Electronic Student Assessment: The Power of the Portfolio
They’re not just evaluation tools anymore. Savvy educators are seeing endless ways to exploit the power of the ePortfolio — and you can, too.
At Bentley College (MA),
the interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program has
undergone quite a makeover: Educators there have
completely revamped the way in which they assess
student performance in class. For years, the
process was “old school”—students were required
to submit all work in person, printing out assignments
on paper, stapling them, and handing them
over to professors upon request. These days, however,
the school handles assessment with nextgeneration
ePortfolio tools that enable students and
teachers to exchange assignments electronically.
What’s so interesting, though, is that the technology
is the architecture of the major itself,
acting as the mechanism by which curricular
objectives are supported and measured. Barbara
Palmer, dean for information resources, says that
faculty members designing the major had ePortfolios
in mind from the get-go. On one level, the technology evaluates individual success.
Collectively, however, the ePortfolios
can be mined to get a sense of overall
program quality. What’s more, because
the Bentley program requires a great deal
of student self-reflection and faculty
adviser feedback, Palmer says the ePortfolios
have become source material by
which to gauge the value of the facultystudent
interaction. “This initiative seeks
to increase students’ ability to integrate
learning and to make connections,” she
reports. “We expect to use [ePortfolios]
to evaluate our capacity to deliver on our
Bentley is not alone; across the country,
a growing number of schools such as
Iowa State University, Wesleyan University
(CT), the University of Denver
(CO), the University of Texas-Austin,
and the University of Hawaii are turning
to ePortfolio assessment technologies to
help them monitor and evaluate student
progress in a variety of disciplines—and
to help them and their students do even
more. Across the board, educators report
that their ePortfolio efforts have revolutionized
the learning process, and the
technologies they utilize seem to improve
every day, further enabling and enhancing
the efforts. What’s more, given the
bells and whistles (and price tags) of all
sorts of recent technology releases, those
tools commonly utilized in the ePortfolio
paradigm are relatively inexpensive, easy
to use, and scalable to an expanding user
environment. Perhaps most importantly,
students—the ones who use electronic
portfolios every day—like them.
Challenges, of Course
Still, ePortfolio technology is not without
its trials. For starters, particularly at
small schools, it can be tough to find the
time and resources to make the projects
and technologies work. At larger institutions,
the issue may be cultural: The
greater the number of faculty, the more
daunting the task of convincing educators
to surrender age-old assessment
techniques for something new. Finally,
there is the essential need for schools to
conduct ongoing self-assessment of the
newer assessment approach.
Neal Topp, director of the Center for
ePortfolio-Based Assessment at the University
of Nebraska-Omaha, says that in
order for ePortfolio efforts to succeed,
schools must document the impact of the
technology on students, faculty, and the
institution alike. “As higher ed institutions
adapt to society’s current and future
needs and expectations, implementing
robust ePortfolios will increase effectiveness
and document our value to our students
and communities,” he maintains.
The Open Source Approach
IS YOUR INSTITUTION already embracing open source? Then you should know that there’s an
open source flavor of ePortfolio technology, as well—and it’s flourishing. The effort, the Open Source
Portfolio Initiative (OSP), is a community of individuals and organizations collaborating
on the development of non-proprietary open source electronic portfolio software.
Formed in January 2003 by the University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware, and The
rSmart Group, the project is based on Portfolio, the University of Minnesota’s
ePortfolio software. In 2004, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation matched contributions
from Indiana University and rSmart to fund the development of OSP2.
Today, the OSP effort harnesses the creative work of these thought leaders, delivering it as a set
of powerful tools that interoperate in the Sakai community source framework.
The initiative strives to create and sustain ePortfolio software, build a software platform that
accelerates ePortfolio innovation for education, and inspire best practices in portfolio thinking.
Specifically, in the academic environment, individual learners can use OSP as a repository
to store and organize digital evidence of teaching and learning. Users can upload files of any type,
organize them in folders, and reference them in presentations or compositions to share with a
particular audience. Instructors can use the system to design guided reflective processes that help
learners integrate and enhance what they have learned throughout the year. Further, the system
provides instructors with a rich set of tools to design formative and summative assessments.
Finally, administrators can use the enterprise electronic portfolio system as a data-driven decisionmaking
and reporting tool. Configured to align with institutional objectives, the OSP system collects
real evidence of teaching and learning that can be correlated with and assessed against course,
program, department, and institutional objectives.
