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Student portals help people at many universities navigate the myriad of websites and services available to them. Some go even further and help students manage the information they receive trom the university, stay on top of their coursework, and collaborate with each other. At the University of California, Berkeley, CalCentral aims to do all those things. In the future the team hopes to help students with other pain points students they've shared during numerous research sessions, including efficiently planning & registering for their courses, paying their bills, and connecting with their advisors.

Themes the team has heard often include:

  • The main focus of most students is to stay on top of their tasks & assignments 
  • Students want less noise; they only want to hear about things that pertain directly to them
  • Most students don't know about or understand all the available campus resources and services; they often find them by happenstance or word of mouth
  • Students are looking for credible, authoritative advice and data about how to operate on campus
  • It is difficult to use the many antiquated student systems at Berkeley (BearFacts, TeleBears, DARS)
  • Academic planning and course registration is very important, and a difficult and fragmented experience at Berkeley
  • Connecting with other students, in academic, cocurricular, and social contexts, is very important
  • Due to the overall economic climate and increasing fees, most students want the most expedient path to graduation
  • Students are increasingly using mobile devices, and have high expectations of campus systems based on their experience with them

This document aims to both provide a history of CalCentral and a walk-through of the User and Usability Research that brought the system to where it is today.

Early Efforts & Research

Several different research efforts from 2002 - 2007 examined the student online experience at Berkeley. These studies concluded what was already obvious to students: The numerous, scattered websites & tools students were forced to use to obtain information and to manage basic administrative functions necessary to academic success represented an onerous burden. The advent of smart phones and app stores underscored the viability of more modern approaches. Looking at the many different web sites & apps students must use regularly, it seemed obvious that there must be a better way: 

Interest in building a student "one-stop shop" or portal began in earnest in 2002 when a Leadership Development Program team, the Student Portal Project, "was asked to report on why the University should develop such a student web portal; interview Berkeley students, staff, and faculty to assess their level of interest in a portal and ensure that those who develop the portal understand the features these stakeholders feel a portal should have; investigate best practices at other Universities that have already deployed student web portals; and suggest management models for the portal project."

The Student Portal Project team's recommendations on how to implement a student portal at Berkeley were important inputs into the 2005 Haas (the Business School) Undergraduate Student Portal project. The Haas portal was intended to be a pilot for a campus undergraduate student portal, and an exploration of the uPortal platform. Unfortunately the pilot was never launched due to Haas' decision to become an all-Microsoft shop and shelve the Java-based uPortal. Consequently, no further progress was made at that time on a campuswide student portal.

Berkeley students have over the years made valiant attempts to address problems with the numerous Berkeley online systems. One, such system Ninja Courses, was so successful that it was adapted and adopted as an official campus system, ScheduleBuilder. However, without any common framework or engagement model the results were fragmented. Upon the student developers' graduation, most efforts died on the vine. Any long-term solution would need to be centrally managed while informed by the experience of students.

In July 2007 another LDP team, Information Technology at UC Berkeley: The Student Experience, examined the overall IT needs of incoming Berkeley students. The report made 12 "Recommendations for Shrinking the Gap between Student Expectations and Campus IT Offerings" that covered diverse topics from wireless access to the student information system. Though one of these recommendations was to "Create a one-stop online environment for students that covers all their academic and administrative needs," there wasn't enough support at this time from campus administrators to revive the portal project.

COSE & Operational Excellence 

Several institutional systems were under consideration, included an updated student information system. In this context, in June 2009 staff decided to hold a Design Studio Workshop on Sketching and Prototyping the Student Experience to elicit details about which student needs were most prominent, and how to meet those needs. The modality chosen for the workshop was sketching, because of its ability to bring out issues that might remain undisclosed in a group discussion. Students were solicited from across campus. Staff and faculty were also included as participants in the workshop so that they could hear first hand about the many challenges students faced. The sketching activity allowed the articulation of personal experience; explaining the sketches allowed the communication of that experience.

The resulting sketches were evocative of student's concerns and frustrations not only with the class scheduling process, but also the challenges of finding a place to eat after hours, and nighttime safety on campus. While class scheduling did seem like an area the portal could address, off-campus restaurant reviews already provided information about hours of operation, and nighttime safety seemed like them might be too far afield to address in the portal.

