempted to set up a new Schedule Builder Wizard (username and password are both "student") and worked closely with the university registrar. However, this application affects a much wider group of stakeholders such as advisors, orientation staff, and students. This oversight underscores the importance of breaking down traditional barriers with an eye towards developing useful strategies and partnerships to provide e-services.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Many factors contributed to an atmosphere that demanded an enterprise portal at the University of Buffalo. UB is a large and sometimes impersonal university. Computer access is a requirement. Freshmen arrive at UB more technologically savvy each year. Silos of disparate Web sites exist all around campus. At a large university, the best online customer service is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. At UB, it was the MyUB project that took online customer service to the next level, and we continue to receive positive feedback from the students (Exhibit 2).

But much more work remains to be done. We have over 250 enhancements we would like to make. We have additional constituents we would like to serve. We have projects chartered to provide individualized delivery of information, using the students' information and university business rules to proactively notify students about important things before they become problematic. An enterprise portal is never done.

[Editor's note: This article is modified from Wright, Gorman, & Bernstein (2002) with the permission of the Society for College and University Planning.]


Wright, R.M., Gorman, J., & Bernstein, R. (2002) MyUB: A personalized service portal. In D. J. Burnett and D. G. Oblinger (Eds.), Innovation in student services: Planning for models blending high touch/high tech (pp. 223-237). Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.

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