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Strategic Directions | Feature

Showcasing the Co-Curricular: ePortfolios and Digital Badges

A Q&A with Alex Ambrose

Learning scientists at the University of Notre Dame have found a sweet spot in the pairing of digital badges and eportfolios: the perfect opportunity for students to showcase learning achievements not normally featured in traditional transcripts and student records. G. Alex Ambrose, Professor of Practice and Associate Director of ePortfolio Assessment at Notre Dame's Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning explains how a new digital badge pilot initiative was the key that opened up these new possibilities for the university's highly successful eportfolio program.

Mary Grush: You are incorporating a digital badge pilot into an established and thriving eportfolio program at Notre Dame. What is your particular interest in doing that?

Alex Ambrose: I've spent a lot of time working with integrated eportfolio project models, exploring how these models fit into an existing but changing learning ecosystem. And Notre Dame's investment in eportfolios, especially over the past three years or so, along with a somewhat newer digital badge pilot initiative offered me a view into these technologies that I'm not sure I could get anywhere else. But the best experience yet has proven to be not just the application of each of these technologies; rather, it's the intersection of digital badges and eportfolios — and I'm particularly interested in the opportunities this pairing affords both institutions and individuals in terms of the values that can be showcased relevant to the co-curricular experience students have at our institutions.

Grush: So you are talking about integrating digital badges and eportfolios specifically to focus on the co-curricular experience — why not the curricular?

Ambrose: I've deliberately stayed away from the curricular for a couple reasons. First, I've been very heavily involved with the accreditation movement, especially the evolution of traditional assessment with eportfolios — and from that I know that there are some rather grand and philosophical challenges, much broader issues than what we should attempt to tackle at this point in time through badges and our relatively nascent eportfolio program (relative to decades-old academic processes). I'm accepting guidance from academic administrators here at Notre Dame on that: As we pilot our digital badge program I've agreed, at least for the present, to stay away from the curricular and established credentialing practices — that is, the credit hour, the letter grade, and the tuition dollar.

These are the parameters of what our digital badges are not here at ND: They are not certificates or certifications and they are not credit bearing. They will however provide recognition of student achievement, and along with eportfolios, they can often provide a deeper representation of those achievements than you'll find in transcripts and more traditional records on the curricular side. Does that make sense?

Grush: Sure. And the second reason… ?

Ambrose: The second — and I'd say more intriguing — reason I've stayed away from the curricular sheds some light on the kind of recognition we do provide. I once heard a provost at the University of Michigan say that if you add up all the time undergraduate students spend in their four years at college, only about 8 percent of their time spent is on the curricular, and 92 percent is on everything else. So, that really hit home with the understanding that there's a lot more to a traditional 4-year residential-based campus experience than the five classes you take per semester times the number of semesters in those four years.

And what part of that 92 percent doesn't get recognized on the transcript? Probably most of it.

From study abroad and service learning, to internships and research assistantships, to club leadership and community service, to student worker jobs, and for so many forms of informal learning, much of the co-curricular yield from that 92 percent of the student's college experience is either lost to or not adequately represented on the transcript or in resumes.

And here's the real opportunity: I see the digital badge, displayed and supported in the eportfolio, as a supplement to the transcript and the resume — an opportunity that we have to work with existing paradigms and within institutional frameworks in a way that finally brings out, and showcases, the amazing value of the co-curricular.

Grush: Then it is not your intent to factor out the transcript, is that right? It sounds like what you are creating is almost an "overlay" for the transcript, that can help a student not only tell the story of their chosen pathway though coursework but also describe the niche they created for themselves on campus and how that related to their goals.

Ambrose: Yes, I guess you could think of it as a type of "overlay" in that sense. Whatever you call it, it gives students new options to highlight and examine their accomplishments, and by doing so, they address questions that most transcripts couldn't answer.

Grush: I can really appreciate that point and understand that you are now making a strong move to highlight the co-curricular though that intersection of digital badges and eportfolios. But aren't eportfolios supposed to be doing that job already — leveraging the ability to focus on the integrative potential between courses and coursework over time, recognizing informal learning, and offering a vehicle for developing long-term perspectives?

Ambrose: I think at most institutions we are not yet realizing the integrative, across-time and across-contexts potential of eportfolio projects, because, bottom line, students have not been required — nor should they be — to maintain their eportfolios. And the fact remains: For the majority there is no institutionally mandated requirement for students to update their eportfolios every semester. So, in lieu of mandates, we have to find ways to encourage students to make their integrative and co-curricular learning visible via eportfolios.

Grush: And so, you must provide incentives…

Ambrose: Well, yes. Incentives like digital badges. And initially that's how I came to recognize the powerful combination of eportfolios, digital badges, and the co-curricular. It all began as an experiment in digital badging.

Building on an already solid, student-owned and controlled eportfolio foundation and campus culture, we were simply trying to offer digital badges as an incentive for students to share their service learning experiences — an incentive which would also promote eportfolio use, maintenance, and updating. Service learning was a great sample for our experiment, because the vast majority of students at Notre Dame do some form of service learning at some point in their higher education careers.

But the light really went on when we saw how well the service learning students picked up on this opportunity to earn badges and showcase them in their eportfolios, at the same time truly highlighting, as never before, their co-curricular experiences — so we thought about how we could offer a similar model to students in other co-curricular areas. While I hesitate to say I "stumbled" on the significance of this mix of digital badges, eportfolios, and the co-curricular, in a way it's true. Regardless, this new visibility into the co-curricular, a view we can provide through the intersection of digital badges and eportfolios, is opening up some real opportunities for both individuals and for the institution.

Grush: What about the digital badging and eportfolio technologies, per se? Since you've been pairing them, have those technologies become more integrated?

Ambrose: Oh, certainly. Notre Dame has been working with our vendors — Digication on the eportfolio side and Credly for badging — to achieve better integration. This gets a little technical, but basically, we now have integration of accounts between both platforms, and importantly, we have a way for students to import, embed, and display their earned digital badges in their eportfolios. (When someone clicks on the badge in a student's eportfolio, that action connects the user back to Credly to view badge criteria and an explanation of what the badge signifies; the particular student's evidence of how the badge was earned remains on their own eportfolio.) It's exciting for me to help guide the integration of these important technologies in what we've learned is a natural pairing.

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