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Essay on collaboration between faculty colleagues in creating an electronic post-tenure review

Old Dog, New Tricks
March 30, 2012

Picture this: It’s Sunday night and I’m sipping peppermint tea in my jammies next to a warm fire in my living room (I know: TMI, but bear with me), reading the annual review file of my younger colleague at Western Washington University. I read for a while, make a few notes, and smile at Paula’s exquisitely written statements explaining the intersections among her teaching, scholarship and service.

Then I click on a few links to see video, audio, photos and easy-to-access PDFs of student work, course evaluations and publications. Heck, reviewing an electronic portfolio is fun, compared to lugging crates of paper evidence around, wandering through it all, and returning it to a central location in a department office in time for someone else to review. I refill my teacup, settle back in, cheerily complete two more e-portfolio reviews from the comfort of my living room, and send all three sets of review comments electronically to my department chair.

The next day, I stop by the chair’s office to pick up the crate of paper annual review materials belonging to a fourth colleague. On the way to my office to complete the annual review for this excellent colleague, I’m thinking: What’s funny about this picture? Why am I not as excited about completing this review?

At the same time, I’m thinking: maybe I will switch from paper to electronic for my next 5-year review. But I’ll need a little help. Perhaps I’ll seek advice from Paula.

The Post-Tenure Review Process

At Western Washington University, we’re required to produce a post-tenure review portfolio every five years to document our teaching, scholarship and service. In our college of education, this requires providing evidence that we’ve met or exceeded the expectations listed in our unit plan for professional development. It’s similar to the documentation we provide for applying for tenure and promotion, and the review process is, too. The portfolio is reviewed by departmental peers, chair, and tenure and promotion committee; then it goes to the college dean and the university provost. A successful post-tenure review may result in a slight salary increase, so it’s reasonable to spend ample time building a strong case. It’s also reasonable to consider the mode of presentation – paper versus electronic.

This essay describes the process, challenges and outcomes of an electronic portfolio development partnership between a tenured faculty member (Karen, the old dog interested in learning more than “sit,” stay,” and roll over”) and a technologically savvy, not-yet-tenured faculty member (Paula, the young dog willing to share some new tricks).

The Transition

The more I thought about the prospect of developing a website for my next five-year review, the more excited I became. I’d worked with new technologies as a software designer for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in the 1980s, and formed a company in the 1990s (Multimedia Research) to assist groups like Children’s Television Workshop, Newton’s Apple, and the Discovery Channel interested in improving earlier technology products using television, educational software, and videodisc.

Creating an electronic portfolio would be a way to do what I’m always asking of my students – to continue embracing change.

I knew Paula had shared her portfolio template and supported my colleagues who’d just been reviewed, so I stopped by her office one day and inquired about tools and techniques. She immediately sat me down and set up several appointments for us in her busy schedule, since my review was just a few months away. Paula laid out the steps I needed to take before we met again. I was hooked. And I was determined to make my five-year review application accessible and functional for the reviewers.

Rationale for Choosing Electronic Versus Paper

According to Peter Seldin and J. Elizabeth Miller in their book, The Academic Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Documenting Teaching, Research, and Service (Jossey-Bass, 2008), most tenure and promotion guidelines now require candidates to create a more robust connection between what we produce and how it relates to our role in the academy. Although Seldin and Miller did not promote the value of creating electronic portfolios, we believe there are both academic and affective reasons for developing an electronic portfolio, including navigability and transporting a product for another use, and creating clear, compelling, interactive explanations that illustrate how production and role intersect.

Academic considerations include:

● Affordances of digital material (i.e., representing evidence in ways that make the most sense for the applicant, given the requirements of the unit plan)

● Ability to present material in its native form (e.g., posting videos, podcasts, and photos “live,” versus taking screenshots and inserting them into a paper portfolio; or, creating hyperlinks to websites containing articles, book reviews, or programs related to the work of the applicant)

● Transferability from year to year (i.e., building on the same website template from annual reviews to the application for tenure and promotion, to the post-tenure reviews)

● Alignment with current nonlinear modes of communication (i.e. using technologies we are used to seeing on a daily basis)

●  Transportability from electronic portfolio to other professional needs (e.g., developing and posting a PowerPoint or Pecha Kucha presentation that will be used in an upcoming conference or classroom presentation, collaborating on an essay for publication using file sharing tools SharePoint or Google Docs)

Affective considerations include:

● Sustainability (i.e., in terms of conserving both human and natural resources, especially with increasingly deeper budget cuts requiring campus employees to do more with less)

● Job satisfaction (i.e., pride and excitement in learning new skills that transfer both personally and professionally)

● Lifelong learning (e.g., embracing change, taking risks, believing in the power of learning through the lifespan)

● Group membership (e.g., appreciating how technology can help us personally and professionally, participating directly in discussions and decisions about technology, and knowing and using technology terms and jargon)

In addition to the positive affective and academic considerations, we faced some challenges co-creating an electronic portfolio.

