Higher ed’s digital showcase

How colleges and universities uses ePortfolios to promote the work of students and institutions

Just as websites morphed from digital brochures into versatile multimedia portals, electronic portfolios have evolved from information repositories to robust tools for showcasing student learning.

Now generally referred to as “ePortfolios,” these software systems house completed assignments, reflections on learning, photos, creative work and journal entries—all evidence of a student’s education.

“It is a personal, educational and professional website that functions as a workspace and showcase to collect, select, reflect, link and publish the story of an individual’s experience, knowledge and skills,” says G. Alex Ambrose, associate director of ePortfolio assessment at the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Notre Dame.

A key purpose is that students think about what they learned and how it has changed their perception of themselves—something test and classroom grades alone can’t do. EPortfolios are focused on the experience. While created and managed by students, ePortfolios can also be used by faculty and staff to assess student performance and to evaluate trends.

“EPortfolios are a bottom-up approach to unbundling skills, rather than top-down,” says Ambrose.

These systems emerged in the mid-to-late 1990s, says Trent Batson, president of the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning. Prior to that, paper portfolios had long been used in the creative arts, as a means of storing and displaying an artist’s best works. The catalyst for the digital portfolio was the development of databases to store and organize information digitally.

By the mid-2000s, many colleges and universities jumped on the ePortfolio bandwagon—only to quickly downshift as administrators and professors became unsure of how to best use them.

When Batson’s association formed in 2009, ePortfolios were experiencing a resurgence. By 2014, more than half of all undergraduates reported having used an ePortfolio at some point in their education careers, according to an Educause survey. Ten percent reported using them “most or all of” the time.

Students may build an ePortfolio as part of a single required course, but then let it languish once the course ends. Or freshmen may create ePortfolios and then update them throughout their college careers, when applying for jobs and beyond.

At some universities, professors create teaching portfolios, which administrators evaluate for tenure decisions and promotion-tracking.

With free online platforms such as LinkedIn, which help professionals document their accomplishments, are ePortfolio systems even necessary? Yes, says Batson.

“The major use of ePortfolio technology in higher education is to track student progress toward learning goals, an institutional research function.” EPortfolio systems then integrate with other campus management systems. LinkedIn is a separate platform—with added content owned and controlled by the company—that cannot be integrated. Hence, Batson views LinkedIn as a useful “adjunct site,” but not a replacement for ePortfolios.

Here’s what ePortfolios are bringing to administrators, professors and students at three higher ed institutions.

New data insights

For decades, the University of Charleston in West Virginia used paper portfolios to track student writing assignments—saving every paper. Over time, those papers filled a roomful of filing cabinets. When officials rolled out an electronic portfolio system in 2011 for all 1,300 students, that old storage space was cleaned out and became an office, says Donna Lewis, assistant dean for assessment.

The Chalk & Wire ePortfolio system lets students submit a piece of work through the ePortfolio system that a professor can review, score and return electronically with comments.

This interaction between students and faculty helps show accreditors the learning process at the university, explains Lewis. And faculty create a personnel file containing documents—such as journal articles, course syllabi and performance reviews—that can be accessed when they seek promotions or renew their contracts.

Overall, ePortfolios generate data that provides new insights into the learning process. “We didn’t have any data before,” Lewis says. “We were never before able to get a handle on how students were performing overall.” Now administrators can spot trends within particular courses or with specific students or professors. “We’ve used the data to make changes to our curriculum,” she says, adding that the university is continuously developing new uses for the system.

Benefits beyond graduation

Officials at The Citadel in South Carolina launched an e-Leadership Portfolio in 2009 to measure student learning outcomes over time, says Tara Hornor, associate provost for planning, assessment and evaluation and dean of enrollment management.

The system enabled the university to embed ePortfolios into multiple classes, including all leadership courses, and some English and science classes.

