Enhancing employability and personal development with e-portfolios - University of Reading
When the University of Reading reviewed its personal development planning for students, the recommended use of e-portfolios led to the development of a VLE-based e-portfolio tool. When students struggled with some of the tool’s features, the JISC-funded DEVELOP project helped to improve its uptake and ease of use. A successful pilot with academic staff and students showed a lower failure rate and considerable time savings as a result.
The University of Reading is ranked as one of the UK’s 20 most research-intensive universities and is in the top 1% of universities in the world. It currently has 16,724 students from 125 different nationalities and over 4,000 members of staff. The University has a track record of excellent work in relation to technology enhanced learning starting with the introduction of its Blackboard VLE in 2000. Its focus on student-centred learning led to a review of personal development planning which recommended the use of e-portfolios. In response the university developed a VLE-
“The existing templates provided make it very difficult to edit information”. Student
based e-portfolio tool, iLearn. Academic Schools were encouraged to populate their bespoke iLearn area with useful and timely information such as placement opportunities or forthcoming events. Students were able to create portfolios and share these with tutors, careers advisors and study advisors.
Would improving the e-portfolio tool increase engagement?
“Make it more interactive because presently it feels like I’m typing a word document which no-one else will ever read and so it feels pointless”. Student
e-Portfolios generally offer students a way to keep track of their development, and can serve as a body of evidence about skills and abilities when it comes to career opportunities. However, feedback from Reading students showed that Blackboard’s built-in e-portfolio system confused many of them, in terms of creating pages, formatting the content and embedding pictures and other media. This meant that introductions to modules had too much of a technical bent and students were not spending enough time thinking about the work they had to do over the year or learning about the purpose and good practices associated with keeping an e-portfolio. Although an e-learning team member was present for some introductory workshops, the focus on these technical aspects of the tool frustrated its purpose – namely, to ease the tracking of development, the collection of evidence, and the recording of reflection. Furthermore, the feedback mechanism, which allows a reviewer to leave comments at the end of the portfolio, was only really suited to providing generic feedback, and not well suited for use in either formative or summative assessment scenarios.
A previous attempt to roll out personal development planning across the entire University had run into problems.
The e-portfolio template widget
Within the JISC DEVELOP project the team at Reading looked at improving the portfolio experience for staff and students, enabling the tool to be better used as a teaching and learning resource. Using an agile development approach (as illustrated in figure 1) the team developed software according to the requirements set out by academic staff. The resulting e-portfolio templates and e-portfolio feedback tools were subsequently piloted by academic staff and students to evaluate their use and get feedback.
“Engagement with academic and support stakeholders was critical to the project.” Maria Papaefthimiou, DEVELOP project manager
Figure 1, e-portfolio process diagram
The e-portfolio templates widget includes just-in-time help and bespoke questionnaires and provides students with a clear framework within which to work in their portfolios. It automatically creates the pages and templates required. The structure of these frameworks is determined by the course instructors.
Although the tool was designed for use with the institution’s Blackboard VLE, the scripts could, with some modification, work with other environments. The script itself creates a frameset within which the VLE interface can be seen. Much of the script then detects what the user is doing with the interface, extracts relevant information about the e-portfolios and, where relevant, adds useful elements such as buttons and drop-down menus for access to extra features. The new widget acts as a layer that sits on top of Blackboard’s existing built-in e-portfolio tool which can still be accessed without these additional features.
Overall, the project used two different system architectures; a traditional server based plugin and a client side script. The e-portfolio tools were constructed with the latter approach to allow for potential re-use in other VLEs and further development in a rapidly changing technological environment.
The e-Portfolio feedback widget builds on this approach by building a layer on top of the student’s actual portfolio, as opposed to the interface. As with the templates widget, the portfolio itself remains unaffected, so students can chose to access, view and use their portfolios without the widget. The widget allows tutors to attach notes and comments to particular parts of the student’s portfolio.
Taking ownership of your learning
The e-portfolio templates and feedback widgets enable students to take ownership of their learning by providing “just in time” help and a tutor-initiated structure or scaffold to get them started. The feedback widget is designed to enable tutor and peer support.
The “just in time” help wizard has reduced the support time required by students - down from approximately an hour to about ten minutes at most. This means they can engage much more with the purpose and practice of maintaining an e-portfolio. Additionally, the tool provides students with a simpler experience, and removes many of the frustrations they were previously reporting
“The e-portfolio template widget works even under the pressure of the first weeks at university. We ran seven workshops for 200 students, got them to launch the widget and it worked. What used to take an hour to set up now takes minutes.” Guy Pursey, project officer
The e-portfolio templates and feedback widgets enable integration and alignment of teaching and learning with assessment by providing tutor-initiated structure or scaffold to get students started in thinking about the assessment requirements. There is evidence to suggest that by having this structure ready-made and in place, students are clearer about assessment requirements and more free to consider and reflect on their implications. The feedback widget enables tutors to provide more targeted feedback. While evaluation of this aspect is still underway the team has already completed a successful trial with the department of legal skills (see sidebar). Louise Hague, a teaching fellow of the University’s School of Law, comments on the effects of the improved portfolio tool on the marks for the careers portfolio: “There has been a much lower failure rate this time round which I can attribute to the increased focus on teaching of the content during the session rather than building the portfolios. In terms of the structure of the portfolios there have been far fewer issues with regard to missing items. The number of queries received in the run up to the deadline were also significantly reduced in number compared to other years. Out of a 185 there was only 1 student whose portfolio I could not access – usually it is around 10%. So from my perspective it has been very successful so far!”
Testing the widget in the department of legal skills
“The main benefit for both the students and me has been the reduced amount of time spent building the portfolio and thus the increased amount of time spent teaching the students about the content required” Louise Hague, Teaching Fellow, School of Law
“The DEVELOP widget would not only have enhanced my efficiency, but would also have allowed to me spend more time producing the actual content of my Legal Skills Portfolio – undoubtedly improving my engagement with the aims of the module.” Edward Bates, DEVELOP student participant
The code for both widgets is available here: http://code.google.com/p/developreading/downloads/list
The project blog: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/develop/