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E-Portfolios | Q&A

Why Large-Scale E-Portfolios Make Sense

A new initiative at the University of Alaska Anchorage aims to roll out campuswide e-portfolios by 2015, with the potential to go even broader on the horizon.

Why Large-Scale E-Portfolios Make Sense
Paul Wasko, e-portfolio services coordinator at the University of Alaska Anchorage (photo by Eric Baldwin, University of Alaska Anchorage)

As the new e-portfolio services coordinator at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Paul Wasko is hitting the ground running. Recently, the institution and four affiliated colleges issued an e-portfolio RFP, with the intention to be in pilot mode by spring 2015. Wasko's job will be to define, implement and support the use of portfolios, including promoting the use of them in courses and programs across campus.

Wasko spent nearly 11 years at Minnesota's college and university system as director of eStudent Services — with a particular emphasis on eFolioMinnesota, an ambitious play to bring portfolios to every man, woman and child in the state. That effort collapsed between 2010 and 2012 when a change in state and institutional leadership came with a different set of priorities. The state portfolio system still exists (earlier this year the site announced it had reached 100,000 accounts), but it's no longer run by schools; it has been taken over by Avenet Web Solutions, the company that built it in the first place. "Most of the folks who were part of the core effort have either faded into the woodwork or left the organization," said Wasko. "It's a very different place."

Here he explains why e-portfolios still matter; how they're different now from what they were even two years ago; and what the work at UAA will be.

CT: Why do e-portfolios still make sense?

Wasko: Education is still very much concerned with how we know students are learning, that we're getting through to them, that they're walking away with knowledge, skills and abilities.

Sometimes the accrediting community — whether institutional or program — is asking the same types of questions. How do we know students are learning in your program? Give me examples. Give me evidence. Give me tangible things that show learning is taking place. Portfolios are one of those vehicles to start responding to those questions.

I'll also say, having worked especially in Minnesota, there was always a workforce component to the portfolio. I tell students, you still have to do a resume. That's the coin of the realm. You still have to have something that feeds into the HR system. But many employers are now asking, how do I know that you really understand what you're claiming to understand? The portfolio is one of those tools that students can use as part of that career process.

The other piece [referenced in the RFP] is that the university may decide to use the e-portfolio in support of the promotion and tenure process. In Minnesota we were not able to do that. You can't always be the prophet in your own land. Here there's been a realization that [a portfolio] infrastructure can house lots of different things. When you think about promotion and tenure, you're dealing with artifacts of a faculty being showcased to a community that's making a determination and an assessment. Wouldn't it be cool if instead of having something separate that we're talking to students about, faculty could now use the same infrastructure to support some of their own personal growth and development? Instead of doing faculty pages on a Web site, simply link to the faculty portfolio.

CT: What have your experiences in Minnesota taught you about doing e-portfolios?

Wasko: One thing I've learned is the need to find ways to embed the portfolio into the operations as fast as possible. In Minnesota I was kind of a big architect. I wasn't on the ground with the campuses as much as I would have liked. What I'm finding is there's a whole set of energies that go with being on a campus as opposed to being at the system level. The system level still plays a critical role in looking at the overall direction and scope. But the energies come out of those direct interactions with students and faculty and staff ... [and] being in a spot where you're actually living with something day-to-day, which allows you to have ideas for refining and tweaking and improving.

One thing that was helpful in Minnesota when we launched this work was that there were actually a number of funding sources that were part of that mix. Everyone felt a stake in the solution. When what we're talking about is a tool that has a variety of uses, it could be argued that there should be a variety of funding streams. Those streams might include base budgets as well as student fees and other types of things — which may make budgeting more interesting, because you have multiple sources and everyone likes to have a single source. On the other side, it puts skin in the game.

We were presenting before the student government here, and the first question was, "Can I keep it after college?" which is a great question. In Minnesota, it was easy because the answer was yes. Here, I had to say, "That is a goal. However that goal also has to be equated with, how is that resource paid for?" [It could be covered as] part of an alumni fee or part of a value-added service or available for $5. The goal is to say yes to that question and then try to make it as reasonable as possible.

CT: How has e-portfolio technology changed over the last year or two?

Wasko: Today we have the whole advent of cloud-based services. It makes life easier for the IT folks and for getting a project off the ground. When I started this in Minnesota, it wasn't just getting the software going; it was negotiating with IT on building out a whole infrastructure — servers and backup and a SAN and switches. Now you have the opportunity to say, "I just want to buy this service," so it makes it easier for everyone involved.

The other thing that's changed is the fact that years ago you would try to store all the artifacts within the portfolio. But [with] the advent of tools like SlideShare and Prezi, I tell people, "Don't store them in the portfolio; store them in the best application to showcase it, then take that embed link and bring it to the portfolio." You still have to reflect on it, put it into a context. You might have multiple artifacts that lead up to this example. It might be a video of me presenting, along with the PowerPoint of the presentation, along with a commentary I'm doing. The video might be in YouTube, the PowerPoint in SlideShare and the text wrapping it up in a package inside the portfolio. So we now have the ability to mash up all these wonderful tools.

CT: Why do you even need an e-portfolio tool? Why not just cobble together a solution?

Wasko: People say, "I can use Google Sites; I can use WordPress." I'll say, "If it was one or a handful of students, absolutely. It works." The scoring mechanisms need to have some alignment. If a teacher has 30 students [using] WordPress sites ... trying to navigate 30 different ways to develop a score on some of this stuff becomes really, really difficult. How do you build a tool that allows that flexibility but also has certain assessment or organizational components that help guide students in providing what they need to provide?

The other thing: As simple as WordPress is, it's not simple for everyone. We make assumptions that the digital natives can do anything and everything as it relates to the Web. My two daughters are comfortable with technology. But if I turned around and said, "Build a WordPress site," that would be a challenge for both of them. In many cases you want to find tools that can be made available for everyone [with] step-by-step [instructions] or prompts to help the student.

Those are the reasons you buy a tool vs. [having] a complete free-for-all.

CT: How do you see the process unfolding at the University of Alaska Anchorage?

Wasko: The plan is give the vending community this summer [to respond to the RFP]. Then when faculty and others come in, [we'll] be in a position to go through the selection process. We'll have the initial triage, the oral presentations, contract negotiations. But I very much want to be in a position of piloting this in the spring. I really believe that it's possible.

[We'll] do a refinement of the pilot in summer 2015, then do a campuswide rollout in the fall of 2015. People do get nervous when they hear that term. I've told them, "rollout" simply means it's universally available. It's part of the technology infrastructure or portal.

How it gets used is part of the transforming of a project into a program. The project is to get the infrastructure in place, get the tool, get the services. The program starts working with offices, colleges, faculty and others to use that infrastructure in ways that best benefit the particular academic or workforce or student affairs goals.

Much like Minnesota, there's already interest starting outside the university on this. I've had informal discussions with folks from around the state. It could go broader. It could extend itself into members of the workforce or members of the K-12 education community or other colleges or communities within the university system. The decision to do that is up the pay grade....

But wouldn't it be cool if a high school student coming out of a district here knew what to do with a portfolio? I've seen those reactions in Minnesota when students hit college and they're kind of ready [for it because] they're using the same tools. Do you know how empowering that is?

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