- Getting Started: Launching ePortfolio at CUNY (0:00)
- Pedagogy first, platform second (11:50)
- What’s unique about ePortfolio as an educational technology? (18:18)
- Asking Students to Make Choices about their Digital Identities (31:05)
- Specific examples of faculty and student work (40:59)
- Key ePortfolio practices: making, sharing, integrating (51:13)
- Integrating ePortfolio pedagogy and assessment (1:00:15)
Bret Eynon, LaGuardia Community College
Laura M. Gambino, Guttman Community College
Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay Honors College
Dominique Zino, LaGuardia Community College
This interview took place on July 7th, 2016 at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, NY. The transcript below has been edited for readability and for length and the 90-minute conversation has been edited down to a 66-minute recording. For those who may want to skip to specific topics in the interview, we have provided section headers and time markers to allow for more efficient listening. However, we also wanted to give our readers and listeners the opportunity to experience both the recorded interview and the written transcript in their entirety.
Getting Started: Launching ePortfolio at CUNY
I’ve been at LaGuardia since 2000. In 2001, I helped Paul Arcario write the first grant that supported our ePortfolio work. When we got that grant, we first focused on pedagogy, influenced in part by the work I’d done with the New Media Classroom Project and the Visible Knowledge Project. In those projects we emphasized linking constructivist pedagogies with multimedia authoring as a way to help students take ownership of their learning and develop their identities as learners. As our ePortfolio work at LaGuardia grew, we started taking on assessment. We did little around assessment for the first eight years. Around 2009, as our Middle States visit approached, Paul asked us to strengthen our work with the assessment side of ePortfolio, so that grew in importance.
The development of our new First Year Seminar has in some ways shifted the balance back to pedagogy, and has added new emphasis on advisement. Each year 10,000 to 14,000 LaGuardia students are active on their portfolios. ePortfolios are used in some way in most credit programs, and to some extent in Adult and Continuing Ed.
In 2008 we held our first national conference. That same year we launched the first of six years of grant-funded work through our Making Connections National Resource Center. We worked with 70 to 80 colleges and universities nationwide around ePortfolio pedagogy and practice and built the Catalyst for Learning site (http://c2l.mcnrc.org/).
When I came to Macaulay in 2007, I found a really unique institutional structure. It’s a consortial program where the students are on eight different CUNY campuses. We don’t have our own faculty. We draw faculty from the different campuses. We don’t have our own curriculum except for four seminars. So it was an unstructured and flexible setup that required an unstructured and flexible ePortfolio solution. I came with the same orientation Bret mentioned from the Visible Knowledge Project; I was focused on pedagogy and on reflection for students, and especially on students taking ownership of their own learning and being able to design the representation of their learning. And that was a nice match for the Honors College. So we launched with all our incoming freshmen in 2008, 500 at once, and grew from there.
What has characterized ePortfolio at Macaulay is this flexibility, opening to many different pathways. It’s rhizomatic in a way, because we weren’t able to impose a structure or a plan. As a result, we’ve seen the flowering of things we didn’t expect and that may not even fit a strict definition of ePortfolio. “What is an ePortfolio?” is an interesting question that we ask all the time.
It’s been fun to see the way that students have taken hold of the concept in order to create different approaches: literary journals, travel blogs, curriculum plans, career placement portfolios, poetry collections, etc. The other exciting thing is the number of students who use the platform for group or collaborative work. There’s a large number of class ePortfolios or small groups within a class, or clubs, or student groups that put together a portfolio based on their interests that are shared. Many voices can be included, with a consensus on overall design.
I’ll say one more thing: From the beginning, we felt that visual graphic design was critical, that students express their individuality that way, and that they make the portfolio itself be a representation. A paper portfolio tends to be a black binder. But then we see someone putting stickers on it. They want it to be more than a container, to be a thing that has meaning in itself, as an object.
