Thinking Like a Program:
How Electronic Portfolio Assessment Shapes Faculty Development Practices
Anne Zanzucchi and Michael Truong
With the power to link assessment and instruction, eportfolios are an important avenue for learning at the course and program level. In a post-secondary context where student engagement, competencies, and faculty contact are often emphasized, eportfolios provide a rich and responsive framework for student success. An often overlooked element of eportfolio initiatives, however, is faculty engagement and professional development opportunities. We suggest that the assessment of eportfolios enables a program-based perspective on student learning that ultimately enhances faculty skill in evaluating student learning and incentivizes pedagogical innovation. In this chapter we summarize the basic groundwork for successful eportfolio assessment. Then, we highlight important elements for sustaining eportfolio initiatives, with attention to our transition from paper to digital repositories and from a text-based to multimodal curriculum. Through a certificate program in new media, faculty have learned how to adapt existing assignments and design new assignments that leverage the use of audio, video, and other digital mediums, resulting in technologically richer student eportfolios. We conclude with important guiding principles and best practices for leveraging eportfolios for faculty development and for supporting faculty as they move toward a more multimodal approach in eportfolio development and assessment.
Employing Eportfolios to Assess Teaching and Learning
Traditional eportfolio scholarship has tended to focus on establishing student gains, with reported growth in learning, self-efficacy, and persistence (Sandler, 2010; Stefani, Mason, & Pegler, 2007; Wright, Stallworth, & Ray, 2002). In a post-secondary context where student engagement, competencies, and faculty contact are often emphasized (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991), eportfolios provide a rich and responsive framework for fostering and assessing student success. Further, eportfolios offer several assessment advantages, such as functioning as a digital repository of multidimensional data and reflecting learning processes and developments (Acker, 2005; Zubizarreta, 2009). Often, the study of eportfolios has focused on student learning. But with the power to link assessment and instruction, eportfolio initiatives also provide an important avenue to engage faculty and to promote faculty development. The assessment of eportfolios is an important part of engaging faculty in “thinking like a program,” with opportunities to articulate and develop curriculum beyond individual courses and to promote a culture of innovation, particularly in new media.
Composition studies have a long and dedicated tradition of portfolio assessment, gaining traction in the 1980s (Yancey, 1999). Indeed, wherever “time and resources permit,” portfolios have “achieved standing as the writing-assessment method of choice” (White, 2005, p. 582) to enable formative and summative feedback on student performance. In part, this commitment to portfolios has to do with writing being understood to be a process, and the nature and structure of eportfolios have been leveraged to facilitate the reflection and revision skills prioritized in post-secondary composition instruction. Hence, eportfolios are the most common assignment in freshman composition courses (Freedman, 1993), often functioning as a “capstone” product showcasing individual work or featuring a learning process. Because eportfolios are so integral to demonstrating student learning, how faculty respond to reviewing student writing (reflective and assignment-based) is critical to a program’s overall assessment strategy.
In addition, with the rise of digital technologies and digital composition projects, eportfolios challenge potential assumptions about teaching writing as a text-based activity, creating a culture and context for professional development in new media theory and multimodal composition strategies.1 Drawing from our experiences at the University of California, Merced, we will provide an overview of program-based portfolio assessment, in a continuum that begins with paper to digital formats and then transitions a from text-based curriculum to multimodal projects, focusing on how we have used eportfolios to promote faculty “thinking like a program.”
Our guiding concept of “thinking like a program” reflects a gradual epistemological change in higher education assessment practices. Peter Ewell (2002) described this focus on program-level assessment as a transition from a passive and “largely top-down, management-oriented” evaluation of student learning to one of “active and collective responsibility for fostering student attainment” (p. 24)2 . Responsibility for student learning, then, resides both in individual faculty members and in the program. Assessment is a complex process, in which faculty establish a plan, build validity and reliability, articulate the relationship between instruction and assessment processes, and justify the choice of assessment to external audiences (Huot, 1994). It is this paradigm shift that animates our focus on “thinking like a program,” whereby faculty are not only engaged in evaluating student work but also contribute to broad-based curriculum planning and pedagogical improvements. This cultural shift in assessment and concomitant focus on eportfolios begins to address a shortcoming of higher education that Gerald Graff (2009) has described as “courseocentrism,” where the privacy of the classroom is conflated with academic freedom.
