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A JITP article, as rendered in an XML WordPress export.

Troublescraping: Migrating JITP’s Archive to Manifold

Brandon Walsh

This piece finds Brandon Walsh in commentary around the challenges of standardizing over 300 WordPress articles to be restaged in layout as Manifold texts. Brandon walks readers through the technical and procedural steps underlying this stage of the migration process, in turn highlighting the oft-hidden process by which text data is normalized and translated across open publishing platforms.

Read more… Troublescraping: Migrating JITP’s Archive to Manifold

Sculpture (Detail) by El Anatsui / Jack Shainman Gallery / The Armory Show 2010 /

Our Stories of Becoming a College Student: A Digital Writing Project for First Year Students

Philip Kreniske, Karen Goodlad, Jennifer Sears, and Sandra Cheng

This blogging assignment serves as a low-stakes activity that encourages students to make sense of the social, emotional, and bureaucratic challenges in their transition to college, and to simultaneously develop digital literacy.

Read more… Our Stories of Becoming a College Student: A Digital Writing Project for First Year Students


Learning and Reflecting with ISUComm ePortfolios: Exploring Technological and Curricular Places


EPortfolios are acknowledged as a high-impact practice in a student’s university experience (Kahn 2014; AAEEBL 2016). For our multimodal, place-based curriculum (Blakely and Pagnac 2012), we envision ePortfolios as an environment of discovery, exploration, and research, and a place to create connections. While David Hailey (2014) discusses problems with the place metaphor and how it makes it more difficult to evaluate websites as texts, we find the reverse is helpful. Seeking to better teach electronic communication in this context, we developed an ePortfolio platform using open-source software, a platform that promotes the place metaphor as it affords students the ability to guide audiences through its architectural features and its unique configuration of pages and links. Enhanced by our pedagogy, which teaches a scaffolded process of research, critical inquiry, composition, and reflection, students use our platform to define themselves as growing scholars and professionals in an online place.

Our approach to the implementation of an ePortfolio system in our foundational communication program is one where—as characterized by Michael Day (2009)—multiple perspectives and strengths are appreciated and utilized to accomplish important programmatic goals. In this article we describe 1) our ISUComm ePortfolios as an environment for student learning in our large Foundation Courses program, 2) the challenge of developing the technology and support structure needed to enhance our pedagogy, and 3) how we more fully integrated reflection throughout the semester and emphasized the crucial role it plays in student learning. As a result of this iterative process, we describe how pedagogy and technology can and should mediate each other in ePortfolio development and implementation. We then conclude by describing how we are scaling up to further develop our platform and its various subsystems.



EPortfolios are widely acknowledged as a high-impact practice in a student’s university experience (Kahn 2014; AAEEBL 2016). In this article we theorize our ISUComm ePortfolios as part of an environment for student learning, within which students explore themselves as university students on a particular campus. Students are challenged to become reflective communicators who recognize the transfer potential of their communication learning, including the affordances of the web, through their multimodal work in our program. Indeed, the concept of place has emerged as integral to our thinking about the interaction between technology and pedagogy in our program: learning occurs in deliberately designed environments that encourage exploration, growth, and reflection on that growth. Blakely and Pagnac (2012) note that

[t]he transition to being a successful university student is seen as a movement toward more generative and adaptive ways of understanding and being in the world, a process that happens on many levels and through many means [ . . . ] The transition to and subsequent experience at the university is not just a time of limbo or a four-year layover on the road to the ‘real world.’ (17)

As this suggests, providing students an effective curriculum is important to student transition, identity formation, and a sense of responsibility as learners. Such a curriculum must allow students to explore questions most new college students are implicitly asking: “Who am I?” “Where am I?” and “What do I do?” (Thayer, 2003, qtd in Blakely and Pagnac 19).

In this article, we describe how our ISUComm Foundation Courses Program’s threshold practices and curriculum undergird our pedagogy and how substantive technological development and support work together to enhance our pedagogy. We demonstrate how pedagogy and technology can and should mediate each other in ePortfolio development and implementation. We offer this while recognizing that our own experience is still evolving; what began with a small group within ISUComm Foundation Courses will, in Spring 2017, involve the entire program. Through workshops, our growth is extending to the larger Department of English and potentially the university as a whole. So while some of our decisions are contingent and context-dependent, we believe that sharing important decisions from our journey in implementing an effective ePortfolio platform for our program can be beneficial to any institution working to develop or improve one at their own institution. We feel these insights further the discourse about how ePortfolios are integral to multimodal programs and student learning.

Our approach to the implemention of an ePortfolio system in our foundational communication program, as well as our approach to writing this piece, is one where—as characterized by Michael Day (2009)—multiple perspectives and strengths are appreciated and utilized to accomplish important programmatic goals.[1] Our project began with our program goals in our multimodal, WOVE pedagogy, which focuses on written, oral, visual, and electronic modes of communication; we wanted to develop a stronger electronic component as a means to better develop the E in WOVE. This goal challenged us to transcend technological and pedagogical boundaries. We found that our pedagogy drove technological innovations just as our developing technology drove our pedagogy, particularly with respect to reflection. Therefore, the work described here is the dialogic result of the interactive forces exerted by our technological development and our pedagogical decisions and implementations.

Over three years, the ePortfolio has become a vital component of our ISUComm Foundation Communication (ISUComm) courses program (http://www.engl.iastate.edu/isucomm/). Our Online Learning Team (OLT), comprised of graduate students, both supports the customized ISUComm ePortfolio sites our students create, and also administers our department’s own LMS (built with Moodle) and WordPress installations. In the process of bolstering the technological components of our multimodal curriculum, we were in turn motivated to develop new pedagogies to encourage students to take full advantage of the reflective thinking that can make any portfolio a deep learning experience (Jenson 2011). At the same time, the graduate students who developed the open-source website platform had to consider the technical, pedagogical, and, importantly, the security and maintenance needs of our administration. In all of these developments, our thinking about learning in place resonates with that of Anne Wysocki and Michael Day: “as educators, technorhetoricians can and should respond to or resist large-scale, commercial community-building by forming and maintaining smaller-scale intentional communities of practice that fit with local contexts of value and belief” (Day 2009, 143).

Through our multiple voices—a writing program administrator (WPA) and three PhD students who have all contributed to the ePortfolio system in Iowa State University’s ISUComm Foundation Courses—we show that incorporating ISUComm ePortfolios into our students’ learning has not been a linear, straightforward process, but rather a ground-up, collaborative, and iterative undertaking. Our writing challenge has been to accurately present a process where technology and pedagogy informed each other in an iterative process.

Theorized Curriculum: Place, Thresholds, and Liminality

The curriculum for our very large program (7,500 students/year), ISUComm Foundation Courses, is firmly based in the guidance of our primary professional organizations—the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Council of Writing Program Administration (CWPA). As our detailed programmatic website elaborates (http://www.engl.iastate.edu/isucomm/), one goal of the program is to foster students’ development of rhetorical knowledge and practices in the context of a particular habit of mind, one the ePortfolio literature calls “folio thinking.” This process of learning allows students to “integrate discrete learning experiences, enhance their self-understanding, promote taking responsibility for their own learning, and support them in developing an intellectual identity” (Penny Light, Chen, and Ittelson 2011, 86). This habit of mind, we argue, is tightly coordinated with and complementary to the work we ask our students to undertake in our campus place-based curriculum. The curriculum used in the first of our two-course program centers on student discovery, exploration of, and research into the campus where they move and learn everyday. They are encouraged to see themselves within a process of transitioning, placing themselves within a trajectory, seeing or creating connections, and finding or developing identities as learners in a university campus (detailed in Blakely and Pagnac 2012).

Likewise, folio thinking is a process of exploring, establishing touchstones (artifacts, experiences), and extrapolating into one’s future based on past and present experiences. As Gourlay (2009) and others (Meyer and Land 2005; Adler-Kassner, Majewski, and Koshnick 2012; Robertson, Taczak, and Yancey 2012) assert, central to these transitional processes is liminality, an experience of being “betwixt spaces” (Palmer, O’Kane, and Owens 2009) and grappling with “troublesome knowledge” (Adler-Kassner et al, 2012). As students continue to navigate and learn from these liminal spaces, they experience a transition essential to the university experience.

The ISUComm Foundation Courses campus-as-place curriculum creates a “material-discursive where” (Mauk 2003, 379) from which work in ISUComm Foundation Communication classes connects students to their university experience deliberately and reflectively as a series of increasingly intensive opportunities to explore their present even as they imagine and prepare for their futures. (See Blakely and Pagnac, “Pausing in the Whirlwind,” 2012, for a full theoretical and curricular description.) ISUComm ePortfolios provide a significant complementary and parallel “material-discursive where” within which students have the opportunity to work in this “enabling ground” (Buell 22)—or what D.W. Winnicott (qtd in Ellsworth 2005) refers to as a “transition space”—a deliberately designed, interrelated learning place that fosters transformation.

As Gourlay (2009) asserts, “writing plays a role in student identity formation”; we agree that threshold concepts and practices can become the site of learning, sometimes as “troublesome points of struggle which may also lead the individual to a fuller sense of being a student and belonging at university” (181), and we argue that ePortfolios are thus an important threshold practice. By practicing folio thinking within the context of our place-based curriculum, students are able to productively transition to the university environment while also reflecting on their past experiences as communicators and learners. We have found that the ePortfolio (folio thinking and its metacognitive centerpiece, reflection) must therefore be introduced at the outset of students’ experience at the university—in our case, at the beginning of their first ISUComm Foundation Course. The ISUComm ePortfolio thus becomes the enveloping, shaping environment, the material-discursive where, the enabling ground, the transition space (e.g., Mauk 2003; Buell 2001; Ellsworth 2005), in which the student is encountering, working, exploring, and making connections among threshold concepts. They explore these concepts in tandem with the place-based work they are doing; both are environments in and through which they are readying themselves for future learning and accomplishing future goals.

