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Evolving the E-Portfolio at Penn State

Pennsylvania State University's foray into e-portfolios started about 10 years ago, when static Web pages were used to store and display online versions of student resumes. Fairly innovative for their time, these early e-portfolios gave way to more dynamic versions of themselves a few years back as the university began rolling in Web 2.0 technologies.

"When blogs, social networking and other interactive technologies came along, we tweaked our e-portfolio initiative," said Jeff Swain, innovation consultant for the university. "We wanted students to be able to develop interactive, online portfolios that would be able to stay and grow with them throughout their college careers, and beyond."

An e-portfolio is an electronic record of a student's work and allows for the digital documentation of skills, experience, and coursework. As students progress through college, the e-portfolio is maintained and updated to reflect life, work, study, and play experiences. E-portfolio users can upload and store documents, presentations, spreadsheets, photos, Web pages, and other items that are then shared with faculty, advisors, employers, family and friends.

Penn State's College of Education was among the first to sign up for the university's revamped e-portfolio initiative. Swain said the early interested stemmed from the fact that teachers are required to show e-portfolios when applying for jobs in Pennsylvania and in various other states.

The Schreyer Honors College also took an early interest in the e-portfolios, which are introduced to incoming students during orientation. As they progress through the school, students create their e-portfolios around the program's core values and mission (good citizenship and democracy, for example), all the while striving to tie their programs of study into their target careers.

Last year, the school's College of Communications began using e-portfolios with its first-year students. Swain worked closely with the students by introducing them to the concept and showing them how they can use e-portfolios to document their freshmen year academic experiences in a dynamic way.

Swain said the university's Education, Honors, and Communications colleges are particularly good fits for e-portfolios because all three courses of study incorporate technology and digital media.

"When you talk about digital scholarship and digital identity, e-portfolios are part of the equation," said Swain. "They help students become well rounded, contributing members of the society that we're sending them out into."

To encourage the use of e-portfolios on campus, Swain works directly with professors, who benefit from having a student's educational roadmap via the Web and right at their fingertips. Teachers also use e-portfolios themselves, said Swain, who encourages faculty to upload presentations, lectures, and other items for sharing with peers and students.

"Professors who use e-portfolios can more easily connect and converse with others in their respective fields," said Swain. "They allow teachers to become part of a continuous, evolving conversation."

Students gain similar benefits when they create their own e-portfolios. Future teachers, for example, can begin laying the groundwork for their careers long before graduation day. "It gets them conversing in their fields early in the game," said Swain, "and building out their teaching philosophies and learning theories."

The goal is for those theories to be seen and digested by potential employers while the student is still in school and for them to serve as conversation starters and relationship builders. "Students will know where they fit in even before they actually start looking for a job," said Swain. "That's a big plus."

Based on a platform that allows users to "wrap" Web pages around it, Penn State's e-portfolio initiative includes a mix of static pages where students showcase their work and dynamic pages (which incorporate blogs, for example). Swain said the biggest challenges for students are often learning how to blog, and keeping their e-portfolios fresh and up-to-date.

"When I came into my current position, I was operating under the assumption that students know technology and that this [platform] will be no problem for them to use," said Swain. "In reality, there is a learning curve. Understanding how to blog--and how to do it in a thoughtful, professional way--for example, isn't easy for everyone."

To universities looking for ways to integrate e-portfolios into their own technology offerings, Swain advised taking a holistic approach that begins at the program level and targets students as soon as they are admitted to the college.

"Don't make it a senior class assignment that summarizes what students did over the last four years," said Swain. "Get incoming students thinking about the associations between their courses and the world that they'll be working and living in, and use e-portfolios to help make those connections."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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