Variety and Student Choice: SLCC’s Technology Story

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Our students use free Web 2.0 platforms to build their ePortfolios. SLCC supports three: Weebly, WordPress, Google Sites. Giving students platform options offers another opportunity for them to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning because they choose the space in which they will show and tell the story of their learning at SLCC.

Possibilities and One Pitfall:
Weebly, WordPress, Google Sites (Yola, too)

Students can use any platform as long as they use one that results in a web-based ePortfolio; however, we support the following three choices: Weebly, GoogleSites, and WordPress. Virtually all students use one of these three possibilities, although we have some computer majors who build their own sites. Additionally, some students build on Wix, Blogger, and other free Web 2.0 platforms.

Our original choices were Weebly, WordPress, and Yola. We dropped Yola in the fall of 2012 because they started limiting the number of pages in their free websites for new users. So it wasn’t affecting our existing students who had chosen Yola, but new accounts were problemmatic. That very semester our College had switched over to Google for student email accounts, so we took another look at GoogleSites, which had improved since we first made our decision in late 2009. So GoogleSites is now our third supported platform. Kati Lewis, our ePortfolio Coordinator, created video tutorials for GoogleSites, and David Hubert, our ePortfolio Director, created a fake student ePortfolio in GoogleSites to serve as a model for students. We still support students with older Yola ePortfolios, but we don’t allow students to start a new ePortfolio with Yola.

The primary weaknesses of using these platforms are (1) that we can’t push a template out to students, and some students do not set up the ePortfolio correctly, and (2) they have no assessment back end.

Overall, we appreciate the freedom of choice and acquired computer literacy skills that students have in using the Web 2.0 platforms. Students own them, can express their creativity in them, and can take them when they leave SLCC. They can accomodate all types of files, including multimedia. Therefore, we think that they engage students and allow for diverse kinds of reflective pedagogy.

Weebly is the easiest of the three to learn, and it produces visually rich ePortfolios. The majority of students use Weebly. Next in popularity is WordPress, which is very stable but more difficult to use than Weebly. We just started supporting GoogleSites because our institution switched to hosting all its email with Google. It is fairly easy to use and has the advantage of being tightly integrated with GoogleDocs and all other Google tools like maps and calendars.

Platform Selection Process
When we were debating whether to adopt an ePortfolio requirement in General Education, we originally envisioned contracting with an ePortfolio provider. However, our decision window opened just as Utah was experiencing severe budget constraits due to the Great Recession. It was difficult to justify the cost of the platform, given that the College had a hiring freeze and was contemplating shutting some programs. We gave up on that idea.

Jason Pickavance, an English faculty and one of our original steering committee members, had previously experimented with WordPress during our pilot phase when we were looking at a variety of platforms. His favorable reports and advocacy convinced the committee that we weren’t dead in the water if we didn’t have the money to contract with an ePortfolio provider. Therefore, we conducted a review of all the Web 2.0 platforms that existed at the time–a list of some 15 platforms. We looked at price, functionality, ease of use, storage capacity, and other factors. We narrowed the list down to five possibilities and then–after much debate–the Dean of General Education (David Hubert) decided to support the top three platforms. He wanted students to have choice and he didn’t want the College to put all its eggs in one basket.

Faculty and academic administrators were the primary members of the steering committee that made the decision. IT played only a small role. However, IT staff became instrumental (and were very helpful) in creating a portal to link privately-owned student ePortfolios to our Banner system.

We didn’t really benefit from networking in our platform choice. We did benefit, however, from Clemson University’s example of using GoogleSites as their platform. Knowing that another school had successfully used a free Web 2.0 platform was comforting.

Engaging Students
We are convinced that ease of use and actual ownership are very important in engaging students with ePortfolios. Weebly and WordPress (less so GoogleSites) have so many different ways that an ePortfolio can be customized that students can create their own educational identity. When we created our latest introductory video for students, we chose to showcase student examples that illustrated the diversity of ways that ePortfolios can be customized and engaging.

