Carleton University in Ottawa is one of a number of institutions whose faculty and staff incorporate ePortfolio technology into programs and courses. This online reflective content management application enables students to create and upload files to document their learning experiences. At Carleton, students and faculty use personalized “cuPortfolios” as a centralized location for collecting, assessing and showcasing student work.
Patrick Lyons, Director of Teaching and Learning at Carleton University, compares ePortfolios to the mythical Trojan horse used by the Greeks to enter the city of Troy during the Trojan War, but without the malicious intent. According to Mr. Lyons, “ePortfolios can have surprising and powerful implications for teaching and learning,” including:
- Shifting students from the role of consumers of knowledge to that of creators;
- Introducing opportunities for new assessment strategies by faculty; and
- Encouraging students and faculty to rethink the learning process.
Carleton’s cuPortfolio tool is an online personal learning environment in which students can document and present their learning journey by collecting academic and co-curricular artifacts such as course assignments, projects, papers, videos, blogs and images. Students can add content such as Twitter and RSS feeds and their LinkedIn profile.
Prior to launching the ePortfolio pilot project, Carleton created a position within its Educational Development Centre (EDC) for an ePortfolio Analyst. Allie Davidson was hired in the spring of 2014, tasked with promoting the use of the tool. Ms. Davidson and her fellow ECD staff provided “Introduction to cuPortfolio” workshops to any faculty interested in learning about the tool and its best practices, taking the extra step of targeting faculty they thought might be interested.
Peggy Hartwick, an instructor in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies, participated in the pilot project and describes the cuPortfolio as an “amazing” tool. She credits Ms. Davidson and her EDC colleague Samah Sabra for “providing a highly motivating and supportive environment in which to brainstorm, share ideas and create. We’re also encouraged to share at regular faculty development sessions and in-house conferences.” EDC also partially subsidized faculty costs for attending off-site conferences related to ePortfolio, namely the STLHE (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) conference.
Carleton’s cuPortfolio initiative is in its third year, powered by the open-source application Mahara. Interest in cuPortfolio has grown through word-of-mouth, and Allie Davidson still consults with all instructors who choose to incorporate the tool in their courses to ensure they receive full support. “We discuss best practices, review their assignment design, and ensure all the technical details, such as templates, submission settings and sharing options, are set up properly. I also visit every class using cuPortfolio to present an introductory session to the students, describing what the tool is and giving a tour of the environment and a hands-on tutorial during which students set up the structure of their portfolio and test their editing abilities.” The classroom visits not only are helpful for students but also reduce pressure on instructors when it comes to technology and troubleshooting issues.
Ms. Hartwick and her colleague Julie Lepine integrated cuPortfolio in their face-to-face “English as a Second Language for Academic Purposes” (ESLA 1900) classes three years ago. They replaced a traditional, paper-based research project used as part of course delivery, instead asking their international students to create a cuPortfolio specifically to explore their major – to think about what their course actually entails – before deciding on their research question.
Students’ tasks include:
- Investigating their unique majors, including upper-year courses of interest;
- Learning how to locate, evaluate and cite/reference library and online sources;
- Learning how to summarize, synthesize, critique and reflect;
- Learning digital literacy skills such as locating and citing artifacts;
- Demonstrating knowledge and comprehension visually and through artifacts – good for a range of learning styles and preferences;
- Sharing and peer feedback sessions; and
- Summative oral presentations.
The cuPortfolio exercise differs significantly from writing an essay, because students work on their tasks throughout the term, including collaboratively analyzing a topic and creating an artifact such as a mind map (a diagram created with software to visually organize information) in groups to illustrate their findings. The artifact becomes a feature of their cuPortfolio, representing their ability to seek, think and make connections. In fact, Ms. Hartwick doesn’t ask her students to write an essay; late in the term she asks them to submit only an introduction and a clear outline for an essay, noting, “By this point, they have searched, evaluated, summarized, referenced, connected, analyzed, reflected and presented on their topic. These activities are all necessary for academic studies and all the while, the English language is an integral part of the process. Students use it orally while collaborating and providing feedback and presenting. They write many different genres; they read and research.”
Students can share their cuPortfolio with peers for the purpose of providing feedback on each other's work. Ms. Hartwick keeps this part of her course informal and unstructured. “I regularly provide class time in which students can share and showcase what they’ve done. Students learn from each other and challenge each other in these cases. I find many students are better teachers in terms of showing each other how to add artifacts, change layouts or improve design. The formal feedback and evaluation comes from me. Students must submit their cuPortfolio three to four times per term for grading. Aesthetics and artifact design and selection make up approximately 20 percent of the mark. Sometimes I use screen capture software and provide oral and visual feedback, other times I use a manual rubric.” Including the oral presentation, which is worth 10 percent, the total value of the cuPortfolio is 40 percent of the final grade.
Adjunct Professor Rachelle Thibodeau uses the cuPortfolio in her mandatory 4th-year course “Project for B.A. Honours and B.Sc. Honours in Psychology.” Students write 10-12 research blogs and post them as a cuPortfolio journal. “The blog (journal) tool in cuPortfolio gives students a space to share their work with others. Having a dedicated space to collect each student’s work allows them, teaching assistants and me to see their progress on a single page.” Peers and teaching assistants provide feedback, which must respond to the following points:
- One strength of your blog this week is . . .
- A key area for improvement of your blog is . . .
- One question I have about your research is . . .
