An electronic learning curve: implementing ePortfolios
by Richard Ingram
In September 2004 the University of Dundee launched the BA (Hons) Social Work programme. This was in response to the introduction of the Standards in Social Work Education (SISWE) and the subsequent changes in requirements of course providers and students. The launch of a new degree allowed the staff team to reassess teaching and learning methods deployed within the programme.
One of the key innovations was the introduction of ePortfolios within the programme. This complemented the increasing integration of IT systems such as the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) into the delivery of teaching and the learning of students. Social work education places a strong emphasis on the need for students to develop the ability to think, learn and practice reflectively. It was intended that the introduction of ePortfolios would support this aim by providing students with a tool that could act as a repository of information that students would build throughout the programme. The compilation of the ePortfolio is student led, and allows students to reflect upon learning and make modifications in the light of newly acquired knowledge. It was hoped that this facility would create an environment in which students could engage with their knowledge base and reflect upon their learning journey, and in turn articulate and apply their knowledge.
This study is informed by a piece of evaluative research that examined the experience of students and staff during the first year of implementation of ePortfolios. 27 students from a cohort of 36 took part in the research project. It aimed to map experience against the intended outcomes of the use of ePortfolios, to inform future use of ePortfolios across all social work programmes at the University of Dundee, as well as informing wider debates regarding models of implementation of ePortfolios and their effectiveness in terms of pedagogy. A full report of this piece of research was reported at the ePortfolio 2005 conference in Cambridge and is published within the conference proceedings.
The evaluation assessed the views of students via structured questionnaires at an early stage of ePortfolio usage and at the end of the academic year. These questionnaires examined how students viewed their introduction to ePortfolios and examined the evolution of their view of the pedagogical value and usage of ePortfolios. A sample of responses from these questionnaires are contained within this case study. Tutors also received a questionnaire at the end of the academic year to canvas their reflections on the implementation of ePortfolios from a teaching and facilitatory perspective. The assessed elements of the ePortfolios provided further evidence of the amount to which students engaged with the ePortfolios as well as the extent to which the learning outcomes were achieved.
Constructivism, reflective learning and ePortfolios
Social work education has increasingly embraced constructivist approaches to learning and teaching. Constructivist approaches shift the focus from teacher to learner and aim to support students to construct and engage with their own knowledge base and to be the principle driver of their learning. Weller (2002) notes that electronic resources such as ePortfolios lend themselves well to constructivism, due to increased flexibility in terms of input, review, access and reflection. He goes on to highlight that this shift in emphasis requires a shift in roles for both student and teacher, and that this process can lead to anxieties related to control and direction of learning. In a sense, constructivism reduces the predictability and structure of educational programmes and allows for students to embark on their own individual learning path. This issue is tempered in the BA (Hons) Social Work programme by the continuance of elements of didactic teaching as well as the emergence of a facilitatory role for tutors.
A key aspect of reflective learning is the notion that students are encouraged to integrate learnt knowledge into practice. Social Work requires practitioners to be able to make reflexive and informed judgements and this may be underpinned by the students/practitioners reflecting on the following:
It was anticipated that the ePortfolio would provide a useful tool to support this process. Students would be able to review, reflect, modify, remove and share elements of their ePortfolio. This ability to retrace one’s learning journey, and make links between knowledge gained across the course and beyond, could be viewed as the main advantages of implementing ePortfolios.
- What they did
- How they did it
- What informed their action
- Why did they choose one course of action over another?
- What would they do in this situation in the future and what are the learning needs associated with this?
An important advantage that ePortfolios appear to have over their paper based predecessors is that they are highly customisable and ‘transportable’. They require minimal physical storage, and are intended to be developed over the course of an individual’s career. This links well with the current emphasis on continued professional development and the associated requirements for practitioners to be able to identify their learning/training needs (Taylor 1996). For the ePortfolio to achieve this it is important that they are perceived to belong to the student.
Reflections after the first year of ePortfolio implementation
Overview of implementation
The acquisition of IT skills and ePortfolio usage
The issue that was most commonly cited by the student group as being central to their experience of ePortfolio induction was the implicit requirement that students develop appropriate IT skills. A social work student cohort will by its nature contain a broad spectrum of IT literacy. The introduction of ePortfolios adds an additional layer of e-learning and many students noted their anxieties in terms of their ability to engage with their ePortfolios. 93% of students stated that they had no prior knowledge about ePortfolios. This resulted in many students becoming focussed on how to use their ePortfolios rather than focussing on the actual content.
Figure 1: Student response to induction
Figure 1 suggests that the majority of students did find the IT induction that was offered equipped them to use their ePortfolios. This was at odds with much of the qualitative data which reflected a significant degree of unease with regard to the students’ perceptions of their abilities. The following quotations provide a flavour of these responses:
A crucial message contained within the evaluation was that the IT induction needs to be more closely aligned to a task. Students felt that newly acquired skills needed to be put in to practice quickly rather than recalled at a later date. The fact that students were given four months to engage with their ePortfolios independently further exacerbated these issues, as many students noted that it was the compulsory assignment that initiated their engagement. In addition to the timing of the induction, there was also a desire for IT support to be more frequent and possibly timetabled so that students could access it ‘on demand’ whilst engaged in ePortfolio activities.
“Could be confusing without IT skills”
“I feel disadvantaged compared to others”
“Yet another thing to learn on top of everything else”
An unexpected outcome was the notion of the ‘expert’ student role. One student with extensive IT experience became an informal source of support and guidance to other students. This may on one level reflect an encouraging degree of peer support, but also potentially disadvantages this student in terms of time and energy. It was also interesting to note that students did not seek tutor support when they encountered these difficulties.
