Students in class

ePortfolio Assessments to Deepen Learning

Credit: Thanks to:
College of General Studies
Educational Technology 

In 2009, the College of General Studies began using Digication ePortfolios for all students, redefining and deepening how both students and faculty understood the impact of the program’s learning experience.

CGS Pioneers BU’s Use of Digication and ePortfolios

Nearly a decade ago Boston University’s College of General Studies realized the need for a better way to make students’ progress tangible. Some universities use exams like the Collegiate Learning Assessment Exam or the AACP exam, but these standardized tests do not necessarily reflect BU’s objectives. Explained Natalie McKnight, Dean of CGS and professor of rhetoric, “Who wrote the exam? How closely does it mirror what they did in classes? Does it really mean that they’ve developed any skills?”

CGS’s solution to this problem began in 2008, when Linda Wells, former Dean of CGS, formed an assessment committee to study the problem. The committee identified ePortfolios would be an effective medium for reflecting students’ progress, and Digication as the right platform to use. An ePortfolio is a Website that the student builds to post work and reflections from their courses, as a way to portray their learning experience and make their learning visible.

CGS ultimately secured two grants from the Davis Foundation, enabling the funding of stipends for faculty to learn about ePortfolios and Digication, and to establish an ongoing assessment committee. These grants, along with support from the Educational Technology team, were essential in launching what has become a hugely successful effort.

Bringing Digication into the CGS Community

CGS decided to require that all students maintain an ePortfolio throughout their freshman and sophomore years, uploading projects and assignments from every class they take. “Some students love doing it and some students don’t like doing it. Some students truly see it as one more thing they have to do,” noted Dean McKnight. “Some students really just dive right in.”

John Regan, senior lecturer of rhetoric at CGS and a key member of the effort, noted that the adoption of the ePortfolio approach was a top-down decision at CGS, so it was important to ensure autonomy for instructors. “We never told faculty how they should teach,” he explained. “They are the teachers, they make the calls.” For some faculty, just having students post one major project was sufficient. Others embraced the platform enthusiastically and used it heavily in their courses.”

The ePortfolio approach is being used in other parts of the university, and  inspired similar efforts across the university. “I do hear from faculty that they’re concerned that it might be big time commitment,” said Gillian Pierce, Director of Learning Assessment for BU. “It looks like a new technology, and they’re not sure they’re ready. I do tell them that they should take some time to learn about it, that they should come to the ePortfolio user group meetings, that they should look at some of the other ePortfolios that we have in our Digication gallery.” She stresses the importance of investigating the program. “It’s not something that faculty should do if they’re not comfortable with it. It’s really one of many possible assessment tools.”

“Some involved in leadership of national groups positioned [Digication] as some panacea that will cure all learning ills,” Regan noted. “It does a few things well, and is not useful for a number of other things.” He speaks to its success in a number of cases, but does not claim that ePortfolios are the best tools for every person or every circumstance.

Multiple Uses 

Dean McKnight pointed to the ePortfolio of former BU student Salma Yehia as an example of a successful outcome. Yehia received a grant to maintain an ePortfolio throughout her four years at the university. Her ePortfolio demonstrated not only her academic prowess and extensive participation in extracurricular activities, but, as Regan pointed out, also provided an example of what BU has to offer. When Yehia gave a presentation about her ePortfolio at BU, Regan said, “The CEO of Digication offered her a job on the spot.”

Regan noted that another student said that [Digication] gave her “a better sense of her true learning than any test or quiz could.” He also explained that ePortfolios can be used throughout a students’ career. For instance, nursing candidates can upload videos of interactions with patients. Job candidates can prove their strength in speaking foreign languages by uploading audio or video clips. According to Regan, one CGS student received 40 job offers after sending their ePortfolio link to prospective employers.

Dean McKnight praised how Digication helps students capture diverse content, such as multimedia items from extracurricular activities, internships, and study abroad programs.

CGS students are required to document their experience of the CGS London Program, which occurs during the freshman year. Using Digication helps students to unite the experiential learning, research and classroom discussions they experience while abroad. Some students found that reflecting in this way was an important part of how the study abroad experience shifted their world view.

This is an important goal of higher education, said McKnight. That’s what we’re in this business for,” she said, “to get people to see their world differently. Before ePortfolio, we had no record of that.”

BU is A Leading Digication user

BU has been a leader in the national growth of ePortfolios, and in particular as a user of Digication. Colleges and universities across the country have consulted with BU about adopting Digication, and it is in use in other programs across BU, including the CAS Writing Program, the School of Dental Medicine, the School of Public Health, the Kilachand Honors College, the School of Education and the College of Fine Arts.

Digication will soon release an update to the software that will improve the users experience. The original version required users to hit “add,” “edit,” “save,” and “publish” buttons, but now everything will be autosaved as it is uploaded. In addition, the overall look of the program will be more attractive and modern. John Regan is particularly excited about the new drag and drop features, which will be far easier to navigate than the original system.

Regan explained that the CGS team is moving their assessment into Phase 2, both with the developments in Digication and with research on the effects of CGS’ Digication effort. The assessment committee has done a four-year longitudinal study of a significant sample of ePortfolios. They are analyzing the ePortfolios on the basis of seven pre-established learning outcomes.

Positive Outcomes Evident

McKnight attested that she can now demonstrate student learning using real examples, whether she is speaking to prospective students in Boston or presenting her work to her peers around the world. “It has made us so much more conscious about pedagogy,” she said. Before the adoption of Digication CGS, she noted, assessment was primarily “gauging teaching by student evaluations and peer review. “A lot of that is about performance,” she said. “Do students like you? Do they get good grades? But none of that really is gauging learning.” She believes that CGS students “appreciate their learning more” and are “able to articulate what they’ve learned.”