Reflection as a Threshold Practice

These conclusions are the result of a threshold concept we learned as we navigated the liminal experience of incorporating ePortfolios into our program. ISUComm ePortfolios afforded better options for our students to display their multimodal work than the paper portfolios we had been asking them to produce. Indeed, when we began examining ISUComm ePortfolios for programmatic assessment, we were pleased with the multimodal products students showcased. Students incorporated photographs, videos, and screenshots as examples of their work in the course. They were doing a good job of collecting artifacts and displaying them in a digital environment, which is the first step to folio thinking. However, we found that many did not display the larger connections that indicate deep learning and reflective habits of mind (Yancey; Jensen). In fact, in response to a reflection prompt asking about their growth as communicators in an electronic medium, we found some students dutifully “reflecting” that their best example of electronic work during the semester was a PowerPoint presentation. They were in the process of creating an ISUComm ePortfolio whose very communicative mode was unacknowledged and seemingly invisible to them! Simply creating these spaces for students to work within was not enough to facilitate the habits of mind that ePortfolios have the potential to develop as a high-impact practice. As well, the way we were teaching reflection was not necessarily affording students the metacognitive experiences they needed in order to “see” the spaces they were filling with artifacts and better understand the affordances that environment gives them as the architects of those spaces.

We are now building a consistent programmatic pedagogy that more fully realizes the potential of the ISUComm ePortfolio, its attendant reflections, and (we hope, as a result) student learning. As we have scaled up ISUComm ePortfolios and encouraged more instructors to use the system, we have also spent considerable time contemplating and articulating how the print portfolio model need not simply be translated into the digital environment, but may need to be abandoned altogether in favor of a born-digital model. Critical reflection about how to encourage students’ reflective thinking made us realize that their reflection was in many instances constrained by the somewhat generic prompts we offered. As part of this effort, we developed an updated assignment sheet and rubric for the portfolio that asks students to think critically about what the electronic mode affords. The new assignment sheet calls for a web-centric approach that asks the students to conceptualize the ePortfolio in terms of web pages, menus, and digital content. We directly ask students to create an About Me page to introduce themselves and their ISUComm ePortfolios, which allows them a space to begin articulating their ethos and explore their identities as university students and communicators. In the LMS (Moodle) course template and lesson plans that we offer beginning instructors, we situate ISUComm ePortfolio construction near the beginning of the semester in order to encourage the creation of a living, dynamic document throughout the term.

But seeing electronic affordances was not the only metacognitive vision we found the students lacking. What was often absent in student reflections was evidence of deep learning and recognition that they are architects who make conscious choices about their own work. We have discovered, in alignment with what Peggy O’Neill (2002) suggests, that it is important to encourage instructors to pass over the liminal threshold and recognize how integral reflection ought to be throughout the composing process. In a large program like ours, change happens slowly. Previous versions of the place-based assignments consistent across all sections included reflection as a final step in the writing process. So, besides changing the Moodle course template for beginning instructors, we have begun providing departmental workshops that encourage instructors to work formal and informal reflective activities into their curriculum at various stages of projects rather than just at the end of major papers. As more instructors incorporate ISUComm ePortfolios we have an opportunity to stress this in their training. We also created better prompts for reflections throughout the semester and more specific and simple ways of evaluating them (based on research by Jenson 2011; Rickards, et al. 2008). For the final semester reflections associated with the ISUComm ePortfolio, we encourage teachers to treat the reflection as an important genre in itself rather than just something for students to check off the to-do list: to this end, we suggest that teachers devote class time to peer review for these final reflection pieces.

We also recognized the necessity of differentiating between reflection for assessment and reflective activities as opportunities to express weakness and growth. As most composition teachers know, students, knowing that reflections will be formally assessed, often write what they think will most impress their teachers. Our new emphasis on reflective activities throughout the composing process is designed to address this concern: some reflections or reflective activities are private spaces where expressing vulnerability does not impact grades; more formal reflections like those associated with the final ISUComm ePortfolio are public spaces. Our explicit attention to reflection as a process helps students develop reflective habits while also producing opportunities for teachers and students to interact in ways where vulnerabilities are not liabilities, but rather steps in the learning process. In fact, as Riedinger (2009) suggests, we ask students to “mine” the reflections they produce during the semester in order to more fully describe their learning (90). Thus students’ formal, final ISUComm ePortfolio reflections analyze their informal reflections as well as provide hyperlinks to notes, feedback, and drafts from other projects throughout the semester. At this point we hope that students recognize the similarities in the reflective process even as they recognize that their formal reflections are different from their informal ones.

This need for more fully integrated reflection throughout the semester has forced us to reconceptualize the role the ISUComm ePortfolio should play in the Foundation Courses as well. Since such a significant portion of the ISUComm ePortfolio assignment includes reflection, the student’s site thus provides a generative environment in which students can reflect on their work throughout the semester while using it as an interactive repository for their work. This may look like a blog in some classes, akin to a weekly journal. Other classes do reflective work in other ways, but they still begin ISUComm ePortfolios early in the semester by asking students to learn how to manipulate the platform and make informed rhetorical decisions as they set up their menus and pages. This is a distinct change from the paper portfolio process instructors used before, where the portfolio assignment was not introduced until the end of the semester. Regardless of what the actual end product looks like, as a result of our new pedagogical emphasis, we expect students to make conscious decisions as digital authors throughout the semester and, as a natural part of the process, reflect upon the affordances the digital environment offers.

We turn now to some of the growing pains we experienced as we developed our technical system. We hope these experiences will be enlightening, and we offer the pedagogical considerations highlighted above as a backdrop for considering how best to theorize such a system. There is a reciprocal relationship between technology and pedagogy. As exemplified above, we continue to restructure our pedagogy to reflect what we have learned as a result of our experience with the technology, and we continue to develop the technology to better match the pedagogy.

Developing the Platform as an Online Environment

Our fully functioning ePortfolio platform is a WordPress multisite installation called ISUComm Sites (hosted at sites.isucomm.iastate.edu). This means that a single installation was customized to create a network of ePortfolios that share the same themes and plugins and that can be managed by a small team of site administrators.

We chose WordPress because it is a well-supported, open-source platform that is easier for novices to learn. Using open-source tools like WordPress for ePortfolios is a practice endorsed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), because it affords us the ability to “contribute to the development of open-source software and standards that support e-portfolio implementation and maintenance.” The advantages of a multisite installation are numerous: first, site administrators have the sole ability to create new ISUComm ePortfolio sites on the network; second, the site admins can simultaneously upgrade all sites and their related themes and plugins; third, the site admins can access the dashboard of any ISUComm ePortfolio site, which means they can assist instructors and students within the context of their own ISUComm ePortfolio sites; fourth, the same network hosts both a support site for new users and an online repository of materials for instructors teaching with the ISUComm ePortfolio, thus interweaving our support structure within the very environment that our students are working in.

The permissions architecture is adapted to foster folio thinking as a habit of mind by foregrounding that students have control over their own sites, which they retain throughout their college career and for up to four years after graduation. This process begins when instructors request sites for their students as part of their enrollment in English 150 and 250. When ISUComm ePortfolios are generated, both the instructor and the students have administrative control over their sites (minus access to themes and plugins, or the ability to add new users). This is so the instructor can assist students as well as assess their work. Our platform works through ISU’s authentication system, which has already assigned each user a unique Net-ID. To foreground that the site belongs to individual students, as opposed to their instructor, students’ Net-IDs become part of the URLs for their respective ISUComm ePortfolios (http://sites.isucomm.iastate.edu/[Net-ID]). Assigning students primary ownership over their individual sites is not without its problems. For example, our URL protocol confounds group-authorship as an option for ISUComm ePortfolio sites. But the advantage is that students’ ISUComm ePortfolios are unique to them, and can be accessed and developed throughout their college careers and beyond.

Our goal is that students will be able to use the reflective habits they develop in our foundation courses to interrogate their learning as they progress throughout their educational experience and use their ISUComm ePortfolios for new purposes. Following these first semesters, a script will remove the original instructor from the administrative role since the instructor is no longer commissioned to assist or assess the student’s work. Subsequently, the student brings their ISUComm ePortfolios to other communication courses, which allows them to continue developing folio thinking. The student later retains their ISUComm ePortfolio to purpose and repurpose as they choose. Another instructor might be given administrative access at any time, but only if the instructor has the student during a subsequent course, or if the student wishes to grant access to a mentor of their choosing. Having a network of ISUComm ePortfolio sites that authenticates through Iowa State’s system means that only current Iowa State students and staff have access to ISUComm ePortfolios within the network. This does not mean that our ISUComm ePortfolios cannot be public: this just means they are secured until the site can be properly developed by students before they appear on the World Wide Web.

The platform outlined above was the product of a three-year, iterative process. An early account of this negotiation has been published with the Association of Computing Machinery as an Experience Report with the Special Interest Group on Design and Organizational Communication (see Lutz, et al.). For the purposes of this article, it is worthy to address how we negotiated the security and permissions of our system before discussing our pedagogy.

Our first meeting to develop our ISUComm ePortfolio platform ended in failure because we could not find agreement with our IT technicians on how our ePortfolio platform would work. We understand this disagreement as a set of “boundaries,” or “sociocultural difference leading to discontinuity in action or interaction” (Akkerman and Bakker 2011, 133). In the simplest terms, we wanted an easy-to-use platform that was as open as it could be in terms of access and use; however, the lead technician was not confident that a group of graduate students knew enough about server-side administration and development to successfully create and maintain a WordPress installation. The technician wanted to know: would the sites be available on the WWW? What security would be in place? Who would have administrative privileges on the server? Who would have access to the directories and to the database? How much storage would be needed? Who would have access to the back end of the WordPress network? And on the individual students’ sites? At this point, we did not understand the technician’s expectations and, apart from our imaginations, we were not quite sure of our own. But just as students learn and grow from “troublesome knowledge” (Adler-Kassner, et al 2012, 2) that does not fit easily with pre-existing understandings or projections, this ostensible “failure” became the enabling ground on which we were able to move forward with a new plan.

We built a heuristic framework to understand how we might reconcile expectations and transcend boundaries in order to build the best platform possible, as shown in Table 1.

Questions for Platform Development Our Solutions

What kind of server environment is needed?

Who can provide a Uniform Resource Identifier? What should it be?

Virtual Machines hosted by the university and managed by their staff. The platform is accessible through Shibboleth, ISU’s centralized authentication system. The WordPress technician has access to the directories. The graduate students have access to the code through GitHub.

Who has access to the directories?

Who has access to the back-end of each site?

Custom roles created in a WordPress multisite installation: super admin, instructor, and student. The WordPress technician and the OLT are super admins, who have sitewide control over sites, themes, and plugins; the instructors have administrative control over their own ePortfolio site and the sites of their students, but cannot access themes or plugins; the students have administrative control over their own ePortfolio site, again without access to themes or plugins.