I’m at Guttman Community College, which opened in 2012 as the New Community College. I joined the college two weeks before we opened. One of the great opportunities we had was to rethink the community college experience for urban students. We built on a lot of the great work that we saw at LaGuardia and Macaulay and elsewhere across CUNY. And one of the things we did was to implement ePortfolio at scale, right from the start. So on the second day of our Summer Bridge program for our first cohort of students, every student created an ePortfolio.Because we’re a little newer, we focused on all different aspects of ePortfolio at once. So we’re very focused on the pedagogy and having students create a learning portfolio that spans their entire academic experience from Bridge right through commencement, connecting their curricular, co-curricular and experiential learning activities that take place out in the city. It’s also the primary vehicle for our assessment of student learning.
All students submit their portfolios at three milestones: the end of Bridge, the end of the first year, and the end of the second year. And all faculty engage in assessment where we look at not just the artifacts of student work in the portfolios, but also the reflections that go along with them. That’s the most engaging piece for faculty: the reflections. ePortfolio is also our course content delivery system. (We use Blackboard only in limited ways.) Most faculty maintain professional ePortfolios. Our student clubs and student government use it. But we also use it as an institutional repository– course teams share assignments and materials through ePortfolio. So, we’ve had that same experience where its use has blossomed in ways we didn’t foresee. But it’s safe to say ePortfolio is central to our learning culture; and that presents great opportunities and great challenges.
Pedagogy first, platform second
I want to pick up on a couple of things. First, Laura and Joe’s emphasis on collaboration shows how our practice has changed over the past 10 to 15 years. The notion of a social pedagogy for ePortfolio has transformed our notion of portfolio practice. When we first encountered ePortfolio, it was private and individual. People were wary about going public. That has really changed. We now know that the more portfolios are used as a site of exchange, communication, conversation, and collaboration, the more powerful they are. I also want to comment on Joe’s point about visual expressiveness. I’ve long been a believer in the importance of visual design in ePortfolios, and have seen that as crucial for student ownership. But it’s now more difficult than it used to be.
Our first platform required all students to learn HTML authoring. They created visually stunning portfolios, but it took a huge amount of work to train them, and that was a barrier to broad adoption. So we moved to a platform that emphasized ease of use and promised the possibility of interaction–but that required templates and came, to some extent, at the cost of visual expressiveness.
There are complex factors around the platform, related to visual expressiveness, ease of use, interaction and organization for assessment. As a result, there is no such thing as the ideal platform.
What’s unique about ePortfolio as an educational technology?
ePortfolio technology is different from other educational technologies or learning management systems because of its ability to span courses, semesters, and co-curricular spaces. It can bring together the entire student learning experience. Most educational technology is course-centric. But a student can create an ePortfolio and carry it with them across all of their learning experiences, and see the way those experiences fit together and integrate. And they can reflect on the integration of all of those different pieces. As far as I know, no other software or educational technology is designed to do that. That, to me, is what it makes it so unique and so valuable to the student learning experience.
Over the last fifteen years we’ve seen growing recognition, across higher education, that we must help students build their abilities to integrate their learning. Fifteen years ago, I don’t remember anybody talking about that. But now it’s a common discussion. We were just down at the US Department of Ed for this big national symposium on the future of higher education, and everyone in the room was talking about it: how do we help students connect their learning? How do we help them use what they’re learning? How does education add up to more than a set of discreet, isolated experiences?” It’s a big change. That’s one reason why I think the moment for ePortfolios is arriving. To some extent, at our three schools we’ve been ahead of the curve on this. But for most educators, the need for the portfolio, the need for integration, is only now becoming clear. That puts us at a really interesting moment. It’s not to say that the ePortfolio will solve all problems–the challenge of integration is not just a matter of the software. It even goes beyond the pedagogy and practice of individual faculty members. Integrative education requires a different level of institutional integration and collaboration, a common envisioning of the educational project.
We have a long way to go on that front. But integrative ePortfolio technology can help. And, as more educators recognize the need for integration, I think our integrative portfolio practice can grow increasingly sophisticated and powerful.
As the web has developed, we’ve seen a move to curation, pulling in lots of different sources, evaluating them and mashing them up. ePortfolios are a place where that can happen. That includes curating videos and images quickly and easily. Students want to be able to put something up right away and maybe reflect on it later. Portfolios are places where we can, through comments and interaction with peers and professors, push them to go beyond the first response to the deeper learning.
