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Is an electronic tenure portfolio right for you? (essay)

Digital Makeover in Your Future?

June 22, 2012

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, suggested some rules that tend to predict our responses to technology at different times in our lives. Things in the world when we’re born seem ordinary, things invented when we’re between 15 and 35 seem new and exciting, and things invented after we’re 35 seem unusual, against the grain. Scary, even.

Given that the vast majority of university professors were either between 15 and 35 or over 35 when computer science innovations, such as Google, Amazon, PayPal, Napster, iPads and BlackBerrys, gained traction, it follows that there are personal variations in how we use technology tools to manage and present information related to our students and ourselves. After all, we use the tools with which we feel familiar and confident, especially when stakes are high such as in performance reviews of our teaching, service, and scholarship.

In our first two essays on digital portfolios for faculty reviews -- "Old Dog, New Tricks" and "Serious Fun"-- we promoted two main themes:

  • The process of creating a digital portfolio requires considerations on both academic and affective levels and brings conceptual and construction challenges that differ from the traditional paper review portfolio, and
  • The product, a digital visual story, may present convincing evidence in more robust and meaningful ways than the traditional paper-based review portfolio.     

In this essay, we further explore strategies for deciding whether to create a digital faculty review portfolio and decide whether to “go digital” or not.

Things That Plug in, and Things That Don’t

As we’ve noted previously, new technologies tend to be adopted by people who become convinced that a better outcome is possible by doing something in a new way and that the outcome is worth the effort to learn how to use the technology.

This has always held true for educators, especially as technologies have been introduced in the past 30 years or so.

In the 1980s teachers used instructional software on Apple II computers, such as Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, and Number Munchers, to engage middle-school students in social studies and math, and later in that decade used videodisc technology, where students experienced simulated legal cases or anchored instruction such as solving mathematics problems in the Jasper-Woodbury series. 

In addition to using technology for problem-based learning, advances in technology have provided access to information presentation tools. The ‘90s brought a shift from overhead transparencies to PowerPoint slides for presenting information in the classroom, which spawned the development of tools like Prezi to catch the attention of learners in dynamic ways.

Today’s teachers use games, mobile devices and Web 2.0 as classroom teaching tools. We are increasingly adopting personal productivity tools, as well, to maintain, manage and share information and to document outcomes. We use digital course management systems like Blackboard and Canvas to maintain, manage, and share information with our students. Researchers and writers use digital academic writing tools like MindManager, TextExpander, and PASW Statistics, for planning research and analyzing data, and personal productivity tools such as iDoneThis.

Given our increasing comfort with electronic tools for managing and presenting information as teachers, we think it antithetical to our views on teaching, technology, and learning to continue to produce paper versions of evidence of our progress as teachers, servers and scholars. 

Is a Digital Portfolio in My Future?

While, as Douglas Adams notes about technology, it may seem to go against the natural order of things for some faculty members to make the switch from paper to electronic portfolio, we believe it’s wise to consider the advantages of investing time and learning to do so. 

University faculty routinely complete annual reviews, tenure reviews, promotion reviews, and post-tenure reviews, providing multiple opportunities to put forward evidence of teaching, scholarship, and service. If you build on the evidence you collect and display from year to year, the milestone reviews for tenure and rank will be indicative not only of what you do, but also of how you choose to share it with reviewers. Over a typical lifespan in academe, these opportunities can either remain static or change as technology tools become available.

How will you decide if a digital portfolio could be an asset in your academic life?

(1)     Ask around. By now, you know at least a few colleagues who have ventured into the electronic portfolio territory. Perhaps someone in your department has created a tenure and promotion review or post-review portfolio. Maybe some colleagues are experimenting with submitting annual reviews electronically. Check out their experience over coffee some day: what influenced them to make the shift from paper? What piqued their interest in using technology for this purpose? What was the response of their reviewers? And hey, if you don’t know anyone with a digital review portfolio, ask us for our examples. We can’t take you to coffee, but we can share links to what we’ve learned.

(2)     Inquire within. Check with your program chair about the wisdom of making a shift to digital display of your information. S/he may have a wider view of the question, having reviewed various portfolio styles prepared for different purposes. Ask members of your college tenure and promotion committee about their responses to reviewing digital information to get a feel for the perceived worth of using technology tools for this purpose. 

(3)     Take a user to lunch. Once you know who’s been dabbling in using digital portfolio formats on your campus, ask colleagues if you could see their work. If their latest review was positive, they may appreciate a chance to show it off! If not, well, keep asking other folks. Given the range of tools and templates available for creating simple websites to display information, this step can help you envision how you might showcase your evidence digitally using various tools to display information. Ask them what made the process easier for them, and what they’d do differently in hindsight. Ask them about the pitfalls. What problems did they run into? What should they be aware of?

(4)     Imagine your evidence in a digital environment. If you’re required to submit an annual review, explore some templates for digital presentation of your information. Ask your technology support unit for a product recommendation (e.g., Google Sites, WordPress, and Weebly). Then spend a few summer hours sitting on your deck and considering whether the evidence of your teaching, service and scholarship could be more effectively presented in a dynamic digital environment. Ask yourself: Would a digital story help me represent my evidence in robust, organized, meaningful ways, given the requirements for my next review? Could I build on my evidence from year to year, as I move toward my next review? Who could I ask for guidance, and how could I help them in return?

(5)     Consider your tolerance for growth. Making any shift from paper to digital presents opportunities not only to produce what we think can be a better product, but opportunities to practice our responses to ambiguity, frustration, and disequilibrium. Are you motivated to work through challenging experiences, adept at experiencing setbacks, and willing to keep learning? If you believe in the value of an eventual outcome, this could be the opportunity you’ve needed to enhance your technology skills.

Taken together, these five types of activity will help you learn more about yourself, your department, and your college. Once you reach this vantage point, we think you will be able to make the best choice for showcasing your evidence as a teacher, server, and scholar.

In Conclusion

In her essay “Mid-Career Mentoring,” Kerry Ann Rockquemore notes that while early-career faculty typically focus their energy, attention, and behavior on winning tenure, mid-career faculty “can choose to expend their energy in a variety of different directions. These include moving directly toward full professor, becoming a public intellectual, focusing on institutional change, developing the skills and experience for higher-level administrative positions, investing in more ambitious intellectual projects, applying their research to consulting or product development, becoming a master teacher, etc.” 

That is, dogs of any age can decide to learn new tricks, if we notice there’s reason and reward.

Or we can keep entertaining others and ourselves with the tricks we learned as pups.

Where do you want to be on the spectrum?

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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