Who are the primary contacts?

Virtual support, or support in person?

How many hours can be dedicated to support?

The email address sites@iastate.edu was set up through the university. The WordPress technician, the OLT, and the Director of Composition are included in this list. There is a dedicated staff of five graduate students with 10 hours per week devoted to Sites and other online platforms; 30 hours of available in-person support; 2 hours of invited co-working space each week.
Development? The Jetpack™ plugin manager that expands the affordances of the platform to include custom fonts, styles, embedded documents, embedding Prezi and Youtube, and custom CSS for individual sites. A Github repository is used for theme development.

Table 1. Heuristic framework for the platform’s beta.


It was not feasible to give students their own WordPress installations and access to both the server and its directories. To amend this, a WordPress multisite installation was created on ISU’s servers. Their support staff assisted our graduate students with the development of the server and the database, while the graduate students retained a super-admin role that gave them full access the dashboard of the multisite network. To create a server environment to these specifications, the OLT aligned themselves as “boundary brokers” within the department, or individuals with “boundary experiences” that informed how we could foster productive conversations about “real differences and common ground” (Wenger 2000, 233). Their involvement with ISU’s Information Technology Services resulted in the security architecture described in Table 1.

Table 1 also describes the affordances of the environment. Since the boundary brokers had full control of the platform, they worked with a WordPress technician to install themes and plugins that would foster folio thinking, as connected to class learning outcomes and larger learning outcomes. To support multimodality (written, oral, visual, and electronic communication), these plugins allowed students to embed images and video, as well as word documents, PowerPoint files, and Prezi presentations. The plugins also expanded options for changing fonts, colors, and styles to allow for creating visual hierarchies with increased usability in mind. Themes were also chosen as a means to encourage folio thinking by helping students theorize potential future applications during their time in college. For example, the boundary brokers chose themes that encouraged a clever visual layout that design majors could use for their professional development, while other themes were chosen to foreground embedded documents in ways useful to students majoring in business or engineering. This architecture enabled students to demonstrate the affordances of the four modes in Foundation Courses and reflect on how they can make informed choices about how to use them with audience and purpose in mind, now and in the future.

To complement these affordances, the boundary brokers worked with the ISUComm Foundation Courses Director to develop ISUComm ePortfolios as an environment of discovery, exploration, and research, a place to create connections and develop identity (Blakely and Pagnac 2012). The metaphor of place works well as a way to encourage students to view their ISUComm ePortfolios, like the museums and buildings they research, as a space to curate, showcase, and contextualize their work. By working through a scaffolded process of research, critical inquiry, and composition, students can define themselves as growing scholars and professionals in an online place that frames their presence on ISU’s campus. The artifacts they choose to demonstrate their best communication work are, by virtue of the place-based curriculum, artifacts that bring the physical spaces of the campus into their ISUComm ePortfolios and thus into their metacognitive processes. They use the various modes of our program—written, oral, visual, and electronic—to speak to the significance of place in shaping their learning. Here it is important to note that David Hailey (2014) discusses problems with the place metaphor and how it creates filters that make it more difficult for usability experts to evaluate websites as texts. We find the reverse of this situation is helpful in the context of Foundation Communication: as students have worked with documents all semester, the ISUComm ePortfolio platform promotes the place metaphor more strongly as it affords students the ability to guide audiences through their place—its architectural features and its unique configuration of pages and links.

Our working prototype reflected a collaborative effort, where expectations were envisioned, negotiated, and finally developed into software that met the shared vision of ISUComm. Now in 2016, we are scaling up. We now have a dedicated homepage (Figure 1) for our platform, which explains the vision of ISUComm and the purpose of the ISUComm ePortfolio. Our dedicated homepage is a way to solicit students’ consent for using their ISUComm ePortfolios as examples for other students or for the meetings we have with stakeholders across our campus. With this infrastructure in place, we have moved beyond the pilot stage and are actively working to integrate our ISUComm ePortfolio into the curriculum for ISUComm Foundation courses.

This image shows the homepage of ISUComm Sites. Tabs in the menu include “Home, News, About, Examples, Resources, Requests, and Support.” The Resources tab has been expanded in the image, displaying “Quick Start, WordPress, Video Training, Pedagogy, and Authorization and Release Form” as options.

Figure 1. ISUComm Sites homepage


Looking to the Future: Recursivity, Revision, Reiteration

We are scaling up to further develop our multisite installation and its various subsystems. The system is old enough now that we have students asking us questions similar to the situation mentioned above, including, “What should I do if my English 250 instructor isn’t using ISUComm ePortfolios, but I want to continue using the site I created in English 150?” (a problem that is lessening as we make ISUComm Sites the standard practice across both courses in the ISUComm Foundation Courses program), or “I want to make my website public so others can see it. How do I enable that?” Instructors are also coming to us with various needs that they have identified, such as wanting to use ISUComm Sites for group projects. Because sites.isucomm.iastate.edu is set up for individual students’ ISUComm ePortfolios associated with their individual Net-IDs as outlined above, the platform doesn’t translate well into group-based projects for team-based learning environments, such as those described by Michaelsen, Knight, and Fink (2002). During this upcoming year we will develop a new subdomain where we can host sites on which multiple students can collaborate to support these projects. To address the desire to make our ePortfolios public for outward-facing, employment-seeking websites, we will also develop a separate subdomain to allow students to create professional ePortfolios. Another incentive for developing this subdomain is to allow new graduate teaching assistants to develop their own teaching ePortfolios during our training proseminar. Instructors need to have experience with creating a site before they can direct students to create one. Additionally, if instructors use their own site to show students how to set up their ISUComm ePortfolios, one system alone is not enough to support these two needs: a site cannot be both a professional teaching ePortfolio and an example semester project for students at the same time. Thus, we have identified a real need for multiple subdomains on our system, each with its own permissions, plugins, themes, and user bases. While we’ve been at it, we have decided to make a name change to ISUComm Sites, largely due to the unfortunate grammatical construction of having a “Sites site.”

All told, Table 2 discusses the various systems that the OLT administers (or will soon administer).

System Name Purpose Audience
ISUComm Courses (Moodle) Learning Management System (LMS) for all Foundation Communication and other English department courses Instructors who prefer Moodle to Blackboard; students
ISUComm Sites Original ePortfolio platform for ISUComm ePortfolios (and beyond) Instructors; students; programmatic assessment
ISUComm ePortfolios ePortfolio platform for ISUComm ePortfolios (will eventually replace ISUComm Sites) Instructors; students; programmatic assessment
ISUComm Support Support site for all ISUComm platforms All ISUComm participants
DRAW (Digital Repository for Academic Writing) A repository of lesson plans and other pedagogical resources Instructors
ISUComm eProfiles Web portfolio platform for student employment-seeking websites Instructors (particularly TAs); students
ISUComm eProjects Team-based learning platform for group project websites Instructors; students

Table 2. Platforms managed by the Online Learning Team (OLT).


Going forward, our future goals also include implementing ISUComm ePortfolios more consistently in advanced writing classes as well as across the university. Our Associate Dean has, kairotically, become our advocate with others in the university. When we showed him what we developed, he immediately saw the vision of what ISUComm ePortfolios can do for other programs. He encouraged and facilitated our reaching out to other departments on campus (to our learning community partners, for instance, and to the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching) to see how the ePortfolios students develop in their ISUComm Foundation Courses can truly provide a foundation for the work they do in their majors. For example, ISUComm ePortfolios have the potential to add an important element to projects in the disciplines where students can share not only their projects but also the steps they take to produce the projects, enabling others to replicate and/or improve upon their steps. We expect to negotiate entirely new boundaries as we work with various departments across campus to tailor the spaces of ISUComm ePortfolios to their needs.

As a result of our journey with implementing ISUComm ePortfolios, we have undergone transitional experiences which, as threshold concept experiences, will never allow us to approach our ISUComm Foundation Courses in quite the same way again. One such change is a better understanding of security concerns with regard to requiring students to use this technology. Another threshold we crossed has opened up a space for us to see reflection with new eyes. We cannot expect deep learning and folio thinking without fostering those habits of mind with explicit attention and frequent practice. While students need to explore their university as a place and their identities as university students, they also need to critically explore their 21st-century composing processes and products. The space and capabilities ISUComm ePortfolios offer have great potential to enable deep learning for students in those exploratory, or liminal, learning opportunities. They encounter new knowledge in relation to the old, not in the way that Robertson, Taczak, and Yancey (2012) call assemblage, or “grafting of isolated bits of new knowledge onto a continuing schema of old knowledge” (6-7), but as remix, in which students revise and incorporate what they see as different from their former communication learning.

However, to inspire that learning, the design of both the pedagogy and the technology must be considered carefully and recursively. Similarly, professional development about pedagogical uses of technology for a diverse cadre of faculty (including GTAs, adjuncts, and tenured and tenure-eligible faculty) must continue to be appropriate, mindful of the ineffectiveness of one-size-fits-all approaches to what are complex individual needs and concerns among such a large and diverse faculty. Blakely (2015) notes that “[f]or all groups of faculty, we must continue to work to provide professional development that allows both for the growth and maintenance of successful and purposeful identities” (152). Our new attitude as boundary brokers with regard to technical roadblocks will continue to be crucial to achieving our goals. As we have described, both the challenge and the strength of our project has been its recursive and multi-voiced nature; the same has been true of writing this article. We acknowledge that every institution has different resources, administrative support, and other contextual realities, but we feel that the overarching concepts we have here described have broad application and potential for usefulness in any program.


[1] There is no lead author. Instead, the authors wrote from their respective areas of expertise, and collaborated to develop the article as a cohesive whole. Listed first is Bryan Lutz ABD, who was one of the senior developers of the Alpha and Beta platforms and who has substantially contributed to the pedagogy and support materials for the technology component of the project. Listed second is Dr. Barbara Blakely, whose vision as director of ISUComm Foundation Courses, whose development of the campus place-based curriculum, extensive research into pedagogical uses of technology in foundation courses, and whose influence within the university established the context that made the project and its continued growth possible. Listed third is Kathy Rose ABD, assistant to Dr. Blakely who bravely piloted the Alpha and Beta versions in her courses and whose expertise in pedagogy, particularly writing as a reflective act, was pivotal for revising course materials to encourage more folio thinking and deep learning. Listed fourth is Tom Ballard, senior member of the OLT, who has substantially contributed to the pedagogy and support materials and whose leadership within the OLT has secured the continued growth of the project.


