The Tunxis [Digi]cation Experience

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Summary

After two-years using the built-in portfolio component of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium’s course management software, Tunxis reviewed three commercial ePortfolio systems and chose Digication as the best option available.

Author: George Sebastian-Coleman and Laura Gambino (now at Guttman Community College)

Overview

CAD classIn the Fall 2008 semester, Laura Gambino convened a committee to review different ePortfolio platforms. After reviewing a number of platforms, the committee unanimously recommended Digication as the tool of choice for Tunxis. Digication addresses the goals we had set for our ePortfolio program:

1. Showcase student work in meeting course, program, and general education abilities

  1. Showcase student work in meeting career objectives
  2. Create a vibrant teaching and learning community using ePortfolios
  3. Design a comprehensive faculty development plan centered on ePortfolios
  4. Use ePortfolio as the primary tool for institutional assessment]

The primary criteria for selection were ease of use for faculty and students, flexibility, inclusion of a comprehensive assessment system, and system integration with Banner. The fact that Digication did not integrate with our Blackboard course management system was considered acceptable and we did not believe it would limit its efficacy as a portfolio and assessment tool. Dental Hygiene, Computer Information Systems, and Early Childhood Education faculty piloted Digication in selected courses in the Spring 2009 semester. It was decided that Tunxis migrate to Digication for the Fall 2009 semester.

Platform

Digication is a robust platform that allows the creation of templates for individual programs while still permitting students to individually edit the appearance of their portfolio and add additional sections. There are “modules” with built-in formatting to ease the uploading of different medai or or provide various methods of viewing uploads (a page of thumbnails that link to full-size examples of art, for example).

This flexible environment allows a wide-variety of media to be easily integrated into a portfolio. Its standard design is functional, and it is easily edited to make aesthetic changes that are both useful and individualizing. The only area we find weak is that of social pedagogy. Although students can view and comment on each other’s portfolios, collaborative work is not readily done. It is possible to create a class portfolio and grant creative rights to all, but that doesn’t become the student’s. That said, we’ve yet to hear from any of the other campuses in C2L that they are any happier with their platform regarding these issues. In addition the owners of Digication are aware of the interest in social pedagogy features and are looking to develop this capability.

Conversion to Digication was not really an issue as only a small group of faculty had been experimenting with ePortfolios prior to the adoption of Digication. No transfer of archived material was needed. It is worth noting that all material on a Digication ePortfolio can be saved and downloaded, so should an individual or institution want to archive or transfer material they could.

Support and Collaboration

While ePortfolio began on campus as the interest of only a few faculty, it was quickly recognized as being useful to our work developing a campus-wide assessment methodology through a Title III grant. As a result, the initial funds to acquire Digication and to create an ePortfolio lab came from the Title III grant and from the Making Connections grant, which guided our pedagogical development. The continued use of Digication now comes from the college’s general budget. However, staffing of the lab is still largely dependent on grant funds (C2L and some Perkins funds).

The oversight of the ePortfolio technology and the vision and implementation of the project is the ePortfolio leadership team. However, they work with Institutional Effectiveness, the Outcomes Assessment Coordinator, and the Abilities Assessment Team to coordinate the school’s larger vision for student learning.

That vision was originally driven by Title III grant under which we developed our Ability Based Education model. Two years ago, the State of Connecticut reorganized its higher education governance structure. A major initiative under that new structure has been the development of a comprehensive transfer protocol between all the community colleges and the state universities. That initiative has put forth a not always readily compatible set of “competencies” that we’ve had to integrate with our abilities. That project now seems the primary driver for continued support for the evidence based assessment that is at the heart of ePortfolio.

Our Information Technology department has had little involvement with ePortfolio up to the present. They did have a representative on the original platform evaluation team and of course they provide hardware support for the lab. However, the ePortfolio lab has been staffed separately from IT, but that arrangement is in flux as C2L and its funding ends. We are moving to a new lab space (the old lab will become a new computer classroom) adjacent to the main computer lab. For the immediate future we will still have at least one paid person dedicated to ePortfolio/Digication supported by funding other than the IT budget, and we are negotiating the degree to which the rest of IT staff will be trained to support ePortfolio work. The leadership team sees the training of all IT staff as the only logical way forward; IT is not opposed to this, but not surprisingly does not believe it can train and provide the additional support without additional funding.

Integration with other software

Digication does integrate with Banner, which is the system that supports all academic records.  As such, class rosters can be automatically populated and courses assigned to professors, so that all one needs to do is log-on and go to one’s course section and find the system ready for students to create ePortfolios, and faculty to set-up assessments, discussions, etc.

Digication is not, however, compatible with Blackboard, the course management software of the college. It is possible to embed a link in Blackboard to Digication, but they do not integrate. Up till now this has only affected buy-in to the degree that those instructors who already used Blackboard extensively tend to resist adding a new software component to their courses. Looking to the future, however, the issue may become more prominent. Budgetary problems show no signs of easing, and even though administration sees ePortfolio as a good direction to go as the state mandate to for standard transfer programs develops, the pressure to have an integrated system seems likely to increase.

