by Jodie Pinnell
Graduate employability helps UK universities to attract students, so strategies to connect learning to employment are increasingly valuable. One proven method encouraging undergraduate students to consider life beyond graduation is to build employability into summative assessment, and digital ePortfolios are one such approach. An ePortfolio is an online resource created by students that details professional experiences linked to academic study. It culminates in a structured collection of learner work that is primarily framed by reflection and serves as an online record of achievement, showcasing skills, professional experiences and credentials. My research investigated digital ePortfolios in the undergraduate curriculum in Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth.
Closely related to employability, ePortfolios showcase applicant credentials and digital competence, allowing universities to assess students creatively, and allowing hiring organisations to determine applicants’ skills for entering the job market (Ring et al, 2017[RC1] ). This is relevant in a climate where graduates compete for jobs, and degree programmes are perceived as a ‘product’ with an emphasis on value for money with students as customers (Modell, 2005). As pressure mounts for universities to compete for student recruitment, action is needed to improve graduate employability metrics.
Although ePortfolios may not be a novel approach in undergraduate programmes, their integration as a central element of curriculum and assessment has not been fully explored. My study investigated how ePortfolios affected students’ interactions with their university experiences by enhancing professional identities and reflective, lifelong learning. Data collected for the project relied upon students’ perceptions through recorded online interviews, adopting a phenomenological approach, eliciting meaning through reflective, subjective understandings. Findings showed that reflective work in ePortfolios can be challenging through exposing vulnerabilities, whilst also positively playing a role in the ‘bigger picture’ of students’ development – ePortfolios facilitated digital skill development and evolving professional identities.
In the data collection process, discussions encompassed ePortfolio development linked to students’ compulsory work placements embedded in Childhood Studies degree programmes. Participants were in 2 groups; current students and graduates, with data collection focused on specific contexts and circumstances (Willig, 2008[RC2] ) and reflective, subjective understandings (Finlay, 1999[RC3] ). I took an idiographic stance (Burrell and Morgan, 1999[RC4] ), collecting data covering the perceiver’s angle of perception (Willig, 2008[RC5] ). Participants in the study were in 2 groups; 5 current students and 4 graduates, sampled voluntarily. The interviews conducted were semi structured and the key themes of the findings were employability, reflection, professional identity, digital skills and the student experience.
ePortfolios “develop engaged, reflective, lifelong learners” by collecting valuable evidence of career-based skills, and promoting “professional digital identities” (McKay & Watty, 2016[RC6] ). This study recognised this shift in identity for students, with findings outlining how ePortfolios “help you to reflect and develop as a professional person,” and that students did not “feel like a student when […] writing this” (Graduate Participant).This is arguably caused by the facilitated connections between practical learning and reflective summative assessment: “I’ve got this theory and understanding of things from uni and I can apply that. And everything makes so much more sense which moving forward has meant Oh, my gosh! I can work even better now” (Graduate Participant). As students reflected on professional experiences they valued the connections between theory and practice, with ePortfolios aiding reflection on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. This in turn improved the quality of work and addresses multiple identities (Ring et al, 2017, p 226[RC7] ). Embedding ePortfolios in the curriculum as a summative assessment enforced accountability for students’ professionalism, leading to an increased level of perceived value from degree study. The requirement for students to write reflective accounts and build connections between experiential and theoretical learning leads to “heightened awareness and preparation for professions” (Svyantek, Kajfez & McNair, 2015, p137[RC8] ). When students had an idea of their professional trajectories, this led to valuable consideration of career plans: “You’ve got clarity in your writing as well, which is probably a nice feather to the bow when you were reflecting on [your career]” (Student Participant). As ePortfolios prompted students to present their professional personas for large audiences to “intentionally curate their digital presence” (Svyantek et al, 2015, p 146[RC9] ), the development of professional identity aided career planning.
Reflection is key for undergraduate Childhood Studies degrees, with a need to embed this in the curriculum to be effective. “Danger lies in [reflection] being a separate curriculum element with a set of exercises” (Bolton & Delderfield, 2018[RC10] , p 1), and with ePortfolios, reflective writing characterises their creation. The meaning of this reflection was evident in the findings: “This is the only assessment that you go and do something real, and then you have to bring it back to our lovely, fluffy theory of ‘Oh, this is how things should be,’ and no one else really makes you do that” (Student Participant). This recognised integrative thinking for students, encouraging the management of complexity and problem-solving by connecting ideas akin to professional experiences (Svyantek, et al, 2015[RC11] ). Reflection brings challenges, however, with vulnerability associated with articulating learning from experience. Findings showed: “[There was a] vulnerability that you felt when you submitted those reflections” (Graduate Participant); the cause arguably in revealing more of the ‘self’ than other assessment methods (Lewis & Gerbic, 2017). Accompanying this is the requirement to adopt alternative ways of thinking that encompass purposeful goal-directed tasks that personalise the learning experience (Lewis, 2017).
The integration of ePortfolios in undergraduate Childhood Studies degree programmes positively affected students’ perceptions of their professional identities, employability and digital competence. Reflecting on work placement experiences was challenging for participants and vulnerability was exposed in recounting experiences for assessment purposes. ePortfolios have made a positive impact on undergraduate Childhood Studies degree programmes, taking into account wider university contexts and individual learning experiences.
Jodie Pinnell is a Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies in the School of Education, Languages and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Jodie on Twitter @jodieEdu