ePortfolios >> Hi-Octane Assessment

Electronic portfolios are changing the way many colleges and universities handle student, educator, and lifelong assessment.

One good way to get to know Paul Treuer outside of his job as director of the Knowledge Management Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD): Peruse his electronic portfolio. Treuer’s portfolio, which is password-protected, boasts a veritable dossier on his life, both personal and professional.

The portfolio contains information about his Khatsolona collapsible sea kayak; blog entries from a recent trip to Jelsa, Croatia; and a photo essay on frigid Lake Superior in winter. It also contains Treuer’s biographical statement, his curriculum vitae, and a variety of presentations he gave at the Educause National Learning Infrastructure Initiative conference in early 2005 (NLII is now the Educause Learning Initiative; www.educause.edu/eli). After spending some quality time on Treuer’s portfolio, one has the sense of really knowing the man, spectacles and all. And that’s exactly how Treuer likes it.

“The whole idea behind these ePortfolios is to give others a complete sense of what you’re all about,” says Treuer, who created the electronic portfolio system at the university. “Whether you’re using an ePortfolio as a job-hunting tool or an assessment tool, you want the people who inspect it to come away with an entirely new understanding of who you are and what you’re capable of accomplishing.”

Driven by a variety of goals—including assessment and professional development— the electronic portfolio technology has caused a good deal of excitement in the academic world during the last few years; for some schools—those fully adopting the technology—it is dramatically changing the way they require students to demonstrate competencies.

Certain institutions, such as the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the University of Iowa, have been aggressively pursuing the technology for the better part of a decade, sharpening the ePortfolio setup regularly as they fine-tune homegrown systems to better meet the needs of education and beyond. Other academic institutions, such as Villanova University (PA) and St. Lawrence University (NY), are newer to the game, and are sampling technology from at least two vendors, learning most of what they know about ePortfolios as they go along.

The Professional

Yet, perhaps no institution knows more about ePortfolios than UMD. While many recent converts to ePortfolios have opted to license technology from a variety of vendors in recent years, UMD built its open source technology from scratch, largely because there were simply no ePortfolio vendors when the institution got started.

The offering has evolved dramatically over the years, with the most striking changes coming after 2003, when the school released the code to the open source community. Today, as one of the members of the Open Source Portfolio Initiative (www.osportfolio.org), UMD is constantly requesting and accepting feedback from other open source programmers, and consistently updating and upgrading its ePortfolio effort to make it more responsive to user demands.

According to Treuer, the UMD “Portfolio” project began in 1995 as an effort to complement a PeopleSoft (www.peoplesoft.com) database. After three years of hardcore coding, the first iteration was available for campuswide rollout. The goal of this first system: to create an integrated portfolio system that would allow students to digitally post documents and other curriculum-related “artifacts” such as audio files, images, and in later years, video files and more.

At first, administrators decried the idea as somewhat superfluous—beyond the data-gathering capabilities of the new and pricey enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from PeopleSoft, which is now owned by Oracle. Treuer recalls that impression changed rapidly when UMD technologists saw how powerful ePortfolio technology could be.

“We realized quickly that every individual can and should be enabled to manage, distribute, and control his or her own personal digital information,” he says. “This is the future of individual records management; this is the future of knowledge management; and the ePortfolio provides the technology for that future.”

Capturing Student History

Today, UMD’s ePortfolio system is all about flexibility. Educators encourage students to upload into their portfolio every document and file they create, and use the portfolio as a kind of personal storage center. Technologists at the institution have set up the database in such a way that any one (or more) of the artifacts can be repurposed for multiple activities such as different classes, various types of exams, job-related portfolios, etc. With this in mind, when it comes time for assessment, students and other users can take certain files and move them into a public section of the portfolio, for sharing.

ePORTFOLIO POWER
Univeristy of Minnesota-Duluth invested in a 1.74-terabyte SAN used, in part, to maintain ePortfolios well after students graduate. Students can build their ePortfolios while at UMD, then sharpen and augment them throughout their careers as alumni, shifting the portfolio from an assessment enabler to employment enhancers and more.

When Treuer sets up interviews with journalists, for instance, he elects to share information about his kayak and his travels to Croatia. The portfolio creates a secure environment in which visitors can view artifacts when they want to, through a standard Web browser. It is unlike e-mail, which cannot guarantee secure transmission of attached files. Treuer and other UMD technologists are so pleased with their ePortfolio system that they recently moved to make it available for students indefinitely. Under an initiative dubbed Technology for Life, the school invested in a 1.74-terabyte storage area network (SAN) that is used in part to maintain ePortfolios well after students graduate. Inspired by an international movement to create electronic portfolios for all (see "Different Strokes" box below), UMD administrators are betting that students will incorporate the tools into their lives well beyond graduation. As Treuer explains it, students can build their ePortfolios while at UMD, then sharpen and augment them throughout their careers as alumni, shifting the portfolio from an assessment enabler to employment enhancer, and more.

