Rutgers University – OSP/Sakai: A Story in Flux

At Douglass Residential College we designed the E-portfolio to allow students to connect and incorporate their skills, coursework, co-curricular experience, backgrounds, values, and community involvement with an integrated, developing sense of identity.

We have modeled advisement at the Residential College on an “advising pedagogy” that our ePortfolio closely mirrors. We structured the Sakai platform to serve as an integrative, reflective tool that would allow students space for describing themselves and their interests, a matrix that would capture transferable skills, places for uploading artifacts, and a “My Path” page in which students are prompted to describe the ways in which their skills and experiences are interconnected. At the same time, the OSP platform is not as user-friendly as the various social media that students use in their day-to-day interactions with digital technology. Therefore, we are beginning to train students to transfer OSP content to other sites of their choice; in this way, they can choose new or familiar platforms while they deepen their thinking around learning and, borrowing from Sakai, re-create a structure that captures their learning experiences.

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Platform and Platform Selection:

At Rutgers/Douglass Residential College we are currently using Sakai, which serves as Rutgers’ course management tool for approximately 58,000 students. The Open Source platform presented the most affordable option when we began ePortfolio development, so the selection process settled on Sakai without much discussion (via the Office of Instructional Research and Technology, or OIRT). Initially, OIRT presented ePortfolio technology to a handful of faculty and administrators. The program they showcased was not Sakai–they were simply introducing us to ePortfolios. The Center for Teaching and the Advancement and Assessment of Research (CTAAR) initially expressed interest and involvement. Another office requested an ePortfolio to showcase student leadership. Douglass Residential College and the Office of Undergraduate Education wanted ePortfolios that would showcase our students’ learning and academic achievements, both inside and outside the classroom. The Graduate School of Education required an independent ePortfolio that would satisfy accreditation demands; the School of Pharmacy requested an ePortfolio that would replace the paper portfolio required of doctoral candidates, and the graduate program in Library Science is developing its own system, currently asking students to enter qualitative kinds of data in a matrix form.

Douglass and OIRT worked with a consultant to create a program that would satisfy our learning goals and provide students with a career showcase. We requested multiple changes to the Sakai ePortfolio features, and once the consultant completed programming, the Office of Instructional Research and Technology took over the program and made final changes. However, they have very few staff to manage the ePortfolio (literally, two people are currently able to address our concerns as they arise.) Most of their time and energy go into the course management system, which is used by thousands of university students and faculty.

My overall evaluation is mixed. Many schools manipulate Sakai quite effectively, and have managed to adapt it to departmental demands. Our shortage of technical staff and resources limits not only the upkeep of the program, but innovation and design. In addition, students are willing to work with the program, but do not see it as a career showcase tool because it does not resemble anything they would use to create a website or blog (or any form of social media). Even the url’s for their ePortfolio sites are terrifically long (we recommend using “tiny url” to create more manageable hyperlinks).

Useful features: Most of our pages allow students to complete text and upload media in the Rich Text Editor, a format that students find reasonably intuitive, although they need to “click” a lot to get there and the pages often take a long time to load. Brief instructional videos demonstrate the process as well.

Weaknesses: Our Sakai ePortfolio program is slow to load pages, particularly our “matrix.” Needless to say, our students are not at all accustomed to waiting. In addition, students get very confused about how to share the ePortfolio, because the final step (sharing and creating the website) is confusing in Sakai, despite numerous step-by-step instructions via email and video.

Social and Reflective pedagogies: we adapted a matrix to capture learning goals and transferable skills in the Douglass portfolio. As the Director of Advising, I was charged with developing an ePortfolio at a time when very few staff members (not to mention Rutgers faculty) knew what ePortfolios really were. I had framed an advising program that would emphasize inter-connections between academic and non-classroom work (student “pathways”). The ePortfolio reinforces these connections through a page (My Path) asking students to provide a narrative account of their paths, based in part on a matrix that asks students to map their academic experiences to skills ranging from Oral and Written Communication to Global Awareness, Leadership, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Social Responsibility and Technology. We do not yet have the infrastructure or professional development to engage instructors (outside of the first year experience course), so our program is under-utilized by faculty (in particular).

