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Creating an Eportfolio Culture on Campus through Platform Selection and Implementation
Given the initial excitement in the early 2000s about the potential of eportfolios for advancing integrative learning and authentic assessment in higher education, one might imagine that eportfolios would be ubiquitous in the academy, replacing final exams, cumbersome assessment processes, resumes, and even transcripts. The reality is much more meager. A recent Educause survey (Dahlstrom, Walker, and Dziuban 2013) reports that 57 percent of higher education campuses have “made some use” of eportfolios, but only at a program or course level. However, the promise of eportfolios as a broadly used tool for enhancing student learning and advancing authentic assessment is yet to be seen. The rate of eportfolio adoption follows Rogers’ (2003) Diffusion of Innovation theory, which describes the process of adopting of new technologies over time with the standard bell curve illustrating the process. The theory asserts that innovation starts with innovators, of course, and that, by definition, they are limited in numbers. The next group to follow a new technology are the early adopters.
It is at this stage that many campus eportfolio projects get stuck. A few enthusiastic stalwarts rally their colleagues and harangue their students to adopt this amazing learning tool but often end up continuing to talk with each other at that next eportfolio faculty development event. The theory posits that there is a breaking point, called the chasm, that must be gotten through to get to the pinnacle—early and late majority adoption of technology. (At the tail end of the technology adoption model are the laggards.) The question becomes, how do we spread the use of eportfolios beyond our innovators and early adopters? This article describes one institution’s current attempt to move a long-standing practice of eportfolios to a majority of users, along with what we have learned in our journey. Perhaps our lessons will help those who also wish to move their eportfolio use in higher education forward.
The Portland State Story
Portland State University (PSU) is an urban campus located in the heart of downtown Portland. It is the largest university in the state, with more than 28,000 students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs. It is Oregon’s most diverse state university and also boasts a large transfer population.
In 1994, PSU launched its four-year interdisciplinary general education program, University Studies. From the start, portfolios were seen as a way to enhance student learning and assess the program. In 1998, we started using eportfolios in University Studies’ yearlong Freshman Inquiry courses. Soon, nearly all of our Freshman Inquiry courses were using eportfolios. Despite the technological challenges encountered in these early days of web-developed portfolios, faculty and students saw the value added in using eportfolios. Labissiere and Reynolds (2004) highlight the advantage of an eportfolio over a hard copy portfolio. Especially relevant is the impact on student intellectual and personal growth. An eportfolio allows students to consider multiple audiences, forcing a critical lens on what they share and why. With the ability to hyperlink on a webpage, students are also more easily able to make connections between and across what they have learned, creating opportunities for deeper critical thinking.
Our intention was to carry the eportfolio into all levels of our University Studies courses and beyond. This happened on a limited scale. Some of our Sophomore Inquiry and Senior Capstone courses began to use eportfolios. Some individual courses in majors also began to use eportfolios. But the hope for a proliferation of eportfolio use was not achieved. While the majority of Freshman Inquiry students (more than 1,000 students each year) created an eportfolio, few encountered one again in their academic careers. If they did, it was unlikely that the portfolio would be related to their previous portfolios and would probably be hosted on an entirely different web platform. The dream of creating a rich portfolio process that could follow students through their academic career was just that, a dream.
We in the eportfolio field often say that it is the pedagogy that matters, and while this is still true, the technology matters too. Some of our difficulty in moving an eportfolio initiative across our campus was related to not having a university-wide supported technology platform. The investment a faculty member and a student must make to learn and manage a technology tool might just feel too large.
Without a shared platform across campus, several problems had arisen. For students, it meant that they could not use their eportfolio across programs and courses. In addition, they often had to learn a new platform, which focused them on learning the technology rather than learning through the content and process. Without a shared and supported platform, there was no technical support for learning or troubleshooting problems. This lack of centralized support also contributed to faculty reluctance to invest in the eportfolio process. In the almost twenty years since our initial foray into eportfolios, interest and use had grown, but to move its use beyond the early (and now middle-aged) adopters, we needed to address the technology issue.
An Opportunity and a Strategy
In 2013, the PSU provost, Sona Andrews, announced her Provost’s Challenge to fund projects aligned with “reTHINK PSU,” a PSU presidential initiative. This initiative is a campus-wide effort to deliver an education that serves more students with better outcomes, while containing costs through curricular innovation, community engagement, and effective use of technology (ReThink PSU, n.d.). A group of faculty proposed a project, Making Learning Visible: An Eportfolio Initiative to Transform Learning and Assessment at PSU. The proposal was primarily to obtain funds to acquire and support an eportfolio platform. But, in addition, we aimed to develop an eportfolio culture on campus through the process of acquiring the platform. The project leadership team consisted of a small group of faculty and staff who were already eportfolio users and enthusiasts. The team decided that we would organize our work around three general steps: platform procurement, early implementation, and expansion. We will describe the process and the lessons learned in each step.