Faculty and composition programs derive several benefits from engaging in eportfolio assessment. Large-scale portfolio reviews have several powerful effects in engaging faculty with instructional development and alignment and can strengthen “an already strong writing program by motivating faculty to reach consensus on important aspects of the courses a program offers” (Hamp-Lyons & Condon, 1993, p. 216). Some faculty report that this instruction-enhancing aspect of reviewing portfolios influences ongoing commitment to the labor-intensive assessment process (Peters & Robertson, 2007). Program-based reviews of eportfolios offer important faculty development opportunities, namely in helping instructors enhance their skills in evaluating student learning and aligning curriculum. Evaluating eportfolios across the program is an important step toward understanding student learning in stages and sequence, which strengthens course planning as well.
Implementing a large-scale eportfolio project requires shared criteria and an ability to manage evaluation workflow (Anson & Brown, 1990; Hamp-Lyons & Condon, 1991), requiring frequent and routine opportunities for faculty to collaborate and share work. Despite the many advantages of these professional activities, formative assessment projects are commonly under-resourced and in need of strengthened institutional support. A survey and report by Daniel Anderson, Anthony Atkins, Cheryl Ball, Krista Millar, Cynthia Selfe, and Dickie Selfe (2006) demonstrated that writing instructors often feel that they experience “little help in conceptualizing multimodal assignments” and assessing student projects (p. 79). A survey circulated on the Writing Program Administration email list, authored by Ball State University graduate students and faculty (Murray, Sheets, & Williams, 2009), reported that “a significant number of composition instructors. . . feel uncomfortable assigning multimodal projects in their classrooms due to concerns with assessment.” It is critical that institutions provide ongoing opportunities for faculty to gain experience with technology and engage with the necessary stages of curriculum development to assess student work.
Mindful of these resource challenges and professional needs, this chapter provides frameworks for establishing and expanding professional development opportunities in writing programs through the use of eportfolio assessments. The groundwork for successful eportfolio assessment in composition studies includes an outcome-based organization for evidence, a common assignment, and a high-level of faculty participation in evaluating and discussing student work. Assessment practices—including calibration exercises, rubric development, and discussion of student projects—strengthen student-centered pedagogy and broaden perspectives beyond the classroom. We conclude by exploring some of the implications for faculty development in light of technological advances in recent years. In particular, we will consider some of the opportunities for instructors to revise and/or create innovative curriculum that leverages a new media focus.
ESTABLISHING A CULTURE OF ASSESSMENT THROUGH EPORTFLIOS
We begin by situating our eportfolio pilot project in terms of our institutional context: as a new campus with limited resources. Unlike most academic programs at more established institutions, where processes and people are deeply rooted in past practices, the Merritt Writing Program (MWP) at the University of California at Merced (UCM) has the good fortune of being a new, independent program in a public research university founded in 2005. Our departmental origins are also distinctive, as the writing program and English literature were founded as two separate departments, allowing faculty to define fields of study and teaching practices according to their disciplines (Balhizer & McLeod, 2010). In these initial years, our campus has grown rapidly, and our department employed 12 full-time, contractual instructors in 2005 and arrived at a steady-state number of around 60 in 20123 . Like any large academic program, we negotiate such challenges as maintaining curriculum alignment, providing faculty development opportunities, and supporting diverse academic backgrounds.
Among our primary responsibilities is serving incoming first-year students, who struggle to transition socially and academically to college. About 90% of our staffing is focused on supporting required writing or general education coursework, with the remaining portion dedicated to our minor program. Currently, our diverse student demographics are distinctive with a majority of students being first in their family to attend college. However, UCM’s demographics are likely the future profile of higher education, as first-generation college students are the fastest growing demographic at 4-year postsecondary institutions (Kewal Ramani, Gilbertson, Fox, & Provasni, 2007). Notably, though, this population is particularly at risk to not finish a college degree, with only 25% persisting as a national average (U. S. Department of Education, 2005). Language diversity is another area of growth at most institutions (Kewal Ramani et al.) and, reflective of this trend, over a third of our students are non-native speakers of English. This combination of linguistic diversity and varied high school writing preparations motivates us to examine student learning in a comparative, program-based way—one that allows us to align curriculum, tailor support, and identify priorities.
