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E-Portfolios Link Academic Achievements to Career Success


When the School of Business at Portland State University launched a brand new online business degree program focused on leadership and management for working professionals, the intent was to experiment with new kinds of learning to enhance students' professional, academic and career development. Looking for a way to link students' academic achievements to career success, the school turned to e-portfolios as a key component in the program. And students will carry those portfolios beyond graduation: In their third year of the three-year program, they will port a version of their e-portfolio content into a career-oriented social sharing site.

Here's how Portland State wove e-portfolios into the curriculum from the ground up.

Growing an Online Program

Launched in fall 2013, the online business degree program was designed with a "platform approach" to lay the groundwork for continuous growth, explained Jeanne Enders, executive director of school of business online initiatives, and Melissa Shaquid Pirie, school of business faculty professional development coordinator, at a recent Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL) conference.

That meant several things: First, core courses would be developed to serve all of the intended degree programs as well as non-degree certificate programs. Each cohort would follow the same sequence of classes. Second, learning objects such as videos would be created to allow for self-paced professional, academic and career development for this new group of online students; those same learning objects could also be used by all Portland State students. And third, usage of e-portfolios would build as students progressed from year one through year three.

Integrating E-Portfolio Work Into New Courses

Starting a degree program from a blank slate has a major advantage: control over the course development process. "You can be really bossy," quipped Enders. She and her team established that courses would have standard components: bi-weekly small-group, graded video chats with the professor; weekly quizzes; and culminating assignments. Students and faculty would work through a branded learning management system for consistency and clarity.

Course developers — faculty, instructional design staff and even industry people — were paid a $3,000 stipend and given a 30-hour week-long training session to help them prepare each course to fit the program goals. They had to agree to a "master course" model — which meant that anybody designated as an instructor could teach the course — and to participate in a third-party Quality Matters review.

Beginning this summer, e-portfolio usage will be embedded into as many touchpoints as possible. For example, during their orientation, students will be introduced to a self-paced video module about e-portfolios, which explains what they are and how they're used, among other topics. Right from the start, an organizational behavior course will have first-year students begin their e-portfolios by writing an autobiography and a leadership purpose statement. And in a business environments class, which covers ethics and law, students will undertake a "multi-stakeholder" business-problem research project and put their work into the e-portfolio.

In year two, students will develop content about personal strengths in a "team processes" class, and for an "innovation for shared value" class, they will create a presentation to persuade a board of directors about a state-of-the-art innovation process. The products from both of those efforts will land in the e-portfolio.

Then in year three, a "contemporary leadership issues" course will have students revisit their leadership purpose text from year one and refine that to reflect their newfound knowledge and experience. As a capstone, students must take on a community project, the results of which will also go into the e-portfolio. Simultaneously, students will also go through a "career management and digital portfolio" class, where they redact anything that can't be made public (frequently the case with the output from the capstone course) and shift the contents of their coursework into a custom LinkedIn community.

The value of the latter activity is twofold, pointed out Enders: "Our focus will be to encourage them to put it into LinkedIn so we have the capacity to reach out to them through the years as possible mentors and also to point employers in that direction."

Lingering Questions

Although it may sound like the e-portfolio program has been all figured out, that's not the case, according to Enders and Pirie. They're still struggling to answer several questions.

One major issue is tied to faculty participation and training. Ideally, faculty should explain e-portfolio use to their students in the context of each course, but they may not be comfortable or inclined to add this additional "layer" to their efforts. As Pirie noted, the program is trying to figure out whether to insert an instructional video on e-portfolios into online courses for the sake of consistency, or to train faculty as much as possible and encourage them to "get in there and participate on their own."

Another area that's still hazy is the e-portfolio feedback system. As Pirie put it, "If I have no audience for what I'm doing, why should I care?" But the question is, who should do the reviewing and provide the feedback to the student — faculty members, the program adviser, somebody from the career services department or peers in the program? "We don't know what the right choice or mix of reviewers is," she conceded, "but we do know [e-portfolios] should be reviewed on a regular basis" to get specific feedback to the student around content, structure and overall usability.

And there are questions around expanding the usage of e-portfolios within the online program. "Are we missing pieces?" asked Pirie. "What touchpoints are the most essential for the students throughout that three-year process?"

Even with examples borrowed from other institutions, she pointed out, "We don't know the best way to go" to optimize the process for faculty, staff and students in their specific online program.

The Link to Careers

The online business degree program has delayed e-portfolio implementation until this summer due to a long-awaited platform switch from Google Sites to new software. In May, after a two-year assessment process, the campus chose PebblePad as its institutional e-portfolio platform.

According to a news announcement about the adoption, the university will implement the software over the summer, as well as host a training "academy" and launch five initial adoption projects in the fall. In winter 2016, Portland State expects to expand the use of the platform for additional projects.

While the new product is being rolled out, the business school team is busy creating video content to be inserted into the end-of-program e-portfolio course, including an academic and career module describing the importance of the e-portfolio, plus an interview with a Portland State colleague on integrative learning and the e-portfolio. They're also putting together video training on "how to participate in rigorous and authentic self-reflection and personal branding techniques," added Enders.

While some might question why that kind of work would come near the end of the program, it's the best possible positioning, she asserted: just before the focus returns specifically to career matters. "We have business students in their junior and senior years. They're engaged in student groups. They're doing leadership activities. They're having a lot of leadership at work. Some of them are in the military. They don't know how to translate that extraordinary skillset into language that helps employers see their value."

On top of that, the renewed focus on e-portfolios will help students reconnect with "their own purpose," Enders said. "That purpose is unique to them. It takes a lot of work and time to develop self-awareness about your strengths and passions and then understand why you're on this planet. When you can link that to your job and speak about it in a clear and sophisticated way to potential employers, you're more likely to end up in a job that's meaningful for you, that's a great fit for you, and you're more likely to take the learning you had at the university and apply it appropriately into your career instead of wondering why you ever got a bachelor's degree."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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