I’d mention two other technology developments. One is the intersection of badging, and portfolios. Badging seeks to capitalize on the motivational skill-building, level-conquering processes found in digital gaming. It can also create discreet pathways into the portfolio for external viewers. The badge lives in the portfolio, and provides a way to spotlight a particular part of the portfolio, a salient skillset, let’s say, for a particular audience. We’re now experimenting with this at LaGuardia. In the digital learning environment, students have the opportunity to “learn everywhere.” Take a course on another campus, or online. The key is, don’t leave it disconnected. Connect it with a common repository of learning. I think that’s part of what the portfolio is going to offer, that place of intersection, where diverse learning experience is connected. Badges and ePortfolios could be a part of facilitating and representing that integration.
The other thing to mention is the connection between portfolios and analytics. Clearly, learning analytics and algorithmic analysis of student data is upon us. But as of now, it’s happening at a pretty superficial level–how many clicks here and how many clicks there. That doesn’t actually tell us very much.
I see the potential for a more interesting form of analytics, linked to portfolios. Doing a machine reading of portfolios, and surfacing data patterns could support a more integrative understanding of analytics. That could be a very interesting area to explore in the future. But we have a ways to go on this.
Asking Students to Make Choices about their Digital Identities
My friend Patrick Masson says “I’ve been enrolled in this really fascinating MOOC for the past 20 years. It’s called the internet.” People don’t necessarily go to institutions to learn anymore. They don’t necessarily go to sources that the academy decides are credible. Many of our students go to YouTube as their first source of information. And often they learn more from YouTube than they do from college. So the important skill for students going forward is learning the right kinds of questions to ask, and how to evaluate answers; how to look for sources, and how to judge sources. That’s really critical. If I’m in a science fiction mind, the idea of intelligent agents assisting that process is both brilliantly utopian and a bit frightening.
I don’t want a Siri to give me the answers based on what I’ve always found before. Because the loss in such directed searching is the serendipity and discovery we used to get by browsing library shelves. For our students, the skill to learn is how to ask questions and how to judge sources.
The other skill is becoming aware that these are choices. That what Google gives you is not a transparent, unmotivated choice. Help them think about who’s controlling their information and how they can control their own information.
When we start with our incoming first year students and introducing portfolios, we do an exercise about digital identity because students come to us, 17, 18 years old, and they’re nervous about being out there. And portfolios can help them learn that the best way to have a positive digital identity is to make your own digital identity. You don’t keep yourself off the web. That can’t be done. But you make yourself searchable in ways that you approve of by putting yourself out there in ways that you approve of.
We do the same thing, and we ask: What do you want that identity to look like? How might your academic identity be different from your Facebook identity or your Instagram identity? Your ePortfolio is the place where you get to design and construct and develop who you are as a learner and a scholar. And that can be a powerful thing to students, and for many of our students. And that’s a key part of the portfolio: they own it. It’s not institutionally owned. They’re the owners. Back to that idea of customization and ownership. The goal is helping students not just own the portfolio, but become owners and agents of their own learning process.
We mentioned digital identity and learning identity. Both are increasingly salient needs for today’s students. For me, the idea of digital identity goes back to the early ’90s, wanting students to be more than consumers of knowledge, wanting them to be creators of knowledge; more than consumers of the web, creators of the web. That idea–linking constructivist learning and multimedia authoring—was part of what was behind the portfolio. Now we also understand that your identity as a learner is crucial to the learning process. We’ve seen a broad shift in our understanding of learning: first it was just content acquisition; then it was cognitive skills development; and now we increasingly understand that affective dimensions are involved as well. The whole person is engaged in the learning processes.
As students learn, they craft a new sense of self, engaged with the world, engaged with the knowledge of the world. We now realize that we must help them develop their capacity to do that throughout their lives. That’s increasingly clear as a goal. That’s another reason we may be on the cusp of an ePortfolio moment.
ePortfolio practice is well suited to address this need. ePortfolio practices can help students engage in this critical process: making choices about who I am, who I want to be, what I need to know, how to learn it. How to become an adaptive critical thinker and always coming back to that sense of self: the deeper question of who I am and how I take ownership of myself.