Mindful of these contextual factors, which are both institutional and national trends in diversified post-secondary enrollment patterns, eportfolios have served as a tangible outcome of our developmental and first-year composition courses, whereby student written work provide rich data for faculty to base curriculum development and program planning. Further, exploratory studies have indicated that well-designed, rigorous portfolio projects support all students, with particular benefit to at-risk and under-prepared students (Sandler, 2010; Stefani et al., 2007). These institutional and national trends have encouraged us to explore eportfolios as a means to not only assess student learning and but also to enrich faculty development opportunities.
TRANSITIONING FROM PAPER TO DIGITAL REPOSITORIES
Our transition from print to digital portfolios created significant practical and theoretical affordances, including a new medium for innovation. Since the founding of the program, student portfolios have been an integral component of nearly all writing courses, with initially all first-year courses concluding with a paper portfolio counting as 20% of the final grade. Student portfolios usually took the form of a binder with tab dividers for the different sections, and students would assemble their portfolios throughout the semester as they completed work. At the end of the semester, students would write a cover letter, reflecting on completed projects and citing evidence submitted as part of the portfolio. Instructors would then collect these binders in packing boxes (or even suitcases), read through them, assign a grade, and return them to students.
While storage is thus an important consideration, another critical issue with paper portfolios is limited sharing functions. Because some highly motivated students will want their portfolios back at the end of the semester, instructors are burdened to make print copies for personal (e.g., substantiating merit pay, supporting academic reappointment) and program purposes (e.g., assessment, archival). An average portfolio could have as many as 50–100 pages. To save paper and time, the program requested that instructors make one copy of three representative portfolios (low-, middle-, and high-quality) from each course and submit them for assessment. At that time, the program offered an average of 50 classes a semester, which translated to collecting, coding, and distributing well over a 100 portfolios for assessment. This process was time-consuming and resource-intensive for the program to coordinate with a limited staff. Because only one copy of a representative portfolio existed, only one instructor could view that portfolio at one time, posing serious access and audience issues. Moreover, the three representative portfolios identified by the faculty for use in the program-wide assessment was quite limited, compared to having a complete set of all portfolios. In other words, in a paper-based system, faculty were left with an odd assortment of “leftover” portfolios hardly representative of average student work. Having a complete, stable archive of student work has benefited not only our program assessment projects, but also faculty academic review processes that include sample student work.
Our early years as a program was a formative experience, including negotiating the difficulty of aligning a section’s course portfolio to program goals and establishing shared standards. Our recommended portfolio assignment sheet was designed much like any essay assignment; it was particular to the learning outcomes of the portfolio with respect to the course rather than the program. Thus, all of our portfolios are now organized by program learning outcomes, rather than an assignment- or course-based logic.
Finding a common purpose for assigning portfolios was important, too, as faculty entered our program with diverse prior experience with curriculum development. With eportfolios and heightened access to course materials, we realized our approaches to the assignment varied considerably and were often influenced by our prior teaching experiences at other institutions or by graduate training. Some instructors approached portfolios as “showcases” featuring selected best work, and other instructors assigned “developmental portfolios,” in which students carefully selected work from early, middle, and late stages of the course to illustrate their progress over time. A handful of instructors also required that students include everything from the course for cumulative portfolios. These varied eportfolio designs across the program made it difficult for us to compare and assess portfolios, not just between sections of a course, but also across courses. This was ultimately a fruitful tension, as we needed to discuss our theoretical reasoning for the portfolio to establish a common purpose. It quickly became evident that every course included a different set of core assignments and student learning outcomes, so it was difficult for readers (and clearly students) to frame the evidence in a broader context. When faculty came together to assess portfolios, it became obvious that they were not able to effectively evaluate portfolios between and across sections and courses, because it was an apples and oranges type of situation. As a result, programmatic assessment of student portfolios was challenging at best. This challenge is consistent with other portfolio assessment projects at large universities, as the potentially heterogeneous nature of portfolio development is noted in the literature as a primary assessment challenge (Anson & Brown, 1990; Hamp-Lyons & Condon, 1991). When re-tooling our portfolio curriculum, then, our primary focus was on design and sustainability.
