CMS and ePortfolio: At the Crossroads

Course management systems offer powerful support for teaching, but they truncate student learning at the end of every term. ePortfolios offer a longitudinal learning environment in which a student can organize and maintain learning connections, but they may lack the orchestrated vision of an experienced educator. These alternate structures for capturing, evaluating, and reflecting on student work should intersect on the student’s desktop to deliver a powerful multiplier effect to an institution’s eLearning environment.

The CMS has entered the elite ranks of critical infrastructure components, joining e-mail and payroll as required systems to meet the demands of a majority of higher education institutions. It is easy to understand why; the CMS provides indisputable value to the teaching function. A well-designed course site packages a syllabus, calendar, access to grades, assignment drop boxes, and perhaps content and class interaction opportunities all in one convenient place. A faculty member who skillfully uses CMS gains in both efficiency and effectiveness.

While students generally report that they too value well-designed courses and course supplements tied to the CMS, they are being shortchanged if the CMS offers the only gathering place on the eLearning landscape. Course management systems require that the faculty member owns the learning environment, for it is the faculty member who must evaluate student work and assign a grade. The learning objectives, assignment descriptions and goals, faculty comments, and class discourse disappear from the student’s view as the term, and their course access, ends. The management structure imposed by the security needs of the CMS encourages a transmission model of education, whether that philosophy indeed suits the instructor, or whether the instructor favors a constructivist model of education.

The constructivist model of education is premised on the belief that deep learning relies on existing structures and knowledge held by individual students. From varied bases, learning occurs as the student’s knowledge schema assimilates new information (interrelates it with existing categories of knowledge) or accommodates (modifies learning schema held by the individual students) to new knowledge. Educators who ascribe to constructivist principles want to help students learn how to learn in their own unique ways. Constructivist faculty use CMS assignments and discussions to encourage students to contextualize and argue from their own sets of experience; but the results always are time-bound and unavailable for reinforcement from different classes.

In contrast, ePortfolios offer a marvelous prosthetic for constructivist learning and can organize the instructor’s teaching outcomes within student-generated learning categories. Principal components of an ePortfolio system include an underlying database that supports pre-existing rubrics for contributed content (sometimes called a scaffold), a repository that holds digital assets (student work) created by the owner of the ePortfolio, the capacity for the portfolio creator to build new categories with their own new labels to describe their work (sometimes referred to as a template), and description and comment fields for organizing insights tied to the digital assets.

Because the student is the owner and creator of her/his ePortfolio, there is no need for the work, and faculty and fellow student critiques, to disappear at the end of the term. Indeed, one of the primary uses cited for ePortfolios is this support of a student’s lifelong learning, giving the creator a handy place to document growth and new connections made over a course of study or career.

It might be illustrative to provide an example of how a student ePortfolio could help a student bridge and make connections between two courses supported by a CMS. For the first semester of her freshman year, Katherine enrolls in Introductory Biology. She is assigned a paper on natural selection, dutifully surveys the Biology literature, prepares a paper on Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and deposits it in the assignment drop box of the CMS. The term ends and this CMS learning environment is locked away from Katherine’s future review. In her second term, Katherine chooses a course in American History. The history teacher asks for a critique of the 1925 Scopes Trial, the famous “Monkey Trial” in which a high school biology teacher was charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. Katherine completes this assignment, but can only draw on a rapidly receding memory of her biology course. If she had deposited her Darwin paper in an ePortfolio contextualized by her Biology teacher’s assessment and her classmate’s discussion, the previous work would be re-viewable to inform her history assignment. These unforeseen opportunities for connections multiply over the student’s academic career.

The ePortfolio system encourages this more unified development of student work because the student decides what to keep and what to discard. The juxtaposition of diverse works and community commentary suggest connections that might not be apparent in the linear and segregated record of work that exists in the faculty-owned CMS. Much like good time management skills, an organized, all-in-one-place, chronicle of academic work is invaluable to most students.

To deliver on the promise of ePortfolios, several infrastructure/policy requirements must be in place. The institution must provide students with file space in an ePortfolio software system. Ideally, both the CMS and ePortfolio system support WebDAV (drag and drop from the student desktop) and permit single sign-on. Further, the ePortfolio system needs to be flexible and adaptable to meet many different learning needs, and in the best of circumstances, if a student moves from one institution to another, their ePortfolio should travel with them. The Open Source Portfolio Initiative (http://theospi.org) is pursuing this design philosophy in their version of ePortfolio. The software is freely downloadable, adaptable, templates are provided to help scaffold student knowledge, and the software supports the ability for students to represent and share their work with knowledge communities of their own choosing.

The CMS has established itself as mission-critical software because it provides an extremely valuable vehicle in which to organize an instructor’s class, objectives, assignments, and class discourse. As such, it is more an instrument of teaching than it is of learning, and it is challenged to facilitate serendipitous connections that bridge many classes silo-ed in CMS. ePortfolios offer great functionality to support student-centered learning that emerges over time.

We are currently at a crossroads in eLearning. The appropriate intersection of CMS and ePortfolio is the student desktop, enriched by intuitive content creation tools and frictionless WebDAV file-moving protocols. The student’s work, efforts, and reflections delivered to an instructor within the CMS offers the student the benefit of an experienced educator helping to guide further learning. An ePortfolio supports a student’s own learning connections and unanticipated future needs based on that same work, effort, and reflection. Forward-looking institutions should support both CMS and ePortfolio and seek system interoperability to contain costs and provide the best student learning experience.

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