Electronic Student Assessment: The Power of Portfolio

By Matt Villano

At Bentley College (MA), the interdisciplinary Liberal Studies program has undergone quite a makeover: Educators there have completely revamped the way in which they assess student performance in class. For years, the process was “old school” – students were required to submit all work in person, printing out assignments on paper, stapling them, and handing them over to professors upon request. These days, however, the school handles assessment with next generation ePortfolio tools that enable students and teachers to exchange assignments electronically.

What’s so interesting, though, is that the technology is the architecture of the major itself, acting as the mechanism by which curricular objectives are supported and measured. Barbara Palmer, dean for information resources, says that faculty members designing the major had ePortfolios in mind from the get-go. On one level, the technology evaluates individual success. Collectively, however, the ePortfolios can be mined to get a sense of overall program quality. What’s more, because the Bentley program requires a great deal of student self-reflection and faculty adviser feedback, Palmer says the ePortfolios have become source material by which to gauge the value of the faculty-student interaction. “This initiative seeks to increase students’ ability to integrate learning and to make connections,” she reports. “We expect to use [ePortfolios] to evaluate our capacity to deliver on our curricular promises.”

Bentley is not alone. Across the country, a growing number of schools such as Iowa State University, Wesleyan University (CT), the University of Denver (CO), the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Hawaii are turning to ePortfolio assessment technologies to help them monitor and evaluate student progress in a variety of disciplines – and to help them and their students do even more. Across the board, educators report that their ePortfolio efforts have revolutionized the learning process, and the technologies they utilize seem to improve every day, further enabling and enhancing the efforts. What’s more, given the bells and whistles (and price tags) of all sorts of recent technology releases, those tools commonly utilized in the ePortfolio paradigm are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and scalable to an expanding user environment. Perhaps most importantly, students – the ones who use electronic portfolios every day – like them.

Challenges, of Course

Still, ePortfolio technology is not without its trials. For starters, particularly at small schools, it can be tough to find the time and resources to make the projects and technologies work. At larger institutions, the issue may be cultural: The greater the number of faculty, the more daunting the task of convincing educators to surrender age-old assessment techniques for something new. Finally, there is the essential need for schools to conduct ongoing self-assessment of the newer assessment approach.

Neal Topp, director of the Center for ePortfolio-Based Assessment at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, says that in order for ePortfolio efforts to succeed, schools must document the impact of the technology on students, faculty, and the institution alike. “As higher ed 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,” he maintains.

Then and Now

In order to understand all that an ePortfolio can be, it’s important to look briefly at what the electronic tool was originally intended to be: a collection of electronic documents that demonstrate the owner’s skills, education, and knowledge to a target reader. In academia, instructors use ePortfolios to evaluate student competency in a particular subject. Today, most ePortfolio efforts fall into three main categories: developmental, reflective, and representational. While a developmental ePortfolio comprises a record of assignments over time, a reflective ePortfolio includes personal reflection on the content as well. A representational ePortfolio shows achievements in relation to particular work or developmental goals and is, therefore, selective. Importantly, these three main ePortfolio flavors may be mixed to achieve different learning, personal, or work-related outcomes. Across academia, at least according to Mark Schlesinger, associate VP for academic technology at the University of Massachusetts system, schools do just that.

“Technological approaches like ePortfolios offer better ways to collaborate on such things as development of standards and criteria, as well as measurement,” says Schlesinger, whose statewide network of schools has already implemented a few ePortfolio programs, and received nearly $200,000 in state and federal grants to develop a comprehensive electronic portfolio program over the next few years. “I see ePortfolios as a way to accumulate information that is instrumental for the student, the individual faculty member, the department chair, the dean, and so on, up the ladder.”

Like the UMass schools, many colleges and universities have adopted ePortfolios gradually. Instead of embracing the tools campuswide, these institutions have rolled them out in a handful of departments first. This was the strategy at Iowa State University, where more than 1,000 students in a number of different departments now use the technology. At Iowa State, the ePortfolio system (“eDoc”) is an outgrowth of JA-SIG’s uPortal, the open source version of the standard campus Web portal. (For more on open source and ePortfolios, see “The Open Source Approach”) Since the technology was introduced in 2004, Iowa State technologists also have linked it with WebCT Vista (a Blackboard company), so students can move course-based artifacts into their repositories.

The driving force behind eDoc is Pete Boysen, senior systems analyst in the IT Services department. Boysen says the impetus for the project was a combination of wanting students to take a bigger role in their professional development and the pressure from outside agencies for departments to demonstrate competence in learning outcomes. One example: The Food Science and Human Nutrition department uses electronic portfolios for all of its students, in order to track student competencies against pre-established learning outcomes from the American Dietetic Association. Boysen says that dietetic interns are required to note in their portfolios when certain outcomes are accomplished.