The scholar who helped me think about that is Marcia Baxter Magolda, who talks about purposeful self-authorship. All three of those words are important: purposeful, self, and authorship. That concept helped me think about what is going on at the most sophisticated level of portfolio practice.
Maybe it’s a LaGuardia thing, or CUNY community colleges, or community college more broadly; or maybe it’s CUNY, I don’t know. But when you work with first-generation students, you see how the process of self-authorship is crucial for their success. It makes a big difference for students. There is very solid evidence on this.
Our LaGuardia data–and data from other campuses–shows that the ePortfolio process has a significant positive impact on retention and student success. Other factors matter, too: pedagogy, peer mentoring, etc. But I think that the process of self-authorship is a powerful factor for our students.
Specific examples of faculty and student work
I’d point to our Graduation Plan. In our First Year Seminar, we use ePortfolio to introduce all students to a process of self-examination, self-assessment, and purposeful planning. It starts with simple steps–identifying and reflecting on your goals in life, your values, strengths and interests. Then we ask them to connect that to real choices, thinking about career, transfer, and ultimately, “What courses should I take next semester? How am I going to move forward in this building my education in concordance with my goals and values?” The ePortfolio template gives faculty and peer mentors a set of prompts to use with students. It’s a practical exercise in purposeful self-authorship. Done well, this process is very powerful. And some faculty go further. In Natural Sciences, after doing the Graduation Plan, Preethi Radhakrishnan has her students do a video of a digital story. And the videos students create are incredible. In their own voices, students connect their education to their new sense of self. This opens the opportunity for a recursive examination, as students revisit this process, looking at how they’re changing over time.
So while we were talking about this, I looked up one student’s ePortfolio, called “The Utopia of Daniel” (http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/utopiaofdaniel/). So Daniel is the student. If you look across the top, Daniel has his categories for what is in his portfolio, and it’s Home, In The News, Cars, College, Gaming, Technology, TV and Movies, and Random. And so you notice, college is one tiny little piece of him and his learning. And then he’s got this rich list of subcategories for each one, and experiences that led him to internships. Daniel was interested in cars and went to Texas to visit the Delorean factory. And boom, he got an internship with Delorean, in part because he had been thinking about how his interest in cars matched his interest in filmmaking and digital production and computer science.
Looking at his ePortfolio you get a real picture of Daniel as a person. Lots of movie reviews, and technology reviews, like which external hard drive is the best for video editing. And he gets questions from people interested in buying technology.
Here’s one: “How to Upgrade Your Ram on Your Mac Book Pro: Super Simple and Dirt Cheap.” That’s not something that he learned in school, but it connects to everything he’s interested in learning and doing. The idea is to collect and integrate all these different pieces of student learning and then make that available to a wider audience, so that you can engage with that audience. That’s been a key advantage for our students.
Another example is a student who was assigned to write a review of a play without seeing it just by reading other critics’ reviews. She did it, she posted it, and the playwright saw it, and left a comment saying, “Wow, I’m really interested in your ideas. There will be two tickets waiting for you at the box office. Please come talk to me afterwards, and so we can discuss what you thought.” So that changes the learning–it’s very different from just learning in an insulated way. It makes the learning process permeable to the outside world. That’s very powerful for students.
I’ll tell you two quick stories. First, I had student a couple of years ago whose initial goal in Bridge–he was very, very clear–was to get his degree and become an auto mechanic. That’s just what he thought he should do, and what his family thought he should do. He took our First Year Seminar, our Ethnographies of Work course, and learned that he could be a successful student. And we got him to delve into his goals a little more, to do some career exploration. Meanwhile, he started to share his drawings in his ePortfolio. We started to see them, and then I saw him doing them in class too. And we started to talk about that. Students in his class and his advisor and I encouraged him to talk to someone in the art field and what his possibilities could be.
Over the course of the year, as he was doing his journaling in his portfolio, and getting all this feedback, he did this research project in his portfolio about what art careers are. And he realized that art was something you could actually pursue as a career. He’s now finishing his Bachelor’s in Graphic Design.