Although these logistical, procedural, and evaluation challenges are not inherently related to the use of paper portfolios, they represent common pitfalls and issues faced by most programs when establishing a portfolio assessment culture. On the one hand, reports about implementing portfolio systems and related assessment from the University of Michigan (Hamps-Lyon & Condon, 1991) and the University of Minnesota (Anson & Brown, 1990) confirm several familiar benefits, including improved opportunity to develop curriculum and to collect data about program effectiveness. On the other hand, a great deal is still unknown about portfolio design and assessment. Some review considerations include whether a portfolio should be read in parts (weighted) or as a whole (holistic). Where to apply judgment is also an ongoing issue. It is also important to account for differences between sections, as portfolio assignments may vary too. Mindful of these precedents with establishing a portfolio assessment process, we needed to address the framework, with a focus on how portfolios were purposed, defined, and evaluated. Concomitant with that design effort, we needed to account for the urgent reality of rapid enrollment growth. Thus, such practical matters as archival space and increased workload pressured us to seek alternatives to manage the increasing numbers of portfolios as our program developed. Eportfolios were initially a response to a practical set of challenges, but we soon found that they became the theoretical underpinning of “thinking like a program.” That is, moving to eportfolios was not just a change in procedure, but also a change in approach, particularly for faculty development.
DEVELOPING PROGRAM-BASED EPORTFOLIO CURRICULUM AND ASSESSMENT PRACTICES
In designing eportfolio curriculum and associated assessment, we have sought to avoid the highly individualized work that Trent Batson (2010) described as “resembling scrapbooks” more than “meaningful and assessable evidence of achievement” (p. 1). As we learned from our earlier history, without establishing a culture of assessment with attention to curriculum design, student portfolios become isolated products that are only implicitly connected to larger programmatic learning outcomes and leave external reviewers unclear as to how to evaluate them. Our aim, then, was to promote a systematic collection of evidence that answered important questions about what was learned and how learning occurred.
We worked within committees (Freshman Year Composition and Assessment) to design a portfolio assignment template rooted in the newly established five program learning outcomes (PLOs), which articulated that a graduate from the Writing Minor program will be able to:
- Demonstrate engagement with the multi-stage processes of critical reading, formal writing, and public speaking.
- Select and apply the appropriate conventions of personal, academic, or professional forms of expression.
- Synthesize diverse perspectives through collaboration in academic discourse communities.
- Apply professional ethical standards to the research process and its public representation.
- 5. Craft language that reveals aesthetic awareness.
These program learning outcomes reflect internal priorities (course objectives) as well as national outcomes associated with the Council on Writing Program Administrators outcomes, and best practices described by the Conference on College Composition and Communication. These PLOs were already integral to syllabus development, so they served as natural sections of eportfolios. Flexibility to account for instructor emphasis, input, and creativity remained inherent. While all courses used the same PLOs, instructors were able to refine what those outcomes meant and which evidence would best illustrate them, depending on how they taught their course. A revamped portfolio process was initiated, which entailed: 1) a shared portfolio assignment with consistent outcomes, 2) a highly structured eportfolio system, 3) a shared grading rubric, and 4) participation among all full-time faculty in the development of the initiative. Portfolios, then, could provide us with a context and means to open up discussion about how to frame long-term goals and align significant outcomes, without limiting faculty autonomy and expertise.
Collectively, all of these elements allowed us as a program to approach eportfolio assessment systematically and consistently. Although one could argue that a portfolio is both a tool and pedagogy, the tool itself requires thoughtful design and implementation according to program goals. As eportfolios served as intellectual scaffolds for students to place their educational experiences, this framework also allowed instructors to define assessment practices and curriculum design more explicitly for both grading and formative review. When eportfolio assignments are designed with specific learning outcomes and clear assessment strategy in mind, instructors are positioned better to work together to help their students learn.
