Exploring the Use of a Generic E-portfolio/PDP Tool in a Basic Skills Module for Economics and Business Students
Some Reflections and Recommendations
The purpose of this case study is to provide a short account of an Economics Network Miniproject introducing a generic e-portfolio/PDP tool to a first year skills module for Economics and Business students at Swansea University. The module itself was described in a previous case study available on the Network's web site, which also provides more details of the project and the resources developed, including a PowerPoint presentation given at the Developments in Economics Education Conference (DEE) 2007. The focus here however, is essentially on the lessons learned and thoughts about how the experience might be improved in future.
Although there is some controversy about exactly how to define e-portfolios, it is perhaps easiest to think of them as supporting (personal) learning by means of digital/electronic recording of achievement, showcasing/demonstration of work and reflection on personal development note 1. There are several systems extant, including for example, RAPID, PebblePad and ePet, each of which offers a different array of features and functions. As Strivens (2007) documents, the uptake of such tools in UK HEIs has been swift, reflecting the imperatives in the Dearing (NCIHE, 1997) and Burgess (UUK/SCOP, 2004) reports. These are thus technologies which we as academics/economists are increasingly likely to encounter.
The system chosen for trial at Swansea was a local installation of the Elgg platform. Although initial functionality was more limited, the current local set-up (now named Oremi note 2) offers user profiles, blogging, wikis, webfolios ('presentations') note 3, RSS feeds, file storage, networks (friends) and communities, etc., and also the ability to embed feeds from social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us, photographs from Flickr and video from YouTube. Users have complete control and flexibility over access rights to every artefact/asset with which they populate both their individual and community spaces: items can be made public or shared only with logged in users, specific communities, or (groups of) individuals.
While students were introduced to the system and encouraged to use it in a PDP context from an early point in the module, the only formal requirement to do so was by way of a (non-assessed) 'qualifying criterion' for a group assignment undertaken between December and early March. This required students to populate their individual profiles with a number of specified items (including 'Brief description', 'Career goals' and 'Main skills'), to upload their CV (constructed for a previous assignment) into their file space and to set up a group 'community' which each member had to join. This relatively limited level of compulsion was partly a function of the more limited functionality of the system early on and partly a desire to allow students themselves to determine the extent to which they engaged with it (Say's Law?).
In seeking to evaluate the project, two routes for feedback were used. The first was a dedicated community for this purpose on the system itself, which identified some useful suggestions in terms of the system and its features, several of which have been incorporated in the subsequent upgrades. More comprehensive information was also gleaned from the second route, namely a specially designed questionnaire administered at the end of the module and returned by 115 students (a 32% response rate) note 4.
A number of issues were identified from the survey in relation to both the system and the way it was used. In respect of the former these included comments on the interface, ease of use/navigation, similarity to (the heavily used) Facebook/MySpace/Bebo social networking tools, etc. Feedback also revealed issues in terms of student engagement, with many using the system only superficially/strategically/instrumentally (i.e. for assessment). This is something others have also reported (see for example, Cotterill et al., 2004: 9).
Most students found the various features easy to use and 'useful', and were generally satisfied with the system. However, they were typically less convinced about its value in supporting PDP and reflection. For example, fewer than 30% felt it encouraged them to think more carefully about their learning/personal development. A number in fact saw it instead as essentially a social networking tool (some positively, some less so). Perhaps for this reason a number also commented that they did not see the point of the system. The most positive comments were made in respect of the benefits of the communities feature in terms of communication and file sharing for group work.
Technological and engagement issues are not of course, unrelated. The upgrades and the improved look and feel of the interface, together with the additional functionality in the current version address many of these criticisms and earlier limitations. Indeed, as the list above suggests, the system now provides an enticing array of Web2.0-type features that offer the potential for a transformation of the learning experience from positivist, top-down, autocratic models to constructivist, learner-centred, more democratic frameworks note 5. This is of course, likely to prove 'contested terrain' among academics and learning technologists and part of a wider debate!
Some suggested good practice (for self and others)
The use of the system in EBG102 during the current year has been associated with a very steep learning curve. The student feedback and my own reflection on the experience indicate a number of factors that help make for (more) successful outcomes. These include the following (see also Price, 2006):
- The system used should be introduced in a lecture with numerous screen grabs etc. Introductory documentation on how to use the basic features is essential, as is emphasis by the lecturer on the purpose of the technology as a means of supporting PDP processes. The value of such processes is also key - e.g. by showing students examples of job adverts, application forms, etc.
