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Professional Development for High-Impact Eportfolio Practice
Research has shown that sophisticated eportfolio practice can advance student success, deepen student learning, and catalyze institutional change (Eynon, Gambino, and Torok 2014). In a fast-changing learning ecosystem, marked by digital innovation and calls for “unbundling,” eportfolio practice can help us build more integrative and adaptive universities (Bass and Eynon 2016). But high-impact eportfolio practice will never gain wide traction in higher education without the inclusion of effective professional development. To move beyond what Phil Hill has called the “purgatory” of pilot programs, colleges and universities must support professional development with resources equal to or even greater than the resources committed to developing new tools and systems (2014). While this priority is often acknowledged, robust support for faculty and staff learning is relatively rare in higher education.
Professional development is particularly critical for successful eportfolio practice. Eportfolio technology is simple to learn, but integrative eportfolio pedagogy takes time and support to master. Since eportfolio practice is most effective when students use it to connect learning across courses, disciplines, and semesters, eportfolio projects must move beyond “early adopters,” engaging a broader group of faculty and staff to construct shared purpose and coordinated design.
Building and sustaining a high-impact eportfolio initiative depends on effective, pedagogy-focused professional development. Sophisticated integrative eportfolio pedagogy can help advance student learning and success (Eynon, Gambino, and Torok 2014). But few faculty or staff members are familiar with such pedagogy, and even those who are need opportunities to deepen their craft. Professional development is the most efficient and engaging way to address this need.
Professional development designed to advance high-impact eportfolio practices can address a range of issues, from effective classroom teaching with eportfolio to training on eportfolio platforms, linkages with cocurricular learning or outcomes assessment, exploring disciplinary modes of inquiry and reflection, and making connections with other high-impact practices, such as first-year experience programs. It provides greater understanding of the broad usages of eportfolio and connects faculty members and student life professionals in a concerted focus on student learning and growth.
Professional development can support powerful eportfolio practice and build student, faculty, and institutional learning. Our conclusion, based on years of experience with eportfolio and our research with the eportfolio teams of the Connect to Learning (C2L) network, is that thoughtful, sustained professional development processes are a crucial indicator for campus eportfolio success.
Connect to Learning
C2L, a FIPSE-funded project, engaged twenty-four campus eportfolio teams in a four-year community of practice to learn together, document effective practices, and develop resources for the eportfolio field. Each sustaining their own campus eportfolio initiative, C2L campuses represented a diverse cross-section of higher education, from Boston University to San Francisco State and Virginia Tech, from CUNY’s LaGuardia and Guttman Community Colleges to Salt Lake Community College.
C2L teams engaged in mutual professional development, linking campus practice, annual face-to-face meetings, and online exchange (Eynon, Gambino, and Torok 2012). Each campus team curated an eportfolio to represent their practices and their campus eportfolio story. These portfolios are shared on the Catalyst for Learning: eportfolio research and resources website (c2l.mcnrc.org). The site also details the Catalyst Framework, a theoretical framework for launching, building, and sustaining a high-impact eportfolio practice.
Through our research, we found that successful eportfolio initiatives address multiple layers of campus activity—from classrooms to institutional policy—while addressing work in five interlocking sectors: pedagogy, outcomes assessment, professional development, technology, and scaling up. Effective work in those sectors is guided by the design principles of inquiry, reflection, and integration (see fig. 1).
Figure 1. The Catalyst Framework
Drawing on the Literature
High-impact eportfolio-focused professional development shares many characteristics with other types of professional development. Since the professional development literature is rich, we will touch on three threads that proved helpful to C2L teams.
First, C2L teams read and discussed Thomas Angelo’s essay, “Doing Faculty Development as if We Valued Learning Most: Transformative Guidelines from Research and Practice.” Angelo posits seven guidelines for productive professional learning communities, including build shared trust, design backward and work forward, and think and act systematically (2001). These guidelines highlight faculty engagement, crucial to the work of eportfolio initiatives.
The importance of institutional connection for eportfolio professional development was highlighted in Pat Hutchings’ 2006 essay, “Fostering Integrative Learning through Faculty Development.” Hutchings found that professional development helps faculty gain familiarity with integrative learning concepts and begin to change their practice. Equally important, she argues, is building a campus culture that supports integrative teaching and learning, inside the classroom and beyond.
C2L teams also learned that eportfolio-focused professional development leaders can and must see themselves as agents of institutional change. In “Moving from the Periphery to the Center of the Academy: Faculty Developers as Leaders of Change,” Dawson et al. discuss the ways that faculty developers in higher education are increasingly asked to manage institutional change, translating campus-wide goals into the realities of everyday classroom practice (2010).
Building on faculty and staff pedagogical expertise; connecting with and changing the campus culture; attracting administrative support; and consciously attending to issues related to systemic institutional transformation—these best practices commonly found in the literature can strengthen professional development around eportfolio. Educators interested in building high-impact eportfolio projects need to keep all of these issues in mind as they envision, design, and guide their professional development programs.