ENGAGING FACULTY IN PORTFOLIO ASSESSMENT
The routine process of portfolio assessment, along with offering multiple avenues for collaboration and discussion, has helped us build a culture of evaluation and course design in our program and among our faculty. Evaluating student work outside of the classroom has important benefits, including curriculum alignment and grading calibration. As a new program, consistent opportunities to discuss and situate grading practices have been very important, as faculty negotiate prior institutional experiences, academic training backgrounds, and a highly diverse student population.
For us, the function of reviewing portfolios as a program is formative, not summative. It is possible, of course, to evaluate portfolios at the program level for such summative purposes as placement or exit exams; however, our purpose is focused on strengthening grading practices and standards through calibration activities. The benefits of our assessment practice are not limited to faculty development, however. Part of how we foster faculty development opportunities is to design a portfolio curriculum that includes a learning outcome framework, with room for instructor creativity and expertise. Our portfolio assignment outlines the importance of connecting courses to program expectations, with each learning outcome including a set of questions and suggested evidence. To this end, we launched a web page of eportfolio materials hosted on our departmental web site to support classroom instruction, including text and video-based tutorials as well as template curriculum. Faculty can adjust the curriculum template to match themes and evidence particular to course design; however, all of us are expected to arrive at the same program outcome. Faculty can also employ portfolio technology beyond our course-management system, with sample portfolio assignments in spaces like WordPress and PBworks.
For assessment projects to be authentic, not only should student work be embedded in curriculum, students should also be engaged in the results of faculty efforts. Our program-based review of portfolios fosters consensus about exemplary or model portfolios, which are then referenced for classroom purposes in the next academic year to establish desired benchmarks. Any significant results and program-based curricular conclusions are shared with incoming students to engage them in this process. Further, to avoid a common perceptual challenge that grades are arbitrary or highly instructor-specific, these updates alert students to how instructors meet routinely to affirm transferable or program-based standards. Our implementation of portfolio curriculum is pervasive and consistent, as all writing minor and/or first-year students complete portfolios, and all full-time and most part-time faculty members participate in the review of student work twice a semester. To take our curriculum one more step, we also practice what we preach: Our process of academic review for reappointment and merit pay is portfolio-based, and faculty often remark that this process instills an important empathy and connection to classroom practices. A combination of consistent faculty contact and shared practices has established engagement with eportfolios on many levels.
Particular to student eportfolios, we actively attend to calibrating our reviews and discussing grading standards, which transfers to better consistency of expectations in individual classrooms. Our calibration process of reviewing sample portfolios includes opportunities to explore both the practical and theoretical aspects of portfolio work, which is an important aspect of engaging faculty in the assessment process, aligning curriculum, and agreeing on shared standards and review practices (Addison & VanDeWeghe, 1999; White, 2005).
With both paper and electronic systems, our inter-rater reliability has been, on average, above 80%. This record of consistency is partly attributable to a shared eportfolio framework with PLOs and with frequent faculty readings of student work, engaging all full-time and most part-time faculty members twice a semester in small meetings (6–8 instructors in each review group). The process of developing a strong record of inter-rater reliability has benefited our grading practices. Although a grade might be an imprecise measure of student performance, when other such factors as effort and participation are considered, it is direct evidence of student performance. Initially, our grading averages were high, in the low B range. Our approach, then, was to shift our attention to particular skills (or learning outcomes) to see student work in terms of comparable abilities. That outcomes-oriented shift in portfolio design and faculty development focus aided us in transitioning towards more consistent, rigorous standards for transferable skills, with our average being in the C range. The average grades assigned to eportfolios have changed subtly, and it is a direct result of giving faculty opportunities to discuss student writing beyond grading. Those opportunities for dialogue can have important, indirect long-term effects on formative and summative evaluation. Similar recent studies reveal comparable results, finding that greater access to grade averages and discussion forums effectively address grade inflation and strengthen curriculum alignment (Vieregge, Stedman, Mitchell, & Moxley, 2012).