Student response to our ePortfolio varies. We know this from student feedback and from a survey of faculty this fall. Anecdotally speaking, student response tends to correspond highly with the framing and expectations they get from faculty. Some faculty either dislike or don’t understand (and don’t want to understand) ePortfolio, and they report that their students feel the same way. Surprise! On the other hand, the majority of students who get an enthusiastic and supportive introduction to ePortfolio tend to like and appreciate it.

We have a three-pronged support structure for faculty and students. We have online tutorials for all three platforms. Many students find these quite helpful. The only downside to these is that sometimes the functionality and/or interface of a platform will change, and we have to redo our tutorials. The second support structure consists of free introductory workshops for students. Our library staff conducts these workshops, and they get students up and running with all three platforms. We’ve added a third support structure this fall, two ePortfolio labs staffed by Kati, David, and part-time students who know all three platforms. Actually, we didn’t get the part-time students on board until the end of October. We train the students and have them create their own portfolio in all three platforms so they can help any student who walks in the door. We think it is very valuable to have peer mentoring and assistance with ePortfolios, and we hope to greatly expand use of the ePortfolio labs.

http://youtu.be/x7V59KwVzdc

Pedagogy

In theory, Web 2.0 platforms can facilitate integrative and social pedagogy, but there are limitations in practice. The first limitation is privacy. We don’t feel it is appropriate to force students to share their entire ePortfolio with others, so we always tell faculty to give students the ability to opt out of such exercises. The second limitation is faculty desire to use the ePortfolio for social and/or integrative pedagogy. Most faculty are reluctant to engage in social pedagogy. As for integrative learning, our ePortfolio implementation is explicitly designed to foster it, but we still have a long way to go to get the majority of faculty to use ePortfolio in this manner.

Our Thayne Center for Service and Learning is doing a fantastic job having service-learning scholars document their experiences and reflections in their ePortfolios. It’s so rewarding to go to their showcase/graduation events and have students primarily use their ePortfolio to illustrate their learning.

Another example we’d cite of the pedagogical impact of ePortfolios is the way that they are being used in public speaking and foreign language courses to document student progress. Both types of courses have students put short video or audio clips in the ePortfolio showing the student either giving a speech or conversing in a foreign language. This kind of multi-media representation is a super way to exploit Web technology. Here’s an example of one of our showcase students, who took a public speaking course. Not only does he have a short clip of him speaking, but his reflection is clearly deep and thoughtful.

Professional Development and Training
Our faculty don’t need to learn any of the ePortfolio platforms if they don’t want to. They need to be able to click on a student’s URL and navigate their ePortfolio. We are encouraging faculty to create their own professional ePortfolios for tenure review, and a growing minority are doing so. Faculty use the same technological support available to students.

Our professional development was initially all about technology, so that faculty would know how to access ePortfolios and know a bit about what students were experiencing. Now our professional development is almost exclusively centered on pedagogy. However, the issue we are having is that we’re having a difficult time enticing “resistant faculty” to attend pedagogical training.

One thing we haven’t tried, but are considering, are video tutorials for pedagogical issues. Faculty may be more receptive to these than to the idea of coming to a training session. We do have handouts for faculty on linking assignments to learning outcomes and on reflection.

Outcomes Assessment
Our ePortfolio system is now integral to the assessment of our General Education program. Because they don’t have assessment back-ends, however, it makes our assessment process somewhat labor intensive. The advantage, though, is that our assessment teams get an intensive look at student work in the ePortfolios that they assess.

Through our Banner interface we are able to draw random samples of students and look directly at their ePortfolios. One hindrance to the Web 2.0 platforms is that assignments are not tagged with a particular learning outcome, so our readers have to search the ePortfolio and identify the assignments that pertain to each learning outcome.

Looking Forward
We’d love for Web 2.0 ePortfolios to be directly imported from Banner into Canvas–and have made that suggestion to the Canvas people. They may be reluctant because Canvas has its own (rudimentary) ePortfolio tool.

Otherwise, we don’t see the future of our ePortfolio implementation as limited by technology. Instead, the frontier is really to get the majority of faculty to use ePortfolio well in their courses. We’re getting there…