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The Internet revolution comes knocking

Imagine, as a student, that you can find answers to all of your administrative questions, sign up for courses, book a squash lesson, be reminded of your debate club meeting and receive the course reading you need – all right at your computer desktop.

That bright new future will arrive for U of T students considerably sooner than 2010. The university is developing a campus-wide student Web portal, a comprehensive online student-services centre based on systems currently being used at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management and the University of Toronto at Scarborough. The portal will launch modestly in the next year or so, but eventually students will be able to use the service to obtain academic counselling, apply for and pay for courses, and have course information, readings and digitized textbooks delivered right to their computer. The portal will also enable the university to tailor information to each student’s needs and interests. Once the portal “knows” that a student is enrolled at University College and is taking Canadian Studies, for example, it will deliver information of particular interest to that student, such as a notice of UC orientation activities and an announcement of an upcoming lecture. In turn, students can use the portal to build their own unique university community – they can find and join student clubs or athletic teams, build study groups, and do online group projects.

The primary objectives of the portal are to give students better access to university information and services and to make it easier for them to connect with professors, other students and student clubs. “U of T is a community of hundreds of little communities,” says David Farrar, deputy provost and vice-provost, students. “This system will help each student find and connect with his or her own unique community.”

U of T has already developed a portal to make university libraries more accessible. Administered by U of T for the entire province, the Ontario Scholars Portal enables students and faculty from across Ontario to find any of the 30 million books in Ontario’s university libraries or seven million articles from the nearly 5,000 journals available electronically. By way of an online search, students can have a journal article sent to their desktop or request a book through an interlibrary loan.

Since 2002, the Ontario Scholars Portal has delivered more than nine million articles to 400,000 users. It has revolutionized both the temporal and spatial use of libraries – with students “using” the libraries from home, often after “closing.” The portal has also enabled smaller universities to plug into U of T Libraries – the fourth-largest university library system in North America – and has put U of T on the leading edge of the delivery of digital information.

U of T wants to extend the reach of the portal by scanning and delivering books in electronic form, archiving important scholarly and government Web pages, and delivering other forms of information, such as maps and digitized fine art images, right into the lecture hall if need be. “In the age of Google, people want to be able to search everything and find what they need quickly and easily,” explains Carole Moore, the chief librarian of University of Toronto Libraries. “We are making it possible for students to access licensed and freely available material through a single search, in a way that integrates seamlessly with their academic work. That’s our goal.”

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