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How to Select the Right E-Portfolio Platform

Electronic portfolio experts from colleges and universities across the country offer their key considerations for choosing a campuswide e-portfolio system.

In recent years, electronic portfolios have gained momentum as tools to help students manage their digital identity, make connections between their learning experiences in and out of the classroom, and present their achievements to potential employers or graduate schools. And increasingly, colleges and universities are using e-portfolios as an alternative assessment tool at the class and program level.

"Students are documenting a lot of their work, and they know what they're proud of, and faculty members are being encouraged to look more at having outcomes that can be measured outside of the classroom," said John Ittelson, professor emeritus at California State University, Monterey Bay and co-author of Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors.

As e-portfolios become a more formal part of assessment, many institutions are looking to standardize on one platform campuswide. We asked the experts at colleges and universities across the country to identify their key considerations for e-portfolio technology selection.

Identifying the Purpose of the E-portfolio Initiative

Before beginning the process of selecting an e-portfolio platform, it's important to determine the primary purpose of the institution's e-portfolio program and begin to establish a portfolio culture. "Get very clear with yourselves about the primary purpose of your e-portfolio initiative: Is it student learning? Career preparation? Institutional assessment?" said Lesley Bartlett, assistant director of University Writing, ePortfolio Project at Auburn University (AL). "While e-portfolio initiatives often serve multiple purposes, it's important to know which purpose is the priority. Your top priority should guide your platform selection process."

Many inexpensive or free e-portfolio tools are readily available and can provide a low-risk opportunity for educational institutions to explore and refine the purpose of their e-portfolio program while beginning to establish an e-portfolio culture on campus. "Use whatever technology you have to for a couple of years to figure out what you really want to do with an e-portfolio," said Susan Kahn, director of the ePortfolio Initiative at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which uses Taskstream as its e-portfolio platform. "Figure out what you need and how you're really going to use it before you start looking at platforms."

Some learning management systems have built-in e-portfolio tools that educational institutions can use as a starting point. Other inexpensive or free tools that can function as e-portfolios include Wix, Weebly, WordPress and Google Sites.

After a year or two of using low-commitment software, the decision-makers at the institution should have gained enough experience to conduct an informed and focused selection process. "The more work that you do understanding the goals and objectives of portfolio and implementation on your campus, the easier it will be for you to make a selection from the various vendors who are making proposals to you," said Ittelson. "The clearer your understanding of how you're going to use it and what you're going to use as your rollout plan, probably the closer you're going to be to picking the right tool the first time."

Assembling a Selection Team

Once the decision-makers at the college or university have identified the primary purpose of their e-portfolio initiative and begun to establish an e-portfolio culture on campus, it's time to begin the process of selecting and implementing an e-portfolio platform, and the first step in that process is to assemble a team of people to evaluate the available options.

The type of people who should sit on the selection committee depends on the needs of the institution, but those people don't necessarily need to represent the common interests of all of their colleagues. "I find sometimes that representative piece can actually lead to some gumming up of the works because you're trying to say, what do all of the faculty want, what do all of the deans want, what do all of the students want," said Paul Wasko, e-portfolio coordinator for the University of Alaska Anchorage, which implemented Digication as its e-portfolio platform. Rather than asking those committee members to act as representatives, he "found faculty that were really engaged and allowed these people to be themselves."

Dennis Nef, vice provost for academic affairs at California State University, Fresno, included a person on his selection committee who "wasn't terribly technology savvy, nor excited about e-portfolios." His reason for including somebody who wasn't enthusiastic about the initiative was because "she would bring the view that we were going to have to overcome. If we were going to make this rollout across campus, we'd have to address their concerns, so she could actively assert those concerns early in the process so we knew what we were dealing with."

According to Nef, the strategy was very effective because through the evaluation process, she turned around to become an advocate for the campus implementation of Pathbrite. "She became the face of our assessment effort on campus in the last year," he said. "She can look a faculty member in the eye — who says I really don't think this is a good idea, or I'm not sure it's a good idea — and she can say, I felt the same way, and here's why I've changed."

Few colleges and universities seem to include students on the selection committee, typically because of the time commitment required. However, institutions sometimes solicit feedback from students toward the end of the selection process, once the committee has narrowed the list of platforms down to a few contenders.

Key Features and Functionality

To identify the features available in various e-portfolio platforms, Wasko and his team at the University of Alaska Anchorage asked vendors to answer two questions: As a student, what can I do with your tool? And as a faculty member, what can I do with your tool? "What that did was provide a list of possible specifications or functionality that we then used to prioritize what was really important to us," he said.

While the selection team may come up with a long list of functional requirements, one of the most important considerations is the usability of the software. "We previously had a platform that was notoriously user-unfriendly and was a barrier to getting faculty, staff and programs to adopt the e-portfolios," said IUPUI's Kahn. "That was probably more important to us than any single set of capabilities." Another common requirement is integration with the institution's learning management system and student information system.

Usability was a key consideration at Fresno State too, but other critical feature requirements included the ability for students to reflect on their e-portfolio, for faculty to assess the students' work easily, and for the institution to assess student work at the program level.

In the case of e-portfolios used for licensure, such as in nursing or teacher education programs, student portfolios typically include videos of the students in a work setting, and that requirement is an important consideration when selecting a platform. "There may be very specific functions in a particular portfolio tool that are really very helpful to make sure that there's not an inadvertent posting," noted Ittelson.

Ultimately, the list of functional requirements is determined by the primary purpose of the e-portfolio initiative as identified at the very beginning of the process.

Making a Final Selection

It's important for the selection committee to be involved in the request for proposal (RFP) rather than handing it off to the institution's purchasing department. "The purchasing department's role is to get the lowest cost product that meets the requirements of the group," said Ittelson, "and sometimes that doesn't account for a lot of the cultural or social aspects" of the e-portfolio platform. Since campus culture is an important component of a successful e-portfolio initiative, it has to be factored into the decision-making process.

Some selection committees have come up with ingenious RFP approaches to encourage vendors to personalize their proposals. At the University of Alaska Anchorage, the book Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors helped guide the philosophy behind the e-portfolio initiative. Rather than writing a long list of functional requirements, Wasko embedded the book directly into his RFP to clarify to vendors the philosophy behind the university's selection process. He then gave vendors more time than usual to develop a thoughtful response to the RFP.

At IUPUI, Kahn and her team also used a creative approach to ensure vendors were considering the unique needs of the institution. They generated two scenarios that typified way that e-portfolios were being used on campus. "One was an assessment and accreditation focused scenario. The other was a very developmental learning focused scenario," said Kahn. "It forced the vendors to give us something other than a canned presentation."

Some institutions conducted a pilot test as a final phase of the selection process. "We narrowed it down to three and invited them to create a sandbox on our campus where we could play with it," said Fresno State's Nef.

At Auburn University — which supports Wix, Weebly, WordPress and Google Sites as e-portfolio platforms for faculty and students — rather than piloting specific technologies, Bartlett and her team piloted strategies to help students and faculty start creating an e-portfolio. "We worked with faculty and students to help them consider the audience and purpose of their e-portfolios," said Bartlett. "We also helped them generate ideas for artifacts and consider different ways of arranging them and framing them with reflective writing."

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