Students were inspired by the sketching workshop. They formed their own advisory group for the project, the Cal Online Student Experience (COSE) Task Force. In the November 2009 COSE Student Task Prioritization Exercise the group identified the following features as desirable:

  • Career planning
  • Check due dates
    • Library, checklist, etc.
  • Check/send email
  • Display course/homework assignments
  • Events
    • Subscribe to Berkeley events
    • Aggregate campus calendars (student, academic, mBA, link to bSpace, course sites)
  • Find
    • Classes
    • Housing (Cal Rentals, integrated w/ other services)
    • Jobs, internships, post resume
    • Student groups
  • GSI teaching reviews (current, past)
  • Map
    • ATMs
    • Buildings, activities on Map
    • Dining options/ places to eat late at night
    • Free food events
    • Lounges, places to study, etc.
    • Transportation information (next bus, BART, night safety service)
  • Pay bills
    • Integrate paying all bills
  • Register, transcripts, etc.
    • Register for classes
    • Request & view transcripts
    • Request diploma
    • View, accept, appeal financial aid offer
  • Roadmap to requirements, graduation, career
  • Schedule
    • Create, view, share class schedule, view class history
  • Sign up for appointments (with visit history)

COSE members also ranked these features:

  1. Check due dates
  2. Register, transcripts, etc.
  3. Pay bills
  4. Schedule
  5. Display course/homework assignments
  6. Find (classes, housing, jobs, student groups)
  7. Roadmap to requirements, graduation, career
  8. Map
  9. Check/send email
  10. Events
  11. Career planning
  12. Sign up for appointments
  13. GSI teaching reviews

In addition, the students agreed that they received too much email that was not directly relevant to them, while important dates such as the add/drop deadline were not as well communicated. They wanted less "noise" and better reminders.

With the onset of the recession, institutional funding became scarce. In October 2009, Berkeley announced a cost-cutting program called "Operation Excellence" (OE). Among OE's findings were that the institution's silo'ed approach to projects was part of the reason for the fragmented student experience. Notably, the idea of a unified approach called "online student portals" was rated the highest in the combined axes of "Relative importance to students" and "Relative alignment with UCB's mission/priorities" in OE's Final Diagnostic Report (p. 98). The OE Student Services Initiative was formed shortly afterwards, and in November 2009 this team announced that they were "focusing on four areas that are ripe with opportunity: student portal, transformational services (advising, tutoring), transactional services (financial aid,billing), and business services (campus auxiliaries such as RSSP)." Their goal was to create an environment where students could say: "UC Berkeley: Where I’m enriched intellectually, engaged in community, and celebrated for my individuality and contributions. Where it’s easy to get things done, people care about me, and I can thrive."

As the COSE students advocated for the creation of a student portal, campus staff supported them by creating a "grassroots" project proposal based on their requirements. In January 2010 "Project Home Room," sponsored by Harry Le Grande, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Cathy Koshland, Vice Provost of Teaching, Learning, Academic Planning & Facilities, was put forward.  The proposed team would have included the UC Berkeley's Student Affairs Information Technology (SAIT) staff as well as undergraduate and graduate student members of the (COSE) Task Force. Although "Project Home Room" itself never came to fruition, it influenced the OE Student Services Initiative's efforts to create a student portal. The "Home Room" project charter suggested that a student portal could provide highly desired OE cost savings, stating "Given the distributed development model on campus, the argument can be made that excessive resources are currently being expended on information sharing and development efforts across campus that perpetuates the disjointed student experience."

The project charter stated that "Students must currently navigate dozens of department and college websites to search for information and to manage basic student functions.  A disjointed online student experience is one of the biggest frustrations that UC Berkeley’s technology-savvy students complain about, including:

  • Trying to manage reminders and important tasks that they learn about from a variety of sources including email messages, website alerts, paper syllabi, etc.;
  • Academic planning via TeleBears, BearFacts, Schedule, and DARS, etc.;
  • Online bill paying for CARS, Library, Cal-1 Card, etc.;
  • Finding things to do outside the classroom, and more."

The project charter also described requirements specified by the COSE Task Force:

  • Aggregate a student’s important information and dates in one location, and is based conceptually on the way myBerkeleyApp informs students during the admissions process. 
  • Allow reminders that about due-dates on a student’s personal portal site to also be “pushed” to him/her in a variety of ways, ex: email, text messages, or consumable by other applications or platforms like the iPhone, etc.
  • Enable staff to easily input and update information messages they own to select students, ex: Financial Aid’s annual reminder to update FAFSA filings, or an L&S reminder about Pass/No Pass deadlines.
  • Be built with an architecture that supports students being able to develop and add application of their own, for example, the Apple Application Store model.

