Loch Brown in Geography uses ePortfolios

 

Loch Brown

By looking at the work they’ve done and the new work they’re doing, they can begin to see connections themselves.

–Loch Brown, Instructor of the Geography Department


Back Story

I have used ePortfolios in second- and third-year Geography courses including GEOG 370 – “Environment and Sustainability” (180 students) and GEOG211 – “State of the Earth” (80 students).

Environmental problems can be incredibly challenging to both understand and solve. They are innately complex, and require integrating perspectives and knowledge from both the social and natural sciences. To solve these problems, we will need creative and interdisciplinary thinkers who can navigate complex systems and understand how they are connected and influence each other. I wanted to find a way to help students become such thinkers—who can navigate and integrate learning as they move between a range of divers fields of study, from economic or political geographies to global environmental processes.

I saw the ePortfolio as a place (or learning space) where they could revisit, re-engage and connect work from earlier in the course (or previous courses) to their current course work, and in so doing begin to make connections, integrate learning, and develop interdisciplinary thinking.

I also wanted my students to leave the course with something tangible, something that they could then use when they go out into the world to demonstrate what they are capable of. The portfolio is both something they can reflect on, looking backwards, but also something they can use moving forward in their career, academic or otherwise.

How do you use ePortfolios in your course and what made you decide to do this?

I had the students set up and build their websites, populate an “about me” section, and then take the research that they did for other assignments and summarize their work in a way that was accessible to a wider public audience.

They built their ePortfolios as a series of steps: they built the site, they fleshed out their profile, and then, as they completed their assignments, they also submitted a summary description of—or reflection on—their work through their ePortfolios.

What has been the result?

The results from the ePortfolios I implemented in my classes have been wide ranging. With some students, there’s a clear resource economy when it comes to grades and time: “Tell me exactly what I have to do and I’ll do the minimum requirements because I want to get the grades.” But then there was another amazing and keen group of students that really took it on. Those students did a really good job of reframing their research and translating the knowledge and research they had created for a wider audience.

Now that I’ve used the ePortfolio twice, it is starting to go quite smoothly. There was a steep learning curve in figuring out “best practices”, both on the technical side as well as on how best to engage students in the process of creating an ePortfolio. Now that I have ironed out many of the initial wrinkles, I am quite happy with it. Some of my students’ ePortfolios are now examples on the student resource website.

What challenges go along with the ePortfolio?

I think the biggest challenge was “how do you scale it”? The overall goal was to develop a learning space that can help students to integrate learning as they progress through their undergraduate degree in an innately complex field. This requires them to go back to their ePortfolio course after course after course, building it out as they mature as a student and academic. However, that only works if you can get buy in from other faculty, if you can establish this as a program or part of the curriculum.

What I’m hoping is, if I can prove the value and effectiveness of these learning portfolios by piloting them in a suite of core courses that I teach, I can then go to the department and say “look at what these students are doing, what they are making, what they are learning!” If I can demonstrate that it is an effective, exciting, and valuable pedagogical approach, then I can make an argument to the department that it is worth integrating across the program. We’ll see if it works!

Do you have any advice for instructors hoping to implement this in their courses?

It’s really important to get the students to buy in to the process, to appreciate why they are doing it. They need to really understand the point of ePortfolio—that it isn’t just as a place to upload your work for the professor to grade it, but rather it’s about their learning and their growth, personally and professionally. That this is their space to express themselves and their thoughts in whatever ways they wish, perhaps with some guidance. That student “buy-in” I think is not only important, but it is foundational to the ePortfolio achieving its pedagogical purposes.