Through this process, eportfolio design and its associated technology have also evolved in ways that impact faculty development. As Richard Selfe (2004) noted, the sustainability of technology-rich instructional support involves teachers in a continuous process of learning, experimentation, and training. Beyond routine assessment of student portfolios as a means of providing faculty development support, the MWP’s Professional Development Committee provides faculty-led technology and pedagogy workshops. Past workshops have addressed conducting peer reviews, creating portfolio assignments, documenting teaching excellence, and facilitating discussions—all without the explicit use of any particular technology. Each August, our writing program administration also offers a technology-intensive instruction orientation, designed to provide resources to instructors in hybrid courses and to support eportfolio curriculum.
To transition toward a more technology-intensive focus with composition instruction, we needed more information about how instructional technology is implemented in our courses. With a select group of faculty, we designed a survey to tabulate usage patterns and identify ongoing pedagogical questions. Following that data, we offer faculty development workshops focused on Web 2.0 tools and their relevance to teaching composition. Particular emphasis has been on blogs and wikis for peer review, discussion forums, and collaboration tools.
TRAINING FACULTY TO TEACH WITH NEW MEDIA
The move from paper-based portfolios to eportfolios has provided many important practical benefits, including increased efficiency, greater consistency, and wider participation in the assessment of digital writing. However, this initial shift from analog to digital has been mostly limited to only the form of portfolios, as opposed to content. In other words, artifacts used within portfolios were merely digital versions of paper-assignments, including scanned copies of essays, journal entries, and other text-based projects. Moreover, our portfolio grading rubric essentially focused just on the quality of the cover letter, the supporting materials (almost exclusively written work), and the overall attention to traditional writing conventions. The advent of new, low-barrier technologies have facilitated a second important shift in eportfolio development, in which the portfolio tool itself, along with its content, have become more multimodal.
A multimodal approach to composition “provides multiple means of communication or expression and enables a more flexible and creative environment of learning and intellectual growth” (Nguyen, 2009, p. 1). Initially, it might seem that technology’s potential for multiplicity and flexibility complicates instruction and assessment. However, we found that using program and course goals to guide technology-intensive instruction has broad benefits in terms of defining expectations and creating benchmarks. It is at the intersection between program intentions and technology where faculty development opportunities exist, framed by goals and guided by authentic, locally-derived faculty interests.
Tools such as blogs, wikis, social networking, and multimedia tools enable students to express themselves more creatively, collaborate with others more easily, share their work more widely, and reflect on their learning more critically. WordPress, a popular blogging tool, is now the standard tool for student eportfolios. Unlike the previous portfolio tool within the campus learning-management system, WordPress allows students to go beyond text-based artifacts, so students can include digital videos, microblog streams, and other multimedia-rich content in their eportfolios.
Starting in fall 2012, the MWP partnered with the Center for Research on Teaching Excellence (CRTE) to offer faculty a certificate program in teaching with new media. The program is open to all faculty on campus, yet three-fourths of its participants are from the MWP, with about 20% of the entire MWP faculty as participants in this program. The certificate program introduces faculty to various new media approaches to curriculum planning, including the use of digital writing tools (e.g., WordPress, PBWorks, MindMeister) and audio/video tools (e.g., YouTube, Animoto, Audioboo, XtraNormal). To complete the certificate, participants are required to attend a 3-hour practicum session, participate in four one-hour workshops throughout the academic year, and complete a final project that has practical curricular implications. Through the certificate program, faculty learn how to incorporate new media approaches in composition pedagogy, and, in particular, how to design, facilitate, and assess the quality of multimodal projects.