Then and Now
In order to understand all that an ePortfolio
can be, it’s important to look briefly at
what the electronic tool was originally
intended to be: a collection of electronic
documents that demonstrate the owner’s
skills, education, and knowledge to a target
reader. In academia, instructors use
ePortfolios to evaluate student competency
in a particular subject. Today, most
ePortfolio efforts fall into three main categories:
developmental, reflective, and
representational. While a developmental
ePortfolio comprises a record of assignments
over time, a reflective ePortfolio
includes personal reflection on the content
as well. A representational ePortfolio
shows achievements in relation to particular
work or developmental goals and is,
therefore, selective. Importantly, these
three main ePortfolio flavors may be
mixed to achieve different learning, personal,
or work-related outcomes. Across
academia, at least according to Mark
Schlesinger, associate VP for academic
technology at the University of Massachusetts
system, schools do just that.
“Technological approaches like ePortfolios
offer better ways to collaborate on
such things as development of standards
and criteria, as well as measurement,”
says Schlesinger, whose statewide network
of schools has already implemented
a few ePortfolio programs, and received
nearly $200,000 in state and federal
grants to develop a comprehensive electronic
portfolio program over the next few
years. “I see ePortfolios as a way to accumulate
information that is instrumental
for the student, the individual faculty
member, the department chair, the dean, and so on, up the ladder.”
Like the UMass schools, many colleges
and universities have adopted ePortfolios
gradually. Instead of embracing the
tools campuswide, these institutions have
rolled them out in a handful of departments
first. This was the strategy at Iowa
State University, where more than 1,000
students in a number of different departments
now use the technology. At Iowa
State, the ePortfolio system (“eDoc”) is
an outgrowth of JA-SIG’s uPortal, the open source version of
the standard campus web portal. (For
more on open source and ePortfolios, see
“The Open Source Approach”)
Since the technology was introduced in
2004, Iowa State technologists also have
linked it with WebCT Vista (a Blackboard company), so students
can move course-based artifacts into their
"ePortfolios allow us to accumulate information that is instrumental for the student, the individual faculty member, the dean, and so on, up the ladder."
Mark Schlesinger, University of Massachusetts
The driving force behind eDoc is Pete
Boysen, senior systems analyst in the IT
Services department. Boysen says the
impetus for the project was a combination
of wanting students to take a bigger role
in their professional development and
the pressure from outside agencies for
departments to demonstrate competence
in learning outcomes. One example: The
Food Science and Human Nutrition
department uses electronic portfolios for
all of its students, in order to track student
competencies against pre-established
learning outcomes from the American
Boysen says that dietetic interns are
required to note in their portfolios when
certain outcomes are accomplished.
“The key idea was to custom-build
departmental and general ‘themes’ to
meet each department’s requirements,”
he says, adding that students in the Educational
Leadership and Policy Study
and Math Education departments track
performance against similarly preestablished
outcomes. “The customized
approach eDoc provides has given us
the flexibility to meet all of these needs.”
While ePortfolio technology is used by
only a handful of students at Iowa State,
every student at Wesleyan University
graduates with an ePortfolio these days.
At this small liberal arts school, the
ePortfolio initiative is referred to as EP.
The Class of 2001 was the first class
to graduate with electronic portfolios;
today, every student must have one. Students
can use the system to access personalized
academic information and
reports on academic history; they also
can use EP to take language and math
placement tests and check on their
But the benefits don’t stop there. On
the administrative side, students can participate
in the housing lottery and submit
evaluations of their resident advisers. On
the personal side, students can use space
provided to reflect on their academic
goals or future plans, and customize their
ePortfolios by adding RSS feeds of interest
from the web. Technologists at Wesleyan
have even programmed the tool so
students can use it to interface with the
school’s Blackboard content management system.
According to Jennifer Curran, functional
project manager of the EP program,
just about the only problem with
the system thus far has been unchecked
growth. “We are adding so many applications
to our portfolios that it is becoming
cluttered,” she says, adding that looking
forward, “organizing [these applications]
properly is going to be a challenge.”
THE DUPC IS a multipurpose application.
U of Denver students, faculty, and staff
grant public access, and the public
can join in forums and discussions, too.
Two other institutions that have implemented
ePortfolios across campus are
LaGuardia Community College (NY)
and the University of Denver. At the latter,
an effort known as the DU Portfolio
Community (DUPC) integrates ordinary
ePortfolio sharing and assessment features
with tools for community interaction
such as asynchronous discussion.
Each student’s portfolio includes information about the individual’s community
membership and participation in collaborative
activities. Not only can all constituents
of the university create an
ePortfolio, but each virtual community
also has its own portfolio—a portal welcoming
newcomers into the fold.
Julanna Gilbert, director of the university’s
Center for Teaching and Learning,
sees DUPC as a multipurpose application.
If students and faculty users wish
to grant public access, their personal
portfolio accounts can be available for
the world to see through the DUPC website. The public may
also participate in DUPC as registered
guests who may join communities and
participate in discussion forums.
“The ability to search the content of
the portfolios makes it possible for individuals
who have interests in particular
areas to find each other, and serves to
build connections across disciplines and
groups,” Gilbert writes in a recently published
project summary. “For example,
members of the public can be invited to
participate in a course discussion forum
with students on a particular topic,
broadening the experience for students.”
