Peer Review

Using Eportfolios to Deepen Civic Engagement

Directed reflection, an important aspect of service learning, helps students make connections between theory and practice. Student reflection of this kind can take many forms, from contemplation in informal journals to formal papers to presentations. This article explores the practice of using an eportfolio to develop an immediate, ongoing, reflective conversation throughout a summer with a subset of students who participated in University of Delaware’s service immersion program, the Service-Learning Scholars Program.

Since September 2005, the University of Delaware (UD) has required all incoming students to earn at least three credits of discovery-based or experiential learning (e.g., participation in an internship, undergraduate research, study abroad, or service-learning course) in fulfillment of their degrees. This requirement is part of a larger general education initiative, which also includes the following learning objectives: (1) communicate effectively in writing, orally, and through creative expression; (2) work collaboratively and independently within and across a variety of cultural contexts and a spectrum of differences; and (3) evaluate critically the ethical implications of what they say and do.

From our ten years of experience working with the Service-Learning Scholars Program, we found that in order to meet those learning objectives, directed reflection is imperative. Each scholar has a discipline-specific faculty mentor, in addition to an instructor who guides all scholars during the course of the program. The instructor, from the Office of Service Learning, brings the scholars together weekly to provide them with a global perspective to structural barriers that cross the disciplines. The instructor has used a combination of reflection journals and reflective discussions to foster deep learning. Last year, in response to some still-unmet needs by both the scholars and their instructor, it was found that reflection could be enhanced through the use of an eportfolio. Scholars used a number of modalities to reflect on responsibility, critical thinking, partnership, and sustainability as part of the eportfolio. This article will share what was learned from this pilot project and includes feedback from scholars and the instructor regarding this practice.

Background

UD’s Service-Learning Scholars Program, which began in 2005, is a full-time summer immersion program in which twenty-five to twenty-eight students are funded each year to engage 300 hours on a community project and 100 hours on research, reading, and reflection with their faculty mentor. Scholars are expected to earn three academic credits either in preparation during the spring prior to their placement, in concluding their project in the fall following their placement, or in some combination of the two. Scholars may come from any college; projects may range from direct service to behind-the-scenes work to planning for endeavors that take place during the academic year. In this immersion-learning experience, scholars spend the bulk of their week working in the community and one-quarter of their time in academic reading, research, discussion, and reflection. They all participate in a weekly seminar throughout the summer experience, guided by the instructor.

During summer 2005, the instructor met semi-regularly with individual scholars to discuss their progress. However, in end-of-summer evaluations, many scholars noted that while the summer was transformative, individually they felt very isolated. They expressed a desire for a community of other scholars with whom to share their experiences.

A New Focus for Directed Reflection

The following year, the instructor introduced a biweekly seminar that brought the scholars together to discuss what it meant to work within a community. At one of these meetings, a scholar shared an incident that provided a focus for the new seminars. This scholar, who was working at a local summer program, was upset about two young children who had been left in a park early in the morning to await the opening of camp. The other scholars listened attentively, and those working with children concurred they too had encountered what they believed to be irresponsible parenting.

The instructor was struck by the rush to judgment. Did they truly have enough information to make that judgment? The class began to discuss what knowledge they did have—and whether it was enough to determine these parents were really neglectful. During the discussion, it became clear the scholars genuinely cared for whoever they were directly working with but tended to blame their situation on unknown family members. It was obvious the scholars had little or no context for thinking about the reality of the lives of the people in the community, the lives of people they were working with. This incident provided a new focus for the scholar seminars. Scholars now would be given opportunities to think more deeply about how very difficult it is to live on the margins. They would be asked to explore beyond their own experiences.

Through several iterations of experimenting with different texts, two were found that really resonated with the scholars and helped make the weekly discussions more thoughtful.

The Other Wes Moore was a great way to explore the concept of cultural capital and its impact on individual lives (Moore 2011). It was also an opportunity to discuss what it means when your cultural capital is not the same as the larger society and may in fact be devalued (like the decision made by the parents of the children in the park). It was a means for a substantive conversation about privilege.

