Electronic Portfolios

5 Lessons Worth Learning About E-Portfolios

The University of Alaska Anchorage shares best practices from its institution-wide electronic portfolio implementation and new approaches to gain rapid traction among faculty and students.

The University of Alaska Anchorage introduced e-portfolios to the campus in a big way this year, rolling out the technology across the entire institution. And as anyone who has attempted such a feat quickly realizes, large-scale e-portfolio adoption takes more energy and commitment than the typical technology project. That's because a healthy digital portfolio program requires ongoing support for adoption among faculty and students. Here's how U Alaska is tackling the work.

1) Promote From the Bottom Up

In implementing its electronic portfolio program, dubbed eWolf, U Alaska took great pains to avoid overstepping or top-down commanding, opting for a more grassroots approach.

Several years ago, a subcommittee of the university's faculty senate spent two years appraising the application of digital portfolios to figure out what usage looked like on campus. While the committee found that e-portfolios were in use all over, there were no standard practices or tools. Still, nobody wanted to see the university require the use of such a program. By the end of 2012, the faculty senate had recommended to the provost's office that it apply the appropriate resources for supporting portfolios "as an option for those faculty and programs that choose to use them."

Project Origins

Last year, we interviewed E-Portfolio Services Coordinator Paul Wasko about the University of Alaska Anchorage's portfolio plans. In "Why Large-Scale E-Portfolios Make Sense," he explains the initial thinking behind his institution's ambitious project. 

Fast forward two years later: While emphasizing that portfolios would still not be mandated, the provost concluded that "appropriate resources" called for adopting a single vendor and promoting a portfolio initiative on campus. "This is more of a bottom-up initiative than a top-down," said Heather Caldwell, e-portfolio strategist who was a member of that initial faculty subcommittee.

Alongside faculty senate support, portfolios received approval from student government too. It actually became an issue during student campaigning: The winners of the top two offices supported the portfolio work, an important consideration since much of it is paid for through an $8 per semester student fee. "That doesn't mean they're blind supporters," Paul Wasko, e-portfolio initiative coordinator, insisted. "We have weekly conversations with the president and vice president of the student body on this project."

2) Dedicate a Team

While some schools might see portfolios as an IT or faculty development project, U Alaska hired dedicated personnel to manage the work.

As Wasko explained, "Whenever you do large programs or services, you need to develop some sort of project structure that basically assigns the accountability for getting the work of the services done." That includes both the mundane, such as fitting the portfolio into the IT architecture and settling on an identity management structure, and the essential — creating a "focal point for where the conversations can begin, where they can be fostered, where they can be matured."

Wasko, who performed similar activities as the director of e-student services during his time at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, was hired to handle the tactical and strategic aspects of integrating the project into university operations — from budget and hiring to communicating out across the campus in academic affairs, student affairs, IT, alumni and elsewhere. Caldwell, who had served on the faculty and has been part of the portfolio initiative since early days, would work with faculty and departments regarding integration of portfolios into curriculum, courses and pedagogies, and create workshops and intensives that would help "create e-portfolio culture on campus."

A student e-portfolio at U Alaska

Now that the program has been officially launched with the fall 2015 semester, the team has begun hiring eWolf coaches, students who will show other students as well as faculty and staff how to work with the portfolio application.

Eventually, said Wasko, as the use of the technology matures, the dedicated team could easily disappear, as it has with learning management systems. "At some point this might be part of an academic technology team that has different tools and services that it has to manage and work on," he noted.

3) Master the Art of the RFP

In choosing a portfolio application, the university went through a request for proposal (RFP) process, but with some unique aspects.

First, as part of the list of requirements developed and prioritized by the portfolio advisory committee, excerpts were included from the book Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors, with the authors' permission. The book had been a driving force for faculty as they worked to understand what impact portfolios could have on and instructional practices and learning outcomes. "It made a 50-page RFP actually much longer and richer, because it was a deeper understanding of what we were trying to do," noted Wasko.

Second, the university gave vendors an entire summer to respond to the RFP. "It wasn't, 'Do this in four weeks,'" said Wasko. "I wanted their 'best foot forward' working with procurement."

Finally, the RFP process "tried to model behavior," he added. Scoring was based on a rubric, and vendors were asked to score themselves. Some were honest in their responses, recalled Caldwell; some chose obfuscation, forcing the committee "to read between the lines."

E-portfolio company Digication was eventually selected for two primary reasons. "They responded to the RFP the best in terms of addressing every one of the requirements," said Wasko. "They were also the cheapest. We had the top scoring vendor at the least amount of money." The company understood "the letter and the spirit of what we were trying to accomplish here," he added.

4) Hire the Vendor as a Team Player

A major stipulation of the RFP, noted Caldwell, was that the university was looking for a partnership, not a relationship with a vendor. "[Digication] really understood that. Since moving onto the project, they've demonstrated it time and again."

Digication CEO Jeffrey Yan and President Kelly Driscoll participate, for example, in advisory committee meetings. What they contribute goes beyond knowledge of their software, said Wasko. "They bring examples and understanding of how their tool has worked in other universities and colleges and their willingness to share those practices with our faculty and staff."

For example, Caldwell is working on the use of the portfolio platform in faculty promotion and tenure, and that effort has been informed by work done at Digication customer Chattanooga State Community College.

"Kelly and Jeff are more than just a vendor," Wasko emphasized. "They are as invested in our success as we are."

5) Identify New Uses in Unexpected Areas

While U Alaska is putting continual effort into its faculty professional development practices, it's also experimenting with the functionality of portfolios in unique ways. Caldwell's efforts on promotion, merit and tenure (PMT) practices have started with something simple: launching a pilot that invites faculty to use Digication to submit their PMT files. While Caldwell expected perhaps five participants, about a third of those going through the process ended up joining the pilot and submitting their files electronically.

The university's first template mimics the paper file as closely as possible, she said. "It's a pretty big undertaking. What I have heard from faculty who started with their files this year is that it has 'made creating a file almost fun.' If you know anything about the creation of PMT files, those words are never associated with that," Caldwell observed.

Now that Faculty Services, which supports instructors going through promotion and tenure, is on board to help people learn how to create their files, the next step is getting peer review committee members to do electronic review in order to eliminate paper altogether. So far, so good, said Caldwell. "They are ecstatic with the ease that this will give that process. They're really excited that it should simplify the process for them and make it much easier for them to join these committees."

Student orientation is another area where pickup of portfolios is proving strong. As Wasko explained, that university function has been trying to find new ways to connect with students, especially high-risk populations such as first-generation students. Historically, he said, "They have not found a way to electronically connect with those students." However, within the context of Digication, "there are ways of building electronic communities and using those communities to connect to and work with students."

Orientation is also where students may get their first exposure to the concept of the portfolio and an introduction to the electronic tools they'll be working with during their college career. That in turn makes a difference when the portfolio team is talking with faculty who may be concerned that they'll have to spend time "providing tech support" to new students. Putting eWolf "right in front of students from day one," Wasko noted, can redirect faculty away from "this thing called eWolf and more on how they think about using portfolios in their classes."

While U Alaska's various portfolio efforts are adding up to more engaged faculty and students, there have been some holdouts. For example, the College of Engineering has perhaps been the least committed to the technology. But even there, surprises pop up. When a head civil engineer from the state came to speak with a class of civil engineering students, that person asserted, "If you hope to get a job and you're in the interview with me, you must have a portfolio to show me the work you've done. You must prove the claims you are making." That, Wasko recalled, "did wonders for getting the students on board with this idea."

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