Projects created using Web 2.0 technologies offer many advantages for eportfolio development. First, these tools make the iterative process of writing more visible. For example, when students use a wiki tool to write their essays, instructors and peers are able to literally track their writing process by looking at how their writing progressed from one draft to the next. Second, these tools allow for immediate and constant feedback by peers and instructors. Both WordPress and PBWorks have a comment feature, which allows anyone who has access to the web site to provide feedback. Third, these tools enable students to collaborate with one another; students working on the same project can easily contribute to the content asynchronously. Fourth, these tools provide students and instructors a common communication platform for everyone to share and exchange ideas. Much of the informal learning that happens in a course can take place within such an environment through various activities, including status updates about assignments, crowd-sourcing ideas, and sharing resources. Finally, these tools allow students the ability to embed audio, video, or any other digital content as evidence within their eportfolio. The inclusion of multimedia content within eportfolios expands traditionally text-heavy portfolios by allowing ideas to be expressed not just with written words, but also with spoken ones complemented by still and moving images.
Web 2.0 tools help make the once mysterious and non-linear process of writing and learning more visible to students and external audiences, allowing teachers to literally see and assess the once-invisible effort of writing development. Moreover, these tools can shift the once-isolated process of crafting an essay into a more interactive, collaborative, and social space, heightening the feedback and iterative loop. As a result, instructional and learning priorities are elevated, allowing teachers to see and assess student work and effort (since every effort is captured and archived) and allowing students to work more effectively (through collaboration and interaction with peers and external audiences).
GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR DEVELOPING MULTIMODAL EPORTFOLIOS
The use of new media tools for creating eportfolios signals a fundamental shift from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning (Bates & Sangrà, 2011; Downes, 2005). Tools such as blogs, podcasts, and videos help facilitate a more constructivist approach to learning, putting greater emphasis on visible learning, multimedia, knowledge creation, group discussion, collaboration, and informal learning. All of these technological advancements have implications for faculty development and the assessment of digital writing. In the following section, we offer a few key principles for designing, implementing, and growing a multimodal eportfolio initiative with particular attention to assessment and faculty development.
A primary principle is to focus on learning outcomes, regardless of technologies employed. Multimodal eportfolios are more than a demonstration of one’s knowledge, understanding, and hands-on experience with technology; they also articulate how technology is used to achieve a particular outcome. The true power of multimodal eportfolios is in their ability to not only inform but also improve upon traditional literacy practices, whereby students take what they have written (message) and package it in a way that maximizes the impact of what they want to say (medium; McLuhan, 1964). For example, a student can take a traditional research paper about a particular topic, and, using the same content from the paper, create a short narrated slideshow or video for a more general audience. The idea of taking content in one medium (research paper) and translating it to another (slideshow or video) helps students achieve important outcomes such as understanding multiple audiences and employing appropriate rhetorical approaches. Instructors will need to learn which tools are most conducive for achieving desired learning outcomes. For example, GoogleDrive is an excellent tool to facilitate the iterative and collaborative nature of writing, where multiple students can work together on one document. Our faculty training sessions feature how collaboration of this nature can be organized and assessed to ensure learning outcomes are achieved.
One of the best ways to focus on learning outcomes is choose low-barrier tools. Low-barrier tools require little or no technical knowledge to operate. For example, if an instructor wants students to include video essays in their portfolios, Animoto, Stupeflix, and the like are ideal tools because they are free (or cheap for premium options), easy to use, and web-based. Compared to expensive, high-end, desktop applications like Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro, these tools are extremely attractive because little training and technical knowledge is required to start using the tool. In our faculty development practicum workshops, we have witnessed instructors who have never made a video before use Animoto to create beautiful short videos within a half-hour of being introduced to the tool.
Even when using low-barrier technology, it is still critical to provide a robust support infrastructure for faculty and students. Students are often assumed to be more technologically comfortable and savvy using new tools than their teachers. However, many studies have found that these “digital natives,” while technologically astute, are still in need of pedagogical guidance and modeling when it comes to developing fundamental skills, such as deep reading, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006; Nguyen, 2009; Waycott, Bennet, Kennedy, Delgarno, & Gray, 2010).