Professional Development Structures
Campuses employ a range of different professional development structures, often calibrating their strategies to campus-specific cultures, the scale of available resources to support professional development, and the institutional priority placed on teaching.
Workshops. Some C2L campuses offered short, two- to three-hour workshops to faculty and staff. Some focused on eportfolio technology while others included discussions on pedagogical possibilities that the technology affords. Sometimes workshops complemented more extended processes.
Teaching Circles and Seminars. One variation on the workshop approach is a Teaching/Learning Circle. A highly flexible professional development structure, Teaching Circles tend to be small, unstructured, and often self-initiated discussion groups. A small group of educators meet monthly, for roughly an hour, to share experiences on a teaching issue of common interest.
Sustained Pedagogy Seminars. The C2L teams who were seeking sustained and structured engagement offered more intensive professional development, from summer or mid-year institutes to semester- or year-long seminars. These approaches, commonly offered through teaching and learning centers, allowed more time for conversation and exploration. As such, the intensive professional development seminars helped participants learn more about eportfolio before they began carefully redesigning courses to integrate eportfolio practice calibrated to their disciplinary modes. Sustaining the community of practice while faculty implemented eportfolio-enhanced courses offered opportunities for celebrating successes, trouble-shooting problems, gathering evidence, and building reflective practice.
Inquiry, Reflection, and Integration in Professional Development
C2L campus portfolios used a range of structures to support faculty and staff learning and advance sophisticated integrative eportfolio practice. Across different structures, we found that effective professional development practices used the design principles of inquiry, reflection, and integration.
Inquiry is a type of investigative, problem-based learning. In a professional development context, an inquiry provides opportunities for participants to ask questions and explore their own teaching practices and their relationship to student learning. Professional development programs employing collective inquiry ask faculty and staff to use classrooms as laboratories for scholarly experiments with new pedagogies, practices, and teaching strategies. Inquiry approaches encourage participants to grapple with pressing questions about teaching, learning, pedagogy, curriculum design, and assessment. Inquiry grounds the exploration of those questions in real-life, everyday experiences with students.
Eportfolio-related professional development activities on C2L campuses incorporated the principle of inquiry by engaging participating educators in exploring integrative eportfolio pedagogy, considering how to fit eportfolio into their own practices, and investigating the impact on student learning. Such inquiry can take place individually or collectively. While serving as the subject of inquiry, the eportfolio can also make changes in student learning visible to faculty and staff and accessible for collective examination. Shared review of student learning artifacts or of portfolios themselves can shift the focus from teaching to learning, and to consideration of the complex dynamic between teaching goals and the complexities of student learning. Using eportfolios to contextualize specific pieces of student work with an understanding of the student’s broader experiences can help faculty and staff think in new ways about students and deepen their inquiry into integrative pedagogy and practice.
C2L teams often combined individual and collective inquiry, asking participants to explore relevant literature and generate questions, experiment in their own classrooms, and return to the group for shared conversation. Groups can be department-based or interdisciplinary. Members in a teaching circle might consider ways to utilize social pedagogy with eportfolio, help each other plan experiments in their courses, and then meet to discuss their findings. Or they might, through a professional development opportunity linked to assessment, explore the nature of student learning around a particular competency. Through this process, faculty and staff can consider whether an institution or program is meeting its goals and identify gaps in curriculum and instruction.
Collective inquiry is often connected to programmatic or institutional outcomes assessment. An authentic outcomes assessment process that involves guided inquiry around student learning outcomes can become an opportunity for professional learning. When this process generates recommendations for change in programmatic goals and practices, professional development is often needed to implement recommendations and consider their effectiveness.
Manhattanville College uses cross-disciplinary inquiry to shape eportfolio-focused teaching circles:
Driven by an inquiry-oriented design process, we ask faculty and staff to participate in a needs assessment process in which they are first asked to identify their instructional/programmatic goals and outcomes.…Participants are asked to reflect on the degree to which their current instructional and programming practices are working to meet those goals. Identifying gaps between where they want to be and where they are sets up an inquiry process in which they can ask genuine questions about the ways in which eportfolio can be used as a pedagogical tool to help them bridge that gap or to transform ineffective strategies/practices (McClam 2014).
Sophisticated inquiry requires focused time and attention. Investigative groups can systematically explore well-defined questions about teaching and learning; or the inquiry process can be more self-directed, as participants review relevant research and develop their own research questions. Year-long professional development seminars at LaGuardia use this model, unfolding inquiry across semesters. Connected Learning, ReThinking the Capstone Experience, and other LaGuardia seminars use this process, helping participants not only implement eportfolio but also deepen their insights into broader questions.
Reflection is a fundamental component of effective professional development. Building directly on inquiry, reflective processes help participants examine and make meaning out of their own experiences and the experiences of their students. Reflective professional development deepens faculty and staff learning and helps them develop as practitioners.
Dewey scholar Carol Rodgers outlined a four-stage cycle for scaffolding both student and faculty reflection (see fig. 2). The four-stage process of (1) being present in the experience, (2) describing the experience, (3) analyzing the experience, and (4) shaping plans for new experiences builds on an inquiry approach grounded in educators’ own classroom experiences. At the same time, this process can help them move past concentrating mostly on lesson plans and highlighting their successes to a more productive professional learning experience (Rodgers 2001).
