Enhancement of the learning experience through reflection lies as close as the nearest keyboard for students participating in the Mellon Grant-funded e-portfolio project.
A few years ago, President William E. Troutt commissioned the Common Table Advisory Group to bring students, faculty, and staff together to talk about important issues at Rhodes. One of the Common Table’s sub-groups, of which I’m a member, dealt with learning in the 21st century. Many ideas about how we learn have changed in the more than 150 years that Rhodes has existed, and the group’s discussions reflected the dynamics of those changes. We discussed many ideas during that year, but one that stuck was the idea that the liberal arts and a more career-oriented education do not have to be on opposite ends of the educational spectrum. Rather, linking the two approaches would increase the value of being a Rhodes student.
It also became clear that not all students had certain skills that are increasingly valuable in the 21st century: being comfortably able to publish a wide variety of media on the web in more formal ways (meaning not just as social media updates) and the ability to build and curate a public identity (sometimes referred to as a personal brand). Many students also reported that they were looking for more ways to link their different courses and make connections between their content. Rhodes students and faculty also expressed the wish to make learning visible, especially for learning experiences that are not classes in a traditional sense, such as study abroad, work on campus, fellowships, internships, independent study, and research.
One of the results of these the findings is a project funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and aimed at helping students create online portfolios that provide a place for commentary and reflection about academic efforts on and off campus. Coupled with a traditional résumé, these e-portfolios may also present potential employers with a broader view of the full person and more accurately demonstrate the value of the liberal arts.
What is a portfolio?
A reflective portfolio is a flexible approach to address many of the issues and needs raised by the Common Table discussions. It is a collection of evidence of learning, often in an electronic format, hence the term e-portfolio. Portfolios can provide creative spaces for reflective learning and can create opportunities for students to practice and showcase 21st-century skills such as creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning, communication and collaboration, information and communications technology (ICT), and information literacy.
The Mellon Faculty Innovation Fellowship Program provided a platform and funding for several professors to look at innovative ways to engage students in and out of the classroom. My project focused on working with students to develop e-portfolios for learning experiences outside of regular classes during the 2014-2015 academic year. Rhodes Student Associates (RSAs), students studying abroad, and a student learning through two directed inquiry courses created e-portfolios.
The project focused on three aspects of portfolios: the reflective or developmental aspect, the portfolio as an assessment piece, and its use as a showcase. Portfolios are one way of creating a community of student-scholars who share their work, strengths, and unique experiences and learn from each other.
First Portfolio Projects
After returning to Rhodes in the fall of 2014 from a year at the Universität Tübingen, one of Rhodes’ two partner universities in Germany, Arielle Carpenter ’15 enrolled in two directed inquiry courses on second language pedagogy and teaching German as a second language. As part of her directed inquiry working with me, Arielle worked as a German teaching intern, regularly attending a German 101 course as an observer, planning parts of lessons, and even teaching parts of some class sessions. She started an e-portfolio, writing down her thoughts and experiences and collecting materials and handouts. The portfolio became the basis of our directed inquiry discussions. Arielle collected the handouts she created for two 101 sessions and kept all versions as she improved them through multiple edits. As she moved on to work her directed inquiry under Dr. Elizabeth Bridges, the portfolio moved on with her. This aspect of portability is a crucial feature of portfolios: they transcend the individual course, making them an ideal tool in a liberal arts education.
Other portfolio projects gave further insights into how portfolios might be a beneficial learning tool and concept. One student chronicled his trips through Germany and his internship in a vineyard before he even started classes at Landau, Rhodes’ other partner university. He also decided to collect a list of important and curious German idiomatic expressions. Two RSAs working in the Language Learning Center reflected on lessons learned through e-portfolios, continuously changing and editing them after their weekly staff meetings. Like most student employees at Rhodes, they gained many new skills in their workplaces on campus, and e-portfolios allowed them to reflect on their learning experiences and share them with their co-workers and supervisor.
During the 2015-2016 year the students still at Rhodes will finalize their portfolios—at least as much as they can, because, as reflective practices, they will never be final but rather exist in different stages. Many of my colleagues are very interested in using portfolios in classes and programs, and more meetings and workshops are planned.
Plans are under way to develop support structures for the college. Student fellows financed through the Mellon grant are working to provide technical support and conducat more research about the multimedia possibilities of e-portfolios, including web 2.0 tools and social media integration. The student fellows will also be useful in helping their peers with creative choices and with the overall design of the portfolios.
There will certainly also be discussions about developing ideas, structures, and examples that could be used in other learning scenarios: regular courses, community-based projects and programs, or as part of a major or minor (e.g., in a senior seminar). I intend, for example, to utilize portfolios in my upcoming first-year writing seminar “Stereotypes in Advertising” in the fall of 2015.
This portfolio project will hopefully also initiate conversations about how portfolios could provide campus-wide benefits as part of career planning or preparation for graduate school, or even as a way to allow students to connect their liberal arts learning experiences and reflect on their learning as a whole throughout their undergraduate career, rather than merely focus on individual classes. Such holistic assessment can only further the richness of the liberal arts experience.