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The authors would like to thank Dr. Eric York as a pioneer and senior developer of the Alpha and Beta platforms; Dr. Erin Zimmerman, who piloted the Alpha and Beta versions in her courses; Mr. Brent Moore, for his insight and support of the platform; Mr. Kevin Wickham, who is our WordPress technician and whose total contributions are impossible to cover in a short article; Dr. Arne Hallam, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, for his enthusiastic and ongoing support of the platform; Dr. Ann Marie VanDerZanden, for helping us promote the platform beyond the English department; Dr. Kathie Gossett, whose insights and support were essential to developing the platform; Ms. Rebecca O’Connell, for her expertise and support in the pilot stage of the project; Mr. Joe Geluso and Dr. Hyejin Yang for their development of ISUComm Support; and Mr. Hiro Iino, for his leadership and support as the manager of the Online Learning Team.

About the Authors

Bryan Lutz is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at Iowa State University. His dissertation examines how Millennials use multimodal composition to resist myths placed upon them by older generations in professional and academic contexts. His research examines how activist organizations develop and use technology to construct an identity, compose, and advocate for a non-violent, ethical solution to a problem—and ways to both maximize that potential and to teach it in composition. Bryan’s published scholarship appears in Computers and Composition Online and SIGDOC. bryanalutz@gmail.com.

Dr. Barbara Blakely, faculty in the Iowa State University Department of English Rhetoric and Professional Communication Program, has been the writing program administrator of Iowa State University’s Foundation Communication program for ten years. Her scholarship, spanning sixteen years, appears in the Journal of Writing Program Administration, Computers and Composition, College Teaching, and Pedagogy, among other journals. She teaches courses in composition theory, pedagogy, and research and co-teaches a writing program administration course. blakely@iastate.edu.

Kathy Rose is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Professional Communication and co-assistant WPA at Iowa State University. With an emphasis in writing pedagogy, her research has included studies of online peer response, writing center tutor interactions, ePortfolio reflections, and transfer. Her dissertation work explores the experiences of students who take Advanced Placement or dual credit English classes in high school and how their training transfers to their writing experiences in the university. She has a forthcoming chapter in Next Steps, a multi-voiced book of discussions about Writing About Writing (WAW) pedagogy. krose213@gmail.com.

Tom Ballard is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at Iowa State University. His research involves digital media, technical communication, and rhetoric. Specifically, he seeks to better understand and define how digital media genres influence communication experiences. His dissertation project will investigate Internet memes as such a genre and how it can help multimodal writing students transfer between modes and ingratiate themselves into discourse communities. He has an article in The Rocky Mountain Review and shorter pieces in Intercom and Technical Communication. tommcballard@gmail.com.

Screenshot of Gallatin ePortfolio template, displaying the main navigational elements and the homepage welcome message.

ePortfolios and Individualized, Interdisciplinary Learning: A Case Study


Individualized, interdisciplinary degree programs carry a unique set of challenges and opportunities that can be addressed by ePortfolios. This is especially true for New York University’s (NYU) Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where students must construct their own academic concentrations while taking courses in most of the seventeen schools that comprise the University. In this article, we describe an ongoing project to explore the use of ePortfolios as a means to create coherence for students across courses and semesters, and to help them articulate an intellectual and professional agenda through synthesis and reflection. The project spans three distinct iterations of ePortfolios, and describes how lessons learned from two of the previous iterations helped guide faculty and staff in the development and implementation of a new ePortfolio template, which is currently being piloted. We explore how an overly wrought first iteration led to an excessively focused second version, and finally, a third iteration, that may be just right.

Introduction: The Origins of a Gallatin ePortfolio

The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University (Gallatin) offers a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in individualized study. The ePortfolio project focuses on the BA program. Students at Gallatin develop their own programs of study by combining Gallatin’s core curriculum of small, interdisciplinary seminars and workshops with courses in other NYU schools. Additionally, students pursue independent studies (one­-on­-one projects with faculty), tutorials (small group projects), private lessons, and internships. This course of study culminates in a final oral exam, called the colloquium, in which students demonstrate their knowledge about a select number of significant texts.

With just over 1,600 undergraduate students and approximately 150 graduate students, Gallatin is a relatively small school housed within a large research university. Being an individualized study major in a small school that is part of a very large university, on a distributed urban and global campus, can be an isolating experience. Because of this, Gallatin has used active, focused faculty advising as a cornerstone of its curriculum from the very first formative years as a program in 1972, and then as a division in 1976. But in 1976, Gallatin had only 200 students (London 1992, 7). By 2008, with a much larger student body, there was agreement among faculty members that students could benefit from a platform that encouraged reflection and collaboration.

This paper outlines three distinct ePortfolio platforms the school developed in an attempt to facilitate this student need for reflection and collaboration. The first was a shared, multi­-university initiative to build out the promising Sakai OAE (Open Academic Environment) into an academic­-social-networking system with ePortfolios as a main component. The second was based entirely on Google Drive, and centered around the collection of course assets. And the final, still ongoing, platform is built around WordPress, which attempts to account for the limitations of the the first two.

During the Fall of 2009, several factors led to the consideration of an ePortfolio for Gallatin students: social media; advancements in ePortfolio and learning management system (LMS) software; digitally native content; and the expansion of the arts and experiential learning at Gallatin. Moreover, many students were coming upon their culminating experience, the colloquium, underprepared, specifically in the integration of coursework spanning their entire academic career. Students, now accustomed to platforms like Facebook and Google Docs, were wondering why there was not an academic corollary.

During a focus group with students concerning the enhancement of the school’s LMS, several ePortfolio-­related themes emerged. Where students used to be satisfied focusing on their individual concentrations and learning goals, they were now interested in community. Several students at the Fall 2009 LMS focus group asked for a way to find other students with similar academic interests. Additionally, participants mentioned how they would like to share their academic work across courses, in ways that would surface meaningful connections between students. These students’ comments were aligned with the research on ePortfolios. Bryant and Chittum (2013, 189­197) note that successful ePortfolios enable students to share and collaborate on work spanning their entire program. This finding is consistent with trends in ePortfolio use at the time, where less course-­ and program­-based, and more collaborative ePortfolios were gaining in popularity (Brown, Chen, and Gordon 2012, 129-­138).

This focus group conversation became one about effective ePortfolios. The students recognized the need for a tool to capture, synthesize, and share their academic careers, a way to “utilize Facebook[-like]…prefab micro-­sites…So that people could upload different documents” (personal communication). Several students advocated for a platform that encourages self­-assessment and peer assessment, foundational elements of good ePortfolio design (Wade, Abrami, and Sclater 2005, under “Student Self­-regulation”).

The author, Likos, in conversation with the faculty, was also coming to a similar conclusion: a tool was needed that could help scaffold the development of the individualized concentration; encourage the synthesis of experiential, performative and academic learning; and allow for the communication and articulation of the students’ work. Hayward et al. explain how ePortfolios can help achieve just these goals, emphasizing the tool’s ability to help integrate different modes of learning (2008, 140–­159). Additionally, the ePortfolio is specifically valuable in interdisciplinary studies. Field and Stowe explain that the “the longitudinal nature of the process,” which provides explication of an entire learning journey, “can be used effectively to validate the interdisciplinary process and to communicate the process to internal, and external audiences” (2002, 268).

As a result of our student focus group, faculty discussion, and research on ePortfolios, a specific articulation of the requirements for a Gallatin ePortfolio platform emerged:

  1. The system must allow for text­-based and digitally native content.
  2. Assets must be flexibly shareable—to students in a course, the school, the University, and the outside world.
  3. Assets must be taggable in a manner that encourages searching, browsing, filtering, and sorting.
  4. The ePortfolio must evolve from a student’s first year through their life after college.
  5. The platform must allow for the creation of attractive public-facing websites.

A landscape survey of existing software at the time found that none could satisfy all of these criteria. Most ePortfolio platforms were still focused on assessment (Clark and Eynon 2009, 18­–23), which was not the core requirement of a Gallatin ePortfolio. With this in mind, we broadened our search beyond specific ePortfolio software to platforms that could act more as a development toolkit. This led to Gallatin’s, and later NYU’s, significant engagement with Sakai.

Sakai OAE and ATLAS: A Grand Vision Leads to Loss of Focus

Just as the benefits of an a ePortfolio system were becoming clear to the Gallatin community, so too were these benefits being recognized by another department at the University, the Liberal Studies Program. Confronted with similar requirements, an ePortfolio project was initiated in 2008 with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Start-­Up Grant (Apert 2011). Like Gallatin, the Liberal Studies Program was aiming for a system that would support content authoring, management and tagging, private­ and public-facing ePortfolios, and academic networking. Gallatin was thus a natural partner, and joined the initiative in 2008. By 2009, Liberal Studies and Gallatin were joined by 8 additional NYU entities.[1]

With this infusion of interest and capital, a new ambition grew, and a new, more robust platform was needed to meet these ambitions. Liberal Studies, already using Sakai CLE (Collaboration and Learning Environment) for the first iteration of its ePortfolio, recognized the potential of the then nascent Sakai OAE (Open Academic Environment). The promise of OAE was a user­-, group­-, and content-­centered system. As Apert explains, Sakai OAE “uses the…concept of groups to replace the more rigid structure of sites in traditional learning management systems (LMS)….In Sakai OAE…tools are ‘widgetized,’ meaning they exist as free-­floating modules that can be pulled into any page” (2011). This is in contrast to Sakai CLE, and most LMSs at the time, which were built with the course at the core.

After several months of collaboration, a working group of faculty and staff members representing the ten schools and departments committed to this project were so enthusiastic about the promise of a user- ­and content-­centered academic networking platform, that by mid­-2010 NYU had become the most significant partner in a multi-university alliance to build the next generation LMS (Hill 2012). Along with Cambridge University, the University of California, Berkeley, Indiana University, Georgia State University, and Charles Sturt University, NYU shared a seat on the Sakai OAE steering committee, and NYU’s Chief Digital Officer, David Ackerman, was appointed to the position of Sakai Board Chair.

