©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Social Studies Portals: More than Just a Web Page 

C. Frederick Risinger

Most of us are familiar with “porta#148; sites on the World Wide Web. Frequently associated with search engines, financial tools and data, or news organizations, they provide a variety of services and beckon to become “your home page” on the Internet. America Online has the largest portal site, in terms of sheer numbers of people who see the AOL home page when they turn on their computer. Yahoo! is probably second in size, but portal sites such as Lycos, Excite, Smart Money, and others offer a truly fantastic array of services to individuals—and, if you set them up correctly, to groups.

What’s the difference between a portal and a “home page?” In some ways, they are the same: a page that has some sort of common content designed specifically by and/or for like-minded users. An individuals may have a home page that contains a picture of a pet, a list of favorite books or hobbies, and other assorted information. I don’t have a personal home page, but many of my colleagues and friends do. For an example of a comprehensive personal home page, check out Joseph Braun’s page at www.coe.ilstu.edu/jabraun/braun or that of my Hoosier colleague, Curt Bonk, at php.indiana.edu/~cjbonk. Joe has both a personal and a professional home page. Curt combines the two functions into one page.

Businesses, governmental agencies, and, of course, schools have home pages too. School or school district pages usually include items such as lists of faculty members, curriculum offerings, information about registration, athletic schedules, and links to resources that might be helpful to students, parents, and teachers. But most home pages are not “portals.” A portal page usually has more than just static information or links to other websites. A portal wants to be your “front door” to the Web. It often provides services or information that you want to use frequently … even daily.

In the commercial Internet world, portal sites are providing free e-mail, free chat rooms, and free “instant messaging,” so that you can “talk”—virtually and even literally—with friends and family in real time. The financial sites (and others, too) offer to monitor your stock portfolio for you, so you can check it whenever you’re online. You can even keep several different “simulated” portfolios running just to test your market hunches. You can set up a personal calendar that will remind you of your Aunt Bertha’s birthday or your anniversary in plenty of time to buy a card. What do these sites want … and how do they make money? They want you to visit as often as possible and they hope to make money from their advertising banners and, increasingly, from your “click-throughs” to another site where you may purchase a product or service.

Creating a social studies portal site or upgrading a current web page to contain portal-like information and services is an idea that technology-minded teachers and schools should consider. It can be a stand-alone site or, in most cases, part of a schoo#146;s or school district’s website. A portal can become a
“meeting place” for teachers throughout a district, a way for elementary, middle level, and high school teachers to keep up-to-date with the K-12 curriculum; and a way to publicize events and news related to social studies in the community.

The line between a home page and a portal is blurry. Most portals start out as home pages and add items and services that make them more interactive and personal. A well-designed departmental or school home page meets the needs of the students, teachers, and parents who use it. For example, the Wayland (MA) public schools have an excellent social studies site that is more of a home page than a portal (www.wayland.k12.ma.us/connections/social.html). But it’s well laid out and has a broad array of links to appropriate social studies. It has both a general listing and specific links for the curriculum in grades 1-5. Most of the links are for teacher resources, but some are aimed directly at elementary students. There is little, if any, interactivity called for or provided on the site, but there are many useful resources, such as a link to The History Channe#146;s home page, a map of nearby Boston and its suburbs, and a resource that will create maps of any area on the globe. I would still classify this site as a social studies home page.

A similar informative and well-designed site is in the Haddonfield (NJ) Public Schools (www.haddonfield.k12.nj.us/hs/ss). In addition to resource links, this high school page includes a link to the Weather Channel and connections to local resources, such as the local historical society. A site that has some good ideas, but is not the easiest to use, is Robert Wal#146;s site at Lakeview, Ohio High School (members.tripod.com/~RWallsTeacher/index-19.html). Each social studies teacher is featured with her/his picture and some excellent resources are included. But the resource links are listed in alphabetical order, not categorized by topic or course, and the site is filled with dizzily spinning globes and a variety of other distracting animations.

