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WASHINGTON -- Electronic portfolios may help academic officers plug gaps in their programs, advisers guide students to a degree, and graduates find employment, but at a daylong conference on the increasingly popular tool, presenters urged their audiences not to get caught up in the hype.

The E-Portfolio Forum capped off the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting here last week. The event, now in its fifth year, has slowly gathered best practices from participating institutions -- especially in the four years since the launch of the AACU’s Roadmap Project, meant to assist programs tied to student outcomes. And as the idea of holistic evaluation has caught on, so have e-portfolios.

Add to that interest from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which last month confirmed it is exploring the e-portfolio market, and the tool looks poised to become a staple of undergraduate education. Yet as institutions on Saturday shared lessons learned from adding e-portfolios to courses and campuses, one pattern repeated itself: Investing in the tool for the sake of keeping up with the trend is a recipe for failure.

“This is extremely important: If you’re going to bring any type of pedagogy, any type of techniques into the classroom, you really need to integrate it as part of it,” said Omar Safie, interim academic assessment coordinator at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “If you don’t, it’s useless.”

Pitzer piloted e-portfolios in fall 2012, originally envisioning they would be used for a number of purposes across campus, Safie said. Students could reflect on their experiences at Pitzer, then take their portfolios with them once they entered the job market. Faculty and advisers could use e-portfolio data for assessment, and also to promote dialogue with their students.

“We very quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen,” Safie said. “We knew that we were asking too much.”

The revised plan simply called for Pitzer to identify where e-portfolios might make a useful impact. The pilot then recruited 13 faculty members to test the tool however they saw fit, but since some faculty members only tacked it on to existing courses, feedback was overwhelmingly negative. Both faculty members and students described the e-portfolio as “redundant busywork,” saying it had no impact on learning outcomes and recommending the tool not be used in future courses.

Safie used the results from Pitzer’s pilot to share some questions he said the college “thought of a little too late.”

“Why are you interested in using an e-portfolio? If you haven’t done it already, why?” Safie said. “If you’re only going to be using it to upload documents, there might be easier ways of doing it than creating e-portfolios. If you want to actually integrate all your learning and begin to see trends across ... departments, this might be a good way to go.”

Closing the Loop

Salt Lake Community College followed such a model, making use of e-portfolios a general education course requirement in 2010. Students there are required to submit at least one assignment from each core class and post a brief reflection, and after analyzing data from 100 randomly selected portfolios, an assessment team found several aspects of the core curriculum that needed to be strengthened.

The researchers had hoped to find examples of students manipulating data and using the data in writing assignments across a number of disciplines, but students on average completed only two such assignments -- since they are required to take two math courses. Of even more concern: less than one in every five students had uploaded four or more assignments that showed they knew how to cite scholarly sources.

“These are students who have graduated, and when less than 20 percent of students have considerable evidence ... in which they are adequately citing their sources, then we have some recommendations to do to our faculty development center and our programs,” said David Hubert, the community college’s e-portfolio director.

Assessment was not the primary goal of using e-portfolios, Hubert said, but he described the information gained from them as the best indicator of how students are actually experiencing the core curriculum. As a result, the e-portfolio office is now urging faculty members and administrators to address the shortcomings.

“One of the limitations is closing the loop,” Hubert said. “Gathering data and issuing a report and making recommendations is one thing, but if there’s no incentive for departments to act on it, then that’s a cautionary tale.”

How Holistic?

While participants at Saturday’s E-Portfolio Forum listed numerous uses for e-portfolios for students during their academic careers -- one speaker emphatically said they can make the “lived curriculum” visible -- they have yet to agree on if those benefits can extend beyond graduation.

Supporters of that idea point to research such as last year’s AACU report on employment priorities titled “It Takes More Than a Major,” which found that 83 percent of employers surveyed said seeing applicants’ portfolios would be a useful way of ensuring they have the required skills.

A similar employer focus group hosted last year by the University of Notre Dame found similar results, but with an important footnote: Job recruiters said they first and foremost wanted to search e-portfolios by graduation date and program of study. 

Colin Mathews, CEO of the software company readMedia, said those studies reveal the limit of e-portfolios in securing graduates jobs.

“Despite their value as an educational tool, there is absolutely no evidence of demand for e-portfolios by employers,” Mathews said in an email. “Where employers want a body of work for specific positions, other, better solutions exist, like Behance for artists and designers and GitHub or StackExchange for programmers.”

But if students never add anything to their portfolios after graduation, they can still serve as an important resource while job hunting, argued Christopher Sheehan, an instructional technology analyst at Arizona State University. Students could always make their academic portfolios private, creating a permanent repository of all the work they produced while in college.

“I’ve got two graduate degrees, and I couldn’t tell you where 70 percent the papers I wrote in college are,” he said. “In my mind, the use of e-portfolios becomes a focus that higher ed is pushing on students for researched-backed reasons, but that when they graduate, businesses’ reception of that? Somewhat limited.

"They’re still working on the model of, ‘Where’s your resume?’ The student who gets the job is the student in that interview who goes, ‘Here’s my resume, but let me show you my e-portfolio.’ He’s the smart kid who understands how to use that tool.”

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