After student backlash at Clemson University, IT expert discusses what could be done to make higher education ePortfolios truly beneficial for students.
They’re so despised they even have a petition for their demise on Change.org signed by thousands of students. And no, they’re not a chain of restaurants or social justice issues—they’re higher education ePortfolios. But is there a way to make them better?
A few years ago, Clemson University student Jamie Harding took the trouble to articulate the grassroots anger of his peers and called for the elimination of higher education ePortfolios. While his focus was Clemson’s homegrown, mandatory ePortfolio initiative, his description of what he and his peers see as the way higher education is supposed to work is stunning in its candor. Jamie is not some lone malcontent. He had 2,954 supporters for his petition posted on Change.org.
In his excerpt below, Jamie expresses the bald-faced economics of higher education for most students and their parents. Educational idealists should brace themselves; it’s a social contract that tolerates nothing less than a tangible payoff.
“Like most of my classmates, I put work into my classes and receive grades, as I should. It is as simple as that. Why should we be required to create a portfolio that just reiterates the fact that we have completed a course? Why should we be submitting work to an online portfolio that does not give us any credit? We have to complete this to graduate? If I have achieved good grades and completed the courses necessary, I should be well on my way to graduating. The portfolio only creates another task for students to worry about, a task that accomplishes nothing. I wrote an essay for my English class. I got an A on it and it led me to receive an A in the course, and I successfully earned those credits. Nowhere in there do I see a gap that must be filled with an ePortfolio.”
What earthly reason would there be for adding a capstone or showcase higher education ePortfolio to the lives of students? It’s a fair question. I want to be clear. I am not belittling Clemson. It’s a fine school doing what hundreds of other institutions have tried over the last fifteen years. Clemson, like so many, has spent no small amount of money developing and supporting this vision.
Clemson’s student products are very impressive. They seek what many have sought from an higher education ePortfolio: a thoughtful summary of the student’s journey of learning and struggle for personal confidence. Clemson is obviously trying hard to beat back the objections – trying and failing according to Jamie and his peers. Yet, Clemson still is working to workshop and “blitz” session their way forward.
No campus is immune to this. Given the campus social contract Jamie speaks of, this happens to institutional homegrown and commercial providers alike. Why?
(Next page: Unrealistic goals and institutional denial)
Unrealistic Goals and Institutional Denial
In large institutions the ePortfolio initiative is nearly always sold on philosophical grounds. ePortfolios are trending. It’s appealing to a big university with some cash to spend some money building their own system making the argument that it will be cheaper than a commercial one (this is rarely so). However, it’s an innovative CIO’s delight and so off they plunge.
Since technology development moves a lot faster than cultural change, the ePortfolio is invariably layered on top of the extant culture in hopes of not threatening anyone. Unavoidably, this places most of the burden of using the initiative to students.
Truly, there is a well-meaning intent: the ignition of a disruptive shift in educational practice. It is rare this happens, or even if it does, that it is sustainable. The University grimly sticks with its plan and spends and develops on it. There is a psychological point of no return for an institution after a lot of money has been spent.
However, smaller schools are more likely to call a spade a spade: the ePortfolio is all about compliance and accreditation. Data must be collected to demonstrate the attainment of learning outcomes and/or standards. Preferably the data should show progress over time and be valid and inter-rater reliable. ePortfolios are ideal for this purpose.
Granted, these requirements to show the outputs of institutional effectiveness are relatively new—but they are not going away. The truly heinous aspect of all is that CIOs know that the requirement for near-perpetual storage of the huge files generated by student work and faculty promotion and tenure is expensive; and video in education is out of control given the ubiquitous use of iPhones and iPads. CIOs know the data and the files are, therefore, no less mission-critical than their LMS or whatever they use to conduct internal surveys, yet they routinely refuse to treat such ePortfolio/Student Learning Assessment Systems as enterprise worthy.
Instead, rather than owning the solution, they pass the cost onto students so that IT budgets remain untouched. On this front the homegrown solutions appear to have the high ground (they are using budget to build and sustain the project while dodging the assessment agenda). Students are still paying for it but it’s just not in their face. This would be fine except…
An higher education ePortfolio is Not Enough if You are Going to Take the Value-Added Requirements Seriously
Great restaurants have front-of-the-house ambience and service. They also have a second-to-none back-of-the-house kitchen that runs like a Swiss clock and delivers high quality, consistent dishes. In the parlance of assessment platforms, you need a solid ePortfolio collection piece students can connect to, as well as very powerful and flexible assessment system design, and a reporting (accreditation) and analytics suite that is fully integrated.
Yet, homegrown systems rarely have this power and balance. Further, there is no reasonable long-term business case for funding such systems from the budgets available to institutions, which are generally not-for-profit.
Why is this fully integrated back-end so vital? Institutions need to achieve IMS Global, LTI 1.1 interoperability with other enterprise systems to get rid of the double work faced by students and faculty. If they hate you, you cannot make dents on the critical fronts with faculty that matter such as authentic assessment and proactive faculty feedback. Nor can you legitimately reach out to students to explore the visual evidence of their growing skills displayed by a sophisticate analytics solution linked to their portfolio work.
Also, this data and the ePortfolios combined are needed to bring students to the doorstep of skills tagging, and the use of social media to generate a new digital footprint that speaks to what a young person can do, presented with irrefutable evidence and authority. These are connective tissue with HR departments, LinkedIn and job boards. These are the things that make the “economy” of the credit hour work for you rather than against you.
No Master Plan
For this all to work, one must begin with a rational master plan for collecting assignments for General Education that works for all students and faculty.
General Education outcomes are the “mother ship” for all other campus activity. In a robust assessment platform, you can cross-link the goals of the institution with those of disciplines, programs, co-curricular initiatives. Streamlining and alignment without a lot of effort is possible.
Put simply, an ePortfolio blended with assessment can be the transformative engine for higher education. With time, for Jamie’s sake or future peers, Clemson will hopefully come to see this.
Geoff Irvine is CEO of Chalk & Wire.