Portfolios Advance Integrative Learning at St. Olaf
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
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
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
Technical Glitches, Public
Possibilities, and Pitfalls
Higher education professionals
can see electronic portfolios as a curse or a blessinga
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
Questions raised to students
about some of their content "going public"
may contribute to a learning process in and of itselfthe
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,
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.
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