Challenges in Creating an Electronic Portfolio

From the perspective of the applicant, shifting from a paper to an electronic portfolio brings increased conceptual and construction challenges, including:

● Thinking differently (i.e., though Apple spokespersons make it sound relatively easy to “think different,” creating nonlinear paths within an electronic environment requires being keenly aware of what it means to lead reviewers -- many of whom are novice explorers --  through the materials)

● Utilizing new literacies (i.e., generating and communicating meaningful content with new tools)

● Attending to aesthetics (e.g., choosing a relatively neutral website theme, utilizing color and images to project professionalism and appeal to reviewers, determining how little or how much personal flair to include in the displays)

● Choosing media (i.e., determining how information is best presented through video, audio, animation, image, text, or hypertext)

● Addressing the bells and whistles dilemma (i.e., recognizing that while it’s fun to create a flashy display, an applicant must know whether the flash adds value and supports the evidence)

● Considering time (e.g., allowing time to make the affective and academic shift from paper to electronic presentation, learning technical knowledge including and beyond web development, scheduling time for critical friends to review and provide feedback on drafts of the website)

● Honoring each other (i.e., recognizing that the technology coach also feels responsible for the final portfolio, and considering their schedules and other responsibilities)

To address these challenges, blocks of time should be set aside for considering and completing the portfolio. A proposed set of meetings between the canines (you know, the old and young dogs) might go something like this.

Before the First Work Session

An applicant should complete significant upfront work to make a series of informed decisions:

1. Review the departmental and/or college plan requirements

2. Consider the purpose and audience of the portfolio (e.g., do you have supportive, forward-thinking peers who will welcome the chance to review your materials electronically?)

3. Reflect on the match between your content and presentation modes (i.e., how can the applicant harness the power of technology to present the required elements?)

4. Review various websites and/or electronic portfolios, paying particular attention to color, fonts, navigation, and general page layout

5. Consider the amount of time until the portfolio is due

6. Decide if an electronic portfolio could best represent your accomplishments

At this point, it’s important to make an informed decision about whether to shift into the electronic world or continue lugging a sled of paper materials up the trail. If you’re excited about the affective and academic considerations for using technology in the review process and committed to recognizing and addressing the challenges we’ve identified, go ahead -- hitch your project up to the technology sled and shout, “Mush!” 

Once you’re on the trail, there’s more to moving ahead than just sitting in the basket of the sled and having your technology coach stand on the runners.

Here are some suggestions for working as a team to head toward the finish line.

The First Few Work Sessions

Together, consider the next steps:

1. Discuss layout and navigation

2. Set up the structure of the site and create a shell for content

3. Learn to add content, including images and attachments

4. Learn to modify font color and style, including hyperlinks

5. Talk about how you will set up a timeline and negotiate schedules

Once the shell is created, the applicant is ready for significant individual work required to gather and prepare evidence (e.g., locate and scan paper documents that will be displayed in PDF format, choose images/video, create charts and graphs, and consider an appropriate presentation style for written narratives).

As the applicant adds content to the website, inevitably questions will arise. For example, an applicant might need help deciding where to start, reminders about how to add files, images, and hyperlinks, or how to modify tables, add borders, or change font color. Even more significant, because of all of these choices, the applicant may struggle to decide how to represent content.

In the Following Weeks

Continue to collaborate and problem solve as the portfolio takes shape. Suggestions for efficient and helpful communication between the old dog and technology expert include:

● If working in a wiki, like Google Sites, notes can be left in the site and then deleted later

● E-mail also affords effective communication (as does using Google Docs for creating content and seeking feedback from friendly reviewers and technology supporters)

●  An “in person” meeting can be advantageous

●  If the learner is confident perhaps a screen shot or video can be captured, using something as simple as Jing, a video capture and sharing program

At this point, the expert may need to manage frustration or anxiety. Inevitably something won’t work quite right. And without knowing how to troubleshoot or how to work around the problem, frustration and anxiety may easily arise.

Finally, test, test, test. The portfolio links should be tested on various browsers (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer), on various platforms (Mac and PC), and on a few mobile devices.

This is the time to remind the applicant to seek out friendly reviewers (perhaps faculty from other departments or colleges who understand the review process) and technology supporters (partners, relatives, friends who want the applicant to succeed) who will try out parts of the evolving website. These are the people who can ask pointed questions the young dog technology coach should not have to ask (e.g., do you really want that banner showing your garden produce, or would a more scholarly banner be more appropriate? I like the little photos you’ve included to show your students in action -- did you notice the streaker running past on the square when you had your class outside?).  

In addition to the technical challenges of creating an electronic portfolio, a number of concerns may surface.