ETS & SAIT Collaboration

In spring 2008 the learning management system (LMS) team at Educational Technology Services (ETS) began to explore migrating the campus learning management system (LMS) from Sakai 2 to the nascent Sakai 3 (Open Academic Enviornment), a project which formally kicked off in Summer 2010. In November 2009, ETS approached the SAIT team, suggesting that they explore the possibility of building Berkeley's student portal in Sakai 3 (Open Academic Enviornment), a community-source "academic networking" platform. It was hoped that this system could provide portal infrastructure and LMS functions at the same time, placing the LMS at the center of the student online experience as a sort of "Academic Commons." Though official funding hadn't yet been received, in April 2010, the ETS and SAIT teams began work together to build a student portal & LMS on Sakai OAE technology. Advantages of using Sakai OAE as the infrastructure included having a larger team of developers from multiple institutions, and a defined platform onto which students and others could build.

Campus technology groups recognized that in addition to serving students, a comprehensive portal that would also serve faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students and parents was desirable. In light of students' long-standing dissatisfaction, they agreed to initially focus on students.

In joining with the LMS project, the portal team defined the following plan to understand user needs and release future versions of the portal, which at that time was called "MyBerkeley":

The team decided to initially focus on a set of targeted messaging features that would benefit both students and advisors. Noise would be reduced while signals would be strengthened. Dynamic groups were defined along attributes such as major and level (e.g., freshman). Advisors could write targeted messages to groups such as "senior architecture majors" without needing to worry about which students currently had those attributes. Messages could be queued up to be delivered days, weeks or months later. At the time of delivery, only students whose attributes matched would receive the messages. Pilots of the targeted messaging features within a Sakai OAE instance were conducted in two colleges. While the system had broad appeal, the maintenance of the dynamic groups was not scalable. The features were shelved in anticipation of a campus group management tool scheduled to be implemented later by another team.



In July 2010, the portal team conducted 9 interviews with students in the pilot college, the College of Environmental Design, on general portal needs. Recommendations from that research included delivering rich and integrated portal features, integrating with Gmail, and providing and promoting light portfolio functionality.

In November 2010, the portal team conducted 4 student interviews regarding their use of calendars and task management systems. While students had little concern about their weekly class schedules, they demonstrated a variety of elaborate systems to track their homework assignments. The majority were paper-based. Few students were using electronic calendars, task managers, or smart phones.

In February 2011 the OE Student Services Initiative conducted a survey to validate and prioritize the issues collected from students in focus groups held during the fall of 2010. Respondents validated that research, saying that all of the issues presented were highly important to them. The #1 issue for students was "Provide one place to get things done and find information ... and make it easy!" This included billing & financial aid info, academic planning & enrollment, one location to receive important deadlines, reminder and messages mobile support, better campus email, the ability to submit forms and signatures online, and one campus student service center with friendly and knowledgeable staff. (The in-person service center also came to fruition in Cal Student Central.)

In February 2011 the portal team conducted a Concierge Workshop on student needs, the output of which included mindmaps focusing on various areas in students' lives (academic planning, building community, financing my education, funding my education, managing my courses, on-boarding, and non-curricular activities that support their academic life). Also in February 2011 a Student Groups Workshop was held to understand how student groups use web tools to organize themselves.


In June 2011, the "Online Academic Commons" portal/LMS team was officially funded by Berkeley's IT Bank in lieu of OE, which required a projection of cost savings. Shortly afterwards the team undertook a branding effort. With input from students and staff a new product name was selected: CalCentral. The tagline for the project became "Unify, Personalize, Discover". 

In October 2011, 6 student interviews/contextual inquiries were conducted that again touched on calendars and task management. By this time, many students were using electronic calendars, often integrated across devices, e.g., Google Calendar and Apple iCal. Many students were using smart phones. Another output of these interviews were Provisional Personas.

Tracking assignments remained very important to students. As part of the interview process, they were shown sketches of a personalized task and assignment list. The list was an aggregation of assignments from each of a student's classes, as well as tasks that the student had created for themselves. The tasks and assignments were organized by date. If assignments could be submitted electronically, they would be automatically checked off on the list. Otherwise, an assignment or task could be checked off manually, as is commonly done in task management systems. The students liked this a great deal, but expressed skepticism that the assignment list would be complete because few of their professors would enter the data. For the portal team, it became clear that assignment authoring and other instructor tasks would need to be as simple and appealing as possible.