The procurement process started in fall 2013 and culminated in purchasing an eportfolio platform, PebblePad, which PSU begun to pilot in fall 2015. We could have created a quicker process, but in the time we took to engage our community in selecting the platform, we gained excitement and momentum in using eportfolios on our campus. We decided to involve all possible stakeholders. There were certainly individuals in the institution who had some interest in eportfolios and they were, of course, invited in the conversation. However, we also identified those who might possibly be interested in eportfolios and invited them also. Early in the process, the leadership team held small meetings inviting these stakeholders to think about the possibility of eportfolios. You might call this intrusive inclusion. We then held several large meetings with the intent of asking these stakeholders and potential stakeholders for their help in selecting a university-wide eportfolio platform. Both the small and large meetings served as an opportunity to educate our community about eportfolios and the potential they have to improve learning and assessment on our campus. We also gave those involved an opportunity to imagine possibilities of using an eportfolio in their context, something that many had never considered.
From these early discussions, the project leadership team decided that we needed three work groups to help name the criteria we would use in our Request for Proposal (RFP) to eportfolio vendors. These work groups were Pedagogy, Assessment, and Technology. Stakeholders selected the work groups they wanted to participate in, and each group was facilitated by a leader. These meetings were held once every two weeks. There was good participation, and faculty and staff were eager to learn and share ideas about what should be included in the RFP. It was a learning experience for all of the participants. For example, it was impossible to talk about the requirements for pedagogy without talking about pedagogy in general—sharing ideas about assignments, addressing diverse student needs, and talking about concepts such as student-centered learning and self-directed learning—as well as the role an eportfolio could play in a student’s learning experience at PSU. Participants left these meetings feeling energized, inspired, and knowing that their ideas could make a difference.
The ultimate RFP was unwieldy and asked for way more than any software could deliver. However, the discussions allowed stakeholders to consider with some depth what was possible and what was most important. In the end, participants felt their voices were heard and their constituents’ needs were being addressed. The RFP was released, and six vendors expressed interest. We invited four vendors to come and present to the campus community. We made sure that these big public forums were advertised widely. The events were well attended and were videotaped so that those who couldn’t come were still able to participate. We solicited opinions about the platforms via an online survey, but participants were encouraged to give feedback in whatever way they wanted. These events, again, were learning opportunities for our community. Those who had not been involved, but were curious, learned more about eportfolios and their potential for learning and assessment in their context.
Ultimately, the project leadership team recommended to the Vice Provost in charge of the Provost’s Challenge that we use PebblePad. PSU is one of the first North American schools to work with PebblePad, which is located in the United Kingdom and used widely in Europe and Australia. We were attracted to the idea that the platform is actually more than an eportfolio tool; it is a personal learning environment. It is a place where students can plan and document their experiences and thoughts as well their achievements. While not designed to be a Learning Management System, it has the capability of delivering content and managing submissions and online conversations. In addition, being one of their first customers in the American market meant that we could have a collaborative relationship in future development of the product. More information about the procurement process through the Provost’s Challenge project can be found at https://www.pdx.edu/oai/provosts-challenge-projects-169.
The biggest lesson we learned is that the involvement of many people, current and potential stakeholders, worked. There was a buzz on campus. We had the advantage of being one of the Provost Challenge projects and people were curious on that basis alone. They may have gotten in the door on the basis of their curiosity, but they stayed because we invited them to actively participate in a process that could or would have an impact on their practice at the university. Through our intrusive inclusion of multiple and perhaps unlikely stakeholders, ownership of the eportfolio on our campus broadened. It wasn’t just one of those things that some departments did; it became something I might do in the near future. This process created new eportfolio champions on our campus—programs and people who were eager to engage in an eportfolio process and use the platform. We were also reminded of the need for and reward gained by creating the time and space to discuss issues of learning in the academy. The small and large group meetings, the work groups, and the public forums all provided opportunities to connect and learn across departments and disciplines.
At the tail end of the procurement process, the project leadership team began to plan for the next stages. While procurement of a platform was the aim of the Provost Challenge project, just purchasing a product would not be enough to support our movement beyond initial adopters. Leadership for the project has shifted. There is now shared responsibility for the eportfolio process in centralized offices on campus. The Office of Academic Innovation (OAI), our faculty development center, is now responsible for helping onboard and support faculty who want to use PebblePad, and the Office of Information Technology (OIT) is now responsible for supporting the technical backend of the product as well as students who are using the platform. A faculty-in-residence for eportfolios and Integrative Learning in the initial pilot year was established. In addition, a Stewards group was formed with those from the project leadership team who wanted to continue and expanded to include newly identified eportfolio enthusiasts with the role of stewarding the project forward.
