June 26, 2006

Exc-el moving forward 2: The Portal vs. Distributed responsibility

I have had a long-standing distaste for the word ‘Portal’. It was originally used to describe the MFLE and will probably be used to describe the SSDN. Portal implies a gateway to a wider array of information, hence implying that you have to go through the gateway to get information. Some dictionaries also use the word 'elaborate', something you don't want in a web service.

In 2006, though, we don’t need to go in search of information though gate after gate when RSS can bring only the information we want or need to us. I already have one portal, my aggregator, Bloglines, that brings photo updates from Flickr, new posts in people’s blogs, changes in the pages of the website I am helping to develop, search terms I want to monitor (I’ve got one feed in my watchlist at the moment which tells me whenever anything to do with the Uffizi is written somewhere on the planet so that I'm well equipped for my honeymoon), news, weather, Big Brother

You see, the trouble with any portal is that it has to have the ambition (and succeed in this ambition) to be the only gate that people will have to open to gain access to everything. Otherwise, opening lots of gates one after the other is a pain, and, when you can use the path round the side of the gates (i.e. Google), is pointless. My main gripe with portals other than the aggregator (whose content I only I have chosen) is that they are never personal enough for me. Not even my Google homepage is personalised enough despite them knowing everything about what I like, search for, buy, sell and, importantly, dislike.

So does Exc-el need a portal? It certainly needs a place where journalists and newcomers can go to sign up and get some fairly standard information. But what about when they’re part of Exc-el, writing, podcasting or contributing, and want to get a snapshot flavour of what’s happening and instant ideas on where to go within this wonderfully messy flow of information? I’ve got some ideas in the next post which might help work that one out, but what do you think?

Update: As any portal develops the ideas and design rules from David Pogue's superb TED Talk would be a great starting point. Check out the other talks there, too.


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I think for the average teacher, a portal provides a good compromise between not knowing where to find anything and being able to find everything they want. While I agree that getting information pushed to you is the best way forward, I think there is still a place for the portal as gateway. After all, there are still teachers who find using Google a daunting thought.


To some extent portals scare me, even portals that I've created myself. For if a portal allows me to gain access to specific information, it simultaneously separates me from other information. How do I know that the information I'm gaining access to is the most accurate? I've recently begun using RSS feeds, but how do I know that the sites I select feeds from will give me enough information?

Here's another concern. I'm a new blogger. I want to attract people to my blog. I'm assuming that if I post comments on others blogs they'll learn about me and read my blog. However, I certainly can't post on every blog. How do I know that the blogs I decide to post on are the best blogs to post on? Once again I've created a portal for myself but is this the best portal?


I don't know if we can ever say that we've created The Portal (initial capitals), but I don't think this is important. I believe that it is also futile in a world of abundant information to feel that you are missing out on the 'whole story', or on someone who you 'should really know'. Those days are past, from a bygone era where knowledge elites moved forward leaving the rest of us behind.

What IS important is that people create truly personal portals, with the information they enjoy reading, viewing or hearing, find themselves passionate about... that it matters to THEM. What they choose might not suit ME at all, but that's my problem, not their's.

Does that make my point clearer? Personalisation cannot, in my opinion, be doled out by a centralised point. It has to be created nearly entirely by the individual, but perhaps with some coaxing from the sidelines to get started. After that, in this information abundant world it is up to them which information they value and what they do not, and no-one should feel that they are missing out on something.

I understand what you saying - but (to continue our door metaphor) exc-el is a doorway on East Lothian education.

Hopefully many of our blogs, etc, are of interest because they relate to more to than just East Lothian - that's where aggregators etc come into play. Yet Exc-el is community (I hesitate to use the word virtual - as does actually exist) in that it is a means for bringing people together who previously had very little to bind or link them.

There is growing evidence to suggest that exc-el is giving people an idea of belonging to something a bit bigger than their school - which is obviously their first loyalty. For me citizenship is about belonging - I explored this in one of my recent posts. There is a great deal to be gained from creating this sense of professional community at a local level. I know many us a gain a huge amount from contacts with people from elsewhere in the world but there benefit from local face-to-face contact with colleagues who work in a similar context and with whom we can physically meet.

Last point - there is an issue over scale - SSDN will allow national networks to be established and I would hope that we can make good use of these but I can't help thinking that there is huge benefit from a local internet environment along the lines of exc-el, which invites, enables and supports new users to take their first confident steps in following your example.

Perhaps the need for exc-el will diminish over the next few years as people gain confidence - but at this stage I would argue that it a necessary staging post in the creation of connected community linked by a common purpose.

Talking of portals, I have just seen a preview of SSDN.

My apologies...link should be

I, for one, enjoy using exc-el. I think its beneficial to have a (virtual)focal point when belonging to an organisation that is spread over quite a large geographical area. I hope that it will continue to grow and flourish whilst still retaining its own unique "flavour". It has enabled me to source answers to questions I had rumbling around my head but never got round to asking for fear of looking like a right prune and I've been able to answer queries from fellow members of the community that would normally not be aware of my presence let alone my area of expertise.
I certainly think it is well on its way to bringing people with a common purpose together and advancing education in East Lothian.

Like you I cringe when I hear the word 'portal' - the idea that you force people to come in through a door is absurd, when the room has no floor, walls or ceiling, and when the whole point of the web is being able to go directly to the resource you want.

But as Don says, exc-el has provided a place for people to start as online creators - who knows were they may go from here? Hopefully exc-el 2.0 will allow more freedom to the users, to customise, to develop, to pick'n'mix and to more fully interact with readers and other contributors.

To be fair, though, who could have predicted a year ago that this would be where we were at? It _is_ less than twelve months old. I'm sure that if I'd known then what we know now, I might have built it differently.

Absolutely. Sustainability (another word I cringe at) is something that is really difficult to build into organic projects, but not impossible when you know how. There's a knack (sic?) to it. I also like the idea that Exc-el is currently at a 0.3 or a 0.4 and has a long way to go until it gets to 1.0, let alone 2.0. Interesting times ahead...

Why are we so uptight? People learn, find information and access things in different ways. The information in Exc-el can be accessed any way that suits you! Exc-el is evolving through need and demand. As more people are involved and expectations change and evolve so is exc-el. The weblogs are already becoming more personalised and moving from (but feeding into) the Exc-el site. Go with the flow! I agree with the previous comments - We couldn't have envisaged this last year ... who knows where we will be next year.

I don't think anyone here thinks Exc-el or its creators and users are uptight. On the contrary, there's no other education authority in Scotland and very few elsewhere in the world making such an effort to get social software in education right.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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