In October 2011 the Three Investigations Workshop brought together 14 students and 7 staff members to work collaboratively on three topics that had emerged from previous work as important: a Planner and Streams, the IA and UI Framework, and Course Planning and Course Pages,  including ways of displaying information about each class instance. Disparate information such as the course catalog descriptions, instructor name, instructor photograph, etc. were combined into a single presentation. Around this time it was also determined that CalCentral should aim to answer 4 questions:

  1. Where do I need to be?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. What do I need to know?
  4. What am I working on and with whom?

As work continued on the OAE implementation, in late 2011 Berkeley decided to adopt Google Apps for Education, including dedicated versions of Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Drive. Students' desire to have views of these tools inside their portal was one area in which OAE started to look less promising. 

In fall of 2011, because there were so many OE student services-related projects proposed, hiring began for a director who could consolidate all these proposals into a student systems technology roadmap. In March of 2012 the Student Services Technology Initiative (SSTI) team started to work on this issue, the solution for which centered around replacing Berkeley's aging Student Information System (SIS). The CalCentral team collaborated with the SSTI team whenever possible, as their efforts to replace aging systems and clean up campus data would clearly help CalCentral's efforts to present students with clearer, more targeted information. In April 2012 the newly hired director presented her vision for creating this roadmap, and CalCentral team members helped lead the Creating a Student Systems Road Map Workshop portion of this meeting. During the workshop 25 staff members came up with portal widget ideas for students, faculty & staff.

In August 2012, when it became clear that Sakai OAE would not deliver the promised LMS functionality in time to deliver on Berkeley's LMS replacement and Berkeley decided to investigate using Instructure's Canvas for its LMS replacement instead of Sakai OAE. While this left CalCentral without a formal platform, Canvas did present a compelling set of tools for instructors. That, combined with a new array of campus collaboration tools including Box, Google Drive, Alfresco and Piazza, put a new slant on CalCentral. The move to Canvas strengthened the "unify" model. CalCentral became the campus aggregator for collaborative spaces. The team re-built the portal, customized for Berkeley's needs, using an HTML/CSS/Javascript/JRuby on Rails/Postgres architecture

Data teams were happy for the CalCentral team to take on the experience design for their data, so that they could focus on data accuracy and security. However, it has proven to be a challenge to work across silos to gain access to data. Enterprise services have emerged as the best strategy to provide access to data.

The "unify" model of aggregating data from disparate sources became more and more important to the CalCentral team. Consistent with the "unify" approach, the team designed and developed task authoring and editing features that are essentially a new front end to Google tasks. CalCentral provided authoring tools, but passed the data on to Google Apps. 

In August 2012, though the focus of CalCentral had previously been students, there was interest in using it to replace our aging and unpopular Peoplesoft staff portal, Blu. Outside consultants were brought in to run Staff Focus Groups, with which CalCentral team members assisted and attended. Findings included the fact that staff wanted single sign-on, a personalized landing page, easy navigation, a single place with alerts about performing tasks like approving purchases and timecards, a standard or at least narrower set of collaboration tools, to move away from emails into a better form of targeted messaging, data shared across systems in real time, and more consistent, succinct websites.

In September 2012 a student design group called Berkeley Innovation held a Student design workshop centered around the question "What needs do student have for an integrated online system?" Students came up with several important ideas, including a notification system similar to the Facebook newsfeed (providing info on what is happening in classes & clubs), integration with the career center, putting class schedules and student finals on Google calendar, making club sites findable & filterable, creating a plug-in for Piazza (a course message board), and integration of schedule planning. Students were also shown examples of other data aggregating tools such as (personal finance), which was well-known and lauded by test participants as having the cleanest, most usable interface.

In October 2012 another round of Student Research (Round 2) was done with the goals of 1) broadening the research pool to include more diverse students, 2) understanding how students currently handle the 4 questions, and 3) get feedback on the current CalCentral prototype. Some of the patterns the team noticed included the fact that students did lots of color-coding in their calendars & planners, students had a wide range of task management practices, from very anal to very blase, 5 of 8 students used electronic "sticky" notes to keep track of their tasks, almost all students had Macs, most students used Gmail and Google docs, many students didn't like hunting for things in our current LMS, bSpace, and the fact that students were looking for credible, authoritative advice and data about how to operate on campus, as this is a pain point at Berkeley. Many relied on support from their peers and valued face-to-face interaction.

