Rutgers University – An Open Loop: Scaling up and Scaling Down

Current Status of Our Project

Due to problems with our platform, we are not asking students to use the ePortfolio in the first year course this year. However, we are still asking them to use the essential structure of the current platform, which provides students with space to upload artifacts, prompts them to reflect on coursework and campus experience and to integrate those reflections with personal and career goals. Many of our students cite the women’s residential college community as a source of personal meaning. The ePortfolio continues to provide a vital space for students to express the multi-layered qualities of their intellectual lives and values.

Figure 1 Amber K.

Figure 1 Amber K.

2013-2014: we are revising our first year course at Douglass and for the moment piloting a separate ePortfolio workshop, “On-line Presence, ePortfolios, and Professional Development.” Due to problems with our ePortfolio platform, the workshop includes an introduction to other ePortfolio free hosting sites (which the students then select). We are still asking them to use the essential structure of the current platform, which provides students with space to upload artifacts, prompts them to reflect on coursework and campus experience and to integrate those reflections with personal and career goals.

2012-13: the ePortfolio project at Douglass Residential College for women at Rutgers University is in its fifth year. With over 1800 currently enrolled students, we require each student to begin creating an ePortfolio in our first year mission course. The focus is two-fold: to enhance student learning by enabling students to insert their identities and histories into the academic setting as learners; and 2) to eventually create an ePortfolio that showcases their achievements for employment/appplication purposes. We also ask advisors to review student ePortfolios. The structure of the ePortfolio enables advisors to talk to students about making connections across academic and cocurricular experience. Our advising practice and ePortfolio program stress integrative experience and connection across multiple learning sites We also require sophomores and upper class students in any one of our learning communities (the Global Village) to enter reflections in the ePortfolio.

Over 1100 students have made their ePortfolios public within the Sakai site, and many others have shared the ePortfolios privately with instructors in the first year course. With each year, more students become knowledgeable and our peer advising and peer mentoring programs require students to understand the technology and assist new students in the course and in the residence halls. Therefore, our “scaling up” process may represent an “inversion” of other institutions’ projects. We have involved students as the primary stakeholders; indeed, professional advisors and first-year course instructors are corollaries. Instructors (often graduate students) may not ever use the ePortfolio outside of our first year course. However, they gain experience in eportfolio pedagogy and technology and may take that to other institutions who have, or who develop, ePortfolio programs.

Developmental History

Prompting a growing population of student interactions with the ePortfolio technology has probably done the most to advance the ePortfolio on our campus. We also encourage ePortfolio use by requiring ePortfolios for application to a few key programs: these include not only the selective peer advising and mentoring programs already mentioned, but the Alumnae office externship program (students shadow alumnae in a variety of career sites), and we require ePortfolios when students apply for scholarships. We understand students’ reluctance to work on the ePortfolio after the first year course (because ePortfolios require thought and time!). Therefore, we insert the ePortfolio into other activities. I also require transfer students to use the ePortfolio in a one-credit transfer student course which I teach in the fall. We also hold a contest every other year, allowing us to collect a number of ePortfolios with student reflections on work in a variety of settings.

The ePortfolio program initially enabled the Residential College, a byproduct of reorganization at Rutgers, to provide an innovative program that set the women’s residential college apart from other units. Initially, we intended to provide a digital repository and showcase for career development: we thought we could ”sell” the use of the ePortfolios to students as a career showcase tool and/or a way to prepare for graduate school applications, personal statements, job interviews, cover letters, etc. However, while developing the structure of the ePortfolio on Sakai, we began to expand our understanding of the ePortfolios potential to capture student experience and enable students to bring their history and their knowledge to the academic setting. We realized that the ePortfolio could potentially frame our advising and program goals: that is, it easily provided a space to encourage students to pursue integrative academic pathways that very intentionally incorporated both classroom and non-classroom work. We were also cognizant of women students’ formation of identity, and once we had a number of student examples, we could see ways in which the ePortfolio reflected women’s self-representations and self-awareness, especially as they took a first year course that critically examined women’s identities, sense of agency, and potential for leadership.

