Engaging Students in the ePortfolio Process

By Phill Miller
ANGEL Learning, Inc.

When users of the ANGEL Learning Management System identified ePortfolio as one of their most desired product enhancements, ANGEL Learning instituted an ePortfolio initiative in response. The initiative began in 2003 with in-depth conversations with customers to determine how ANGEL Learning could help them achieve their objectives.

In the case of the ePortfolio initiative a “problem” quickly surfaced: different schools, departments, even individual faculty members defined “ePortfolio” differently, from program and institutional portfolios to course and personal portfolios. To clarify user needs, the product development team investigated institutions that were implementing ePortfolio initiatives, both successfully and unsuccessfully. The analysis revealed that successful ePortfolio initiatives engaged the learners in the ePortfolio process, with users recognizing the value of an ePortfolio and spending time building high-quality ePortfolios.

With the learner identified as the center of the ePortfolio construction process, appropriate design questions were defined to guide the software development process: What can be done to make ePortfolio an integral part of a learner’s daily routine? What will make learners engage in the ePortfolio process? How can engagement lead to the success of an institution’s ePortfolio initiative? Knowing that students regularly interact with their learning management system (LMS), check assignments and grades several times each day, use blogs, email, instant messenger, and other interactive tools to stay in touch with people at all times, the development team realized that integration with the LMS was a critical part of helping students build ePortfolios.

Making ePortfolio visible in tasks students already perform was the first key to engaging students in the ePortfolio process. In a typical school day, students log into their LMS, daily, even hourly. Also, to heighten visibility, ePortfolio should be integrated into the tasks students regularly perform inside their courses in the LMS. In this case, tight integration between the ePortfolio system and the LMS makes portfolio building another simple step in a student’s daily learning routine. These integration points should be seamless and transparent, allowing students to move easily from their courses to their portfolios.

Making the portfolio creation process efficient was the second focus of the design team; students and faculty do not want to spend a large amount of time building their ePortfolios. When the ePortfolio and LMS tightly integrate, students can pull artifacts directly from their courses, without downloading or uploading any files. Personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and websites is imported directly from the enterprise student information system. These integration points make building an ePortfolio much simpler, and help students focus on the important parts of the ePortfolio process: collecting and compiling their work and reflecting on its value in their learning processes.

Encouraging students to develop connections among their educational, professional, and personal experiences and accomplishments is also an important aspect of the ePortfolio process. Often students cannot see the relationship between individual assignments and the broader goals of their education. Bringing these objectives to the forefront supports achievement of incremental learning goals and reinforces the outcomes instructors build into courses. Including the ability for students to reflect on their work by providing reflection and journaling opportunities in the ePortfolio helps students think more deeply about these connections and take ownership of their educational and personal growth both inside and outside the classroom

Giving students ownership and control of their ePortfolios was the final key identified to engaging students in the ePortfolio process. Students need control to add artifacts, reflect on their work, and then selectively share parts of their ePortfolios with others. They may have early stage work in their ePortfolio that they only want to share with their advisor or instructor, or they may have some journal entries that are important to their learning, but are deeply personal; an ePortfolio must give the learner the ability to “slice and dice” their ePortfolio for different audiences. Further, students want to control the look and feel of their portfolios, creating dynamic, creative presentations of their work and experiences. Students who are not artistic should have access to templates to help them easily create professional looking ePortfolios, but students who are skilled in design should have the flexibility to create their own visually expressive ePortfolios.

It is important to recognize that a learner-centric ePortfolio d'es not preclude institutional stakeholders from benefiting from a well-implemented ePortfolio solution. Early results show that a learner-centric ePortfolio model helps students see the value in ePortfolio building and, because they feel they own their ePortfolios, students are willing to spend time to make their ePortfolios of the highest quality. When this is the case, student-owned ePortfolios truly reflect an institution, school, or department, and institutions can dependably use ePortfolios for assessment and accreditation, instructors can use ePortfolio building as part of their course design, and career services teams can use ePortfolios to promote their alumni to potential employers. In summary, a learner centric design approach serves institutional needs, while motivating individuals to build personal, high-quality, and reflective portfolios.

Phill Miller (pmiller@angellearning.com) is ePortfolio Project Manager at ANGEL Learning, Inc.

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