From November 2012 through January 2013 there were several rounds (Round 1, Round 2, Round 3, Round 4) of usability testing focused on refining the CalCentral Dashboard. The Dashboard was to be the centerpiece of the new system and included personalized class schedules, class instance pages, personalized task lists, etc.  Students showed a strong desire for information to be organized by class instances. They overwhelmingly chose schemes that used a single color for each class that tied together class meetings, assignments, and announcements from instructors. However, due to problems truncating class names in the colored "lozenges" as well as a desire within the project team to provide a more refined interface which would also appeal to staff, the dashboard evolved over time to look very different.


In January 2013, attention returned to another COSE concern: managing finances. Students were mystified by the sometimes conflicting or seemingly incomplete data presented by varied campus financial systems. An OE project called Consolidated Financial View was funded to do "a preliminary systems analysis as a first step in developing a project plan for providing students with an online financials statement that contains a consolidated view of fees, financial aid, and payments." The CalCentral team worked closely with this team, designing and developing a prototype of this online financial statement as well as a Finances Page which would bring together many different financial systems and resources in CalCentral. Because the OE team was doing lots of testing of the data, there were several rounds of usability testing which helped refine these screens.


In March & April 2013 the CalCentral team tried a new and innovative way of performing usability testing called "hallway testing" (Round 1Round 2). A table was set up among the student groups the Sproul Plaza commons area and asked students walking by to perform tests with us in exchange for a cookie or a gift card.  These sessions included tests of our development environment (focusing on splash page, dashboard, task organization, task editing, navigation, academic profile popover), the Consolidated Financials prototype, and mockups of a new section called "My Academics" as well as new task editing functionality. "My Academics" included an academic history page with a graph of the student's GPA history, a graph of units completed across semesters, and a personalized GPA calculator. On a page that was mostly text, while test participants appreciated the visual interest the graphs offered, they did not feel that it was important to represent GPA and unit history graphically because they knew it so well. These features may be more useful to advisors. However, many students had used GPA calculators, and a personalized one held high appeal for them.


Future Direction

Currently the CalCentral team is focused on finalizing functionality for the fall 2013 pilot, which will include nearly 3000 students in the 25 Canvas pilot courses. Functionality currently planned for delivery this fall includes the Dashboard (My Calendar, My Classes, My Groups, Tasks & Assignments, Recent Activity), My Campus (a directory of services on Campus, which will continue to be expanded on over time), and My Academics (a students' enrollment, waitlisted classes, grades, final exam schedule, requirements met, status and blocks, a GPA calculator, and class info pages).

If all goes well with the Fall 2013 pilot, CalCentral and Canvas will be rolled out to the entire campus in Fall 2014. In addition to continuing to build out functionality for students during this time, the team also hopes to look more closely at the needs of faculty and staff. The goal will be to help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively by consolidating information, providing targeted messaging and notifications, and helping them more easily navigate and understand campus resources.

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  1. Allison - This is an awesome compilation of the journey we have been on over the past 4+ years.  My only addition would be to include the writing of proposals and submissions through OE - what happened to those proposals (Academic Commons portion funded directly by the IT Bank), the hiring of a Student Services Technology Initiative (SSTI) team in 2012 to further develop and look at the student systems technology roadmap, which morphed into a focus on replacing the core Student Information System (SIS), currently in RFQ/RFP development mode.

  2. Ok, one comment: I think we can dispense with the first paragraph. If a thesis statement is needed, it should probably focus on the notion that supporting student success requires looking at the continuum of their experience.

  3. Wow! This is a great document!!! I agree with Oliver's suggestion and I would include a "Summary" at the beginning that outline what the document is and covers and maybe some high level takeaways for other institutions (and us).

  4. Agreed about the first paragraph...Rachel had written it with the view that this could become something more like a magazine/journal article but in this context it probably isn't needed. I'll add a new summary/intro. I'll also add the info Bernie suggests.

    1. I agree about the intro. A summary would be very good to have. A summary will help readers who are not from Berkeley not feel that they have to understand the relationships between campus organizations and initiative such as ETS, OE, etc.