At this juncture, I began to see the ePortfolio as a learning tool connected to advisement. I already viewed advisement as a platform for helping students understand the curriculum and to identify cocurricular programs that would deepen student learning both inside and outside of the classroom. In addition, I understood women students’ development in terms of shifting conflicts between cultural expectations about female identity in relation to the students’ personal desire for achievement. A number of the first year student ePortfolios bear out this tension, while more advanced students are more secure about representing their academic goals and ambitions. Many students use the ePortfolio to articulate ways in which they want to have an impact on their communities or the world around them. They envision their goals in connection to compelling narratives about social change. See below:

My life experiences have molded me into the individual I am today. While growing up in Nigeria, I saw first hand the effects of cancer, HIV AIDS, and numerous infectious diseases on the lives of people, especially women . . . Migrating to the United States, I have been able to learn more about these different diseases, and its effect on so many people around the world. In high school I decided to start volunteering at locations that assisted low-income women. I volunteered at Howard University Hospital at the Cancer Center for Women in Washington, DC . . . This volunteer experience motivated me to want to pursue a career in Public Health and Biological Science with the purpose of assisting people of low-income background. This semester I decided to take a course International Public Health to try to learn more about the global health systems of low-income countries. I was given the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua for the International Public Health course. During the trip, in groups we taught children of different orphanages in Nicaragua about nutrition, hygiene, and dental care. This trip gave me the opportunity to see how public health was improving the quality of life for people and I want to see these types of programs in my country.

Key decisions included the incorporation of a page within the Douglass ePortfolio devoted to the student’s academic path (specifically prompting students to connect and articulate multiple learning experiences). At that point we also decided to incorporate the ePortfolio as an assignment in the first year course, thereby linking the “career showcase” tool to a developmental learning space through which the students give voice to their histories, passions, and goals. A non-traditional aged student writes about her major in Landscape Architecture:

Landscape Architecture is something everyone has experienced, but few can give a name to. Of the millions of visitors who come to Central Park every year a small fraction of a percent recognize that it is a completely man-made environment. Every graceful hill, every tree, nearly every flower was thoughtfully and deliberately placed by the team of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. The park’s six natural looking water features are man-made. The bridle paths, walking paths and roadways have all been carefully thought out and placed, and most of this construction was done before men ever thought about building today’s massive construction equipment! Central Park’s carbon footprint consists of the methane given off by the mule and oxen teams used to create its sensuous curves and ripples . . . How does this space inspire lives?

A new transfer student writes about her Afghan identity (below). Such histories give students permission to bring their life stories to the large and often impersonal university setting. They also allow students to give voice to a form of knowledge and insights that will inevitably shape their engagement with academic disciplines.

Ever since I learned the difference between my first two learned languages, Dari and English, I have felt a pressure to represent and contrast both. Influenced by my everyday surroundings, I battle to maintain my Dari while English is my preferred tongue. It is more than just language that I fight to preserve, it is a matter of identity and values that I need to uphold for the sake of my unfamiliar ancestors and unknown grandchildren . . .

I was a junior in high school that I had to be reminded of who I was, not who I wanted to pretend to be. I was a Muslim Afghan-American. After all, I was growing up in a post-9-11 world, so when I would tell someone my nationality I would say: I am Afghan-American . . . Being an American is easy for me. I can go outside alone, eat fast food, drive a car, vote, receive an education or get job all because as an American, I am free to. It was as an Afghan, and an Afghan girl at that, which I had to wear long sleeves and pants, not allowed having sleepovers with non-family members’ houses or have boyfriends. As I grew older my cultures clashed and in the end they interlocked in a compromise. With help from my older siblings I understood my limits as an Afghan but also the freedoms of an American that I was entitled to. My layers gave me discipline, diversity and perspective that not many of my non-Afghan or Muslim friends had.

Connections to Core Strategies

1. Engaging Students: students are introduced to the ePortfolio during a summer orientation, and again in the first year course, and later in the learning communities and application for leadership programs or scholarships. While the Sakai platform has presented challenges, students are attracted to a program that can house multi-media representations of their experience. Many of them also understand the usefulness of a tool that encourages them to give voice to their learning as they move through the curriculum. Some students do this naturally, but some students need to visualize their “through lines” by working through the ePortfolio program. While a number of students will inevitably abandon the eP after the first year course, many students continue to engage with the program as a reflective opportunity and/or a digital space for the collection of documents. We do need to remind our IT office to stay ahead of changes in Sakai. If and when technology fails, students (for good reason) tend to disparage the ePortfolio, so it has been tremendously helpful to have a liaison in the Office of Instructional Research and Technology who responds very quickly to problems.