But by the end of 2010, this was already something very different than the ePortfolio project on which Gallatin had first partnered with NYU’s Liberal Studies Program. The Gallatin ePortfolio had very specific requirements around content and sharing, which though part of the roadmap for Sakai 3, would now have to share space with all of the traditional functions of an LMS. With Sakai CLE representing five percent of the higher­-education LMS market at this time, legacy tool support and development was no small matter (Green 2013, 23). As a member of the NYU Sakai 3 working group, Likos had to collaborate with representatives from nine other schools and departments at NYU to set priorities that would then compete with those from the six other Sakai steering committee member universities. Predictably, this produced a very large set of requirements.

By Spring 2011, nearly two years after the first discussions about ePortfolios for Gallatin students occurred, the first beta iteration of NYU’s version of Sakai 3, ATLAS (Advanced Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship) network, was running. Though our initial plan was to help undergraduates synthesize and share their concentrations, we decided our first pilot would be with graduate students for two reasons. First, this initial iteration of ATLAS had severe performance and feature shortcomings. It simply could not handle more than dozens of users at a time, and many of the features supporting content creation, tagging, and sharing were not yet built. The second reason was that our graduate students were beginning to ask for a simplified platform for finding each other. That is, they were happy to have an enhanced directory of students that could be filtered according to academic interest. Given the limitations of ATLAS, it made more sense to pilot a more condensed feature set to a smaller group of 150 students. While supporting this pilot for graduate students, we continued to push for development of features that would turn this into a true ePortfolio for our BA students.

By Spring 2012, with the 1.1 version of ATLAS released, we were not significantly closer. The platform was now more capable of handling larger numbers of users, the content authoring interface was better, but it was not an ePortfolio. The centrifugal force of multiple schools’ and universities’ competing requirements and features continually pulled at the center until there was barely a center at all. In the end, it was neither a fully functional LMS or an ePortfolio. This, combined with the emergence of Google Apps for Education and the Universities’ adoption of it, and new LMSs like Canvas and D2L, spelled the end for ATLAS and the larger Sakai OAE project. By the Spring of 2012, all of the remaining large university funding partners left the project, and NYU soon followed suit, officially sun­-setting the pilot on January 22, 2013.

In its final iteration, Gallatin’s version of ATLAS included academic profile information for 150 graduate students, as well as a tag cloud (see Figure 1) to help visualize the weight of academic interest areas. It contained no other ePortfolio assets, though technically, it could have. Our assessment of the platform was that it failed in at least some way in each of the five categories of requirements initially laid out. The most successful feature was the academic interest tag cloud, and if extended to content, as originally envisioned, it could have been a valuable way for students to share and collaborate.

Screenshot of Atlas tag cloud for Gallatin MA students, showing the top 20 tags, with Cultural Studies heavily weighted in the center.

Figure 1: ATLAS tag cloud.

There are many lessons to be learned from Gallatin’s Sakai OEA/ATLAS journey, foremost of which is that Gallatin handed over its agency in developing an ePortfolio platform in the hope of being part of something that would be much more. The project grew so large, so quickly, that the competing requirements of multiple universities and schools became increasingly difficult to manage and fund. Another takeaway was that the mass of the “academic social networking” feature set was so great that it pulled almost all the development and pedagogical energy into its gravity well. The promise of a “Facebook for the academy” was so alluring that we shifted too much attention from the core elements of a successful student ePortfolio.

Google Drive: Familiarity without Scalability

It was from this place that a re-conceived ePortfolio platform was born. In the spring of 2013, a reconfigured Gallatin steering committee was assembled to review the failures of the ATLAS project and to recommend a new way forward. One of the first issues we uncovered was that ATLAS privileged technology over good pedagogical design. We hoped the technology would allow for robust connections among students without specific prescriptions, as was the case in other social networks. The idea was that students would upload any assets they thought relevant to their concentrations, and the metadata would do the magic of surfacing the relevant, connected information. This proved to be technically very difficult, and not clear at all to the student participants. Additionally, Gallatin had prescriptions that could and should be applied to ePortfolios:

  • Course documents: syllabi, papers, readings.
  • The booklist and rationale: documents prepared in advance of the colloquium that contain 20 to 25 texts that cover multiple disciplines and historical periods related to the student concentration, and a five­- to eight-­page essay that articulates the central themes that are represented by the booklist.
  • The Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration (IAPC): a two-­ to three-­page essay, completed at the end of a student’s sophomore year, in which students reflect on their educational progress and describe their areas of interest.
  • Plans of Study: forms filled out every semester outlining the students’ registration plans for the following semester, and how these relate to their individualized course of study.

Starting from these assets, the committee recognized an opportunity to focus the scope of a project that had become so large with ATLAS to a simpler set of requirements. This new conception asked, what is the easiest and most stable system that students can use to store and share their course and concentration documents? Taking this together with the original prerequisites from 2009, and the lessons learned from ATLAS, an updated requirement set asked that:

  1. The system allows for text-­based, as well as multimedia content.
  2. All assets be shareable to faculty, advisers, other students, and the public.
  3. Assets in the ePortfolio be accessible to students after they graduate.
  4. The platform already be built, stable, technically vetted, and inexpensive.

Taking these into account, it was a very easy decision to pilot a new ePortfolio project with Google Drive. NYU’s investment in Google Apps for Education was increasing, and a University­-led ePortfolio landscape survey indicated that Google Drive was a viable ePortfolio alternative for simple projects. Additionally, it was a familiar product, with a support and training structure in place. In terms of storage and performance, we already knew that it could handle thousands of students and assets, and we knew those assets could be securely shared with individuals and groups using existing NYU credentials. Furthermore, there was no direct cost to Gallatin. The platform and the central support was free, and students would keep their Google accounts, including their ePortfolios, after graduation. With the benefits of a Google Drive ePortfolio clear, and the cost to adoption low, it was decided that a new pilot would launch in the Fall of 2013. Gallatin would pre-­populate the following folders and documents in all students’ drives:

  • Courses
    • Syllabi
    • Papers
    • Readings
  • Brainstorming
    • Bibliography (citations of key texts)
    • “Concentration” document (notes from adviser meetings, thoughts on classes, ideas about one’s concentration)
    • Plans of Study (saved copies of the Plan of Study forms)

With both the ATLAS and the Google pilots, the steering committee considered making the ePortfolio mandatory, but both times it was decided that the administrative burden on faculty was too great. With ATLAS, the ePortfolio component was not well defined, and the system not robust enough. The Google Drive ePortfolio was well defined, and the system was robust enough, but if we were going to utilize course registration holds—or use some other constraint—it meant either the faculty advisers or some other academic staff would need to review and approve ePortfolios. It was felt that Gallatin did not at the time have the resources to incent, train, and support the faculty and staff to perform this task well. Instead, beginning in the Spring of 2013, we undertook a marketing and training campaign. This included presentations at faculty meetings, online video demonstrations, and orientation training sessions for students.

The technical administration of the ePortfolios was fairly simple, but not straightforward. Because the University’s implementation of Google Apps could not ingest school and class directory information, there was no way to automate the group creation of the “Gallatin ePortfolio,” or easily generate unique ePortfolio URLs. This all required additional manual work.

In early Fall 2013, the first set of student ePortfolios were provisioned. These included all 269 Gallatin first­-year students. An email from the dean was sent to these students with a link to their ePortfolios and instructions on how to use them. Simultaneously, messaging went out to faculty encouraging them to remind students about the ePortfolio. The same basic structure for the ePortfolios remained in place through the Fall 2014 semester, but by the third semester of the pilot we had added sophomores and juniors.

From the student perspective, the system worked well. Students that chose to create an ePortfolio reported no issues creating and storing content. There was also very little student training required. But by the second semester, the University began to have trouble provisioning the accounts and setting permissions. The Google Apps administrators had to do this with a series of scripts, and there was concern that any change Google made to the product, which was not uncommon, could break the scripts. Additionally, it was at this time that we realized there were little to no options for getting data from the system. Even something as simple as getting a count of how many students were placing content into their ePortfolios was only possible by manually, visually checking each student’s ePortfolio folder. In the end, we used a randomly generated number set to choose a statistically significant sample of ePortfolios to manually check for content. By the final pilot semester, Fall 2014, only 1.9% of students had placed any content into their ePortfolios.

In summation, the Google Drive ePortfolio platform failed in several areas. Most compelling was the modest adoption rate, but the difficulty in extracting metrics from the system, and increasing difficulty provisioning accounts and permissions were also important. For these reasons, it was decided that Fall 2014 would mark the end of this pilot. Though there were technical limitations, it was the adoption rate that had the most impact in our final assessment. In discussions with students and faculty, it became clear that this pilot offered little in the way of incentive or injunction. Their use rate was very low in part because there was no appealing public-­facing aspect of the ePortfolios, but even more significantly because of the way the ePortfolios were presented and taught. It had been decided to market the ePortfolio to students and faculty, instead of train faculty to actively engage with students around the ePortfolio in their courses; we now see that decision as a mistake. These two key issues we hoped to address in the next pilot.

WordPress: Re­-centering on Reflection

Taking into account the lessons learned from our ATLAS and Google Drive experiences, we are now in the midst of our third iteration of ePortfolios at Gallatin, this time using NYU’s WordPress installation, Web Publishing, which launched in August of 2014. Like Google Drive, Web Publishing comes with NYU IT support and training, provides adequate storage for our multimedia needs, is integrated with our user-­authentication system, and is a no-­cost, portable platform. Unlike Google Drive, however, Web Publishing enables us to create a template tailored to the needs of our students, so that we are now able to easily deploy sites as needed. More important than the authentication and storage benefits, however, is the built-­in reflective space Web Publishing offers, as well as the ability to create visually appealing, customizable, public-­facing websites with granular control over visibility. Our hope is that the personalization achieved through reflective blog posts and customization features will give students a strong sense of ownership over their ePortfolios, thereby incentivizing adoption rates.

With a renewed focus on reflection, the committee has decided to diverge from the structure adapted for Google Drive, which functioned primarily as a repository of work. Our new template thus contains areas for four main types of reflective content: the “about me” bio page, the course descriptions and expectations blog, the end-of-semester reflections, and an annotated bibliography (see Figure 2).

Screenshot of Gallatin ePortfolio template, displaying the main navigational elements and the homepage welcome message.

Figure 2: The Gallatin ePortfolio template.

In addition to these pre­-packaged content areas, students are encouraged to customize their ePortfolios in order to document all of their Gallatin­-related experiences, including internships, study-­abroad, and extracurricular activities, thereby creating a comprehensive repository that gives viewers both a general sense of the breadth and scope of a student’s intellectual trajectory, and the ability to drill down into the details of a particular term, course, or activity.

