The ePortfolio Jungle

Tangled Up

For the last six months or so, I’ve been working with a committee here at UMW that is charged with researching ePortfolio systems. The push for this system comes on a number of fronts:

  1. An interest in a system for tracking institutional assessment learning outcomes (on program-, departmental-, and the University-level) and reporting on these otucomes.
  2. A space for meta-cognitive reflection by students on their learning, perhaps as part of a larger look at how we advise students.
  3. A desire to provide students with a “leg-up” by giving them a robust platform for showcasing their intellectual and professional work and development.
  4. A need (specifically in the College of Education) to track student outcomes BEYOND graduation. New laws are requiring us to demonstrate the effectiveness of our students as teachers after they’ve graduated (for a indeterminate amount of time)

It’s worth mentioning that another possibility with a system like this would be to have the ePortfolio become a transcendent presence throughout a student’s time at UMW — a place where they store work, track and share their learning progress, reflect upon their ideas and experiences, and, ultimately, build an online identity for themselves that represents their intellectual self. However, I believe that to do this really effectively we need some kind of programmatic commitment. The ePortfolio would have to be “baked in” to the way we teach from first year seminars to senior thesis. That kind of programming would, potentially, require a much bigger conversation about our curriculum, requirements, and teaching methodologies. I’m not sure that’s going to happen anytime soon here, so, for now, the four needs outlined above are guiding our process more specifically.

I will admit that the first goal (institutional assessment) is incredibly murky for me. I’m lucky in my position to be fairly removed from conversations about academic assessment. I say “lucky” because, frankly, whenever I am in conversations about this topic it feels like the cart is driving the horse. Rather that starting with a conversation about students and what we want them to experience and how we want them to change during their time here, we start at the top — what are our reporting needs and how to we build down from there? The entire institutional assessment process, for me, is sort of a black hole and I can never seem to have a conversation with anyone that sheds any light on it.

The second goal (a space for student reflection) is, by far, the piece of this that intrigues me most. It’s really the starting place for a conversation that could result in programmatic change, and, to me, that’s interesting.

The third goal (a professional online space for post-graduation) is sort of the practical flip side to the second. Theoretically if we do #2 right, I think #3 should happen naturally.

The fourth goal (a space for post-graduation tracking) is the newest for me, and pretty interesting. I didn’t know until a few weeks ago that the College of Education had this requirement. I’m not entirely sure how they’re supposed to realistically achieve it, and I worry if we can build or buy a system that can really answer this need.

Complicating the landscape for this project is our current existing systems which, in some cases, are already meeting some of these needs:

  • UMW Blogs, our open source WordPress-based publishing platform, allows any student to create a site, upload content, and, generally, do whatever they want. Students have already started to use it as place to host online portfolios on their own, and some faculty have had students doing ePortfolio-like things in this space.
  • Canvas, our new CMS (which also went open source earlier this year), is the space where students and faculty do your standard online course managementy types of activity: submitting assignments (or “artifacts as the ePortfolio crowd seems to like to say”) and grading said assignments. Canvas allows us to create institutional learning outcomes and rubrics which can be used at the course level, but it’s not clear that we can use it to actually do the kind of data gathering and assessment we need.
  • TracDat is our institutional data tool into which faculty can submit assessment data and results.

Last spring, three faculty members at UMW (Steve Greenlaw, Anand Rao, and Krystyn Moon) all piloted WordPress as a space for doing different kinds of ePortfolios. Steve used them as a space for freshman advising. Anand had his students build personal portfolios based on their work in a visual rhetoric class. Krystyn and I worked on integrating a Google spreadsheet into a WordPress template to do online assessment of student work.

The projects were as much to understand the questions that we needed to answer as they were to provide the final solution.

This year, we’re hoping to pilot a few systems (both open source and commercial) to see if we can find one that meets our needs (or most of them?). However, we’re running into some challenges:

  • Among the systems that are out there, many seems to do one piece of what we’re trying to do well. On the other requirements, they either don’t do it as well or don’t do it at all.
  • Many of the systems seem to duplicate the functionality we already have in existing platforms.
  • It’s difficult to imagine how yet another system would fit into this landscape. If faculty and students are already happy using UMW Blogs and Canvas to teach and learn, why are we going to thrust yet another system on them (that duplicates some of what UMW Blogs and Canvas already do)? I can imagine many of them just balking at the notion and not using the new system at all.

We’re beginning to wonder if there is another way forward. Is it worth trying to develop something on top of what we already have? Or, is it possible to build something on top of a new system we buy that would gracefully integrate them into what we already have?

I’m interested in talking to people at other institutions about this project. In my mind, we’re not the only ones facing these questions or looking for these solutions. We should be working together to share information about what systems work well (and work well together) and/or what we could build together.

I’d love to hear from people about their ideas. Specifically, here are a few questions I have:

  • Do the four goals I outlined above align with any of your institution’s goals? What have I left off that is driving your own interest or research?
  • Do you think it’s even possible for one system to meet all of these goals?
  • If you’re already implementing a system for ePortfolios how are you handling integration with your existing systems (on both a technical and cultural level)?
  • Would you be interested in talking with a group of others about collaborating on this research (and potentially, development)?
  • What have I not mentioned here that I should be thinking about?