A Portal vs. a Door in a Fun House

A Portal. A One Stop Shop. A Digital Door.

These are the things we dream of when we are at our most optimistic. We see a student, teacher, or administrator going to a single online location to get data or to make decisions about schedules. We see them grabbing content from a hundred different locations to differentiate or anticipating problems by looking through the red flags of attendance or discipline. We see dashboards so clearly in our heads sometimes that we wonder why they don’t exist. Surely, someone has created the holy grail of systems integration that would allow all of our learning stakeholders to get what they need when they need it. There must be a way to both pull from this single source of truth and push high fidelity information and content back to it as a function of frictionless-sharing.

But reality hits us with a thud. Our multiple data systems don’t talk to one another easily. The static content repositories or massive question banks stagnate from lack of use . Then we see huge user-centric platforms that appear locked to us. What we have isn’t so much a single digital door created just for us, but rather a chaotic “fun house” with doors that stick or mirrors that reflect back distorted views of student learning. We try to get excited about these doors, but each one was created for someone else, not for us.

We long for better doors and we decry their absence. But, we forget that we built the “fun house” together. We forget that each door was made with love, and with the best of intentions for the teachers and learners that use them. Is it any wonder that our hallways bend and pitch sideways when we shifted priorities? Is it a surprise that the mirrors we made twenty years ago have warped over time? When we dream of a better Digital Door, we are dreaming of the expensive remodel, the one that guts everything and starts over.

But, doing that doesn’t let us keep of the institutional memory we have etched into the doorways. It doesn’t let us learn from who we were when we constructed it in the first place. We know just which floorboards creek. We know how the sunlight comes through the windows, keeping us warm as we keep on looking for what we need.

There is, however, a middle ground. What if we made “portals” that connected the rooms in our “fun house” together without the need for doors at all? What if we could keep the idiosyncratic learning spaces and data systems and simply link them together the way that portals do in the Valve video game, providing seamless shortcuts between them? What if, instead of gutting our institutional memory, what if we built the ways for our memories to join together. In the game, entries and exists can be created and used at any point. We can do the same, but only if we change our conception of a portal from doorway to pathway.

Megan Marquez and her team are responsible for developing the future of Portals in DPS. In meeting with her the other day, I heard her vision as one that fully realizes the portal as a pathway. She wants a portal to allow for actions, for shortcuts through to what comes next. Her team is creating the conduit for each student and teacher destination, removing clicks and complexity in the process.

She wants us to be able to leverage the amazing work that has come before. Even if we spoke about our dreams of The One Stop Shop, we were quick to recognize the amazing work of giving parents a single connection to register their children for school. This isn’t a single location to do everything. This is a pathway to get something very specific and powerful done with the least friction possible. In essence, her team has created a “portal” directly to the student information system so that parents can reach right through and do something that was previously impossible.

Every once in a while I like to stop and marvel at the simplicity just such a “portal” rather than trying to dream of building a better Door.

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