Participating faculty are being asked to integrate several activities into their courses that are designed to both kick­start student engagement with their ePortfolios, and to encourage students to begin thinking metacognitively about themselves as learners. Advisers are participating in the pilot by asking their advisees to see their ePortfolios. We believe that active involvement on the part of faculty and advisers will be a critical component to the success of the program.

On the first day of class, faculty ask their students to write a short bio for the About Me page. Not only is the ability to write a compelling bio a skill that will benefit students personally and professionally, it is also an exercise in narrating selfhood that should always precede engagement with digital identities, of which ePortfolios are a part. Moreover, sharing and discussing bios in a classroom environment promotes the development of learning communities that are so important to students’ mental health and wellness, and so critical to long-­term academic success. Early in the semester, students are also asked to write a blog post containing the course descriptions for each class they take, accompanied by their expectations for these courses. By doing so, students will not only create a chronological record of the courses they take, they will be setting up personal learning goals that will help sustain their focus throughout the semester. These initial reflective posts are then connected to the reflections they are asked to write on the last day of class. In their “end­-of-­semester reflections,” students are asked to compare what they had expected to learn with what they actually learned, and to make a list of key texts from the semester. The blog is a space to assist students in reflecting on their learning as they develop over the course of each term, and to help suggest a direction for the coming term. Such reflections will allow students to document the evolution of their intellectual pathways, to make connections, and to generate questions for future research and for their advisers.

These reflections will act as a pre-­writing activity, providing material for the IAPC, the booklist/rationale, and the colloquium, all of which require students to articulate their research interests and to identify thematic correspondence between the various areas of study. This, ultimately, is at the core of what we are trying to achieve: to help our students connect the dots. As the “school of individualized study,” Gallatin requires its students to design their own curriculum, in conjunction with an adviser. This self-­directed learning model empowers students to actively engage in the development of their own education, and allows them to take a wide variety of courses, both at Gallatin and at other NYU schools (and beyond). But this learning model also comes with unique challenges. Because students are exploring many different subject areas, it is often difficult for them to articulate the connections and/or tensions between them. Milestone requirements, such as the IAPC due at the end of sophomore year, and the booklist/rationale required before the final senior colloquium, have been put in place as scaffolding, preparing students for the kind of scholarly synthesis that will be expected of them during their final oral examination. Yet these milestones are themselves rigorous requirements that will also, we believe, benefit from the kind of sustained reflection built into the design of our ePortfolios. The designated Annotated Bibliography page, for instance, is something students can build up over time, and can eventually become a direct precursor to the booklist and rationale.

Taken as a whole, the design of our ePortfolio template works to engage students in an ongoing reflective process that can best be described as active, inquiry-­based learning. As Wozniak writes, “Reflection connects the components of the inquiry cycle and serves as the catalyst to move to the next level of learning and discovery. Information is transformed to knowledge and fragmented pieces of knowledge are connected through reflection” (2012, 221). Used as an advising tool, Gallatin’s ePortfolio provides a collaborative space in which to make those connections. By incrementally archiving, curating, and reflecting upon their coursework, students will essentially be self-­scaffolding their learning, progressively building toward a stronger understanding of their own concentration. Wozniak also notes that reflection promotes integrative learning, a pedagogical approach in which students apply “multiple areas of knowledge and multiple modes of inquiry” (2012, 210) to real-­world situations: “These learning experiences consider the whole student and foster lifelong learning skills. They engage students in making their own learning connections between their courses, professional career goals, co­-curricular activities, campus involvement, community service, job experiences, and personal interests” (2012, 210). An integrative learning approach that considers the whole student is foundational to the mission at Gallatin, making a reflective ePortfolio system a natural addition to our program.

In order to ensure the successful implementation of an ePortfolio program that would be both meaningful for students and helpful to their advisers, we opted for an incremental, three-­phase roll out plan:

3-Phase Implementation Plan
Phase Phase Title Duration Dates Primary Purpose
1 Targeted Pilot One Semester 12/2015 to 5/2016
  • Assess the usability of the WordPress template
  • Obtain student feedback
2 Extended Pilot Two Years 9/2016 to 5/2018
  • Assess the adoption rate by students and advisors
  • Evaluate the success of the pedagogical goals of the program
3 Gallatin­Wide Implementation Indefinite 9/2018 +
  • Implement a successful school­wide ePortfolio program

We have completed Phase 1, the Targeted Pilot, which included eight students hand­-selected by their advisers. Our initial assessment of the Targeted Pilot is based on attendance, anecdotal feedback, questionnaire results (see Appendix), and completion rates. Although attendance at our group meetings was low, students responded positively to both the platform and the program. Our students had varying degrees of technological skills, yet all of them felt that WordPress was easy to learn and has long­-term value. Participants responded favorably to the template’s design. Most of the students commented that the information architecture was intuitive, and several participants confirmed that the ePortfolio should be a space for highly curated materials, rather than a repository for all content, which may be best suited for Google Drive.

In terms of the ePortfolio program itself, the belief that a school­-wide digital portfolio service would be valuable to Gallatin students was unanimous. Our primary purpose was to equip students with a tool with which to reflect on their progress, map out the next steps in their plan of study, and build towards future milestones. And to that end, the pilot succeeded. Not only did students report that an ePortfolio would have helped them complete specific milestones, they also expressed the belief that communication with their advisers would be improved. The surprising discovery was that students are increasingly expected to include ePortfolios in their application materials for graduate schools, internships, and other professional opportunities. This anecdotal information is confirmed in a study by Fowler (2012), who notes that an ePortfolio provides a better demonstration of student learning and skills than a standard resume because it represents a range of work, contextualized over time, and because it can be customized for multiple audiences. Our students likewise saw an opportunity either to use their Gallatin ePortfolio for such applications, or to become familiar with the process in order to create a separate ePortfolio.

Based on our assessment of the Targeted Pilot, we have entered Phase 2 of our implementation plan, which will run from September 2016 to May 2018. Our Extended Pilot currently includes our entire incoming first­-year cohort, as well as 31 transfer students, for a total of 328 students and 19 faculty. Our ultimate goal is to seamlessly integrate ePortfolios into Gallatin’s curriculum, such that the incoming class of 2016 and all successive cohorts will view their ePortfolios as a dynamic, evolving, and natural component of the individualized and life­-long learning goals at the core of Gallatin’s philosophy.


There have been vast cultural and technological developments since our first discussions about ePortfolios in 2009, including advancements in open­-source technology, broader use of website building platforms, and shifting boundaries between social media and other web-authoring sites. These developments, in conjunction with an increasingly technologically sophisticated and visually literate student population, build an even stronger case for the implementation of ePortfolios at Gallatin. Having learned much over seven years of exploration, experimentation, and investment in ePortfolios, we have refocused our energy on the individualized philosophy at the core of Gallatin, prioritizing user experience over technical sophistication; focused, purposeful design over broad, generalized application; and, most importantly, pedagogy over technology. The emphasis on curation over archive and reflection over assessment promotes the kind of inquiry­-based, integrative learning that is aligned with Gallatin’s mission, and that comprise the most promising pedagogical aspects of ePortfolios. Although early in our third ePortfolio iteration at Gallatin, we are encouraged by the enthusiasm with which our pilot participants received their customizable digital showcases, and hopeful that by the time our incoming class of 2016 becomes our graduating class of 2020, ePortfolios will have become a part of the fabric of Gallatin life.


[1] The College of Nursing, the Faculty of Arts and Science, NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Wagner, the NYU School of Medicine, NYU Steinhardt, NYU Information Technology Services, and the NYU Libraries (Apert 2011).


Apert, Lucy. 2011. “The ATLAS Network Pilot: NYU’s Sakai Open Academic Environment Initiative.” NYU Connect: Information Technology at NYU. https://wp.nyu.edu/connect/2011/01/21/the-atlas-network-pilot/.

Brown, Gary, Helen L. Chen, and Aifong Gordon. 2012. “The Annual AAEEBL Survey at Two: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” International Journal of ePortfolio 2 (2): 129­38. http://theijep.com/pdf/IJEP93.pdf.

Bryant, Lauren H., and Jessica R. Chittum. 2013. “ePortfolio Effectiveness: A(n Ill­fated) Search for Empirical Support.” International Journal of ePortfolio 3 (2): 189­98. http://www.theijep.com/pdf/ijep108.pdf.

Clark, Elizabeth J., and Bret Eynon. 2009. “E­-portfolios at 2.0—Surveying the Field.” Peer Review: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education 11 (1): 18­23. http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/peerreview/Peer_Review_Winter_2009.pdf.

“Fall 2009 NYU Gallatin LMS Focus Group.” 2009. Interview by author.

Field, Michael, and Donald Stowe. 2002. “Transforming Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning through Assessment.” In Innovations in Interdisciplinary Teaching American Council on Higher Education, edited by Carolyn Haynes, 256­274. Connecticut: Oryx Press.

Fowler, Matthew. 2012. “Developing a Template for Electronic Portfolios in Career and Technical Education.” PhD diss., The University of Nebraska–Lincoln. ProQuest/UMI (3503365).

Hayward, Lorna M., Betsey Blackmer, Alicia Canali, Rosemarie Dimarco, Alicia Russell, Susan Aman, Jessica Rossi, and Lucia Sloane. (2008). “Reflective electronic portfolios: A design process for integrating liberal and professional studies and experiential education.” Journal of Allied Health 37 (3), 140­159.

Hill, Phil. 2012. “Now UC Berkeley and Charles Sturt University Leave Sakai OAE.” e-­Literate. http://mfeldstein.com/now-uc-berkeley-and-charles-sturt-university-leave-sakai-oae/.

London, Herbert I. 1992. “A Gallatin Chronology.” The Gallatin Review 11 (1): 7.

Green, Kenneth C. 2013. “The National Survey of Computing and Information Technology.” http://www.campuscomputing.net/sites/www.campuscomputing.net/files/CampusComputing2013_1.pdf.

Wade, Anne, Philip C. Abrami, and Jennifer Sclater. 2005. “An Electronic Portfolio to Support Learning.” Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 31 (3). https://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/26489/19671.

Wozniak, Nancy McCoy. 2012. “Enhancing Inquiry, Evidence­-Based Reflection, and Integrative Learning with the Lifelong ePortfolio Process: The Implementation of Integrative ePortfolios at Stony Brook University.” Journal of Educational Technology Systems 41 (3): 209­30. doi:10.2190/ET.41.3.b. EBSCO (ATT 88230618).