“The technology is something our students can learn to use here and apply consistently to their careers, once they leave,” says Treuer, who notes that 38,000 individuals have logged in to their ePortfolio accounts since 2000. “It represents a huge shift not only in how we teach, but in how people live, too.”

Different Strokes

While here in the US, the primary focus of ePortfolios is on assessment and accountability, most academic technologists overseas see the technology as a key tool for facilitating lifelong learning and career development. In Europe and Canada, for instance, the mantra is “A Portfolio for Every Citizen by 2010.” According to Dr. Helen Barrett, a researcher for the International Society for Technology in Education, this approach might not be such a bad idea.

“In the US, we are fixated on accountability and high-stakes assessment,” she says.“Internationally, the focus is [much broader].”

On her blog, E-Portfolios for Learning, Barrett hails the eFolio Minnesota project (www.efoliominnesota.com), a cooperative endeavor by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU), designed to provide all residents of the state with 3MB to create their own online portfolios. Barrett describes the project as “lifelong and lifewide,” a paraphrase from project coordinator Darren Cambridge. She says that portfolio learning is “lifelong” because it covers life as a whole, not just during schooling, and that it is “lifewide” because it tries to facilitate learning that happens everywhere, not just in class.

Elsewhere, ePortfolio advocates are following suit in unique ways. In the UK, for instance, ePortfolios are becoming as commonplace as cellular phones. In New Zealand, they are gaining in popularity as well. In Canada, the national organization Learning Innovations FORUM launched an initiative in April 2005 to provide ePortfolios to all of its members. The organization will partner with the Web solutions provider Avenet (www.avenet.net) to provide the technology. Not surprisingly, Avenet is the same vendor behind the MNSCU project.

“[Having] one ePortfolio for life means being able to start your digital folio in school, utilize it through your training and education, and then continue to use it regardless of the work or business site to which you migrate,” says Dr. Kathryn Chang Barker, chairperson of the Canadian group.

Barrett, for one, will be spending a lot more of her time focusing on bringing ePortfolios to the masses. The former University of Alaska researcher recently began a research project for TaskStream, focusing on high-school ePortfolios. After that,who knows?

The Diversifier

Farther south, technologists at the University of Iowa are honing their own homegrown ePortfolio systems. Via an overarching electronic portfolio project, students in the school’s College of Education are treated to four different flavors of ePortfolios. The flagship initiative at Iowa—Digital BackPack—is a system that, much like UMD’s, provides a series of individual repositories into which every student can store files.

On the surface, each portfolio is nothing more than a glorified Web page to organize presentations, documents, and images for others to peruse. Behind the scenes, however, the Digital BackPack is an elaborate, homegrown content management system, a place for students to store all the evidence of their education and curriculum-driven conceptualizing.

Not surprisingly, many students use the resumes and work samples in their ePortfolios to look for work. Once they’re hired, the Digital Backpack becomes what technologists call the Cyber Toolbox, which remains active after graduation and enables students to store lesson plans and professional utilities early in their careers. Rebecca Anthony, director of Placement, says that many first- and second-year Iowa teachers use the toolbox as a homepage for enrichment activities—a place to post a summer reading list, and a means to communicate with their parents. John Achrazoglou, director of the college’s Education Technology Center, notes that these sites stay active for three years after graduation, at which time the university strongly encourages students to find a local Internet Service Provider(ISP) to host their ePortfolios.

“Right now, we’ve got more than 4,300 portfolios with 500,000 files sitting on our servers,” says Achrazoglou. “While we want to encourage students to use this technology, at some point we’ve got to wean them off of our servers in order to keep the space available for others.”

Benefits for Faculty

Extending the Technology for Life approach that so many schools embrace, Iowa’s other ePortfolio efforts exist to help established educators incorporate the technology into their everyday lives. One model, the Ph.D. Professional ePortfolio, mirrors the Digital BackPack, yet is designed specifically for students studying for doctoral degrees. Another model, the Early Career Teacher ePortfolio, provides ePortfolios to every teacher in the state. This third approach is the result of a partnership with the Cedar Rapids Community School District and the Cedar Rapids Education Association. Based on eight standards and 42 performance criteria, Achrazoglou and colleagues developed an ePortfolio template that revolutionizes the tenure process. Assessment of early teachers seeking standard licensure is now done through an ePortfolio instead of via paper-based files, the method previously used. Thanks to a $215,000 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust (www.carvertrust.org), teachers can download the template for free.

The fourth and final flavor of ePortfolio technology at the university debuted in August 2005. Known as the Leadership ePortfolio, this effort represents the biggest partnership to date: a collaboration with the Cedar Rapids Community School District, School Administrators of Iowa, and the Iowa Association of School Boards to deliver ePortfolios designed specifically for principals and other district administrators. The templates for these portfolios are based upon six standards and 36 performance criteria. Anthony says that much like the templates for the Early Career Teacher ePortfolio, these leader-oriented tools have begun to change the way Iowa reviews administrators and grants them promotions. Now, she adds, all the university needs is user cooperation statewide.

