Does MyUA Portal make the grade?

The elusive MyUA Portal, which cost the university $4.3 million to develop, is finally here after a two-year delay.

Proponents say it will be an easily accessible, comprehensive interface for university-related work. Among its bragging points is the fact that a user no longer has to log in to three separate sites to access university e-mail, Blackboard and Wolflink – it is all available on one page.

But does the portal live up to its hype? The Northern Light’s staff members decided to find out.

Grade: A

CIA headquarters has nothing on the portal. Short of adopting a retinal scan, there is little more that could have been done to enhance its security. It is so secure, in fact, that some of our staff members had trouble logging into their own accounts after changing passwords.

While university logins used to require only a six-digit password, the portal now requires eight. The password must contain at least one upper- and one lower-case letter and one number. That combination means that there will now be 218 trillion possible password combinations for each user name – enough to stall a dedicated hacker for about eight months.

The password also cannot be a dictionary word or contain identifying information, such as a birthday or Social Security number. Every 400 days, users will be required to change their passwords, and it can’t be changed back to one of the last five used.

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Here’s an example of what it should look like: L2s9V61e. You might want to write it down.

Ease of use
Grade: B

Once you finish changing your password, answering security questions, entering your password and inputting it again to access both Blackboard and your e-mail, the site is actually pretty easy to navigate.

But before you make the switch, you might want to wait until the end of the semester. One problem we noticed was the fact that not all courses that are available on Blackboard are available through the portal yet, including a few Web courses in which some of our staff members are enrolled. Once you do switch, the only way to log into Blackboard and your e-mail through the old system is by using your old user name and new password — hardly an intuitive combination.

But the portal offers a pretty visual interface that allows users to customize their home pages in a relatively straightforward manner. Its default setup comes with a lot of pretty useless windows, called channels, but they are easy closed out and replaced with more relevant content.

It’s still possible to receive e-mail from non-university accounts – a definite plus – but one frustrating thing about the e-mail is the fact that the system doesn’t remember the window adjustments you make to the browser. That means after you get each frame set just the way you want it, you will still have to readjust it manually every time you log on.

Grade: D

If there’s one thing the portal isn’t, it’s innovative. The portal offers hardly anything new; it just consolidates everything onto one site. And while it does make navigating through one’s university needs a little bit easier, it simply doesn’t do it in a very creative way.

In fact, some aspects of it are simply counterintuitive. For example, getting to Blackboard from the UAA homepage used to only be one click away. Now, it takes three clicks just to get logged into the portal. Once there, it takes two more clicks to find Blackboard. If you can find the microscopic link on that page to view your grades on your first try, you’re doing better than us.

It’s not all bad, though. The calendar, while not groundbreaking, could be useful. Along with the standard scheduling and reminder abilities that Microsoft Outlook users are familiar with, it allows users to invite and inform others to upcoming events.

This allows a user to let selected individuals and groups know about something without having to send out a mass e-mail.

Another feature students should enjoy is the ability to change the amount of inactive time before the portal automatically logs you out. The default time is 30 minutes, but it can be changed to go as high as 240 for the dedicated procrastinator.

Sorry, it still won’t write your term paper for you.

Grade: C

We couldn’t help but notice that it’s got a link to The Northern Light’s Web site, so we’ll give it a few extra points for that. But most of the channels that you can add are little more than links, and even then it is only possible to link to other UA pages. For example, one couldn’t set up a channel to see the top headlines from, say, Yahoo! or the latest scores from ESPN.

Another issue with the channels is that on each tab you click (there are five) the channels are independent of one another. So, when you add the word of the day, for instance, to the MyUA tab, it is not going to also appear on the students tab as well. For each of the tabs, then, it is necessary to individually customize the page as you would like it to be.

Probably the most dramatic interactive feature is the addition of groups to the interface. This addition makes it possible to post messages and chat with those in different groups, which range topically from anthropology to UPD and safety. Some are restricted, such as fraternity groups, but most are open to everyone.

The problem is there is hardly anyone in them. Of course, the portal is brand new at UAA, but most groups have fewer than five users in them, and it’s hard to imagine many surfers joining up with the Complex Systems group when MySpace and Facebook are only a few clicks away.

Grade: D

The portal is designed like an Army barracks: It has everything you need, but it sure ain’t pretty. Each area of content is cordoned off into modular channels, which are handy in allowing the user to reconfigure the site, but end up making the site look like a poorly planned trailer park.

There are no attractive graphics, and even the MyUA logo itself seems hastily thrown together. Add to that the fact that the Wolflink and Blackboard displays are the same as they were before, and it seems like the graphic and design elements were little more than an afterthought in putting the portal together.

The problem is that nothing about its layout stands out. Every channel has identical text and headings, and even those with photos in them aren’t very attractive. It makes all the text seem to run together, and therefore, harder to read than it should be.

Don’t get us wrong. It’s not that its design is altogether bad; it’s just nothing special. Just like the portal itself.

Overall GPA: 2.2