And here’s a second story that’s a little different. Back when I was at Tunxis Community College in Connecticut, I taught an Intro to Programming class, a very tough class. One year I had a very quiet young woman who would sit in the back. She never really spoke in class. It seemed like she wasn’t sure if this is what she wanted to do. In their ePortfolios, I had them do reflective journaling on their design process; I had them use the portfolio to share with each other and comment on how they solved particular problems.
I remember looking at this student’s portfolio–she had changed the color; she put up all this comic artwork. It was one of the most beautiful portfolios I‘ve ever seen. She’d done this all on her own.
So they all did their group portfolio review process. And I come in the next day, and there are all of these students sitting around her going, “Show us how to do that.” “How did you do that?” “That is like the coolest thing I have ever seen.” And you could see her mindset shift: I can do this, I can be one of them, I can hold my own, I can be a computer scientist. It was an amazing experience that helped craft her sense of self and her sense of purpose in this field. And I will never forget that moment walking in and seeing that, and then just watching her grow and move through the program all because of what she had done on her portfolio and the social interaction it supported.
And I guess there’s ways you can replicate that without the portfolio. But here, the portfolio was the vehicle that helped her craft her identity, because she had taken ownership and put that sense of herself in her portfolio. That helped her see how she could connect to the work she was doing, connect to a place in the field.
Key ePortfolio practices: making, sharing, integrating
That’s tough for us because our ePortfolios are 100 percent student driven, student motivated, student designed. It’s sort of build and they will come. Or let them build it, and then they’re there. It’s a respect for the individual student as a creator and as a person and as a learner. And whether that happens in the classroom or somewhere else, the message that comes across is that you can make something here. I think one of the things that make us human beings is that we like to make things. It’s like if you give a child a set of Legos, they want to make something with it. So it’s making that set of Legos available and usable. And then maybe showing them a few examples of what other people have made.
I would add reflection to that, the reflective pedagogy. To me, that’s where students articulate their learning and see it for themselves. One of my students talked about this in their portfolio more eloquently than I can–I wish I could quote him here– but he said what he loved about ePortfolio was its ability to combine process and product. Doing the work is interesting, but reflecting on it and thinking about how he got that product and the process he went through to get there, that’s much more interesting. Carol Rodgers and others say reflection is where learning takes place. We need to stop and think and to articulate our learning process. Portfolio practice builds the ability to do that, to reflect and share reflection. Reflection is not always a solitary process because we need to reflect in community and share as well.
The core of what’s pedagogically valuable about portfolios is the way it makes learning visible. It makes the learning visible to students themselves, supporting the reflective process. It also makes the learning visible to peers, for a social pedagogy. And it makes the learning visible to faculty for individual and collective assessment. Engaging in this process collectively, using ePortfolios can help faculty better understand that what students learn in my course connects to what they learn in your course, and how it all adds up. Finally, by making learning visible, it opens the way for integrative pedagogy. That’s the frontier we’re working on. Seeing how students learn over time, across courses and disciplines, how what’s happening in one area connects to another. Integration between the learning experience and the evolving sense of self.
Integrative pedagogy points to all those connections. Of course, it’s a deeply challenging pedagogy. It’s an unfamiliar pedagogy, in that it asks faculty to step outside their area of expertise and think about all these other things happening outside their classroom.
There’s a learning curve for faculty, for students, and for everyone else, too. It’s a slow learning curve, but an essential one.
Integration won’t happen for students unless faculty scaffold and support it, help them see the connection: how does this class relate to you? To who you are? To who you’re becoming?
It takes faculty a while to learn how to do that. It’s kind of scary, risky. It requires us to provide scaffolding and support to faculty as they think it through, learn how to do it, step by step. We need to encourage it. Reward it. Support faculty as they learn from others and try it out themselves. Get used to looking at students’ portfolios as they enter the class, seeing who they are, what they bring to the class, what they’re doing in other classes. It’s really building a culture where it’s widely understood – yeah, this is what we do here. We as a campus are working together to support the learning and growth of these complex individuals, our students, who we value so much. That takes time and practice.
