MONEY & MANAGEMENT
Electronic Portfolios May Answer Calls for More Accountability
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A YZXV YZ V\d! the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology had a few simple
goals. It wanted to sharpen its educational mission, broaden students’ skills, improve graduates’ job-placement rates, and
give the institution better ammunition for
proving its worth to accreditors.
It turned to the “electronic portfolio,” becoming one of a small but growing number of
institutions using an old idea—the long-term
compilation of student classwork—in a new
computerized format that lets Rose-Hulman
directly score student performance campuswide on a list of specific skills.
And now, as the Bush administration and
Congress press colleges to do more to prove
their worth, the concept is being seized upon
by institutions as a way to provide quantitative
proof of how they help students learn while
keeping the right to define their own missions.
“Electronic portfolios are a way to generate learning as well as document learning,”
said Barbara Cambridge, a co-director of the
Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, which organizes case studies
by participating institutions. “And that’s one
of the most exciting things about them.”
Hundreds of colleges use some type of
electronic system for assembling and storing
student work. But a few dozen, acting without
federal direction and with little other outside
coordination, have developed more sophisticated versions that guide assessment and
curriculum development. They include both
small institutions, such as Thomas College in
Maine and Kapiolani Community College in
Hawaii, and large ones, such as Minnesota’s
state colleges and the University of Washington.
It’s not a simple or cost-free decision. Even
supporters agree that making full use of electronic portfolios—computerized compilations of written assignments and exams, and
even videos or artwork—can often be difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and fraught
with frustration for faculty members and students, who may have to enter codes that indicate the portions of their work that satisfy
various institutional requirements.
Some colleges “jump into them, [and then]
they say, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we ever going to manage or afford this,’ and they back
out of them,” said Lynn E. Priddy, director of
education and training at the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the
nation’s six regional accrediting bodies.
As part of a well-designed program, however, an electronic portfolio can “really produce
excellent information about what students are
learning and how well,” Ms. Priddy said.
JEREMY HOGAN FOR THE CHRONICLE
James H. Hanson, an assistant professor of structural engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, incorporates the teaching of
professional skills like ethics and leadership into his classes. Electronic portfolios help the institute evaluate its progress in teaching such skills.
a series of “professional skills” it wants students to master in areas that include leadership, teamwork, communication, and ethics.
The process involves asking faculty members to consider all opportunities for incorporating those professional skills into existing courses. One assistant civil-engineering
professor, James H. Hanson, asked students
in his structural-mechanics class to consider
ways of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But rather than calculate the
optimal design for a new levee system, Mr.
can quickly find only those portions of the
assignments—perhaps as little as a sentence
or two—that apply to the criteria assigned to
The results allow Rose-Hulman officials
to see how effectively the college is teaching
each of the skills and to revise its approach
as necessary as the college seeks to establish
a unified campuswide vision of what a Rose-Hulman education means.
Before Rose-Hulman adopted its electronic portfolio system, in 1997, departments and
“Electronic portfolios are a way to generate learning
as well as document learning. And that’s one
of the most exciting things about them.”
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The Rose-Hulman Institute, which is
known for its undergraduate science and engineering programs, is one of the nation’s earliest adopters of electronic portfolios and one
of their most fervent advocates. The institute
has designed three different versions of its
own RosE Portfolio system over the past decade for its students to submit and store their
class work and materials electronically.
Rose-Hulman’s 1,800 students learn traditional technical skills in such subjects as
chemistry, civil engineering, mathematics,
and physics. The college has also established
Hanson wanted his students to evaluate how
various repair options might affect culture,
economics, and public opinion in the storm-ravaged city.
At the end of each academic year, Rose-Hulman administrators gather faculty members who volunteer to work in two-person
teams to review students’ electronic portfolios and determine how well the college did
in each of 25 separate criteria that define the
desired professional skills.
Because the portfolio software allows students to flag the portions of their work that
apply to each criterion, the faculty reviewers
faculty members pursued separate missions,
said Arthur B. Western, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. They operated, he said, like “independent contractors
connected by a common plumbing system.”
Getting colleges to establish more systematic ways of setting goals and measuring their
progress has been a key objective of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. The secretary, in response to recommendations from
her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, last year suggested a specific set of
tests and other measures to judge and compare colleges. Under pressure from colleges,
she later made clear that she believed each
institution should define its own mission, as
long as it developed clear methods for measuring that success.
Electronic portfolios give colleges that
very opportunity, said Ms. Cambridge.
The tasks of setting institutionwide goals
and overseeing faculty practices and curricula “are now more in potential for alignment
than they probably have ever been,” she said.
“And part of that is because we now have the
evidence that can be collected and shared in
Electronic portfolios simplify the process of
setting learning objectives and meeting them,
said Peter T. Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. And as the advantages of electronic portfolios become clearer, he said, he expects more institutions to begin to use them.
Many already have. Institutions that use
such systems as part of a comprehensive approach to measuring self-improvement include Alverno College, George Mason University, Indiana University-Purdue University
at Indianapolis, and the for-profit, online Capella University chain.
Other colleges are trying it on a more-limited basis, such as within a particular academic discipline. Electronic portfolios are
being used in programs of writing at the University of Georgia, psychology at Clemson