Figure 2. Rodgers’ Reflective Cycle
Building on inquiry, reflective activities help participants document and share their learning about their own practices and about the students they work with. Through reflective processes, faculty and staff learn to become more reflective practitioners. Reflections can be written, oral, artistic, or multimedia in form, taking place individually or in community. Reflection allows participants to connect experiences and integrate new knowledge. Through careful reflection, participants examine their teaching experiences and consider the implications for broader use of high-impact practices, integrative pedagogies and classroom-based eportfolio assignments.
In a professional development context, reflection can take different forms. Workshops often use brief reflective activities such as an open-ended post-seminar survey. Longer, more intensive professional programs allow for staged written and oral reflections, giving faculty and staff time to make meaning out of their successes and challenges. The common process of lesson-sharing creates possibilities for reflective thinking, particularly when the process is scaffolded to encourage faculty members to move from “what I did” to “what students did,” from pedagogical design to the complex realities of classroom implementation, and from a description of teaching to an analysis of student learning and grounded consideration of implications.
Peer mentorship programs can also encourage reflection, guiding faculty to think carefully about both teaching and learning. Reflection in community moves beyond meaning-making at the individual course level to spotlight broader challenges, such as gaps in disciplinary curricula, college-wide approaches to new technologies, and cross-disciplinary strategies to address general education and integrative learning goals.
Guttman Community College’s assessment days use institution-wide reflection linked to outcomes assessment. At these two-day-long professional development meetings, faculty and student advisors work together to use eportfolio to assess student learning achievement and reflect on the alignment of outcomes at the assignment, course, and program level (Gambino 2014).
Reflection deepens the value of eportfolio-focused professional development. By connecting reflective professional learning with the power of eportfolio to make student learning visible, eportfolio-based professional development has the potential to go beyond helping participants become more proficient with eportfolio pedagogy. Done well, it helps faculty and staff become more focused on students and develop the habits of mind needed to support transformative student learning campus-wide.
Integration builds on the reflective, meaning-making process helping participants move toward synthesizing and transferring their learning. In this context, integration refers to the transfer of specific knowledge (about teaching and learning) from particular classroom experiences to broader contexts, extending to sustained practice, adaptation to other courses, and changes in departmental or college practice. Integration is operative when faculty and staff apply insights from specific instances to broader contexts, hereby deepening and sustaining innovations, and turning creative, one-shot experiments into broadly adopted changes.
Professional development programs provide an opportunity for integration as faculty and staff work with and learn from each other to build interdisciplinary communities of practice. These communities allow participants to share and critique each other’s assignments, course or program designs, and assessments in a collegial manner, integrating new learning into their practices. Integration provides an opportunity to implement pedagogical innovations in broader contexts, across disciplines, and outside the classroom.
Integration that fosters interdisciplinary collaborations between faculty and staff can spur institutional change by deepening the learning that takes place beyond the classroom. LaGuardia’s year-long professional development seminar, The Art of Advisement: Learning and Implementing Holistic Advisement Skills, creates a professional learning community consisting of both faculty and student affairs staff. The community explores eportfolio’s role in helping students integrate their curricular and cocurricular learning, and the use of eportfolios for improved advisement. Faculty and staff work together to apply their shared learning to advance a meaningful and effective advisement structure for students.
Integration is key to developing a broad and effective eportfolio initiative. Faculty and staff are expert learners; they have mastered the ability to transfer knowledge from abstract to specific in their own disciplines. Professional development can use these expert learning skills to help faculty and staff connect theories about integrative, reflective eportfolio pedagogy to their courses and cocurricular experiences. Conversely, integration encourages educators to build on their experiences testing new approaches by transferring lessons learned to new settings. Insights developed through classroom-based inquiry can be extended when faculty refine and apply them to new courses. Taking those insights into broader conversations about programmatic curriculum and institutional policy creates opportunities to design for coherence and create more integrative learning experiences for students.
Professional development is a critical component in the cultivation of a robust campus eportfolio initiative. C2L research findings show that effective eportfolio-related professional development activities are guided by the design principles of inquiry, reflection, and integration. These principles come to life when collective classroom-based inquiry and recurring reflections guide faculty and staff to construct and apply deeper understanding about teaching and learning. Thoughtful professional development—in combination with attention to the other Catalyst sectors—can advance the development of vibrant learning organizations. When that happens on a broad scale, across higher education, eportfolio practice will begin to realize its potential for building student learning and transformative change.
This article is an adaptation of a chapter from the forthcoming book, High Impact ePortfolio Practice: A Catalyst for Student, Faculty, and Institutional Learning, which will be available in January 2017 from Stylus Publishing, LLC.
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Bret Eynon, associate dean for academic affairs, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York
Laura M. Gambino, associate dean for assessment and technology, Stella and Charles Guttman Community College,
City University of New York