All 2,300 undergraduate students have required assignments each year that measure multiple skill sets, from critical reasoning to written communication to ethical reasoning, and beyond. At the end of their time in school, students may have as many as 28 of these items in their ePortfolios, says Hornor.

Students submit assignments through the system, which is powered by TaskStream’s Learning Achievement Tool. Instructors score the work using the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ national VALUE Rubrics, providing feedback and a numerical score for each task. Faculty and staff can also monitor the progress of groups of students—from specific courses to entire classes.

“We have been able to see dramatic learning over time through ePortfolios,” says Hornor. Students see their own progress, too—an important benefit of using an ePortfolio. Citadel grads can take their ePortfolios with them after graduation—using them “to apply for graduate school, as part of the employment application process or simply to continue to reflect on the artifacts in the portfolios,” says Hornor.

Rise of digital badges

Each June, academic advisors at Notre Dame invite all incoming freshmen to create an ePortfolio, with 10 self-reflection questions to get them started, says Ambrose. Similar questions are then posed mid-year and are designed to understand how the student is transitioning to college life, including such queries as, “In what ways have you grown intellectually over the last four months?” and “Which classes have you found most interesting and why?” This academic year marks the first in which all undergraduates have at least one ePortfolio.

Freshmen use portfolios during two semester-long, graded first-year experience courses. Faculty and staff then “use the ePortfolio to assess how students are integrating and making connections across curriculum during their first year.”

While the average lifespan of the typical ePortfolio is one capstone assignment in a single course, “Notre Dame’s goal is to keep the ePortfolio pulse alive by creating and incentivizing multiple touchpoints throughout all four years,” says Ambrose.

Students can create multiple ePortfolios for different, specific purposes, such as one about a sophomore year abroad or another to be shared with only the advising staff. Students can decide who has access and who doesn’t. Some of the work may be public, such as for job interviews, and other content can be limited to faculty, mentors and advisors, says Ambrose.

Notre Dame expands on the basic portfolio model by issuing digital badges—that is, icons awarded to students to show mastery of certain concepts. Badges display on a student’s portfolio and pop-ups describe the requirements of earning the distinction. This helps outside evaluators, such as employers, recognize superior skills and accomplishments.

One of the most prestigious badges is the Moreau 5 Pillars Award, which acknowledges students for an “intentional commitment to deep integrative learning” and for which just 15 percent of first-year Notre Dame students are eligible. Other badges recognize informal learning, such as service learning and undergraduate research.

A changed teaching model

EPortfolios are also changing the sage-on-the-stage teaching model to a many-to-many model. “It’s a game-changer,” says Jeffrey Yan, CEO of Digication, Notre Dame’s ePortfolio provider.

Now, when a student creates a project, it can be shared with classmates for feedback. And instead of receiving input from just the instructor, students receive ideas from all of their classmates. By enabling this multiperson conversation, ePortfolios are “amplifying that learning,” he says.

At some point, “ePortfolios could become the center of everything students do on the learning and career development side,” says Batson of the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning. “Instead of being driven by credits and time in the seat, [ePortfolios could usher in] a new approach to learning.”

Misconceptions of ePortfolios in higher ed

Some in higher ed think ePortfolios must be linked with a specific academic program, says Hornor, at The Citadel.

Its e-Leadership Portfolio is administered centrally, providing assessment data for the overall institution, for education programs and for leader development.

Lewis, at the University of Charleston, finds that people believe (wrongly) that students will automatically understand the value of building an ePortfolio. “Faculty and assessment people need to be intentional about training students and communicating the value of this tool,” she says.

Students also may not naturally want to reflect and collect samples of their work, says Ambrose at Notre Dame.

Educators and learning designers must ensure students understand the benefits of using ePortfolios inside, outside and across courses.

“Reflection and maintaining their educational/professional ePortfolios is like eating your vegetables and taking your vitamins,” he says. “We all know that we should do it and it is good for us but we don’t always remember or make it a habit.”

Marcia Turner is a Rochester, New York-based writer.


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