An example of an excellent portal site combined with a traditional social studies home page is the Academy School District 20 site in Colorado Springs (CO). Found at www.d20.co.edu, this site has just about everything one might want in a portal. The school district has an e-mail service for all students and teachers. Homework assignments are listed online for all classes at all grade levels. Lunch menus, graduation requirements, the school calendar, and local weather are readily available to students, parents, and teachers. Parents or students can even request to be put on a “special delivery” list for weather alerts and school closings to be sent immediately via e-mail. The social studies page on the site is an enormous (271 links) list of websites. The list is annotated and includes just about every site you might want to refer students to, but there’s not much to help either students or teachers choose from among the links.

The Bellingham, Washington schools have won several awards for their technology-related initiatives. Their site, www.bham.wednet.edu, features an “Intranet,” an internal Internet-like network that allows teachers and administrators to set up a list of approved sites for students. The Elgin (IL) schools and many others use similar intranets as one means of controlling student access to the full Web. Bellingham’s intranet has special services used by teachers, parents, and students. For example, teachers can order videos or search all district library catalogs. Students can see examples of good student work and participate in Internet-based projects. Parents can see curriculum guides linked to the Washington state standards. Again, the social studies page is primarily a listing of useful resources and doesn’t qualify as a portal page.

A site that does meet the criteria for a social studies portal is that of Colorado’s Jefferson County Schools (jeffconet.jeffco.k12.co.us/isu/ss). Its social studies page includes e-mail and voice mail links to all teachers, a district social studies newsletter, membership lists of district-wide committees, and a calendar for school-based and district-wide departmental meetings. National and state standards are just a click away, and local projects that have won awards are featured. Several of the special projects at the upper secondary level are password protected.

Two school districts that I’ve featured in other columns top the list of sites that can be considered true social studies portals. The Montgomery County, Maryland Public Schools social studies site is an outstanding model of what can be done by dedicated, smart teachers who know what students and teachers need. John Day and his colleagues have put together a great site at www.mcps.k12.md.us/curriculum/socialstd. The proposed elementary curriculum is online, and comments from faculty members and the public are actively solicited. Inquiry activities based on the Web are featured there, too. A well-organized set of resource links complements the site.

Finally, the Princeton, Ohio High School site is a true portal. Tim Dugan, who designed the first school-wide site, is still coordinating the social studies program. Located at www.phs.princeton.k12.oh.us, the site features links to local weather, voice mail, e-mail links for all faculty and administrators, and a local search engine. But the most attractive features are a “Student Desktop” and a “Teacher Desktop.” The Student Desktop has myriad search engines, links to homework help (updated daily with each teacher’s assignments), and ProQuest, a Bell and Howell “information and learning” center. A password is needed to access ProQuest. The Teacher Desktop is even more helpful. Teachers record daily attendance, assign grades, and generate reports on individuals or whole classes. Finally, the Teachers’ Desktop includes links to professional associations, airline fares, and an amazing list of calculators. A calculator site worth adding to your bookmarks/favorites file is located at www-sci.lib.uci.edu/HSG/RefCalculators.html. The social studies page seems rather bland at first. A few good resource links and a list of teachers are all you see. However, when you click on a teacher’s name, then the appropriate assignments, special links geared to specific courses, and exemplary student projects are featured.

So, should you set up a social studies portal? If you or some of your colleagues can set up a web page, you can set up a portal. A couple of web page and portal design sites that would be helpful to any teacher getting started can be found at www.weblearning.net/modules and scrtec.org/bright_sites. The former site, Internet Training for Teachers, will walk even the technologically-challenged teacher through the steps of getting on the Internet and setting up a website or portal page. The second site, Bright Sites, is a peer-reviewed compilation of outstanding school sites. Most are school or district-wide sites, but they can serve as models of effective site design.

Creating and maintaining a portal site is not difficult to do, but does require the long-term commitment of time. Someone needs to be the “webmaster” and check to see that the site is updated periodically and that “dead” links are corrected or eliminated. Yet the advantages are many. The opportunities to help students and teachers, and to promote your social studies program are certainly worth considering. If you know of some good websites or portals that I should feature on my Social Studies Sources site (www.indiana.edu/~socialst), please contact me at the e-mail address below.


C. Frederick Risinger, who edits Social Education’s Internet column, coordinates social studies education and is the director of Professional Development and Summer Sessions at Indiana University, Bloomington. He was president of NCSS in 1990-91 and is the co-editor of the most recent NCSS bulletin, Surfing Social Studies: The Internet Book. His e-mail address is risinger@indiana.edu.