Keeping ePortfolios Free of Virtual Dust

Writing ePortfolio Corner

Cynthia Davidson

What is the future of the ePortfolio at Stony Brook, in particular the writing-intensive ePortfolio? Many of the recent success stories we’ve heard on campus extend the functionality of a showcase portfolio in some interesting way, such as Emily Madsen’s hyperlinked cv, which combines a traditional list of accomplishments and work experience with narratives about those experiences, and has been viewed many thousands of times across the country. But in general, it’s the showcase that gets the attention when we talk about what eportfolios do for students. For some, the Writing 102 section of the eportfolio is a showcase of their writing and thinking skills. Students post their written work and reflect about what they have learned while writing those works. The reflections are prompted by a list of learning objectives described in a memo that both faculty and students use as a guide for feedback and evaluation.
We’ve had some undergraduates produce very nice ePortfolios in WRT 102, 302, and 303, some with outstanding reflections on individual works and the course as a whole, but in every situation, the ePortfolio remained primarily an end-of-semester showcase. Better results have been obtained by starting the portfolios early in the semester, but the practice of working with the portfolio on a daily or weekly basis has just not been there….not until this semester, when I taught a graduate course in Digital Rhetorics (WRT 614) and moved writing into the really public sphere: blogs instead of short, shared essays or Discussion Board posts for weekly reading responses and informal written discussion.
I am not sure how I feel about moving large classes of undergraduates into the weekly or daily blogosphere, although undoubtedly it would be fun and rewarding for many. While public writing is great when you choose to do it, mandatory public writing before one is ready for it is another thing altogether. We have enough misgivings about the semi-public nature of shared writing in Google Drive among us. The definition of “safe” spaces for writing has usually been one that is a) non-evaluative or low-stakes and b) private enough to avoid excessive scrutiny. With graduate students in a Digital Rhetoric course, a blog seemed pretty much a non-controversial choice of activity, but I still wanted to provide options for those who were not prepared for public blogging. They had the option of blogging in WordPress, Blogspot, or some similar platform publicly or a semi-public blog in their ePortfolio. About half chose the latter option. Those who chosen a blogging platform linked their blogs to the ePortfolio, where they will present their more formal assignments and a series of reflections.
So what happens when a blog is connected to or embedded in an ePortfolio? Weekly interactions that are conversations, not simply affirmations that an ePortfolio is impressive or interesting. The ePortfolios are not yet showcases, but even at mid-semester, they are bursting with intellectual energy. I would love to see more emphasis on the ePortfolio as an online blog or record of experience, whether that is work experience, classroom experience, or personal experience. About halfway through the semester, I’m convinced that next time I teach an undergraduate writing class, there will be a drive for students to post weekly writing in the portfolio in a blog format on topics of relevance to the course, with some kind of prompting for classmates to comment regularly on the portfolio using either the traditional Comments or the new Discussions feature.
The other activity that has been prompted by this course is my own building of a course ePortfolio to house the course materials, including the syllabus, calendar, readings, assignments, and a weekly reflection blog that I keep, as well as links to the students’ weekly blogs. Several faculty members at SBU have implemented course ePortfolios with great results, often as collaborative hubs for student work. With an eye to eventually turning my course into an online course, I decided to pack as much of the course as possible into one ePortfolio. This has prompted me to keep a weekly course reflection in the ePortfolio, something that I’ve always meant to do , but never did. This provides feedback on the face-to-face discussions we have weekly, and also is a way to acknowledging the work that students do in their own blogs while facilitating further discussion.
Showcases are great, but without an active presence and some dialogue, they gather virtual dust not unlike the real dust that unread books collect. Anything we can do to make writing for the ePortfolio more of a regular practice and and more of a hub for interesting, positive interaction will make the writing-intensive ePortfolio more valuable for students and faculty.
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3 Responses to Keeping ePortfolios Free of Virtual Dust

  1. klucenko says:

    Cynthia: what you’ve done with your course is a fantastic example of how to make the eportfolio a regular “meeting place” for students to write and share ideas, and, as you write, a “record of experience.” This is something I aspire to do with my own courses, but that I haven’t yet put into action as you have. I think you are right about the challenge of attending to an eportfolio throughout the lifecycle of a course, rather than primarily as a showcase. I wonder: in addition to their blogs, do your students also create individual eportfolios that are linked in your WRT 614 course eportfolio?

  2. Hi Kristina,

    Cynthia is RIGHT ON! If eportfolios are used to merely showcase the final course product, they’re nothing more than a website. Our student focus groups show they’re viewed as assignments and extra work. ePortfolios should be used to promote integrative learning and inquiry throughout a students academic careers and into his or her professional career. Our goal as educators is to inspire students to apply what they’ve learned in our courses to other courses, service and community activities, job and internships, and personal interests. Writing is a high impact learning experience…so important. The eportfolio process help us all to organize and connect experiences. The more we encourage the students to use the eportfolio process (documenting the learning steps with reflection) at the beginning of the course, the more we enhance their inquiry, creative and critical thinking, and evidenced-based reflective skills and abilities. We scaffold and organize our knowledge in our eportfolios and recognize new directions and paths of creativity and innovation. The challenge is getting faculty and students to start the eportfolio learning process at the beginning of the course and encourage peer interaction, as Cynthia points out. Howver, they view it as an assignment and extra work. It’s change. It means using the eportfolio as the scratch pad and work studio of learning, instead of the fragmented, isolated process of turning work in on paper Word documents. So, where are those Word documents after the course ends?

    We learn and live in communities. Communities and learning should continue outside of the course and after it ends. The eportfolios should not only be used for documentation and reflection on individual learning, but also to engage peer interaction and promote learning to the next level of inquiry. Cynthia gets it and her students are role models for Stony Brook and the world. Let’s face it, the Writing and Rhetoric Program at Stony Brook is a global model of integrative learning with eportfolios.

  3. Cynthia Davidson says:

    This article/chapter by Middlebrook and Sun has a great discussion of academic blogging and “blogfolios” in Wills and Rice’s book ePortfolio Performance Support Systems: Constructing, Presenting, and Assessing Portfolios:
    http://wac.colostate.edu/books/eportfolios/chapter7.pdf

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