A radio archive from This American Life, “Three Miles” explored the unintended consequences of an exchange program between an elite private high school and a poor urban public high school (specifically, what happens when a student from the public school realizes that her education has been designed to train the kids in her high school to “open doors and check out groceries” for the elite) (Jaffe-Walt 2015). This provided a catalyst for considering the arrogance of thinking we know best how to solve a problem without listening to everyone involved, continuing the discussion of privilege.

In addition to the discussions, scholars kept written journals in which they responded to a set of formal reflection questions. The journals were collected three times during the summer, with the instructor reading and commenting on their responses. Unfortunately, by the time the instructor had finished commenting on the end-of-year synthesis, the scholars had already moved on. While the discussions were interesting, the journaling process was vaguely unsatisfactory for both scholars and the instructor.

The instructor also found that while the texts used caused scholars to grapple with the idea of poverty as a complex social structure, the downside was that scholars, while less likely to blame individuals for their own situation, instead saw these communities as a bundle of needs. These two driving issues, a need for a better written reflection process and a desire to have scholars view communities in their totality, were awaiting a catalyst for change.

Eportfolio as the Solution

The idea for an eportfolio came about by accident when the instructor taught an independent study for a student doing a service project in Cambodia. Because location was remote, some technologies were not available to facilitate student–instructor interaction. To bridge this gap, they began using Google Docs to communicate. There was an immediacy to their Google Doc conversation the instructor recognized was missing in the Summer Scholars Program. Wanting to capture this idea of an ongoing conversation with the scholars, but uncomfortable with managing many Google Docs for all of the scholars, the instructor turned to the university’s Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning and Academic Technology Services for assistance. A solution was sought that could provide more timely feedback to the scholars throughout their community service experiences.

The director of educational assessment in the Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning helped the instructor formally map out the reflection questions and activities and create a set of learning goals. A rubric was developed to demonstrate to the scholars the type of responses expected. It was designed to provide two poles (either meets standards or doesn’t meet standards). Anything in between was either closer to meeting standards or vice versa (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Eportfolio Rubric (Serra, S. and Pusecker, K. L.)

Criteria 4 3 2 1
Context; Connection to Discipline
Frames particular project in context of regional, national, or international issue; understands and states current state of issue.
 
 
Does not see beyond particular project.
Writing and Oral Communication
Can effectively write about and discuss issues surrounding community challenges and can relate economic, social, and cultural tensions to the social issue.
 
 
Cannot relate project to economic, social, and cultural issues, beyond immediate problem.
Social Capital
Describes the concept of social capital; can connect to decision making
 
 
Has rudimentary understanding of social capital.
Communities
Recognizes a community’s strengths; can identify people and institutions within the community working for change.
 
 
Can only describe a community’s needs; cannot identify assets.
Solutions
Describes sustainable solutions; describes solutions that are community led.
 
 
Unable to identify long-term solutions.

An instructional designer in Academic Technology Services worked with the instructor to design and develop an eportfolio that would meet the program’s needs. It was an opportunity to rethink reflection, for example. Scholars often retained artifacts from their work with community partners (e.g., articles written for the agency or local newspapers, videos) and, as part of an eporfolio, these items could be included as evidence of scholars’ learning. The instructional designer encouraged the instructor to think about this project as creating more than just an electronic reflection journal. Instead it could become a means of collecting samples of student learning.

As scholars collected evidence of community collaboration over the summer, they reflected on both the development of their partnerships and their reciprocal learning. The eportfolio provided a way for scholars to answer the questions (1) How has your perspective changed about yourself, your community, and/or the world in general? and (2) What aspect of your summer had the most impact on your change in perspective? The eportfolio served as an ongoing scholar–instructor dialogue with the opportunity for scholars to share with wider audiences, if they wished.