2. Connecting to high impact practices: Douglass students are required to take a first year mission course in which they begin work on their ePortfolio. The assignment changes slightly from year to year, but primarily, it asks students to write brief autobiographical statements to create their “Home” and “About Me” pages. This year’s assignment is below:

Complete the homepage and About Me page of your ePortfolio. Your About Me page should include an essay in which you find your voice by writing about a current issue that engages you. In addition to your 2-4 pp. (500-1000 words) essay, identify an object, piece of music, drawing, picture, spoken word, poem related to your essay, and use it in your ePortfolio. Describe how this piece of art connects to you as a person and your goals in the future. Share your ePortfolio by sending the URL in the body of an email to your assigned partner, mentor, and instructor. See instructions on Instructional Page of the Sakai site. Make sure to leave “comments” open.

Douglass is also home to over ten living-learning communities for sophomore and upper class students through its “Global Village,” our language, cultural or thematic residential communities, which are attached to 1.5 credit weekly courses and programming. We also have a residence hall for women in STEM fields with an optional learning community course. Students participating in these communities are asked to include a reflection in the ePortfolio. This way, students who might not revisit the first year portfolio must update it, and many students continue to update the ePortfolio for scholarship applications and program applications (peer mentoring and advising).

Creating a student network has served us well, as a residential college without its own faculty or curricular requirements (outside of the first year course). We provide multiple co-curricular programs, however, and these provide rich material for reflection; these programs focus on leadership, language and culture, human rights, international and global experience, STEM fields, and peer advising and mentoring. Meanwhile, our student are also active throughout the university through clubs, research, study abroad, etc.

My education does not end at my multi-disciplinary academic courses; my education extends beyond the classroom into my varied activities. As former president of the Rutgers Capoeira Club, I have developed a more unbiased nature when working with a diverse group of peers. The ability to be calm and to not let emotions color my decisions is a trait not many have. And after years of being in tough environments, I feel I have achieved this skill. In fact, my experiences as the president of Rutgers Capoeira Club have reinforced my interests in public leadership, racial identity, and public policy.

Testing for my third cord for Capoeira at the Capoeira Maranhao Batizado 2011

“Testing for my third cord for Capoeira at the Capoeira Maranhao Batizado 2011”

Our Next Steps

Our initiative will continue to engage students, but will need additional staff support to grow and serve as a catalyst for other ePortfolio projects at Rutgers. I see the next step as two-fold: 1) to provide material on our ePortfolio program on our website and mount an ePortfolio gallery (we’ll be rolling out a re-vamped site in November). The re-vamped website is critical to providing members of the broader community with a deeper concept of ePortfolio potential for undergraduate learning. The Rutgers faculty who were initially involved with a separate ePortfolio program found it cumbersome and expressed concerns about intellectual property. These are important concerns which the university would need to address if the ePortfolio were to be used for student research in those disciplines where students work closely with faculty on faculty-led projects. But there are many ways to circumvent these problems and develop vigorous programs that would go a long way towards promoting students’ understanding of themselves as life-long learners: that is, by inviting them to participate in a process of self discovery as they connect their history and identities to disciplinary objectives with an investment in research, learning, community, and social change.

2) Re-engaging faculty: our efforts to re-engage faculty have been stymied through budget cuts and reorganization. The ePortfolio program that was designed for undergraduates outside of Douglass Residential College has moved forward and then backward in terms of connecting faculty to ePortfolio pedagogy. Dancing back and forth around implementation may not be uncommon as one tries to roll out innovative programs. However, the large, geographically diverse, and dispersed, university presents formidable challenges. Projects such as ours may inspire other isolated projects, and then others: I believe that the catalyst will be visibility above all else. Such visibility must come from outside as well as inside the university, and the “ePortfolio Practices” site may well enable us to move forward.

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