At the University of Texas-Austin, Peg
Syverson, associate professor in the
department of Rhetoric and Writing, has
developed a comprehensive ePortfolio
effort that incorporates a number of features
into one. Syverson’s system moves
the learning record into a standalone
application that UT faculty and educators
at other schools can download for
free and use at their convenience. The
professor created the application with
FileMaker Pro from FileMaker, and named it Learning
Record Online. To date, more than 7,000
students in 14 schools are using the tool.
In a nutshell, the product is a freeware
relational database that stores the most
current version of a particular file. Teachers
input course information, and students,
in turn, submit the most current
copies of their assignments. The instructors
make comments in the files and
upload the comments. Students then import those comments into their versions
and proceed accordingly. As Syverson
explains, educators can see the
observations students have been keeping
for the duration of the process. Behind the
scenes, teachers don’t need FileMaker
Pro to use the software; they only need to
download the standalone application,
input the course information, and make it
available for students.
“Don’t think of this as a buffet for the
masses, think of it as a Big Mac: substantial,
portable, and cheap,” says Syverson,
who notes that the project was originally
funded in 1994 with a $200,000 grant
from the Defense Advance Research Projects
Agency. “I think
of it as a small, elegant implementation
that d'es one thing very well.”
Then there’s the University of Hawaii
system. In Honolulu, educators at
Kapi‘olani Community College have
turned to ePortfolios to evaluate student
learning with two different approaches
launched this year: the Na Wa‘a portfolio,
a Hawaiian cultural values ePortfolio; and
a culinary program that centers on learning
outcomes based on standards from the
American Culinary Federation. Both efforts are partially
supported by a five-year, $2.5 million
grant the school received from the US
Department of Education.
According to Judith Kirkpatrick, a professor
of English at Kapi‘olani, the programs
have changed the learning process
20 SMART TIPS AND PRACTICES
||The ePortfolio technology can be the architecture of the major itself, acting as the mechanism by which curricular objectives are supported and measured.
||Collectively, ePortfolios can be mined to get a sense of overall program quality.
||ePortfolios have become source material by which to gauge the value of the faculty-student interaction.
||ePortfolios can boost students’ ability to integrate learning and to make connections..
||ePortfolios can help administrators/faculty evaluate the institution’s capacity to deliver on curricular promises.
||In order for ePortfolio efforts to succeed, schools must document the impact of the technology on students, faculty, and the institution.
||Most ePortfolio efforts fall into three main categories: developmental, refflective, and representational.
||The three main fflavors of ePortfolio (above) may be mixed to achieve different learning, personal, or work-related outcomes.
||At some schools, students can use the ePortfolio system to access personalized academic information and reports on academic history, take placement tests, and check on their placement recommendations.
||ePortfolios offer better ways to collaborate on development of standards, criteria, and measurement.
||Consider adopting ePortfolios gradually, in a handful of departments.
||ePortfolios can allow students to participate in the campus housing lottery and submit evaluations of their resident advisers.
||Students can customize their ePortfolios by adding RSS feeds of their interests from the web.
||ePortfolios can be programmed to let students interface with the school’s content management system.
||Watch unchecked growth in ePortfolios: Adding applications can clutter ePortfolio systems, and organizing the apps after the fact can be challenging.
||Some schools integrate ordinary ePortfolio sharing and assessment features with tools for community interaction such as asynchronous discussion. Individuals with common interests in particular areas can ffind each other and build connections across disciplines and groups.
||Don’t think only of institutional constituents creating ePortfolios: Each virtual community can have its own portfolio, welcoming newcomers into the fold.
||Why not incorporate your students’ learning records as a standalone application your own faculty—and educators at other schools—can download for free and use at their convenience?
||Why not use ePortfolios to evaluate student thinking on new ePortfolio-based (or other) curricula or courses your institution has debuted?
||Think careers: ePortfolios are effectively used to help students articulate their own values and then relate them to career goals.
While the culinary project is straightforward
in the way it requires students to
demonstrate how they meet ACF standards,
the Na Wa‘a effort is more subjective
and complex. The open source
initiative is the subject of a research project
the school is conducting as part of
the National Coalition on ePortfolio
and is predicated on students being able
to articulate their own values and then
relate them to their academic experiences,
career goals, and extracurricular
pursuits. Kirkpatrick says that constructing
an electronic portfolio also
encourages students to explore their
family history online, forming what is
essentially a living sociology textbook
that changes over time.
Kirkpatrick sees long-term benefits
for students, and much growth and
expansion of the ePortfolio effort itself:
“We think this will give students a
stronger start and get them better integrated
into what’s going to be required
of them down the road. Our ePortfolio
program will grow dynamically as our
student body continues to evolve.”