May 2003  

Electronic Portfolios Advance Integrative Learning at St. Olaf College

Many colleges and universities across the country are developing innovative ways to help students chart their educational pathways through college and reflect on what they are learning. One promising strategy is the development of individual student portfolios that capture a student's learning achievements over time. Technology has also opened up possibilities for expanding the use of portfolios while also tapping students' expertise in online learning and Web development.

Many institutions have pooled their efforts to create useful software or to figure out how portfolios may help students learn better. The American Association for Higher Education's Web site features The Portfolio Clearinghouse, which shows how different electronic portfolios are emerging in a variety of forms. One is the portfolio as a finished product-something to show to future employers and a catalog of learning, accomplishments, experiences, resumes, and best papers. Some of these are built with specially designed software so they may be used for grading and assessment. Other portfolios are more process-oriented-more of a cache of ideas and hyperlink digressions. The latter kind offers an insight into how a student puts his or her personal stamp on their learning using their own words and associations. These portfolios, however, may be less useful as an assessment tool.

The Genius of Hyperlinks

To David Booth, director for the Center for Integrative Studies and associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College, assessment is not the primary question for their Web portfolio project. Rather, this project is geared to an Aristotelian notion of "genius"—finding similarity among dissimilar things, and the students' ability to communicate these notions. Booth and his colleagues argue for portfolios based primarily on this rationale. Booth is interested in students expressing themselves through this newer medium, one that may invite new ways of thinking about their learning. Along with the process of translating from syllabus to Web page for the outside world, students must justify their content choices.

The plunge into a Web-based project was sparked by discussion among faculty; it was committed to in 1999 along with the establishment of the Center for Integrative Studies (CIS). The CIS sponsors programs intended to help students focus on meaningful relationships among the many parts of their undergraduate experiences, and in particular works with students in self-designed individual majors (for whom the portfolios are a requirement). The Center secured funding from the Mellon foundation for the project.

Looking over the projects from the students, the first thing you may notice is a big difference from one portfolio to the next. With the lack of a common structure, it is not easy to immediately compare one student's work to another's. The "blank page" approach is often more difficult for students-the college never "offered a template of any kind, let alone an application that shapes the collection of artifacts. The only applications we endorse are simple HTML editors," Booth says.

Web page hyperlinks, Booth says, "demonstrate the point of connection between things whose relationship might not be self-evident." For example, a student can pick a subject to write about and link to a piece of artwork, a photograph, a political cartoon, and a novel excerpt within the same piece. This juxtaposition is easy on the Web. Designers of the program also hope that students develop "Web literacy"-the ability to be a critical consumer of Web-based information.

The results may be messy, even euphoric-some resemble a painting dragged home by the kindergarten student. It's also apparent that this may be the first foray into a public intellectual life for students. It is the process that Booth and his colleagues are interested in: if the end product combines individual tastes, talents, and interests with the student's attempts to answer the significant questions of his or her major, then the portfolio is a success. Each Web portfolio has an original design and offers a fresh experience, and creating links between disparate college courses is a more natural thing to do with this medium.

Habits of Mind

So in what ways are these freestyle portfolios tethered to the curriculum? CIS organized the loose structure of the portfolios around four "habits of mind" that are central to a liberal education at St. Olaf: integrative thinking (recognizing relationships among things thought dissimilar), self-reflexive thinking (recontextualizing past experience in light of new learning), thinking in community (seeking connections between personal work and that of others with similar interests), and thinking in context (linking conversations in the academy and resources and issues in the wider society).

Students who design their majors at St. Olaf work closely with advisors to review their content choices and relevance to their course of study-a process that parallels the design-your-own major. Students must make sure the portfolios reflect the themes of the major and are thematically unified and coherent. They "should express a clear intention on the part of the student regarding unity of content, organization, and aesthetics," according to the Web site. It should include work of many types, gathered from throughout a student's career, so that it can function both as a presentation of the central interests of a student's major studies and as a chronicle of an overall career.

Technical Glitches, Public Possibilities, and Pitfalls

Higher education professionals can see electronic portfolios as a curse or a blessing—a triumph for free speech or a nightmare of controversy when students' tastes or views may run counter to the university's. Because links to the community-at-large (for example, sources of research or a list of links) are so important, it would be ideal for students to have their portfolios develop on the World Wide Web from the get-go, but there are the legal, taste, and confidentiality issues.

Questions raised to students about some of their content "going public" may contribute to a learning process in and of itself-the kind many student activists and newspaper staff find themselves encountering. "We publish frameworks for thinking about these issues, and encourage prudent consultation between students and advisors," Booth says. The public nature of the portfolios enables students to form a learning community with their peers and show their work to the world: potential future employers, fellow activists, and the public in general. In his rationale for the program, Booth writes that the online availability of the students' work "promotes civic bridge-building." Students may see a larger, public agenda for their work—it becomes relevant. Additionally, the public nature of the portfolios invites students to keep in mind an "augmented audience" when they write their papers, instead of tailoring their perspective and style to a certain professor.

Some "flagrantly last minute" Web portfolios reveal that students may have failed to connect the project to their learning process, but Booth hopes in the future that the portfolios will be started earlier and integrated more fully into the entire St. Olaf general education curriculum. Currently the portfolios are required for some students, and none are graded. They are exploring a possible peer grading system for the future to encourage students to work early and often on the portfolios—the way to get the most out of the project, leaving time for reflection.

Students enjoy three levels of support for the implementation aspect: IT staff, technology student mentors, and staff at a multimedia center. Students develop their portfolios on a local network server, and later move them to the college's server to make it Web-accessible to everyone. The hard reality of servers and limited technological training for every student is the biggest barrier. "There are a few wrinkles in the server system that defeat a few students every year," Booth admits. Once the server problems are overcome, Booth dreams "that students will be able to tinker with the Web site twice a day"—and this round-the-clock learning is what many schools aspire to for their students. The Web-based portfolios are also frequently the only opportunity students get to build a Web site in their busy undergraduate careers. In the end, "Almost all the students develop valuable technology skills," Booth says.

For information about St. Olaf College's Web Portfolio program, visit www.stolaf.edu/depts/cis/web_portfolios.htm; for samples of student portfolios, visit www.stolaf.edu/depts/cis/AACU/Examples.html.

For a listing of electronic portfolio projects-, visit the American Association for Higher Education's Web site at www.aahe.org/teaching/pfoliosearch3.cfm; to reach the Electronic Portfolio Action Committee, visit www.educause.edu/vcop/eport/.

Watch for a practitioner's guide on integrative learning this fall from AAC&U's Greater Expectations (GEx) initiative. For more information on the GEx Forum on Twenty-first Century Liberal Arts Education Practice, visit www.aacu.org/gex/Forum/index.cfm.

For information on AAC&U's upcoming meeting Technology, Learning, and Intellectual Development, visit www.aacu.org/meetings/tech2003/index.cfm.