In response to prompt, “Please check off all areas of the ePortfolio that you worked on,” 83% checked homepage, about me, and courses pages.
In response to a question about how much time students spent on their ePortfolios, 83% indicated 2 to 5 hours.

In response to the question, “Did you feel as though the time spent was useful,” 67% checked “yes.”

In response to the question, “Was it difficult for you to develop your ePortfolio,” 83% checked “no.”

Students elaborate on answers to Q4, citing platform limitations, prior experience with WordPress, and time investment as considerations.

In response to a question about barriers to engagement, 100% said “lack of time,” while “unfamiliarity with WordPress” and lack of interest/motivation were also cited.

In response to a question about how to increase engagement, students cited deadlines, mandates, starting early, and making it more professional.

In response to the question, “Did you use the resources at https://wp.nyu.edu/gallatin­eportfolios/,” 83% indicated “yes.”

In response to the question, “Do you think the portfolio should be mandatory for all students,” 33% said “yes,” 17% said “no,” and 50% said “other.”

Additional comments: other systems for saving work, ePortfolios should be mandatory, and favorable thoughts about the design.

About the Authors

Nick Likos is NYU Gallatin School’s Chief Information Officer. He is responsible for the oversight of technology, operations, and compliance. Likos’ career has spanned fifteen years as a leader in for­-profit and nonprofit management, focusing on the efficient use of educational technologies. Likos’ most recent work has been in the academic social networking sphere, developing strategies and systems for integrating pedagogical and social technologies. His research interests include experiential mediation, interface, actor network theory and boundary theory.

Jenny Kijowski is NYU Gallatin’s Educational Technologist. She is responsible for facilitating the development of pedagogically driven, technology­-enhanced teaching practices in the classroom and beyond. She previously taught English Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition courses at BMCC and Queens College, and received her doctorate in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research examines war, trauma, gender, and technology.




Designing ‘Authenticity’ in Digital Learning Environments

Allan Johnson, University of Surrey


This article reports on a study into the integrative use of social media tools to create an ‘authentic digital learning environment’ for undergraduate literature teaching at City University of Hong Kong. An authentic digital learning environment is one that is created—rather than adopted or adapted—by student cohorts. The findings of the study suggest that the use of digital media in the classroom can create higher levels of student engagement, but only when it is embedded systematically in module design. This article outlines the rationale for moving to a digital learning environment composed of social tools, thereby situating learning in a context that is more authentic to students while seamlessly integrating digital literacy education into traditional subject areas.

Introduction & Context

This research commences from a position held by Laurillard (2012) that teaching is a design science and, as such, can be described, created, and evaluated through consideration of the patterns which contribute to the complex relationship between learning and teaching. These patterns can become even more apparent in digital pedagogies, where the correlation between content and form is often highly significant. This investigation studied how learning activities conducted in ‘authentic digital learning environments’ impacted student experience in an English literature course in the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong. An authentic digital learning environment is one that is created—rather than adopted or adapted—by student cohorts. In practice, this means that the functions normally fulfilled by a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard or Moodle (e.g. content delivery, lecturer-student communication, student-student communication, work submission, assessment) are accomplished inside an environment that students incrementally and collaboratively build through their sustained connections within web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, WordPress, and RSS.

Proprietary LMSs have been shown to be important tools for enhancing student learning, particularly in literature and language studies (e.g. Gimmel, 2007; Levy, 2009; Lancashire, 2009); however, they are specific only to educational contexts (and particularly to higher education contexts) and students will ultimately leave them behind following graduation. This research examined the impact of learning activities and materials that are assigned, created, and assessed within an environment that more closely mirrors students’ own authentic engagements with collaborative technology. The findings from this study suggest the importance of full integration between material design and implementation in digital pedagogy, and underline the importance of holistic instructional design with equal consideration of task and material creation.

Authentic tasks & authentic materials

Previous research has focused on ‘authenticity’ as a quality of the discrete learning task or assessment tool (Cronin (1993), Young & McNeese (1993), Lebow & Wager (1994), Herrington & Herrington (1998), Oliver & Omari (1999), Barab, Squire, & Dueber (2000), and Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver (2006)). Lombardi (2007) defines authentic learning as the focus on ‘real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice’ (2). This type of engaged, participatory learning task can lead to what Ramsden (1992) refers to as ‘deep learning’, a mode of learning marked by long-term retention and genuine critical application of concepts, ideas, and theories. This interest in ‘authenticity’ as a possible attribute of a learning task or assessment tool supports learning that operates within meaningful and consequential learning contexts by situating the task as the elemental feature of teaching.

A related use of ‘authenticity’ in pedagogical design comes from Lave & Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998), whose influential ‘situated learning’ and ‘communities of practice’ models emphasize the need for learning, teaching, and assessment methods that replicate the demands of the professional environments students will ultimately enter. These understandings of authentic tasks and authentic materials reflect Piagetian models of constructivist learning in the way they seek to encourage learning that centers on and bolsters schemata, that is, the patterns of knowledge that students construct and continue to build on through the educational process. Because LMS bear little resemblance, particularly in terms of information architecture, to software that students will be likely to use in their professional lives (e.g. Customer Relationship Management software [CRM], Project Management Information Systems [PMIS], and Content Management Systems [CMS]), there is the suggestion that alternative, authentic modes of learning management which mirror those used in professional environments can benefit student experience and achievement.

Although the majority of research on authenticity in pedagogical design underlines the significance of authenticity in assessment and learning tasks, a further body of research in the field of English language teaching portrays authenticity as a feature of learning materials and content delivery. In modern language education, ‘authentic materials’ are examples drawn from the real world such as magazines, newspapers, and advertisements, which provide language learners an unmediated exposure to the target language. In this context, authentic materials can be contrasted with ‘graded materials,’ readings which appear in textbooks and other prepared course documents which have been designed specifically—in terms of vocabulary, complexity, and grammatical formation—to be appropriate for the student group and learning objectives. As Berwald (1987) and Peacock (1997) argue, authentic materials are an important element of student motivation because they give examples of how the language is used outside of the constraints of the classroom. Bardovi-Harlig et al. (1991) point out the importance of authentic materials in developing pragmalinguistic competencies and Gilmore (2007) underlines the importance of the coherence of authentic materials in developing discourse competencies. Gilmore (2007) also reminds that authentic materials can present a greater challenge to students than graded materials, a challenge which may have significant impacts upon learning goals and objectives.

Both of these strands of investigation—on authentic tasks and on authentic materials—have described ‘authenticity’ as a feature of isolated patterns of pedagogy rather than part of broader holistic systems of learning and teaching. The desirability of what may be termed ‘authentic’ learning is restrained to one aspect of learning and teaching design. Neither of these views on pedagogical authenticity unite both task and material to consider an authentic learning environment that supports and engages students in ways that reflect genuine uses of both course content and the application of course content to life beyond the lecture hall. It seems clear that the advances of web 2.0 connectivity has made this style of learning and teaching possible in a way that it never has been before.

Digital writing and assessment in English as a Second Language (ESL) contexts

As Berwald’s (1987) and Peacock’s (1997) comments on ‘authentic materials’ suggest, the relationship between material design and teaching design is a critical element of modern language education. Conducting this study on ‘authentic learning managements systems’ in Hong Kong—a semi-autonomous Cantonese-speaking region, which Schneider (2011) describes as ‘a classic ESL country where knowledge of English is typically associated with middle-class identity and a modern, international outlook on life’ (p. 139)—brought a number of pedagogical issues to the fore. Literature is an important part of the ESL classroom, and can provide a unique and distinctive development of both linguistic and cultural competencies (Lazar 1990; Nance 2010). However, the teaching of literature in ESL contexts generally minimizes the uses of writing tasks. Language teachers’ weariness over the use of literature—and, particularly, writing about literature—seems well-founded. A point that Dixon made in 1983 seems to remain true for many ESL literature students: ‘often, it seems, they are learning to substitute intellectual sophistry for the effort to give authentic articulation to their literary response’ (p. 219). Brown, Bull, and Pendlebury (1997) suggest that ‘a good case could be made for arguing that [essays] are the most useful way of assessing deep learning’ because they require students ‘to integrate knowledge, skills and understanding’ into a cohesive written work (p. 58). While it seems that the university essay is a good way to assess student work and, indeed, a key element of the learning process of students, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) famously point out in Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture that the essay is a privileged, institutionalized genre, one that reflects little of the type of writing that students will undertake in their future professional lives. Educators thus might be wise to consider the strength of alternative forms of written assessment, a shift with significant applications in ESL learning and teaching contexts.

Authentic digital learning environments

Instructional design for distance, blended, or distributed learning must recognize the relationship between learning and teaching, and integrate learner, task, and technology into a coherent design system (Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver, 2006). Jenkins (2009) further develops this point:

Rather than dealing with each technology in isolation, we would do better to take an ecological approach, thinking about the interrelationship among different communication technologies, the cultural communities that grow up around them, and the activities they support. (7)

Although some work has been done on the importance of student customization in instructional design (Vovides, Sanchez-Alonson, Mitropoulou and Nickmans, 2007; Mason & Rennie, 2008), the majority of research has focused on social media tools in isolation and their particular implications within the classroom. The view has almost universally been that social media tools can provide important learning opportunities as long as their uses are appropriately aligned with course learning objectives and intended outcomes. For instance, Facebook can help to better engage students in learning because of its familiarity and ubiquity, but students can still be hesitant to ‘friend’ lecturers or to open up a largely private digital network to classroom purposes (Bosch, 2009; Irwin, Ball, and Debsbrow, 2012; Lee, Teng, Hsueh, and Li, 2013). However, other research (e.g. Sapargaliyev, 2012) suggests that students show little engagement in closed Facebook groups for learning materials, and can be resistant to the use of Facebook in learning and teaching because of privacy concerns (e.g. Wang, Woo, Quek, Yang, and Liu, 2012). The uniqueness of Twitter inheres in the fact that it offers the potential for a greater amount and greater variety of teacher-student, student-teacher, and student-student interaction in lectures (Tyma, 2011; Andrade, Castro, & Ferreira, 2012; Tiernan, 2013). And as Lowe & Laffey (2011) and Rinaldo, Tapp, and Laverie (2011) point out, the use of Twitter can be especially relevant in fields such as marketing where students will likely be using Twitter in their future jobs.

