A portal is an online service that provides a personalised, single point of access to resources that support the end-user in one or more tasks (resource discovery, learning, research, buying plane tickets, booking hotel rooms, etc.). The resources made available via a portal are typically brought together from more than one source.
In the context of the JISC Information Environment (IE), portals typically focus on supporting the end-user in their learning and/or research activities by providing personalised discovery services across multiple, heterogeneous content providers. The key technologies that support interoperability between JISC IE portals and content providers are Z39.50, OAI Protocol for Metadata Harvesting and RDF Site Summary (RSS), SOAP and UDDI.
The JISC IE anticipates the development of a number of different kinds of portals including institutional portals, subject portals and media-specific portals.
An institutional portal provides a personalised, single point of access to the online resources that support members of an institution in all aspects of their learning, teaching, research and other activities. The resources may be internal or external and include local and remote 'information resources' (books, journals, Web-sites, learning objects, images, etc.), 'transaction-based services' (room bookings, finance, registration, assignment submission, assessment, etc.) and 'collaborative tools' (calendars, email, chat, etc.). Typically, access to many of these resources is restricted to authenticated members of the institution.
In some cases, the institutional portal may provide a view of institutional resources to end-users outside the institution, for example alumni and prospective students.
A 'library portal' is a specific kind of institutional portal that focuses primarily on providing access to the range of information resources of interest to (and available to) the members of the institution.
A Content Management System (CMS) is the system that allows the institution to manage its local resources. Resources stored in the CMS may be presented through the institutional portal. An institution may operate more than one CMS in order to manage different kinds of content (Web pages, learning resources, e-prints, etc.).
A subject portal provides personalised discovery services across multiple, heterogeneous content providers (offering books, journals, Web sites, learning objects, images, etc.) within a specific subject area.
A media-specific portal provides a single point of access to resources of a particular type (books, images, geo-spatial data, etc.).
A VLE provides an online framework that supports the end-user in their learning activities within a particular pedagogic context. Typically, the VLE will provide support for the delivery of learning materials, learner assessment, collaborative tools, course registration, etc.
A VLE will normally also provide access to information resources that support the learner in their activities. In order to do this, the VLE may offer portal functionality (as described above) directly, or may link to or import functionality from an external portal in some way. For example, the Blackboard Resource Centre offers portal functionality to users of the Blackboard VLE (both learners and tutors) to enable them to discover information and learning resources.
A gateway provides search and browse access to descriptions of external Internet resources, typically within a particular subject area. The descriptions point to the external resources - having discovered a resource, the end-user is passed to it, normally by following a Web hyperlink. Further interaction takes place within the look and feel of the external site. Portals allow deeper linking to take place, allowing the end-user to 'cross-search' a range of remote content provider services within the look-and-feel of the portal.
Gateways have tended not to offer personalisation features in the past - though this is changing as gateways become more 'portal-like'.
A wide range of commercial and open source 'portal toolkit' software is available. A list of some of the key packages is maintained separately as part of the 'Portals & Portal Frameworks' page below.
Portlets provide the building blocks for portals and feature heavily in many of the current portal building frameworks such as the Apache Jetspeed project, IBM's WebSphere Portal Server and Oracle's Application Server Portal. Portlets provide the visible components end-users see within portal pages. Typically, each portlet offers a small chunk of functionality, such as a cross-search or the display of a news channel.