“The key idea was to custom-build departmental and general ‘themes’ to meet each department’s requirements,” he says, adding that students in the Educational Leadership and Policy Study and Math Education departments track performance against similarly pre-established outcomes. “The customized approach eDoc provides has given us the flexibility to meet all of these needs.”

Widespread Adoption

While ePortfolio technology is used by only a handful of students at Iowa State, every student at Wesleyan University graduates with an ePortfolio these days. At this small liberal arts school, the ePortfolio initiative is referred to as EP. The Class of 2001 was the first class to graduate with electronic portfolios. Today, every student must have one. Students can use the system to access personalized academic information and reports on academic history. They also can use EP to take language and math placement tests and check on their placement recommendations.

But the benefits don’t stop there. On the administrative side, students can participate in the housing lottery and submit evaluations of their resident advisers. On the personal side, students can use space provided to reflect on their academic goals or future plans, and customize their ePortfolios by adding RSS feeds of interest from the Web. Technologists at Wesleyan have even programmed the tool so students can use it to interface with the school’s Blackboard content management system.

According to Jennifer Curran, functional project manager of the EP program, just about the only problem with the system thus far has been unchecked growth. “We are adding so many applications to our portfolios that it is becoming cluttered,” she says, adding that looking forward, “organizing [these applications] properly is going to be a challenge.”

Two other institutions that have implemented ePortfolios across campus are LaGuardia Community College (NY) and the University of Denver. At the latter, an effort known as the DU Portfolio Community (DUPC) integrates ordinary ePortfolio sharing and assessment features with tools for community interaction such as asynchronous discussion. Each student’s portfolio includes information about the individual’s community membership and participation in collaborative activities. Not only can all constituents of the university create an ePortfolio, but each virtual community also has its own portfolio – a portal welcoming newcomers into the fold.

Julanna Gilbert, director of the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, sees DUPC as a multipurpose application. If students and faculty users wish to grant public access, their personal portfolio accounts can be available for the world to see through the DUPC Web site. The public may also participate in DUPC as registered guests who may join communities and participate in discussion forums.

“The ability to search the content of the portfolios makes it possible for individuals who have interests in particular areas to find each other, and serves to build connections across disciplines and groups,” Gilbert writes in a recently published project summary. “For example, members of the public can be invited to participate in a course discussion forum with students on a particular topic, broadening the experience for students.”

Forward-Thinking Projects

At the University of Texas-Austin, Peg Syverson, associate professor in the department of Rhetoric and Writing, has developed a comprehensive ePortfolio effort that incorporates a number of features into one. Syverson’s system moves the learning record into a standalone application that UT faculty and educators at other schools can download for free and use at their convenience. The professor created the application with FileMaker Pro from FileMaker, and named it Learning Record Online. To date, more than 7,000 students in 14 schools are using the tool.

In a nutshell, the product is a freeware relational database that stores the most current version of a particular file. Teachers input course information and students, in turn, submit the most current copies of their assignments. The instructors make comments in the files and upload the comments. Students then import those comments into their versions and proceed accordingly. As Syverson explains, educators can see the observations students have been keeping for the duration of the process. Behind the scenes, teachers don’t need FileMaker Pro to use the software. They only need to download the standalone application, input the course information, and make it available for students.

“Don’t think of this as a buffet for the masses, think of it as a Big Mac: substantial, portable, and cheap,” says Syverson, who notes that the project was originally funded in 1994 with a $200,000 grant from the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. “I think of it as a small, elegant implementation that d'es one thing very well.”

Then there’s the University of Hawaii system. In Honolulu, educators at Kapi‘olani Community College have turned to ePortfolios to evaluate student learning with two different approaches launched this year: the Na Wa‘a portfolio, a Hawaiian cultural values ePortfolio; and a culinary program that centers on learning outcomes based on standards from the American Culinary Federation. Both efforts are partially supported by a five-year, $2.5 million grant the school received from the US Department of Education. According to Judith Kirkpatrick, a professor of English at Kapi‘olani, the programs have changed the learning process fundamentally.

While the culinary project is straightforward in the way it requires students to demonstrate how they meet ACF standards, the Na Wa‘a effort is more subjective and complex. The open source initiative is the subject of a research project the school is conducting as part of the National Coalition on ePortfolio Research, and is predicated on students being able to articulate their own values and then relate them to their academic experiences, career goals, and extracurricular pursuits. Kirkpatrick says that constructing an electronic portfolio also encourages students to explore their family history online, forming what is essentially a living sociology textbook that changes over time.

Kirkpatrick sees long-term benefits for students, and much growth and expansion of the ePortfolio effort itself: “We think this will give students a stronger start and get them better integrated into what’s going to be required of them down the road. Our ePortfolio program will grow dynamically as our student body continues to evolve.”

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