The Program in Writing and Rhetoric offered its first Notation in Science Communication ePortfolio course in Spring 2014. As PWR’s Academic Technology Specialist, I co-instructed the course and in the process learned a great deal about ePortfolio pedagogy and the technology that underlies these all-digital platforms.
Studies on metacognition, or knowing about knowing, and scholarship in self-regulated learning, suggest that self-reflection plays an important role in academic achievement and performance. Students, however, are often too busy to spend time reflecting on what they’ve learned, let alone their own learning process. One way to encourage reflection and metacognition is through the development of an ePortfolio., An ePortfolio, when combined with strategic self-reflection, becomes a powerful pedagogical tool that extends the ePortfolio far beyond a visual resume.
ePortfolio scholars refer to the materials students collect in ePortfolios as “artifacts” and “evidence.” Artifacts can be research papers, videos, photos, PowerPoint presentations, or any other form of digital media. Written reflections in ePortfolios require critical thinking about what artifacts mean, what expertise was gained from creating those artifacts, and how the artifacts are connected. Asking students to collect artifacts from a class or classes, extracurricular activities, and work experiences and write reflections on those items helps them to think in a focused way about their learning and learning achievements.
Artifacts in combination with written reflections form “evidence.” The term evidence suggests that artifacts and reflections collectively make an argument. The argument put forward by the ePortfolio depends on the audience—teachers, employers, graduate school admission committees—and the purpose, usually to demonstrate acquired knowledge and expertise.
An ePortfolio is like an athlete’s highlight reel: it shows the athlete's best work, as opposed to a scorecard that simply represents it. In addition, the ePortfolio includes the student’s written commentary, providing insight into their work and thinking.
Curating artifacts and reflections into the evidence of achievement that forms an ePortfolio requires deep rhetorical self-reflection, engagement, and consideration of visual communication skills. A student must consider the argument she is trying to make, the expectations of the audience that will be viewing the ePortfolio, and the collective and individual meaning of her artifacts and reflections. She must decide how the design, appearance, and order of those artifacts will shape their meaning. She also has to decide whether to show only her best work or to represent the arc of her learning over time. These difficult curation and design decisions move the ePortfolio from an archive of student work to a learning tool.
Students can create multiple versions of their ePortfolio for various audiences and purposes with relative ease. This is important because what an instructor wants to see in an ePortfolio and what a graduate school admissions committee or potential employer will want to see in an ePortfolio could be different. Creating versions is also pedagogical opportunity.
In our Notation in Science Communication (NSC) course, we asked students to create three different ePortfolios. The first contained introductory self-reflections, the second combined written reflections with personal artifacts, and the third contained curated evidence of artifacts and reflections to demonstrate their expertise in science communication. These versions allowed students to familiarize themselves with the platform, write low-stakes reflections, and experiment with artifacts before creating their primary Notation in Science Communication ePortfolio that would show their expertise in science communication.
There are many ePortfolio tools with varying features that emphasize different learning outcomes. Some tools offer more customization, while others offer more standardization. Most commercial platforms have assessment and grading functions.
Two commercial platforms currently being explored by the Office of the Registrar at Stanford are Pathbrite and Digication. There are also a number of open-source platforms, tools connected to Learning Management Systems, and a variety of free services like WordPress and Google Sites that offer the ability to create websites that have ePortfolio-like features and functionalities.
Departments considering ePortfolios must weigh the rhetorical implications of using a commercial platform, an open source platform, or a “free” tool like WordPress or Google Sites. Some writing program administrators argue that the choice of platform should be yet another rhetorical decision made by each student and that each student should figure out how to build their own ePortfolio(s); practically, however, that may be unfeasible for departments and instructors who need consistency or desire uniform assessment tools. Departments must also consider technical concerns around scalability, security, and privacy.
In our case, we piloted Pathbrite, one of the platforms being explored by the Registrar’s Office, for our Spring 2014 NSC course, in part because we needed the structure a preconfigured ePortfolio application provides for consistency between students. We also liked the user interface design of Pathbrite, which is as intuitive and as sleek as the common digital platforms that students are familiar with outside the classroom.
If you are interested in using ePortfolios as a pedagogical tool, you must overcome a few learning curves for success. You must grasp the technical details of the platform because those often small details affect the usability and functionality of the platform. You should carefully consider how to integrate metacognitive learning and written reflections into assignments to make them the most meaningful to students. Finally, you should be comfortable evaluating and discussing visual and multimodal artifacts.
As PWR moves toward our second NSC course in Fall 2014, we will be taking a close look back at our pilot course to see how we can improve. We were happy with the Pathbrite platform, but we had our fair share of technical challenges, mostly related to our unfamiliarity with the tool. We’ll be correcting those problems this fall, and, hopefully, Pathbrite will integrate some of our usability suggestions over the summer. We also have a better sense of how written reflections provide critical context and meaning to the ePortfolio as a whole and the individual artifacts; as a result, we’ll be focused on making sure students are telling their most compelling story with those reflections.
What's your experience with ePortfolios? What questions do you have? Please comment below.
Megan O’Connor is the Academic Technology Specialist for Stanford Introductory Studies.
 Light, Tracy Penny, Helen L. Chen, and John C. Ittelson. Documenting learning with ePortfolios: A guide for college instructors. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.