Compared to students, many teachers feel less confident about the use of new tools. When it comes to using new tools, students and teachers need different kind of support. Millennial students are typically socially connected self-starters, so if they get stuck, they will either search online for the answer or ask a friend. As a result, the MWP program provides many tutorials and resources on its web site. Moreover, we employ two student technology assistants who are available to address any student issues and questions. For faculty, their main support needs seems to be understanding how these tools can add value in traditional composition courses by improving student learning gains. To that end, the various faculty training workshops offered by the MWP and the CRTE meet their needs. In addition, we regularly conduct a program-wide survey about faculty familiarity and use of various instructional technology tools, and the results inform ongoing faculty development efforts. As faculty get more comfortable with the technology, faculty development efforts will shift from focusing primarily on pedagogical practices (e.g., clear instructions, effective assignments) to acquiring technical skills in using various technologies effectively (e.g., leveraging technology to achieve particular learning outcomes). In this way, multimodal eportfolios transform faculty development by asking faculty to be more technologically competent and conscientious when they teach (Palloff & Pratt, 2011; Wicks et al., 2011).
Lastly, when asking faculty to transition to multimodal eportfolios, it is important to emphasize adaptation over transformation. The former (adaptation) asks faculty to work within their comfort zone, making minor adjustments, while the latter (transformation) asks them to overhaul, which can seem overwhelming. The difference becomes obvious when it comes to assessing multimodal eportfolios. Unlike text-based portfolios where attention to rhetorical strategies was adequate, assessing multimodal eportfolios requires paying attention to added layers of technological acumen and execution. In other words, multimodal eportfolios require students to demonstrate not just their ability to write well but also their ability to use technology successfully. Assessing multimodal eportfolios does not demand an entirely new grading scheme; instead, faculty can simply modify an existing assessment approach when adding a technological component. If technical skills are a measurable and additional skill, we help faculty add criteria to account for technological execution.
In recent years, new media has transformed how eportfolios are composed and consumed (DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, Hicks, & the National Writing Project, 2010). Eportfolios composed with audio and video content, organized through hyperlinks, or created for web delivery represent the latest iteration of the evolution of eportfolios. In many respects, assessment practices have not kept pace with the rapid transformation of eportfolios from page to screen to web. Because many eportfolios today are multimodal expressions of creativity, teachers have had to revise their understanding and approach to assessment, namely through approaching assessment in a more holistic manner. Instructors need to consider not just the content of the work submitted by students but also the skills and technological competence that went into creating the work in the first place. Moreover, teachers have had to conceive new metrics that measure “good writing” and also take into account various technological mediums, tools, and techniques.
Wherever a writing program might be in this continuum of paper to digital portfolios and associated new media curriculum, this investment in formative assessment and professional development need not be labor or cost-intensive. On a practical level, low-barrier new media technology enables instructors to enrich traditional composition curriculum; however, effective implementation largely depends on providing strategic instructional development support. Many of the transformations we have described are specific to “thinking like a program,” in that we encouraged multiple formats and opportunities for faculty collaboration. With eportfolios, writing program administrators can work with faculty to foster critical dialogue and develop much needed assessment skills in both traditional and new media curriculum. As eportfolios transform our assumptions about writing, teaching, and learning, so too must our assessment practices change shape.
1. In recent years, eportfolios have become popular among disciplines beyond composition, particularly in professional accreditation standards for engineering (Williams, 2010), medical education (Peters & Robertson, 2007; Perlman, et. al, 2011), and teacher preparation (Fox, White, & Kidd, 2011). This new and broad-based interest in eportfolios might be partly explained by accreditation and associated accountability pressures in higher education. Traditionally, grade analysis and self-reported data from the National Survey of Student Engagement have provided important insight into student learning; however, increased importance has been placed on direct evidence of student learning to supplement this assessment model. Demonstrating student learning outcomes within an authentic context (such as classroom projects) is preferred; hence, eportfolios provide a useful framework to organize and reflect on student learning outcomes at various levels. ↩
2. Since early 2000, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has been promoting the use of student portfolios as an important assessment tool in accreditation processes. WASC provides a helpful rubric for assessing the use of the portfolio, which can be found at: http://www.wascsenior.org/files/Portfolio_Rubric_4_08.pdf. ↩
3. During the first 5 years, our campus population expanded from 800 undergrad students in 2005 to over 3,000 in 2010—close to a 400% growth.↩
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