Scaling up

As noted, the lack of integration with Blackboard has probably held back several professors who otherwise would have embraced ePortfolio. Other instructors have said they find the platform too complex or cumbersome for the perceived value. We do not believe this latter attitude reflects any particular failings of Digication, but a more generalized response to adding another element of technology/pedagogy to a staff that has had to be continually revising courses and programs to meet first our own developing Ability Based Education model and more recently for the new transfer protocol emerging from our recently re-organized state higher ed governance. Nevertheless, the existence of “competeing” systems has proven a bigger issue than we had originally imagined and dealing with that must be part of our thinking moving forward.

Evidence

Over the years as issues have come up, we have worked with Digication to improve their system. Ideas for this come from the personal experiences of the leadership team and from surveys of faculty using ePortfolios. Statistics from numerical evaluations of satisfaction with the platform show general satisfaction. Requests for comments result in the commonplace: the majority of surveys make no comments and those that do tend to be critical. The most common complaints are the lack of a gradebook (a feature that is available but which we have not enabled), and “too many clicks” to accomplish a task, and, from Institutional Research as well as faculty, a desire that it was easier to view a class’s data rather than just the information for a particular student.

Connections to Other Sectors of the Catalyst

Pedagogy

The question of why the “e” of ePortfolio is significant has been part of Connect 2 Learning and the Making Connections grant before it. In returning to this question, our answer remains:  The most significant changes the “e” brings are visibility and portability. Individually students can share their work via an embedded link in applications or project their portfolio so a hiring committee (or others) can view it simultaneously. Similarly, our departments of business, dental, and early childhood education have used their students’ portfolios in showcase events for advisory boards and to demonstrate student success to accreditation bureaus. We have not yet used them for recruitment or PR, but those are additional possibilities.

However, five years into Digication and almost eight into ePortfolio, it strikes us that ultimately the greatest benefit of the “e” in ePortfolio is the reality that “e” is no longer an alternative means of saving or recording academic work, but rather the media in which it is originally created. Thus it is not the “e” of ePortfolio that needs to justify its existence, but the existence of “paper” portfolios.

Professional Development

As described in our professional development section, we have tried almost any method we could think of to train faculty and staff to use Digication (more importantly to develop ePortfolio pedagogies). Actually learning to use the software is quite straightforward, especially for the portfolio side. The assessment side of Digication is not difficult, but the design allows for many paths to view and assess work, and some of the ones most likely to be discovered first are the most cumbersome. Even so, it is clear that the greatest challenge lies not in teaching someone to use the software, but convincing them to engage the pedagogy in a way that makes the software valuable. Ultimately if you don’t buy into ePortfolio pedagogy, you will never be convinced that the software is worth learning.

Outcomes Assessment

We expected that using Digication for assessment was going to be our best introduction to ePortfolio and thus a gateway to recruiting new faculty to ePortfolio pedagogy. Although Digication is ideal for the kind of evidence-based learning assessment we envisioned as part of our Ability Based Education model, many faculty resisted the inclusion of evidence and simply desired a place to enter ability scores. Without the evidentiary component, the methodology of recording scores in Digication seemed unduly cumbersome to these faculty and an alternative method was devised. And as previously noted, for those faculty already deeply invested in Blackboard for course management, the addition of a secondary platform was unappealing. In those fields where the inclusion of evidence has been built into the program (Business, Dental, Early Childhood Education, and the first-year writing sequence, the use of Digication for assessment has not been an issue.

Student Engagement

Students have found Digication a workable platform. We have found that despite a familiarity with online communities such as Facebook, and even though the process of uploading material is similar to such sites, they are resistant to learning a new tool. While the truly tech savvy among them quickly figure out how to change the appearance of their portfolio and add new sections, the majority do only what is specifically asked of them.

The lesson here is that while almost all the students have learned to use social media, they have done so in a large and active community where support is widely available and where the participation is wholly voluntary. The stress of associating technology with academic demands produces sharp resistance among many. In those fields where ePortfolio has been embedded into program requirements (and especially in those with close cadres of students, such as Dental Hygiene), the group support system helps new students embrace the technology. For those of us introducing ePortfolio into Composition sections of widely divergent students with no shared sense of long-term need for ePortfolio, the challenge is much greater. Even though we have an ePortfolio lab to help such students, they tend not to take advantage of it, or to view it as “extra work” not related directly to the course. We hope as ePortfolio becomes more widespread, the casual support network will alleviate some of the resistance.

Conclusion

Digication has proven a flexible and useful platform. Either the ability to integrate with Blackboard, or a course management side that would allow it to fully replace Blackboard would no doubt increase its acceptance. Nevertheless, the issues facing our ePortfolio project have little to do with the technology. The one challenge Digication really faces as our platform of choice is cost. It is not the specific price, it is that it costs at all. With no budget relief in sight, indeed with continued cuts seeming the more likely, the possibility of having to move to a freeware model must be considered. Such a move is not without its own costs, and given IT concerns both on campus and the state level about security and accountability, even fiscal pressure may not drive us in that direction. We look forward to continuing improvements from Digication, particularly those involving social pedagogy, and hope we can continue to fund staff trained to assist with Digication on a more than cursory level.

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