Meeting the Accountability Challenge by Implementing a Campus-Wide ePortfolio

By Neal W. Topp
University of Nebraska at Omaha

The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), a state-supported campus in the University of Nebraska system with 15,000 students, has begun a campus-wide ePortfolio initiative. The project is spearheaded by faculty, staff, and administration, and includes all colleges, the Vice Chancellor's office, and the Information Technology Services division. Currently, more than 2,000 students populate several types of student ePortfolios, and more than 400 faculty members are building ePortfolios to be used in their annual review process. Our goal is to include all faculty by the 2007 annual review. The faculty ePortfolio implementation will give our instructors valuable first-hand experience and will help them understand the potential of student ePortfolios.

The campus-wide student ePortfolio will be in alpha stage by fall 2006. This portfolio system will allow programs or departments to customize the portfolio to meet specific needs, while still reflecting campus-wide expectations such as general education requirements. In addition to improving student assessment and communication with our constituents, we anticipate improved curriculum, course instruction, and student learning outcomes accruing from this process.

Many U.S. colleges and universities are using ePortfolios, but most have implemented the process with relatively few students or within an isolated program, department, or course. Few institutions have implemented a coordinated campus-wide ePortfolio for all students and faculty. We believe that creating an "ePortfolio culture" will help meet the goals of our institution's strategic plan which places students at the center of its enterprise, promotes academic excellence, and fosters deeper engagement with our community.

Why focus so much attention and so many resources on this large ePortfolio project? We believe that a convergence of factors makes implementing ePortfolios possible and important at this time. Seven of these factors are:

1) Advancements in technology now facilitate ePortfolio use. Computers are generally available, students have the necessary skills, digital storage is cheap, and current data base technologies can support ePortfolio implementation.

2) The work of Ernest Boyer and Mary Huber (along with many others) on the scholarship of teaching and learning has helped higher education focus on improving student learning. ePortfolios are one excellent method to document learning outcomes and the teaching that promoted that learning.

3) The national work of the Partnership of 21st Century Skills has been accepted by many in the P-20 educational community. The skills people will need to succeed include information and communication skills, thinking and problem solving skills, and interpersonal and self-directed skills. Measuring and documenting these skills is difficult with many assessment methods, but can be addressed through a robust ePortfolio process.

4) Most of our future students are technologically advanced and expect technology to be used in their education. With the rapid growth of computer ownership and Internet access, universities must adapt their processes to meet student expectations of technology use in their learning environment.

5) Many of our future students will be first generation college students. Many of these students lack a general understanding of a college degree, what it will take to complete a college program, or the value of a college education. Presentation of an ePortfolio is one way to show students the overall process, how to succeed in college, and the skills and knowledge earned through a college degree.

6) Accreditation requirements, whether at the program level or at the campus level, are changing. Most accreditation agencies now focus on identifying outcomes in student learning and have de-emphasized reporting inputs. ePortfolios contain outcomes data to help meet these accreditation requirements.

7) Accountability has moved to the forefront in education, with No Child Left Behind the most prominent example in the United States. There are comparable endeavors internationally. The use of ePortfolios allows higher education to respond to demands for accountability on its terms, rather than relying on ill-fitting standardized tests. We can show our constituents and policy makers that we are eager to document our student and faculty contributions and growth through ePortfolio in a rich and persuasive manner.

Although we currently are knee-deep in implementation, we recognize the value of research as well. Documenting the impact on students, faculty, and the institution, while identifying ePortfolio best practices is required for this initiative to succeed. Our university's research questions include: How d'es the learning process change as a result of embedding learning activities into an ePortfolio? Can embedding learning activities in an ePortfolio change the quality of reflection and contribute to deep learning? Do instructional methods and curricula change when an ePortfolio is used? Do students more quickly master the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in their major when they are involved in the ePortfolio process?

While we are conducting several ePortfolio research projects and have an evaluation plan in place to help answer these questions, UNO is excited to be in the National Coalition of ePortfolio Research, which currently consists of eighteen higher education institutions focused on different ePortfolio research questions. Sharing research results will help all us all better understand ePortfolios and their relationship to learning and campus change.

As higher education institutions adapt to society's current and future needs and expectations, implementing robust ePortfolios will increase effectiveness and document our value to our students and communities. We must be proactive to show policy makers that we embrace our changing world and that we are committed to excellence, both for our students and our institution. Maintaining the status quo and awaiting mandated change is not a future I wish to contemplate.

Neal W. Topp (ntopp@mail.unomaha.edu) is the director of the Center for ePortfolio-Based Assessment (CeBA) and Varner Professor of Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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