Social networking can play a significant role in the development of community and a shared community of inquiry (Sinnappan & Zutshi, 2011) and lead to a participatory culture that extends beyond the classroom (Jenkins, 2009). By their very nature, social media tools are not isolated, but are defined by their relationships and connectivity as much as by their individual affordances. As this article defines it, authentic digital learning environments are the spaces that are created when students collectively and consistently interact through web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, WordPress, and RSS. When this type of engagement is embedded systematically within module design, the authentic digital learning environment fulfills nearly all roles of a traditional LMS and does so in a way that can lead to new learning opportunities for students.


This research took place in an English literature course called Literature in Our Lives at City University of Hong Kong during Spring 2014. Literature in Our Lives is an introductory General Education course available to all students at the university. There were 56 students enrolled in the course, which was delivered through a 3-hour weekly mixed seminar/lecture. Before this course began, students all had at least one semester experience of using Blackboard to handle class discussions, file sharing, announcements, and work submission. Literature in Our Lives moved away from Blackboard to locate all discussions, file sharing, announcements, and work submission in authentic digital tools best suited for these purposes, including WordPress and Twitter.

Students completed approximately 3,000 words of assessed writing during the semester which was uploaded to individual portfolios in the form of weekly responses to the primary texts. Students were given basic training on WordPress during the first lecture and many participants would go on to use this platform for their blogs, although a small number of alternative blogging sites and CMS were also used. Examples of student work each week was re-blogged on a private module website and students had the option to make their own blogs either public or assessable only to me and their classmates. To facilitate peer-to-peer review, students were required to find and comment on two other pieces of work each week. Because of the authentic deployment of these written responses, students had to share links to their writing to the target audience of class peers through tools such as Twitter, Facebook, RSS or semi-structured blogging circles. In addition, they had to work in groups to produce a creative reimagining of one of the primary texts on the courses. These took the form of films, websites, eBooks, animations, and poetry which could be integrated into their personal blogs for final assessment.

At the beginning of the semester a survey was administered which asked students to evaluate the differences between Blackboard and social media for educational purposes; a similar survey was delivered at the end of the semester to gauge students’ perceptions following the course. Both surveys relied on an array of structured and unstructured question types. At the end of the semester, small discussion groups were held with students in order to observe reactions to the use of an authentic digital learning environment, and student writing and communication within this environment was analyzed with reference to the stated intended learning outcomes for the course.

Findings & Discussion

Two surveys were delivered to the 56 students in Literature in Our Lives to measure their perceptions of integrative social media usage in the classroom at the beginning and end of the semester. Both surveys included two questions which aimed to gather insight into students’ comparative understanding of the affordances of traditional LMS and social media: 1) ‘Which of the following functions in Blackboard do you believe are better than other social media websites?’ and 2) ‘Which of the following functions of social media websites do you believe are better than Blackboard?’ For both questions students had a list of six affordances and were able to select multiple answers:

  • Group Collaboration
  • Class Communication
  • Notification of Grades
  • Work Submission
  • File Sharing
  • Announcements

Results from the first survey at the beginning of the semester demonstrate that many students possessed a clear and well-defined understanding of the potential role of digital media in education. Respondents considered Notification of Grades, Work Submission, and Announcements as tasks best achieved by LMS and Group Collaboration, Class Communication, and File Sharing as best achieved through social media channels (Table 1).

Table 1: Results from survey conducted at the beginning of the semester in bar chart format as described in the body of the essay.

Table 1: Beginning of Semester: Which Platform is Best?


While File Sharing received a close split of 16 responses favoring social media and 14 responses favoring LMS, the spread was much more pronounced for several categories: for Group Collaboration, 28 respondents chose social media versus only 2 for LMS; for Class Communication, 27 respondents chose social media versus 3 for LMS; and for Work Submission, only 4 respondents chose social media while 27 chose LMS.

Following a semester of using social media as an integrated element of learning design and assessment, the second survey captures several changed perceptions. Most notably, by the end of the semester an equal number of students indicated that social media and LMS were most suitable for Work Submission, suggesting a growing awareness of how social media could be used effectively to submit work for assessment (Table 2).

Table 2: Results from survey conducted at the end of the semester in bar chart format as described in the body of the essay.

Table 2: End of Semester: Which Platform is Best?


The majority of students selected fewer categories than in the first survey, showing a more focused indication of their preferences. Although the preferred channel of engagement in the remaining categories remained the same as in the first survey results, the data further emphasizes student perceptions that Notification of Grades is still best achieved through LMS (zero students selected social media in this category) and reflects a growing awareness of using social media for File Sharing (16 against 14 at the beginning of the semester as opposed to 14 and 6 at the end). Students perceptions on the educational use of social media is thus not altered dramatically by its inclusion in teaching design; however, there is evidence of modest shifts in perception particularly related to the possibilities of submitting work through a social media channel.

Furthermore, the survey results do not suggest that students found the increased use of social media to be detrimental to the learning environment, and further focus group discussions suggest that students found the use of an authentic digital learning environment to be a positive experience that improved both engagement and content understanding. As one student described:

I do believe digital media can change students’ perspective on as well as approach to literature and most importantly, help them make sense of the art of reading so that it no longer seems like a daunting process.

There were, however, a number of objections. One student suggested that ‘digital media is for entertainment’ while another student felt that the walled structure of LMS played a significant role in gaining and maintaining student attention:

Blackboard, even though a bit bland, keeps the students focused on their tasks rather than wasting time reading about Kayne West and Kim Kardashian’s wedding plans.

Several students sensed that the ubiquity of Blackboard within higher education is a key element of its value: ‘I think Blackboard is still a major platform in education, but if more courses are using digital media, it could be more convenient.’ This point was echoed by other students, who thought there might be a tipping point for the wide-scale move away from propriety LMS, although perhaps that tipping point has not yet been reached.

Serendipitous & Collateral Learning

This data does not represent significant shifts in student perception of social media as a learning tool; however, the assessed written work indicates some advances in metacognition. There can be a secondary objective in pedagogical design that moves beyond the intended learning outcomes. Literature in Our Lives was not digitally-themed in its content, and it was important that the digital components didn’t overpower the literary studies focus. While the topic of the learning objectives in literature pedagogy is far beyond the scope of this article, this research does flag a number of interesting points about the particularities of literature education within a digital environment, and particularly within an ESL context. These relate largely to the way in which students behaved within the authentic platform utilized, and the serendipitous or collateral learning that their work demonstrated.

In their portfolios, several students began to take on unique private personas: one student signed off posts like a letter with ‘Lyterally Yours’ (Figure 1)—a pun on ‘literal’ which draws attention to the role of the reader and critic in literary analysis—and another began a tagging convention using ‘Say Me’ and ‘Say You’ to distinguish between posts determined to be more reflective versus more analytical (Figure 2). In both cases, the students’ behavior in the digital environment reflected a unique understanding of the role of the critic in literary studies and the relationship of the critic both to literary history and to a present audience.

Figure 1: Example of student blog post which signs off ‘Lyterally Yours’ like a letter

Figure 1: ‘Lyterally Yours’ and the relationship between reader and writer.


Figure 2: Close-up of navigation pane of a student blog which uses ‘Say Me’ and ‘Say You’ as category structure

Figure 2: Category structure that reveals relationship between critical and reflective approaches to literary analysis.


Student use of tagging and categories also reflected unique collateral learning effects that registered their individual understandings of the literary texts in a critical/analytical matrix not otherwise observable in a formal essay.  Eleven students organized their posts into the three genres of ‘Fiction,’ ‘Poetry,’ and ‘Drama’ through either top-level navigation, or tagging, a seemingly obvious and appropriate information architecture, which, nevertheless, represents an important awareness of genre form in an ESL literature course (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Example of top level navigation menu in a student blog which is divided into Fiction, Poetry, and Drama

Figure 3: Top level navigation that reflects interest in genre.


Tagging conventions also regularly revealed interesting insights. For example, one student used the tag ‘sexual awakening’ for posts on Brokeback Mountain, Interpreter of Maladies, and As You Like It, indicating a clear sense of comparison between these three works which appear on the surface to have little in common (Figure 4). Another student was evidently drawn to the role of history within the texts studied, using ‘past’ and ‘present’ as a tagging convention; both tags appear, appropriately, in a post on The Cherry Orchard (Figure 5). In total, 21 students expressed metacognitive awareness of the relationship between texts through tagging conventions and information architecture.

Figure 4: Example of a tagging cluster on an individual student post which include the tag ‘sexual awakening'

Figure 4: Tagging conventions that reveal relationships between literary texts.



Figure 5: Example of a tagging cluster on individual student post which include ‘conflicts, ‘past,' and ‘present’

Figure 5: Tagging conventions that reveal relationships between past and present.


Whether these digital performances reflect new learning created by the platform or record learning that would have otherwise gone unnoticed remains unclear. However, while operating in this way students were able to demonstrate skills and competencies that would have gone unnoticed in a regular delivery, and were rewarded for them appropriately. They were able to demonstrate the way in which they thought about literature using affordances unavailable outside of an authentic digital learning environment. Perhaps unexpectedly, three students turned their blog into a professional portfolio, which included relevant sections on education and work experience and portrayed the blog entries as evidence of high levels of English-language proficiency. What began as a form of written assessment had thus been made truly authentic with relevance and meaning in the professional world.

Conclusions & Recommendations

Jenkins (2009) emphasizes the need for a participatory culture in social media, with students learning how to effectively and productively participate in the vast digital world around them. Within such a learning environment the design of content delivery, collaboration, and assessment allows for and rewards collateral and serendipitous learning. Using tools that already exist within the frame of reference for the student and are perhaps already being used by them is (as research on authentic tasks and authentic materials has demonstrated) messy, unpredictable, and potentially frustrating for student and teacher. However, it remains a necessary component of helping students understand how the content they are studying relates, even if only superficially, to a world that continues to exist outside of the lecture hall. While propriety LMS have been shown to be valuable tools in education, there is evidence that authentic digital learning environments—comprised of tools that students will continue to use beyond graduation—allow them to perceive new connections between content material and lead to helpful collateral and serendipitous learning which can contribute to final module assessment and professional development.


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About the Author

Allan Johnson is Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Surrey and previously Assistant Professor of English at City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of modern and contemporary writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.

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