Concerns

It is said that “the lead dog has the best view” (Baker), but the view often comes with questions and doubts about whether the right path has been chosen, whether the task is within reach, and whether the crowd at the finish line is going to be cheering or jeering. 

○ Right path. Given the range of challenges we’ve outlined, it’s reasonable to question the decision to create an electronic portfolio. As with most types of change, moving from paper to electronic brings feelings of angst and disequilibrium on top of what is already a stressful experience.

○ Route. There may be concern that the technology learning curve will hinder your ability to present content well. For instance, without constant technical support, do you know enough to determine if your site functions appropriately? If you’re using a model where files need to be uploaded to a remote server from a local site, do you know enough to understand that while your website may load locally (off your computer), it may not load remotely? Do you know enough to work independently? Should you work on your content alone in a format you’re familiar with (like Microsoft Word) and then schedule time to meet with the technology expert to load it onto your site?

○ Finish line. Aside from concerns about technology, this is a high-stakes review. When taking a risk by doing something new, reviewers may not necessarily respond well (the ol’ "This is the way we’ve always done it" response). Moreover, after turning in a portfolio, there is often an awkward silence while the reviewers examine your materials. Because you’ve done something new, you may experience this silence in a different way, perhaps questioning your decision to take a risk.

The previous section of this article has illustrated a rather demanding process of creating an electronic portfolio, one filled with mountains and valleys of challenges and concerns.

Why, then, if creating an electronic portfolio for the first time is so challenging would one choose this route?

Clearly it isn’t just so reviewers can sit in their jammies and drink tea from the comfort of their recliners while reviewing your materials. Surely you aren’t that benevolent.

Outcomes

Old Dog

In making this voluntary decision, an applicant first and foremost creates a portfolio that represents one’s work well using today’s technologies. As the Eastman Kodak Company has learned over the years between their innovative approach to photography and their impending bankruptcy, the failure to reinvent ourselves in the digital age can be costly.

Beyond this, an applicant develops a sense of capability in mastering new technology tools, new ways of presenting information, and new lingo, all of which may springboard to new projects.

With a host of new skills, faculty may think about, and use, these new skills in their work as a professor, such as incorporating blogs and wikis to bring students’ discussions and projects to life in classes, and generating enthusiasm for creating a student-produced video featuring what it’s like to be a teacher education student at our university. Indeed, an applicant feels a sense of pride in owning new skills, in presenting a product in a new way, and in paying it forward and helping others make the leap.

As Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1990) states, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (p. 3).

Young Dog

So what’s in it for the young dog? While the young dog likely derives some sense of satisfaction in simply helping others, she also learns from this process. Not only does she learn about her colleagues’ work, an applicant will often encounter a question the young dog can’t answer immediately. The need for problem-solving leads to a search for a solution, critical thinking, and often creativity in devising a new way of doing something. And sometimes it’s an interesting distraction from her own work.

Mostly, though, the young dog wants to empower other dogs to embrace new technologies and experience pride in the process and the product.

Conclusion and New Questions

As more of our colleagues put their review materials in an online format, many old dogs are showing preference toward electronic over paper portfolios (even those who have not yet made the shift). In fact, some senior faculty can be heard  forming opinions about whose portfolio is structured the best and what type of content presentation is preferred. Some reviewers have even observed that they pay more careful attention to electronic portfolios than paper portfolios.

Ultimately, this shift in medium brings further questions from various perspectives: applicants, technology coaches, and reviewers, both within and outside of the department.

1. What helps a person take the first steps toward creating an electronic portfolio, and why?

2. How should a coach help a candidate get started, continue being motivated and feeling confident, and keep at it?

3. What is the best platform for presenting a portfolio?

4. Should the content of a portfolio entail more visual evidence? How should candidates think about a match between their own preferences and those of the coach and reviewers?

5. Whose responsibility is it, to mentor applicants through the process? In what capacity should the coach be expected to help -- from developing and teaching candidates how to use the template, encouraging their considering how to display their evidence in alignment with the unit plan, helping them decide how to put their personal slant on the product.

6. Will paper portfolios be reviewed less favorably than electronic portfolios, or even allowed?

7. Should the structures of the portfolios be uniform across candidates? Across a college?

8. How can an organization build on the current success of electronic portfolios to nurture more faculty to create electronic displays?

Historically, new technologies are adopted by people who become convinced that a better outcome is possible by doing something in a new way, and worth the effort to learn it.

In this case, because our colleagues complete annual reviews, tenure and promotion reviews, and five-year reviews, the investment of time and learning is not short-lived.

As technology evolves and corresponding expectations about information display change, the act of engaging with new technologies must be shared by the entire team, where everyone -- not just the lead dog -- gets the view. Otherwise, like Eastman-Kodak Company, all we may have left is our intellectual property.

Bio

Paula Dagnon is an assistant professor of education at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Wash. Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington.

 

 

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