“Among those people who use it, our Electronic Portfolio Project has changed the conversations in education across our state to the point where we don’t talk about technology,” she says. “The next step is getting it to the point where everyone’s using it, and the ePortfolio is the norm.”

The Gradualist

The ePortfolio effort at Villanova University began with a bang in June 2004, when campus technologists threw a bash to launch the effort in style. They called the celebration ePortfolio Day, and invited a number of vendors to campus to present and pitch their wares. After comprehensive feedback from user groups comprised of students and educators, the technologists selected the online portfolio assessment system from TaskStream (www.taskstream.com). The TaskStream rollout began immediately, with pilot programs in the Education and Political Science departments of the College of Arts and Sciences. A month after the the contract with TaskStream was signed, a handful of Villanova seniors were building portfolios online.

Yet, the process did not take place in a vacuum. Behind the scenes, TaskStream provided specialists in Villanova’s Instructional Technologies department with the know-how to train educators in the new technology. As students explored the system, so did educators; they sat through training sessions in various computer labs on campus and poked around the software on their own.

Dan McGee, director of Instructional Technologies, recalls that the universitywent to great lengths to make sure that all of the teachers and students in the two trial departments were comfortable with incorporating the technology into their everyday lives. The goal, he added, was simple: to revolutionize the way Villanova approached assessment, and multiply the degree to which users relied upon technology on a day-to-day basis.

ePORTFOLIO POWER
Based on eight standards and 42 performance criteria, the ePortfolio team at the University of Iowa developed an ePortfolio template that revolutionizes the tenure process. Assessment of the professor seeking tenure is now done through an ePortfolio instead of via paper-based files, the method used in past.

“From a planning standpoint, our strategy is always to provide the best and most effective technologies to solve the problems we have,” he says. “We wanted to improve assessment and the outcome achievement of our different programs and colleges. We’re hoping ePortfolios are a panacea.”

Villanova’s Education department is offering the new ePortfolio service to future elementary and secondary school teachers. Because an increasing number of state certification boards are requiring teachers to submit ePortfolios to receive their credentials, the technology is as much a way to help students prepare for the job search in the future as it is an assessment tool during their school years.

For the Political Science department, McGee and his colleagues built an assessment-only program, the Direct Response Folio (DRF), which requires students to submit artifacts (i.e., text, audio, and video files) to prove they’ve fulfilled certain goals. The goal of the DRF is not just teacher review of student work, but peer-to-peer review as well. Students are encouraged to review and give feedback on each other’s portfolios in addition to the teacher’s comments.

McGee admits that student response to these pilot programs has been tepid so far, but technologists are confident that as the program matures, so too will its user base. Elsewhere in the university, faculty are more enthusiastic. Representatives from the College of Engineering recently expressed interest in building an ePortfolio program specifically for this year’s incoming freshmen, to help them build an online repository for every document and spreadsheet they create during their time on campus. Other departments have expressed an interest in the technology as well, according to Cathy Kolongowski, Instructional Technology analyst.

Kolongowski recalls that when Villanova first rolled out WebCT (www.webct.com) in 1999, users were slow to adapt to the new technology at first, but ultimately embraced it wholeheartedly. “People generally are fearful of change,” she says. “But just as our users eventually embraced WebCT, I predict ePortfolios will become second nature before we know it, too.”

The Rookie

The future is even brighter for technologists at St. Lawrence University, where a recent implementation of ANGEL ePortfolio from Angel Learning (www.angellearning.com) kicked off in May 2005. Technologists at the small liberal arts school had been looking for a way to modernize and standardize the assessment system and provide students with a place to keep all of the files they create during their time in school.

After being approached by Angel Learning in January 2005, IT System Administrator Jedediah Hock says the school agreed to beta test the technology. The school tried out the Angel Learning tool in one small course, and feedback was excellent. One month later, St. Lawrence had inked a contract to roll out the technology on a broader scale.

This month, Hock and other technologists will introduce ePortfolio technology to 250 freshmen and 15 faculty members. Interestingly, the university will rely on ePortfolios not only as a place for teachers to assess student progress in achieving learning goals of the program, but also as a site for reflection in the academic planning process. The template for the new ePortfolios includes an area that closely resembles the current-day blog—an area where students will be encouraged to share insights with others and invite feedback from classmates, so they can work through issues together. By encouraging students to blog about their experiences, St. Lawrence officials are hoping to learn as much about the process and the student experience as they will about student performance overall.

“One of the main reasons we’re using ePortfolios is because we think they will be useful for our students to draw connections between their coursework and their broader academic goals and plans,” Hock says. “Providing help in learning more effectively [comes with] connecting your life and learning experiences into a cohesive whole, and we are highly committed to new technologies that accomplish that goal.”

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