The student/tutor relationship
As noted earlier the adoption of constructivist approaches require a shift in emphasis from teacher to learner and in turn new roles emerge. On the BA (Hons) programme tutors combined a range of roles that included teacher, tutor, facilitator and assessor.
The role of assessor appeared to create a range of potential tensions. It may have been a strong contributory factor in students not seeking ongoing support and guidance from their tutors, due to a reticence in sharing difficulties with the person who will be assessing their work. This clearly has links with the previous issue of students accessing the ‘expert’ student. The role of assessment also feeds into the debate regarding the extent to which reflection can be quantified and in turn graded in relation to another student’s reflection. Boud and Knights (1996) warn that setting an assessed reflective task does not ensure that real reflection is achieved, and that there is a danger that students try to model what they perceive to be the desired ‘type’ of reflection rather than engaging in what should be an individualised and unpredictable process.
The tutor group reported positively on the first year of their involvement with ePortfolios. It was made clear that they also felt they were learning about the uses of ePortfolios as the year progressed. A key theme that emerged was that tutors valued the opportunity to track the learning journey of students and to gain an insight into what and how students learn. This appears to add greater depth to the student/tutor relationship rather than the snapshot afforded by an end of module essay. Many students highlighted their desire for greater formative feedback from tutors. This is being developed for future years, although it could be argued that care needs to be taken in terms of balancing tutor involvement and maintaining the sense that students have control over the use and content of their portfolios.
Assessment, usage and outcomes
I have discussed the issue of assessment as potentially problematic in the preceding section; however, it was identified by the student group as the key motivating factor to engage with their ePortfolios. 78% of students stated that they would have used their ePortfolios less often if there had not been a compulsory assessed task. Figure 2 (below) illustrates how ePortfolio usage changed from before and after the assessment.
Figure 2: Student ePortfolio usage
What is most encouraging from these results is that it is the reflective elements that appear to be enhanced by the assessment. Students highlighted the ability to examine their learning across the entire academic year as being a key aspect of the ePortfolio, and that the ability to then modify their views and ePortfolio content in the light of new knowledge supported reflection.
34 out of the 36 students assessed passed the Reflective Practice module at the first submission. This compares favourably with other modules and would suggest that students had achieved the required level of reflection at their stage of learning.
Lessons learnt and future planning
The implementation of ePortfolios raised a series of developmental issues, but it should be noted that the student experience will evolve over the four years of the programme. The aforementioned anxieties relating to IT skills may well be an unavoidable and understandable part in the process of being introduced to ePortfolios, and would be expected to lessen in subsequent year. This should allow students to increasingly focus on the content and value of their ePortfolios. It seems clear that students with low IT knowledge are disadvantaged initially as it is more difficult for them to engage fully with their ePortfolios.
The adoption of constructivist methods often leads to anxieties on behalf of students and teachers as there is a less definable map to follow. The ePortfolio is intended to be learner driven, and as such one would expect students to feel a degree of uncertainty at this stage in the course. Mackenzie et al (2001) suggest that there may be differences in the reflective and investigative abilities of undergraduates and postgraduates, and this is an area that I hope to examine as ePortfolios are rolled out across all the social work programmes.
Accessibility and flexibility have been highlighted as strengths of the ePortfolio. Many students relished the ability to add information or reflect upon their learning from a range of locations. There were two students who stated that they were not able to access their ePortfolios from home, with other students noting that family circumstances reduced their ability to access their home computers. These issues suggest that there is an imbalance in terms of access which inevitably affects the quality of each student’s experience.
The role of assessment seems to have been a useful driver in terms of encouraging engagement. This may well lessen as confidence and investment in ePortfolio use increases. Upon reflection, it would be advantageous to locate a task that is assessed formatively at an early stage, as this will enable students to utilise newly acquired IT skills as well as encourage early engagement. By creating ‘anchor points’ where feedback can be given to students, it is hoped that confidence will increase, and the transition from focusing on how to use ePortfolios to actually using them will incur less anxiety and be accelerated. As the value of ePortfolios becomes clearer, so the need for the aforementioned anchor points will lessen and the ePortfolios will become increasingly student driven.
It is important to note that the intended learning outcomes were met, as evidenced by the strong spectrum of results. Whilst it is difficult to pinpoint the extent to which ePortfolios are responsible for supporting reflection, the qualitative data from students and tutors suggest a vital role. There is a clear need to continue to track this student group through their degree programme as well as evaluate the extent to which modifications in relation to induction and implementation affect the experience of students and tutors. The continued use of ePortfolios is set against the backdrop of rapidly advancing technology, and as such the electronic learning curve will be ongoing.
University of Dundee
Boud, D. and Knights, S. 1996. Course design for reflective practice. In Gould, N. and Taylor, I. eds. Reflective Learning for Social Work. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Ingram, R. 2005. Reflection on the Implementation and Pedagogical Efficacy of ePortfolios. Proceedings of ePortfolio 2005 Conference. Cambridge: Eifel.
MacDonald,J., Heap, N. and Mason, R. 2001. “Have I learnt it? Evaluating skills for resource-based study using electronic resources”, British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (4) pp.419-433.
Taylor, I. 1996. Reflective learning, social work education and practice in the 21st century. In Gould, N. and Taylor, I. eds. Reflective Learning for Social Work. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Weller, M. 2002. Delivering Learning on the Net. London: Kogan Page.
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