- Students should be offered (at least) the opportunity for 'hands-on' induction sessions (around half of those who completed the survey indicated they would have liked same). Attendance can be made optional, but students required to complete a mandatory worksheet using several of the functions available within the system (e.g. setting up a blog entry, populating their profiles, uploading a presentation item, subscribing to an RSS feed, etc.) which they will need to get 'signed off' by tutors. Only those having problems or wishing to obtain help need attend the hands-on sessions proper, which can then be used to offer tailored assistance to those requiring it.
- Technical support can also be provided by means of short video clips (say using the free CamStudio screen recording software) showing how the various tools are used and providing an accompanying commentary on how and why one might employ particular functions in a PDP context.
- If they offer social networking features, systems need to be very carefully 'badged' as more than simply a(nother) such tool, and emphasis placed on their use in supporting personal learning and development. Despite being hosted by the university, it is imperative that students see such tools as something that they 'own': i.e. it is "for work" and "for them".
- Reflection is not something students are typically used to or comfortable with, and it may be helpful to talk them through this process and its merits/purpose in some detail, using (own) examples where appropriate. The role of privacy settings should be emphasised; voice is altered by audience. There is of course a potential tension between uses for reflection and assessment that others have articulated (see for example, Sutherland, 2005); requiring students to make at least a small number of posts available publicly (or perhaps to other users of the system/tutors) is perhaps a suitable compromise (and one that is being used on the new Swansea TRIO HE Certificate).
- Clear and well-structured PDP/skills audit 'scaffolding' is essential to successful uptake and engagement. Survey responses revealed an appetite for PDP and PDP tools (notably a CV builder), and it is thus important to provide tools that guide students clearly through these processes, and are easy to use and update as they (hopefully) iterate through the process.
The Oremi e-portfolio/PDP tool was trialled at Swansea University during the 2006-2007 academic session. Feedback indicates that the experience for students needs to be more carefully structured and the rationale for and benefits from using the system more carefully communicated to them. The notion that students need to claim ownership of the system, rather than it being imposed in a 'top-down' fashion and seen as belonging to the institution is also key.
* Thanks are owed to staff from Library and Information Services at Swansea University, and in particular Kemi Adamson and Chris Hall, for help and support in running the e-portfolio/PDP application, and Julie Latreille for her many helpful comments regarding the design of the evaluation questionnaire. Financial support from the Economics network under their Miniproject programme is also gratefully acknowledged. All views expressed, and any errors are of course, the author's alone.
1. Beetham (2005) provides a fuller definition. See there and Butler (2006) for excellent and comprehensive reviews of the literature.
2. Meaning 'friendship' in the West African language of Yoruba.
3. This and the wiki feature were not available at the outset and were thus not used as part of the assignment. Both clearly offer important additional functionality and are to be used in the coming session.
5. The constructivist-positivist distinction is discussed by Cotterill et al. (2006) drawing on Paulson and Paulson (1994).
Beetham, H. (2005) 'Portfolios in post-16 learning in the UK: developments, issues and opportunities', report prepared for the JISC e-Learning and Pedagogy strand of the JISC e-Learning Programme.
Butler, P. (2006) 'A review of the literature on portfolios and electronic portfolios'.
Cotterill, S., Gill, S. and Thompson, J. (2006) 'Evaluating portfolios: mirrors, maps and sonnets', presentation at the Researching and Evaluating Personal Development Planning and e-Portfolios International Seminar.
Cotterill, S., McDonald, T., Drummond, P. and Hammond, G. (2004) 'Design, implementation and evaluation of a 'generic' ePortfolio: the Newcastle experience', paper presented at the ePortfolio 2004 Conference
NCIHE (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society, Norwich: HMSO (the 'Dearing Report').
Paulson, F. L. and Paulson, P. (1994) 'Assessing portfolios using the constructivist paradigm" in R. Fogarty (ed.) (1996) Student Portfolios. Palatine: IRI Skylight Training & Publishing.
Price, M. (2006) 'Opinion: What is the purpose of an electronic portfolio? Is the answer the key to your successful implementation?', Campus Technology.
Strivens, J. (2007) 'A survey of e-pdp and e-portfolio practice in UK Higher Education', Higher Education Academy.
Sutherland, S. (2005) 'ePortfolios: a personal space for learning'
Universities UK/Standing Conference of Principals (UUK/SCOP) (2004) Measuring and Recording Student Achievement, London: Universities UK (the 'Burgess Report').