Students often add additional points of feedback, with Dr. Thibodeau encouraging them to focus on the ideas, not the mechanics, of the writing. Each blog is worth one percent of the final course grade and is marked on a 10-point system, using the following criteria:
- Demonstrates the student has carefully read and understood the material;
- Demonstrates the student has understood the questions and answered them thoroughly;
- Applies relevant course material from lectures and class discussions;
- Is written clearly and concisely; and
- Is written for an audience with little or no background on the topic.
Dr. Thibodeau allows students to post a more comprehensive portfolio as a bonus assignment, and she uses her own cuPortfolio as the repository for most of her course content, frequently directing students there to access materials for class activities.
Associate Professor Sarah Todd introduced cuPortfolios in her “Advanced Theories of Direct Intervention” course (School of Social Work) so students could draw on the theories they used in class to craft a portfolio of themselves as a theory-informed practitioner. In this way, they were able to understand how the theories discussed in class could be relevant to their future workplace.
Students provided commentary to each other via online feedback forms, and Professor Todd assessed the cuPortfolios, which were worth 10 percent of the final grade.
Outcomes and Benefits
Allie Davidson values ePortfolios because they encourage students to link learning within their program to learning outside of the institution, such as through work-related activities. “ePortfolios are well suited to bringing diverse, otherwise-disconnected activities together within a single platform.”
In Professor Sarah Todd’s course, students used cuPortfolios to integrate the theories she taught with their notion of themselves as a social work professional. Feedback indicated the cuPortfolios helped students conceptualize and communicate their contributions to the field. Professor Todd believes cuPortfolios “not only help students envision themselves as professionals and scholars, but also help instructors assess whether students are achieving program learning goals.”
The collaborative, sharing aspect of cuPortfolios appeals to Dr. Rachelle Thibodeau. “I believe students take their blogs more seriously when they write for a wider audience including their peers.” One-third of Dr. Thibodeau’s students chose to complete a full portfolio as a bonus assignment last year for two main reasons, both related to employment prospects. “Students saw value in learning a new platform and they wanted to display their learning throughout the course to prospective employers. A few students also wanted to share the portfolio with parents or friends outside the class.”
Ms. Hartwick saw cuPortfolios increase overall student engagement and performance in her course. “Students are more likely to make connections to their research topics and with course content as they reflect on learning processes. Further, they tend to keep up-to-date on tasks and their research process, and they learn from ongoing feedback, be it from teacher or peers, formal or informal. Anecdotally, the cuPortfolio in my case is perfect for both formative and summative assessment. Students tell me they are proud of their work and they take ownership of the quality of their submissions, something not evident in paper-based, binder submissions of portfolios.”
Challenges and Enhancements
To make the exercise of maintaining an ePortfolio worthwhile to students, instructors need to ensure some component within them for which students receive grades. Allie Davidson admits the assessment can be challenging. “Because students express their learning using different media, it can be difficult to consistently and fairly grade ePortfolios.” In response, Ms. Davidson and faculty worked together to create ePortfolio grading rubrics.
Ms. Hartwick agrees with Ms. Davidson. “Generally, our challenges are associated with the clunkiness of accessing and grading. It would be great to comment directly in-text or in-page rather than providing feedback at the bottom of a page, especially because of our focus on language in ESLA. Establishing a rubric that really gets at what we want to assess in terms of learning outcomes continues to be a work in progress, but this is true in any new type of project.”
Professor Todd saw some initial resistance from students to the cuPortfolio technology, but in time, feedback was positive. Her students reported they “learned a lot” and felt more prepared for interviews. According to Professor Todd, students who already had jobs found it less useful. “In future, I would adapt the assignment for these students to be a professional development exercise.”
When some of Dr. Thibodeau’s students complained about the unfamiliarity of the cuPortfolio format, she provided a template to make the process smoother. Later, she experimented with locking student-submitted ePortfolios until teaching assistants graded them, but found it was too cumbersome and eliminated this step after a year.
When students give negative feedback about functionality in cuPortfolios, Allie Davidson and her colleagues at the EDC fix the issues in the system when possible, or create technical instructions on how to deal with them. Carleton’s cuPortfolio support site is frequently updated based on feedback received.
Students generally require one to two hours to learn the ePortfolio tool, followed by an ongoing learning curve. In one instance, students were expected to create ePortfolios with weekly reflections, but when the workloads of instructors and teaching assistants led to the announcement that students’ ePortfolios would not be evaluated until year’s end, most students waited until year’s end to create their ePortfolios. These students lost out on the opportunity to progressively master the ePortfolio tool, and the additional stress, added to existing year-end stress, extended their learning curve. Subsequently, instructors were encouraged to “scaffold” the implementation of ePortfolios by establishing check-in points with students and offering periodic feedback to keep them on track.
Instructor Peggy Hartwick “would love to see” cuPortfolios as a foundation of her program and used at all levels. Allie Davidson agrees, and adds, “Rather than going through their degree and taking courses as isolated experiences, students could use the ePortfolio as the common thread throughout their degree to reflect on and make connections between different courses and learning experiences.” She and her colleagues at Carleton plan to expand the use of the tool at both the course and program levels.
Dr. Thibodeau would like to see the cuPortfolio tool enhanced with the ability to record the submission time of assignments, and hopes it can be integrated with the grade book in cuLearn, Carleton’s learning management system. Ms. Hartwick also hopes for a better connection to the LMS, as well as faster access to student portfolios.
For Further Information
Educational Technology Development Coordinator
Educational Development Centre
School of Linguistics and Language Studies
Adjunct Professor Rachelle Thibodeau
Associate Professor Sarah Todd
School of Social Work