That’s why building meaningful ePortfolio practice is challenging. The technology is simple. But the pedagogy is not easy to learn. It requires an extended process of engagement and professional learning, a sustained collective engagement.
That’s difficult to do in higher education. Our institutions are not set up to do this. We’re not set up as integrative institutions. Faculty are not familiar with or prepared for an integrative approach. And students aren’t accustomed to it, either. It’s a paradigm shift, across the board, that requires a high degree of institutional support, institutional intentionality, institutional integration. That’s what we’re working on now. We’re all inventing a new practice for higher education, and it takes time.
Integrating ePortfolio pedagogy and assessment
I don’t see them in tension at all. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. They complement each other nicely. When we have our Assessment Days, where all of our faculty are getting together, it’s not just looking at artifacts of the work. The work is great. But faculty find the greatest value in the reflections, and looking for integration. Because that’s one of our core outcomes. We want students to integrate and apply and critically think. Because we have the portfolio, because we have not only the artifacts, but also the reflections and all the different pieces of their learning, we’re getting a much richer picture of the student learning experience. And we’re able to see what students are learning and how they’re learning it, which enables us to do a better assessment of our learning outcomes.
When we think about assessment, it’s important to distinguish between assessment for accountability and assessment that’s designed to enhance student learning, faculty learning, and institutional learning. When we talk about assessment at LaGuardia we’re talking about that latter category. Assessment for accountability can be done more simply in ways that are ultimately not very satisfying or meaningful. But we’re talking about assessment that has a deeper purpose–to help us work more collectively and effectively with students to transform the learning experience.
Grounding assessment in the real work of the classroom makes it more authentic, makes it easier to connect the insights generated by the assessment back to the practice that generated them. “Okay, here’s the work, here’s the assignment, here’s the result–let’s go back and redesign the assignment. Let’s go back and look at the work again so that we’ll see a real adaptive cycle.”
The portfolio can facilitate that by making the artifacts available. And it can facilitate the next step of that, which I think Laura is pointing to, which is thinking about those discreet components of the work as part of a larger picture with the student. That’s powerful for educators–seeing the whole student, seeing the evolution of the whole student.
Pedagogy should inform assessment and vice versa. They have to dovetail. Integrative reflection is key to both. Reflection is the site of connection and crossing boundaries. It opens all sorts of possibilities for learning and change. We’re asking students to reflect and learn about themselves as learners, to think about how they learn best, how they can get stronger as learners. We’re asking faculty to reflect and understand what’s happening in the learning process, what students bring into the classroom, and how they’re changing. And we’re asking the institution to reflect and learn on a broad scale: who are our students? Are we serving them well? Are we meeting their needs? Are we really doing what we say we’re doing? And when we ask those questions, we must constantly bring it back to action: “What does this tell us about what we should do?”So assessment is not an end unto itself. It’s really about thoughtful change. How should we change what we’re doing to make it better? That’s essential if we’re going to be successful as 21st century educational institutions. We have to do that. We’re not given the choice to just stay as we’ve been. We must adapt to very new situations. The new learning ecosystem is filled with powerful new players. If we’re not figuring out how we can best help our students–what we have to offer them and how we can do it better–we’ll be left behind. To my mind, it’s imperative that we in higher education figure out how to do that. There are lots of facets to that work, but it’s now increasingly clear that ePortfolio can play a crucial role in helping higher education rise to this moment.
 A pioneering, teaching-with-technology faculty development program coordinated by CUNY’s American Social History Project from 1996-2002, the NEH-funded New Media Classroom served educators from schools, colleges/universities, and cultural institutions nationwide. Under Eynon’s leadership, NMC helped educators develop strategies for using new digital resources in history and culture classrooms.
 Co-led by Eynon and Georgetown University’s Randy Bass, coordinated by Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, and funded by Atlantic Philanthropies from 2000-2005, the Visible Knowledge Project engaged 70 faculty from 22 campuses nationwide in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning projects focused on the use of new digital resources to support adaptive, embodied, and situated learning. For more info, see: https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/vkp/