Stakeholders: Our administrative stakeholders initially acknowledged the usefulness of the ePortfolio, but could not put resources into IT support. This has been an increasing problem, especially right now, during an era of cutbacks and turnover, a new President, an interim administration, etc. Meanwhile, outcomes assessment for the undergraduate departments has been developed department by department, requiring faculty evaluation of courses and teaching based on rubrics that are specific to the departments, and used by faculty and departments to evaluate student work and to measure whether they are meeting their own learning outcomes. The ePortfolio hasn’t gained traction in department assessment programs, especially because the first trial run of assessment via ePortfolio was implemented through the Undergraduate Research Program, and the director created a single rubric based on AAC&U value rubrics. Faculty did not like to evaluate student research based on this rubric, so by and large circumvented it. (Faculty preferred their own “tried and true” methods of evaluation, in which the value rubrics are most certainly embedded, if not explicit.)

Challenges to developing stakeholders: Development of stakeholders has been almost impossible because the technology simply isn’t appealing to most faculty. In addition, other forms of teaching technology (MOOCs and online courses) are currently “clouding” the online learning landscape, at least at this large university. In the summer of 2013, a day-long conference on on-line pedagogy failed to even mention ePortfolios due to the concerns about MOOCs and pressures to develop online courses for majors.

Pedagogy

At Douglass we tailored an ePortfolio assignment within the first year course to encourage students to develop a sense of voice and value their personal histories. The initial ePortfolio assignment asked students very simply to write about their own interests and lives (Home and About Me pages), and thus initiated a teacher-student relationship that incorporated the student’s history and voice. Students attended training or consulted Peer Mentors assigned to the course, or the Peer Academic Leaders (PALs) in the residence halls. An infrastructure around the technology began to grow; at the same time, instructor turn-over made it difficult to train instructors to use the ePortfolio, and burdens on the course itself made it difficult to expand the ePortfolio assignment. Instructors are also becoming impatient with the technology, and this year, we’ve dropped the ePortfolio from our course, at least for the time being. We ran a pilot workshop instead, showing students how to transfer Sakai artifacts and reflections to other hosting platforms. In this way, we have modeled advisement on an advising pedagogy that the ePortfolio closely mirrors as an integrative, reflective tool. We are also keenly aware of women’s development, and the growth of their identities and voices over the course of their college experience. EPortfolios provide tremendously rich portraits of our students, and many students create lively and detailed depictions of their lives, which they link to their academic and personal interests. Those depictions enable students to insert their voices into the learning environment, a process that feels profound within a large research university, in which the contours of our students’ individual lives are often devalued, deemed irrelevant, or buried beneath formal academic demands.

At Douglass, we were promoting the ePortfolios as showcases for academic achievement. Advisors stress the enormous advantage of articulating one’s learning, the capacity to connect that learning to skills and experiential opportunities, such as service learning, in preparation for job interviews, cover letters, and graduate school applications. Unless the university adopts an ePortfolio program for undergraduate learning and assessment, we can only organize our program around career incentives as way to gain traction with students.

Theoretically, the Douglass matrix should allow students to reflect on skills that relate to broader competencies (outside class dialogue and relating to workplace skills and professional development). Our goal has always been to continue to invigorate our advising program rather than forcing the ePortfolio into our first year course, especially given ambivalent feedback from instructors and students when they encounter technical problems.

Technology Challenges: it is almost impossible to evaluate the platform without emphasizing the staffing shortages in the Office of Instructional Research and Technology (OIRT). To run a successful ePortfolio program, one needs adequate technical support. If we had known going into eP development, and how problematic the IT staff shortages would be, we would have been more hesitant to develop the program. The staff shortages were not intially considered a problem, but the most supportive staff later backed out, I think as they realized how much attention it required after implementation (they have assigned one IT support staff member to troubleshoot for us and act as liaison).

While OIRT at Rutgers has created more than one ePortfolio system, the staff shortage remains critical, with only one or two full time programmers who can manipulate the Sakai ePortfolio program, and one technical liason who can resolve minor problems as they arise.

What worked: in the Douglass first year experience course, students who were encouraged by the instructors to use the ePortfolio reported that they were able to reflect on their experience within the course. Other students experienced problems with sharing and were frustrated by the program’s slowness. As a result, both students and instructors became frustrated and have asked to drop the ePortfolio assignments from the first year course. Some instructors understood the pedagogical piece and others were not compelled by the process of reflection or social pedagogy (and the “sharing exercise” was inconsistent, depending on the instructor’s emphasis or grading policies, or the students’ experiences with the technology).