The eportfolio allowed the instructor to assign reflection questions that went beyond written responses to questions (e.g., artifacts, or an interview with community partner). This assignment allowed scholars who produced weaker written responses to articulate their thoughts in other formats. For another project, scholars were asked to provide three to four photos with captions that identified community strengths and assets. Without defining what was meant by a strength or asset, the instructor encouraged scholars to think creatively about visually representing these ideas. What the instructor received was deeply thoughtful, individually defined themes around community engagement. This combination of image and words clearly allowed the instructor to know the students were (1) thinking carefully about social justice and community, (2) on a continuum, and (3) all had hit the mark in a way that was not necessarily seen in their writing. Key themes they recognized through photos were kinship, shared knowledge, accessibility, cultural keystones, partnerships, fun, opportunity, and respect.

Eportfolio Design

Since UD is a Google Apps institution, we used Google Sites for the eportfolio. There is technical support on campus for students, and they are given access to their Google Applications beyond graduation. Scholars were provided a template site that they used to create their individual eportfolios. The template provided the structure or framework for the eportfolio with guidance available on each of the main sections: introduction, reflection, photo essay, community partner interview, and synthesis. It also included a calendar section and the rubric.

In an introductory workshop, scholars set up their Google Sites using the template and were given basic editing instructions for the site. They quickly took ownership of their eportfolios, demonstrating an increased knowledge of new technical skills, their own creativity, and a sense of pride in their work. The eportfolio was student-owned and easily customizable. It provided a place for scholars to gather all of their artifacts (i.e., articles, videos, images). It truly allowed scholars who were more multi-modal focused to demonstrate their learning. The eportfolio was co-owned throughout the summer, allowing the instructor to preserve a copy upon completion of that summer’s program. After which, scholars became sole owners of their eportfolios.

Figure 2. Google Sites Template

OLaughlin-Fig2-AACU_SL-Eportfolio_screenshot_Web.jpg

Scholar Narrative Evaluation Results

Scholars were required to submit a narrative evaluation of our eportfolio program at the end of the summer, and two common suggestions were found in their appraisals. The first was to include an additional section for more informal journaling in which scholars could reflect upon the events from their week. In the second, one-third of the group requested a method of sharing their eportfolio with each other.

For the upcoming summer, the instructor will request that scholars use the “what happened this week” journal to better integrate their on-the-ground experience with the more formal weekly reflection questions.

We are still exploring the best way to have scholars share their work with each other. During the summer the scholars are wrestling with ideas about social justice, often for the first time. Not everyone’s written communication skills are developmentally ready to share with a public audience. Eportfolio entries can sometimes be raw while scholars work through their experience.

Scholar comments included:

“I found the eportfolio very helpful in strengthening my knowledge of my summer position as well as posing questions that I had not otherwise considered.”

“The eportfolio did provide a good place for reflection.”

“The idea of putting all my learning experiences into a website was very creative and rewarding. “

Faculty mentors were made aware of the eportfolio, and a few chose to be included, but most were focused on their specific projects. We are considering how best to more closely integrate faculty-mentor responses into the eportfolio.

Conclusion

Through this pilot program, we found that the eportfolio provided a way for scholars to track their deepening civic engagement. Also, use of this tool’s comments feature resulted in more meaningful instructor–scholar communication. It provided a visual representation of how scholars were thinking about their projects and a creative way to represent their learning. Use of the eportfolio created a richness in learning the instructor had not seen in paper journals. Though we have plans to refine it, we are convinced this represents a great leap forward. 

 

References

Joffe-Walt, Chana. 2015. “550: Three Miles,” This American Life radio archive. Originally aired March 13, 2015. Chicago, IL: WBEZ (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/550/three-miles?act=1#play).

Moore, Wes. 2011. The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. New York: Spiegel and Grau.


Nancy J. O’Laughlin, educational technology consultant, Information Technology–Academic Technology Services, University of Delaware; and Susan T. Serra, assistant director of service learning, Community Engagement Initiative, University of Delaware

 

 

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