The wrong avenue A critical look at the Learning Portfolio


The Student Experience Task Force met weekly in the winter of 2011.

The committee of professors was told to dream big to enhance the student experience at McMaster. They envisioned a course that all McMaster students would take, emphasizing co-curricular learning through a supportive network of mentors.

They suggested calling this the learning “passport” or “portfolio”.

But when McMaster officially launched the Learning Portfolio in September 2013, it manifested very differently, as an online tool that has received a lukewarm reception from students and faculty.

The learning portfolio was developed with good intentions, but why hasn’t the funding input been matched by enthusiasm amongst students or professors?

What is the Learning Portfolio?

If you’ve been on campus over the past two years it’s hard to miss the Learning Portfolio.

It was launched with great fanfare. Then came a boot camp to teach educators how to use it. After that it took centre stage at a showcase. Now, six learning portfolio fellows a year will receive up to $9,500 each to champion it and research its effectiveness.

The Learning Portfolio is a virtual tool, hosted on Avenue to Learn and designed to stimulate reflection. The Portfolio aims to help students connect the bigger picture of what they gain from their degree through web pages with multimedia and text reflections.

“The portfolio is an opportunity to provide students with an additional tool… to integrate the learning that happens inside the classroom with the learning that takes place outside the classroom,” said David Wilkinson, McMaster’s provost.

The platform also has the support of some key student leaders on campus. They see reflection as an important skill that students otherwise miss out on at university.

“What we really value is the skills, the things that the students will be able to learn through the use of the Learning Portfolio,” said Rodrigo Narro Perez, MSU VP (Education).

From passport to portfolio?

The original idea for the Learning Portfolio, according to the Student Experience Task Force report, was to develop a learning portfolio or passport as a strategy to recognize and facilitate student learning in both curricular and co-curricular environments.

The original proposal recommends one of the key objectives of the passport would be to credit students for their activities and learning outside the classroom.

The task force recommended the creation of a course that all students would take. They also recommended that a committee involving faculty and students should together establish what activities would be credited on the passport, and what would be sufficient for course credit.

However, the current manifestation of the Learning Portfolio on campus has deviated more towards the purpose of inspiring reflection. Although a key part of this is still to engage students in extracurricular learning, students do not receive credit for the extracurricular involvement, unless it is somehow integrated into a course curriculum.

A limited uptake

Over the past two years the University has spent $530,000 on the Learning Portfolio. This sum includes salaries for dedicated personnel, events, communication and training materials, research projects and fellowships.

In September 2014, over 3,400 McMaster students used the Learning Portfolio.

But the majority of students have failed to embrace this tool, arguing that it is redundant with other platforms for reflection and job application processes.

According to a poll hosted on Avenue to Learn of 2,407 respondents, 69 percent had not used the Learning Portfolio. The Silhouette solicited feedback through an online survey on the Learning Portfolio.

One survey respondent said, “I also don’t think the average employer is interested in seeing these — there’s a reason résumés are supposed to be one to two pages in length, so I don’t think Learning Portfolios provide that extra edge in getting hired.”

But the Learning Portfolio is not designed to replace these traditional means of reflections, or applying for work, but rather provide a supplementary venue for students who don’t currently reflect.

“And where it is redundant and [reflection is] already happening in different ways, then that’s fine, the intent is not to duplicate that,” said Wilkinson.

The amount of students using the Learning Portfolio will likely increase as the tool becomes a mandatory method of assessment in some courses.

In some cases this manifests as a graded reflection uploaded to a Learning Portfolio site or course goals. Some students who responded to The Silhouette’s survey expressed frustration that class time was spent on how to use this tool.

“We should not have to spend class/tutorial time learning about this tool, where this time could be used to actually learn the material on the courses,” said one McMaster student.

Some professors seem to be equally disapproving of the Learning Portfolio as one survey respondent said “[I] noticed in some faculty specific forums (ie. Learnlink threads) that instructors are actually openly disapproving [the Learning Portfolio] and suggesting alternate, external platforms for reflection ie. Evernote.”

Despite this negative feedback, the University Affairs Commissioner thinks students have yet to learn how to properly use it.

“I think it’s important to also note that these learning technologies are very new and the only way that we’re going to get feedback whether or not it’s useful to students is through widespread promotion and awareness,” said Alan Rheaume, the MSU University Affairs commissioner.

Narro Perez is also a proponent of the tool, and has been involved with the Learning Portfolio since before it was launched.

“In terms of the Learning Portfolio I do see your point, that there seems to be a push, but not everyone’s going to be using it,” said Narro Perez. “It’s like saying exams suck. We all do it and we see the benefits after.”

Should McMaster consider a different model?

Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia created a tool called the “Co-curricular Record”. Their  tool inspires reflection, but also creates a system to verify and legitimize students’ extracurricular involvement.

“It’s a document that acknowledges both academic and non-academic experiences. The document is an official transcript essentially, that is signed by the University President, Vice-President of Student Affairs and myself,” explained Chris Glover, the Associate Director of the Career & Leadership Development Centre at Dalhousie.

Reflection is not a primary purpose, but rather one component of a tool that aims to legitimize the extracurricular involvements of students.

The Co-Curricular Record is open to both undergraduates and graduate students.

Dalhousie was able to implement the Co-Curricular Record thanks to a gift to the university, so the costs to operate the program do not influence the operating cost of the university or students’ tuition.

One of the reasons Dalhousie created this tool was to address demands of employers to be able to verify the extracurricular activities of students.

So the Co-Curricular Record contains a code that employers can submit to a Dalhousie website that will then verify the activities.

In fact, the Co-Curricular model, which affirms activities while also promoting reflecting, has been adopted by many institutions including Western, Waterloo and McGill.

These are just a few of the options McMaster may wish to consider adding to the Learning Portfolio, to make it more relevant for students. However, it remains unclear whether Desire2Learn (the provider of Avenue to Learn) owns the content students add to their portfolios. If this is the case, there is some possibility that it would affect McMaster’s negotiations and with Desire2Learn and their likelihood to change platforms when the contract with D2L expires.

The future of the learning portfolio

An important component of integrating technology at the university is objectively evaluating its impact.

Although this is difficult to do, the team behind the Learning Portfolio has worked hard to ensure there is ample opportunity for feedback to be incorporated and for evidence to be collected.

The University Affairs committee has been working closely with the developers to make improvements.

But more students and faculty will need to be convinced if the Learning Portfolio is to be a success.

“The idea behind it is great; I think it makes total sense that McMaster would invest money in something like this in an attempt to better market their students,” said another McMaster survey respondent. “But realistically they platform they’ve created is clunky, slow, and horrible to work with. They’d do much better if they partnered with some kind of preexisting platform, rather than Avenue.”

McMaster has taken a different direction from what was originally recommended by the Student Experience Task Force. But it is perhaps worth reassessing whether this direction is worth sticking to.


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