With this authority in place, a roll-out plan was developed with the Stewards group. We agreed that it would be best to start with a diversity of programs developed by those who wanted to be in a pilot group and would commit to participating in a several-day PebblePad Academy at the beginning of fall term and ongoing community of practice meetings. We included groups in the pilot projects that represented a variety of uses of the platform with the idea that we can create use-cases from which others on campus could learn. Some are from academic programs, offered both face-to-face and online; some are extra-curricular programs. One pilot involves faculty using PebblePad to create their own Promotion and Tenure eportfolios. In addition, OAI has organized professional development activities involving eportfolios and PebblePad. Two of the most recent campus-wide events included international speakers on eportfolios. The platform is available to any PSU faculty, staff, or student, and while not widely advertised yet, word of mouth has brought new users to OAI to learn about the new platform and how it can be used.
Beyond the initial procurement process, the university has invested in the new platform by centralizing services to faculty and students through OAI and OIT. The impact of this has been great. Faculty and student questions are addressed quickly. Staff in these offices are eager and able to create resources. Prior to this, program, faculty, and students who wanted to use eportfolios were on their own. This centralized support in well-established services on campus will make the integration of the new platform sustainable. In addition, we have learned the importance of maintaining and nurturing the learning community that developed in our PebblePad Academy. Those of us who are actively using the tool contact each other to celebrate our successes and help each other with problems. In addition, OAI has hosted initial adopters’ reunions. One such reunion was focused on a discussion of possible research agendas that could be developed from these projects. Lastly, we have learned that faculty and students are interested in learning more about how to use PebblePad. As more people learn about the platform, the numbers of calls and emails have increased.
The Stewards group is currently refining our original vision for the eportfolio project as well as our five-year plan. We have identified constituents we would like to engage in eportfolios, including our partnerships with high schools, community colleges, and alumni. One important area that seems to have potential for creating an eportfolio culture is the use of PebblePad for promotion and tenure and other appraisal processes. As faculty and staff become familiar with the software, they will likely see the utility of using PebblePad with their students. While we had wondered if we would need to do a lot of outreach and education to get buy-in, it is clear that, instead, we will have to manage the demand for getting involved.
We have learned that we need a clear process for onboarding new projects using eportfolios and PebblePad. Learning new software and changing pedagogical practices is challenging. Acquiring a platform is not the end of this journey. While we chose the platform because it offered more than just an eportfolio, it has not been easy learning about and using all of its functionality, even for our professional staff in OAI and OIT. Also, in bringing in a system that is student-centered, we are needing to redefine how we provide support services to our students. OAI is focused on providing support for faculty, while OIT is tasked with providing support for students. However, OIT’s focus has been on supporting students with use of the technology and not on supporting them with the learning process. The boundaries of the platform demand that we consider student learning and support outside of the traditional classroom context. Finally, we are learning that to sustain and continue to grow interest and use, we must continue to promote and support new users. Without this, we will have a few more initial adopters, but we will not get to a “majority” user status.
Selecting a centralized and supported eportfolio platform has paved the road for PSU to fully realize the promise of eportfolios in advancing learning and creating authentic assessment. Faculty and students now have the basics for creating a rich and connected learning experience. Our journey with eportfolios started with a focus on student learning and the development of processes that were aided, but sometimes hindered, by the lack of an easy to use, single platform. With the introduction of PebblePad, we are addressing this issue. The future, however, is dependent on how we use this new base to further to innovate and support our campus community in continuing to put student learning first. The platform remains a tool for learning; the work behind the tool is still most important.
Dahlstrom, Eden, J. D. Walker, and Charles Dziuban. 2013. The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. Boulder, Colorado: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. http://www.educause.edu/ecar.
Labissiere, Yves, and Candyce Reynolds. 2004. “Using Electronic Portfolios as a Pedagogical Practice to Enhance Student Learning.” Inventio 2 (6). Retrieved from: https://uiowa.edu/assessment/sites/uiowa.edu.assessment/files/Labissiere.pdf.
ReThink PSU (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from https://www.pdx.edu/oai/rethink-psu.
Rogers, Everett. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.
Candyce Reynolds, professor and chair of the Educational Leadership and Policy Department, Portland State University; and Melissa Shaquid Pirie, online teaching excellence instructor/coordinator, Portland State University