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Cultural Shift at a Community College: E-Portfolios Go Campuswide

How a two-year college grew an assessment experiment into a schoolwide implementation of electronic portfolios.

Once a few members of the faculty at Tunxis Community College began experimenting with e-portfolios, their efforts soon grew into a multi-department program in areas such as dental hygiene and early childhood education. With the goal of helping students create portfolios to show off their work for career purposes, the Farmington, CT college expanded its e-portfolio efforts to an institution-wide implementation in fall 2009, when it received a grant to develop an assessment system focused on outcomes.

Of course, that doesn't mean the portfolio program is in use across the campus already. In fact, Laura Gambino, the e-portfolio project leader--as well as a professor of computer information systems and program coordinator for Business & Technology--said she expects full deployment to take about three more years to infiltrate the liberal arts and sciences and general studies departments. Then other programs will be tackled.

The key to doing it successfully, Gambino insisted, is to treat it like any other cultural shift in an organization. That means testing it out on a small basis with pilots, then expanding under a "reasonable time frame." And having a good e-portfolio tool helps too.

Tunxis is part of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, which provides technical services to schools in the state, including access to its proprietary, an online e-portfolio platform that the college used for a while. It was inexpensive, but it didn't meet all of Tunxis' long-term needs.

In fall 2008, Gambino pulled a committee together to develop a list of criteria about what the college wanted in an e-portfolio product. "We wanted it to be easy to use. We wanted students to have the freedom and creativity to express themselves. We wanted a strong assessment management system that went along with that," she said. Keeping budget in mind, the committee examined a lot of products, including open source options. But, she explained, "you have to have the tech staff to support and maintain and administer [open source software]. We really didn't have anybody we could dedicate to a project like that."

Then the committee tried out Digication. "We did a Webinar with Jeff Yan, the CEO of the company. Everyone in the room agreed. There were smiles all around. We looked no further," Gambino said. Tunxis did a pilot in spring 2009 and migrated last summer to start the fall 2009 semester with the new product.

The decision was a good one, she said. "The students absolutely love it. It's very easy. They're comfortable with it. We do training classes that last 30 or 45 minutes, and they're off and running."

But there's more to the training than making sure students are able to use the features of the software. There's also ensuring they understand the concepts of an e-portfolio, learn how to select artifacts (e.g., videos, reports, photographs), and write about their value in the learning process. To get students up to speed on that qualitative side of e-portfolios, Gambino is relying on two key entry points: a three-credit course called "First Year Experience," which helps prepare students for the rigors of college-level work; and classes taught by the English composition faculty, all of whom have been training on e-portfolios.

Specific faculty members also make a point of covering the e-portfolio work in their courses. For example, Gambino teaches a programming logic class, in which students walk through the cycle of analyzing a problem, checking for understanding, coding it, and testing it. But then, she said, "I guide them with questions and force them to focus on the process they went through so I can see where the learning takes place." That involves asking students leading questions that get them to examine where they were individually at the start of the class, what they've learned, and how their newfound knowledge will serve them elsewhere in the future. Students capture the results in their portfolios. Said Gambino, "It starts to make learning visible."

Gambino said she doesn't expect every course at Tunxis to include an e-portfolio component. But the majority of students at the school are studying liberal arts, sciences, and general education, and those are all part of the e-portfolio program.

Faculty training is the "bigger challenge," Gambino admitted, because "there are always those faculty who are less adaptable to change." The secret, she said, is "to hit them repeatedly." Each semester, she hosts a seminar series with four two-hour sessions to help faculty understand the concepts of the e-portfolio and how to integrate it into the courses. She'll also use any venue that comes available--for example, faculty days--to promote the program and show examples of student work.

She's also working on building a faculty mentor program to pair experienced teachers with those just coming on board with portfolios. This will specifically address one problem she's had: being the primary contact for the program. "When there's a faculty question, there have been times when I haven't been able to respond as quickly as I'd like to. So I'm hoping the mentor system will help alleviate some of that."

Ultimately, Gambino has found, getting faculty buy-in on the program happens the fastest when they hear student presentations. "It's so powerful to watch a student talk about his learning and his e-portfolio," she said. "It's so much more powerful than any one faculty member could get across." To that end, the college recently held a "mini-showcase" where three students presented their portfolios. But the goal is to have a much bigger event in the spring 2011.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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