Networking: I worked to connect our ePortfolio developers with the Virginia Tech group over the summer, but again, our programmers were overwhelmed with other management and programming concerns. Networking with the Connect to Learning institutions has enabled me to understand the limitations we’re working with at Rutgers, and brought me closer to focusing on other online portfolio tools, developing our students’ engagement via career development workshops, and hosting ePortfolio training programs with a focus on on-line identities, while allowing students to experiment with different programs.

Engaging Students

In the absence of course development, we solicit student enagement, to some extent, via other enticements; we encourage students to use the ePortfolios through training programs, orientation exercises, and discussing the use of the ePortfolios as a career development tool. As an advisor, my focus tends to be on the connections between student media and/or writing, and the necessity of connecting experiences at each stage of the student’s development; finally, our advisors promote student engagement in service learning, professional experience (interships, practicums, externships, field work). The ePortfolio allows students to articulate the ways in which classroom knowledge and skills relate to hands-on programs. We still have a way to go.

Peer Support:

We have developed peer support and instruction through our peer mentoring and peer advising parograms. Every student has a peer mentor in the first year experience course, and each resident has a peer advisor on her hall. Commuters are also assigned peer advisors. The peer advisors can help students informally (that tends to be the case.) I run open training programs at the beginning of the term, and am able to work with small groups of students.

The contests (we have now run two) encourage students to “fill out” the ePortfolios by elaborating on experiences in different sites, from coursework to campus involvement to research and leadership. Without the contests, students tend not to revisit the ePortfolio after the first year course, though some students note that it is easy to maintain once you begin to use it. By and large, however, students are not satisfied with the Sakai platform.

Pedagogy

I don’t think our campus has embraced the pedagogy, as discussed above. However, like a piece of public artwork, students and instructors tend to “circle” the ePortfolio like something they do not quite understand. They know that the ePortfolio can contain their story, a narrative that is not generally incorporated in academic environments, and that the digital narrative is indelible (at least until they revise it–IF they revise it). The “e” in ePortfolio makes a difference, if only because a “portfolio” tends to refer to a collection, whereas the “e” in ePortfolio invites the collector (the student) to frame his or her collection in a particular learning context–or a professional and public context–that integrates the pieces in the way that any frame bounds and contextualizes, integrates and connects. A digital collection of work might serve as an ePortfolio, but digital collections are situated, artifacts are connected and purposeful, and new connections are thus made possible.

In terms of reflection, inquiry, integration, I am only convinced that the digital environment creates deeper learning IF the instructor/advisor promotes reflection (and our surveys suggest that the better teachers do better work with the ePortfolios). On the other hand, the ePortfolio on its own enables multi-media reflections, and thus provides a landscape that might be crossed and recrossed (vs. papers or exams with red correction marks that students either trash or stuff into the bottoms of a drawer). Again, the ePortfolio invites connection between student and teacher, or student and student, connections that can be mutually reinforcing, so I end up focusing on social pedagogy, not only as a powerful form of learning (learning as collaborative, as a process of building knowledge with others), and a form of inter-personal relationships that we often disregard both in academic worlds and in one’s learning, which is so often viewed as a solitary experience, but so often, is not solitary at all.

Looking Forward — Conclusion

I have mentioned both in this post and earlier posts that I see us moving toward other digital platforms that are online and free (without the bells and whistles), and that engage students as consumers of social networking, even though I would be developing training modules with structural conventions for students who are using these platforms and wish to prepare digital collections of work for future career showcase tools. These “free” platforms have advantages and disadvantages; until (and if) our faculty become interested in ePortfolios, however, we will need to re-direct our program. I have talked to my dean about developing a series of workshops for students who want to develop ePortfolios via other platforms. The focus will be on the use of writing and media; reflection, editing, and ePortfolio website development. (The workshops will also include some sneak advising attacks, or “guerrilla advising” to encourage students to see how knowledge can be connected.) I see the future, in my case, as a way to create an academic, online culture for our students. The Sakai platform may turn out to have some appeal for students who need the more structured environment, but I don’t think, given our resources and the current turbulence in our administration (and budgetary black holes) that we can depend on support for innovation. Sakai requires much more support that we currently have, or can expect.

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