“Integrating Integrative Learning in the ePortfolio,” and “Translating Vision to Practice: A Program-Centered Model for ePortfolio”

The AAEEBL conference had something for everyone. Since our active ePortfolio program at BCC is only three semesters old, I found it especially valuable  to learn from speakers whose institutions have been “at it” for a long time. Two sessions I attended really drove this home and left me with much to think about as the summer begins hurtling downhill toward the new academic year. Listening to these experienced practitioners talk about aspects of their ePortfolio programs reminded me of my racquetball-playing days, when I always enjoyed competing against players who were just a little bit better than me. I usually came away from those games with a new idea, a new strategy, a new technique.

Susan Kahn of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and Candyce Reynolds and Judy Patton of Portland State University, respectively led sessions discussing aspects of their experience which, to me, fit the mold of players whose game is ahead of mine. Susan’s presentation took the broader view, narrating a tale of institutional failure and resurrection across departments and programs that she called “Translating Vision to Practice: A Program-Centered Model for ePortfolio.” More on that in a little while.  In a presentation entitled “Integrating Integrative Learning in the ePortfolio,” Candyce and Judy focused more narrowly on their work with freshmen in order to flesh out a very pragmatic understanding of “integrative learning,” a term which, for me at least, has always required some unpacking. Their presentation started with two key insights: first, that neither students nor faculty necessarily understand how to make integrative learning connections on their own; and second, that this quality is best understood as a “disposition,” a kind of posture or approach to learning which a student builds across curricular and co-curricular experiences, and which grows incrementally from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations. At Portland State, development of this disposition is initiated in a “Freshman Inquiry” class, and built upon institutionally agreed-upon learning outcomes, some of them internally driven and others drawn from the AAC&U VALUE framework.  With these guideposts in place (and of course, that in itself is a major accomplishment), the instructor’s work of designing portfolio projects, and the student’s work in completing them, follow a set of very sensible principles:

  • Assign developmentally appropriate projects
  • Build student input—with appropriate instructor guidance—into  choice of topic
  • Make the integrative nature of the project open and explicit
  • Include expectation of a presentation component
  • Make the assignment challenging but not so daunting that students are frustrated
  • Include a reflective or self-assessment element
  • Focus on process as much as product

These principles are themselves dependent on a deeper pedagogical premise: that consciously connecting assigned work both to discipline-based learning and to lived experience, and combining such work with reflective self-assessment over time, will enable integrative learning, or the successful transfer of skills, abilities, knowledge, or methodologies from one context to another. When freshmen at Portland State are asked to rephrase stated learning outcomes in their own words and to connect this thinking to their choice of ePortfolio artifacts, we can see the embryonic outlines of integrative learning. Examples of Portland State ePortfolios can be found here.

Susan Kahn’s presentation focused less on classroom practice than on institutional planning and faculty development. Her narrative began in 2004, when IUPUI’s first ePortfolio initiative crashed and burned. The program had been based on staged Gen Ed competencies and housed in themed freshmen learning communities. What went wrong? From the faculty perspective, the initiative was perceived as a top-down administrative fiat and a series of work add-ons. From an implementation perspective, the software (home-grown) was buggy and inadequate and, perhaps most critically, portfolio pedagogy and assessment were poorly understood. Susan’s conclusion struck me as a kind of thematic undercurrent, which I heard again and again during the conference: IUPUI’s 2004 project reflected a general failure to grasp the extent to which ePortfolios represent a radical and disruptive conceptual shift in how we understand teaching and learning. It’s a lesson all of us need to heed.

Susan then described IUPUI’s current and considerably more successful strategy. Academic units (departments, schools, or programs) apply for development grants. Their ePortfolio projects reflect fairly specific unit-based needs. They need not, for example, be formally linked to IUPUI’s “Principles of Undergraduate Learning” (one can imagine this alone alleviating “top-down” concerns). Projects pursue a two-year development cycle, with the first year devoted to unit-wide curricular and pedagogical preparation. The program provides intensive guidance and support, and faculty are encouraged to contribute to ongoing development of the Sakai software platform. The new strategy has yielded good results, in part owing to smart, strategic decisions about the initial choice of participants. Externally accredited, “assessment-friendly” programs have provided good models. About 20 such programs—undergraduate, graduate, and co-curricular—have been engaged to date.

Concluding her presentation, Susan identified three “success factors” in IUPUI’s redesigned ePortfolio program: buy-in from a critical mass of faculty or staff in a participating academic unit; careful but not obsessive planning; and true curricular integration (as opposed to tacked-on additional work). Doubtless these results flow from the practical strategies she had described. Faculty buy-in, perhaps the most important of all, never “just happens.”  

There was a lot to learn in these presentations, as there was throughout the AAEEBL conference. I don’t play racquetball anymore—as a friend of mine says when describing his exercise habits past a certain age, he prefers to move straight ahead—but there are still things to learn from players who know a little more about the game than you do.

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