Staff Q&A: Helen Anderson

Helen Anderson


Senior Director, Computing and Educational Technology Services, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Length of service:
17 years

As a freshman, “almost 30 years ago,” Anderson married fellow Penn student George Faulkner in Houston Hall.

Photo by Mark Stehle

Since the Penn Models of Excellence program was introduced in 1999, hundreds of Penn staff members—250 to be exact—have been recognized for service above and beyond the call of duty.

Vice President of Human Resources Jack Heuer developed the idea of a University-wide award program for staff because he realized that while there were numerous ways to recognize outstanding faculty and students, “We also have outstanding staff and they add a real value to the institution.” The award, said Heuer, “helps people see that what they tackle every day is no different sometimes from what somebody in another unit is tackling. People can learn from that.”

Helen Anderson C/EAS’77, GEE ’86 has been honored not once, not twice, but three times. In 2003, she was a winner for her role in the implementation of Blackboard, a new software system that helps faculty integrate technology into their teaching. This year, Anderson gets the prize as part of the team that put Penn Portal—a home page designed for students—up on the web. She also received an honorable mention as part of the PennKey team.

“The aim is to recognize excellence,” said Heuer, “so we weren’t going to make any criteria that people could win one time only. Great work is great work.”

Q. How did the Penn Portal project get off the ground?
The original idea for an Engineering School Portal came in 2001 from the Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board, which is a student group. Roberto Mansfield, a CETS staffer who’s now in SAS Computing, made it work. We didn’t have very many channels or features at first, but it was a good start. I helped to promote it for campus-wide use. It then became clear that Information Systems and Computing could do a better job of making a University-wide portal with lots of features for all Penn students.

Q. Why was it so long coming?
Well, first somebody has to ask for it. When the Penn web page itself was redesigned for more of an external audience, people involved in that project realized we needed something for internal students. So somehow it all jelled at the same time. We had the concept, the need, the schools wanted to participate and it generated a lot of activity all at once

Q. How did you deal with the huge volume of information you had to include?
That was a challenge. Basically the easiest thing to do is make it so every department has its own web site and it’s completely self-contained and doesn’t relate to any other department, but that makes it very impenetrable when you’re a student. For example, for the student who’s new to the Penn campus it’s not obvious whether you would sign up for campus housing at the Office of Residential Living or at Campus Express or who knows where. So the phrase on Penn Portal is “Sign up for on campus housing.”

Q. Did you find any good models for the web site at other universities?
The concept of a thin portal—essentially using a web page to hide the complexity of the underlying data systems—came from the University of Delaware, a guy named Carl Jacobson.

Q. What makes the portal such a valuable tool for students?
Anywhere a student has Internet access he can get to all his course web sites and information about Penn. He might be at his friend’s house, his grandmother’s house or at a cybercafe in Saint Thomas on spring break, but he can still get what he needs. If he’s customized the portal, he has all of his personal links, too. He can check his grades, his bill, his homework and lots more by going through the portal.

Lots of people use it as a big table of contents for Penn resources, but I’d like to see more people customize their portals with more channels about Penn activities.

Q. What’s your favorite Portal channel?
The “Image of the Day.” [The Image of the Day is an item that users can add to their personalized Penn Portal.] The library has all this great digitalized art, and I get to see a new picture every day. Sometimes I save the image and make it my screen background.

Q. Any more big projects on the horizon?
My next portal adventure is going to be to make a portal for Engineering School faculty. The same infrastructure that made Penn Portal could be used to do one for faculty. New faculty members have to sign up for parking, apply for grants.... If you need to know when is the next National Science Foundation deadline, where is that information? How would a new faculty member know? Or maybe their student needs a tutor. Where does a faculty member get a tutor for a student? So I want to see if I can collect all these things. And if that works then there’s no reason it couldn’t extend to staff.

Q. So you’re done with the Penn Portal?
If somebody comes up with a great idea tomorrow we’ll start getting excited about it and see if we can put it up and make it better. The web is always a work in progress.

Anderson and her fellow winners will be honored at an award ceremony and reception May 6, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in Zellerbach Theatre, Annenberg Center. If you would like to attend, please contact Marilyn Kraut at

Originally published on March 18, 2004