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Overcoming Obstacles to Authentic ePortfolio Assessment

Editor’s Note: The University of Minnesota is implementing ePortfolio in a major way. Other colleges and universities are in various stages, some starting with pilot projects. How will this new tool fit into the lives of students and faculty.

One definition of ePortfolio is a “digital representation of self on characteristics of interest to a community.”

The community context can be represented as a template into which the portfolio creator places text, audio, and video files (digital artifacts) and is encouraged to include a description, rationale, and discussion around each entry in the template. Taken together, this software feature-set makes ePortfolio a powerful tool for the new 3Rs, representation, reflection, and revision.

This same “feature-set” presents a high-level view of the process that institutions and individual faculty often subscribe to as a method for helping students learn and demonstrate that learning has occurred.

The process mirrors constructivist faculty tenets of identifying the many different starting points at which students begin their learning path, creating a tension through critique that challenges the student’s original insights, and then presenting the revised assignment or paper as a “final” outcome.

In turn, individual faculty can create a teaching ePortfolio to demonstrate how they help students learn and revise their pedagogy based on the same representation, reflection, and revision cycle. At the institutional level, ePortfolio offers an ideal tool for providing evidence of improved student learning, which is meaningful to accreditation agencies and funding sources.

Even though ePortfolio fits comfortably into the implicit model of education for many faculty and institutions, by making the representation and reflection phases of the “3Rs” both public and explicit, the wide-scale adoption of ePortfolio becomes more challenging.

Three obstacles to institutional uptake of ePortfolio are:

1. lack of easy ways to protect the intellectual property rights of students;

2. concerns about increased workload for faculty;

3. the “inverted value” of ePortfolio to students.

The benefits of ePortfolio increase later in the student’s career and may be perceived as minor at its beginning. Let’s address each obstacle briefly in turn.

First, ePortfolio makes it easy for student work to be shared with others, both inside and outside of a class or community. Indeed, easy and selective access is one of ePortfolio’s powerful convenience features and benefits of adoption. However, because most ePortfolio systems require that a viewer obtain a local copy of the reviewed work, maintaining ownership of the original work can only be accomplished through social norms and policy expectations; it cannot be guaranteed technically. Since these downloaded works can be misappropriated, or presented outside of the student’s preferred context, protecting intellectual property rights and maintaining student ownership are problematic.

One approach to reducing misappropriation is to limit the publicly shared digital artifacts to either thumbnail or low-resolution versions of the student work. In the case of temporal artifacts (musical composition or movies) snippets can be shared rather than complete files. If a faculty member is a recipient of the full-value, full-fidelity student work, s/he can reasonably be entrusted to respect the student’s rights of ownership. However, how should a student’s work be protected when the faculty or institutional goal is to display student work in the context of institutional assessment? What if a student essay is used in an NCATE review as an example of “below target” performance? The likelihood of getting student sign-off as author of sub-par work is certainly lower than if a student is asked to share “exemplary” work.

Most colleges and universities concerned with using ePortfolio for institutional assessment address the issue of student ownership in an upfront policy that requests that student’s sign-off to permit “anonymous” or “anonymous and aggregated” use of student work. In the “strong compliance” model, the student is required to authorize this anonymous and aggregated use as a condition of taking a course. The “soft” condition requires a student to explicitly share each individual instance of their work, even though this approach runs contrary to an institution’s wish to provide full-range profiles of student accomplishment. Until we have more history, institutional use of student work will continue to be a balancing act; one in which the student’s ownership rights must be pre-eminent. In any circumstance, an a priori policy understood by all partners to the contract is essential for full and ethical deployment of ePortfolio.

As to the second obstacle, faculty workload and a request for explicit feedback to aid a student’s reflection can be viewed as both an affront to academic freedom (mandatory critique of student work) and, if done using technology rather than a red pen, another new skill a faculty must develop to perform their duties. Because too many students understand a faculty critique as a roadmap to an improved grade rather than an opportunity for personal improvement, making the review process well managed invites grade challenges and time-consuming conversations about the grade rather than the work. ePortfolio allows students to easily share their assignment and feedback with other students, and perceived or real differences in evaluation likely will lead to an increased number of grade challenges.

Even more demanding, critiquing an ePortfolio requires faculty to be explicit and consistent in applying assessment criteria. Often, faculty have never clearly articulated these criteria, even for themselves. It is much easier to form gestalt impressions and offer vague comments for review—good, clear, engaging, provocative, poor, muddy, rambling, pedestrian—rather than individualized and specific comments that might promote learning--re-organize this paragraph. build this argument, use one of these substitute phrases to make your point.

While this level of feedback is hard enough in the conventional red pen critique model, to make general feedback explicit and actionable by the student in a technological environment currently requires more work on the part of the faculty. However, to the extent that the quality of the review correlates to improved student performance, an instructor should offer rich feedback. ePortfolio must provide tools to assist the faculty in providing this improved commentary on student work.

The third attribute of ePortfolio that makes broad diffusion challenging is the inverted value of the work and commitment of students as they move from freshman status toward graduation. Most students are outcome, rather than process, oriented. They want to graduate, rather than track their academic growth between early and late educational experiences. This explains why ePortfolio often is presented as a “career showcase,” rather than a process for documenting learning.

As important as final outcomes are, students’ insights into their own unique learning and work processes are ultimately more valuable. At the beginning of the journey, however, students typically are concerned only with meeting a requirement, perhaps unrelated to their ultimate career goals. Without seeing the value at the beginning of the process, many students only superficially contribute to their ePortfolios. Lacking baseline data, the ultimate learning process improvements are invisible and the potential of ePortfolio is diminished.

In conclusion, ePortfolio can scale, but issues of student ownership, faculty workload, and inverted value to the portfolio creator must be understood and addressed at the earliest stages of implementation. This requires a concerted and coherent vision for the institution interested in wide-scale adoption. Fortunately, there are examples of institutional vision that can assist schools preparing to introduce ePortfolio on campus. Alverno College is appropriately well regarded for its “diagnostic digital portfolio” that scaffolds student learning.

On a much larger scale, the University of Minnesota has implemented ePortfolio for approximately 34,000 students to use from freshman year through graduation to meet a valuable mix of student and institutional goals. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) has begun a 600-person ePortfolio pilot project to ultimately serve a 92,000-student universe using the most recent version of Open Source Portfolio software.

These early pioneers offer clues to help others understand the issues of scale, and inspiration for nurturing enthusiasm for ePortfolio as a valuable support structure for learning. Once cultural and work flow issues are addressed, the IT staff can begin the still challenging, but ultimately more tractable, questions of scaling the infrastructure- hardware sizing, faculty and student training, and building robust content management systems to hold what one hopes will be very large quantities of quality student work.

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