This research presents a critical examination of 102 undergraduate students’ experience with e-portfolios in a university based in Northwest China. Qualitative data are collected via interviews to explore the advantages and disadvantages of e-portfolios in order to examine the possibility for popularization of the application and further improvement as well. Findings reveal that e-portfolios are beneficial in the aspects of new knowledge creation, learning management, reflective learning, test anxiety elimination, as well as student performance assessment. Meanwhile, some problems have also been revealed, which have pedagogical implications.
- knowledge creation
The implementation of e-portfolios in an educational context originates from the rising interest in formative assessment as well as the antipathy towards standard examinations. With concepts such as quality education, innovative education and pressure alleviation winning gradual support from people in mainland China, aspiration for much fairer and effective evaluation and instruction that may reflect students’ creativity and problem tackling abilities has gained universal acceptance. Research indicates that implementation of e-portfolios in academic courses can effectively enhance productive learning, promote students’ autonomy and visibly demonstrate students’ progress, thus making formative assessment possible . In many developed countries, standardised examinations which mainly test memory and static information have been replaced by series of e-works, such as finished products, videos, lectures, tables and figures, to name just a few. They are presented in an online system for peer review or teachers’ review. In order to produce their e-portfolios, students have to involve themselves in various intellectual activities, such as collecting information, planning and managing their study and drawing innovative conclusions. This has greatly aroused students’ intrinsic interest in learning. What's more is that their autonomy has been given a full play . Besides, it is said that once the keyword portfolio is input into ERIC, Google or Baidu, numerous doctoral dissertations, journal papers and research articles may be accessed at will, which proves from another aspect that e-portfolio has become a hot topic in the academic arena around the world. This research is implemented directly within such an environment. It is exploratory in nature. Qualitative data were collected based on face-to-face interview with 102 students, all of whom have >1 year of experience in fulfilling e-portfolio tasks. Some problems were identified, which may offer food for thought for both teachers and IT staffs.
E-portfolios in this research are defined as a set of e-work that are created by college students in accordance with the teaching goal established by teachers, which include home assignments in .doc form, PPT presentations, web pages created with Frontpage or Dreamweaver, multimedia reports by Authorware, home page animations by Flash and software designed with VB. As is known, portfolio creation is an active learning process. Creating an e-portfolio involves strategic planning, the acquisition and analysis of information, processing and connection making, synthesis, as well as designing the look and layout of their portfolio, evaluation and self-regulation. The skills required and processes applied in the creation of electronic portfolios may help students to learn, understand and implement information literacy . E-portfolios are used for both formative and summative evaluation in an educational context [4, 5]. However, the latter is highly regarded as it may help not only record the whole ongoing learning process  but also demonstrate students’ experiences and achievements, while also reducing test anxiety elicited by summative evaluations [6, 7]. Thus, formative evaluation with e-portfolios is categorised into low-stake tests by researchers. Compared with standard examinations, e-portfolios can present information of a student with multiple dimensions based on which teachers can make just and objective evaluation [8, 9]. E-portfolios are also employed as self-development tools. Students may have a better understanding about their strengths and weaknesses in the process of producing their e-works, which may help them to set more targeted learning goals for further improvement. By producing e-portfolios, students may gain confidence and develop responsibilities in the process. It offers good opportunities for students to practice their independence . With e-portfolios, the role of students in the assessment process will be underscored. Besides, e-portfolios may also offer an opportunity for students to develop whole-life learning skills .
To obtain an insightful understanding of college students’ experience with e-portfolios, the researcher has conducted face-to-face interviews with 102 students who have reported >1 year of experience with e-portfolios. Given the fact that all of the sample students were selected from the same university based in Northwest China. This research needs to be reproduced by future studies. However, its merit lies in the careful examination of those qualitative data and identification of existing problems.
The university under research is a comprehensive educational institution based in Northwest China. Originally, it solely offered petroleum engineering education for undergraduates and postgraduates as well. Now, it has moved forward to become a multidisciplinary university providing both teaching and research services regarding oil engineering, chemical engineering, foreign language education, Chinese language education, Chinese literature, physical training, arts, new materials, mathematics, physics, electronic engineering, etc. E-portfolios are implemented in this university by 22 teachers with pioneering spirits, who presume that the e-portfolio can improve productive learning and student-teacher interaction as well as enable formative evaluation. The 22 teachers set up a qq group to handle e-portfolios put forward by their students. A total of 902 students majoring in oil engineering (Course A), chemical engineering (Course B), new materials (Course C), mathematics (Course D) and English (Course D) took advantage of e-portfolios to complete various tasks assigned by teachers in the past 2 years. Out of 902 students, 102 were randomly selected. Among the 102 students, 56 were from the oil-engineering department, 23 from the English department, 10 the from chemical engineering department, 5 from the new materials department and 8 from the mathematics department.
The 102 sample students were divided into 22 groups with each group including 3 or 4 students. Then, the name list of each group was sent to 30 teachers, who were randomly selected on campus for this research. They acted as interviewers and were informed of the goal, processes and significance of the research. Interviews were conducted in different places and in the time specified by each of the interviewers. Each took about 30–50 min and was recorded via a voice recorder. The interview of this research is semi-structured, based on the following questions:
How do you think of the effectiveness of e-portfolios in knowledge creation? How do you think of the role of e-portfolios in course evaluation? How do you think of the teachers’ role in e-portfolio implementation? Please tell a success or failure story about e-portfolios. Do you think e-portfolios may motivate you to learn more? How do you think of e-portfolio's role in managing and reflecting on your learning? What suggestions would you like to offer on e-portfolios? What else would you like to say about e-portfolios?
How do you think of the effectiveness of e-portfolios in knowledge creation?
How do you think of the role of e-portfolios in course evaluation?
How do you think of the teachers’ role in e-portfolio implementation?
Please tell a success or failure story about e-portfolios.
Do you think e-portfolios may motivate you to learn more?
How do you think of e-portfolio's role in managing and reflecting on your learning?
What suggestions would you like to offer on e-portfolios?
What else would you like to say about e-portfolios?
The data collected were approached using thematic analysis . Five teachers analysed the interview transcripts separately by identifying quotes with key words related to the research. Then, they summarised key points of each quote. The main ideas were figured out by group discussion on the key points of all the quotes. These main ideas were then classified into several categories, from which codes were developed to further analyse the transcripts. Themes were identified based on these coded transcripts. These themes are illustrated in the following sections.
Students in Course A, B and C told the interviewers that they were required to present their experiments in video or PPT forms by their teachers. In order to complete their tasks, besides organizing, planning and conducting experiments as well as reading the literature, they had to collect information regarding their video-shooting skills and PPT producing tips. This has provided them with a good chance to extend their reach and build new knowledge. Students in Course D also mentioned the necessity of reading more materials and reference books so as to produce the e-works. Such results are consistent with recent researches in higher education in accounting [10,11,12,13].
Teachers of Course A, B, C and D demanded their students to set up a learning plan and to put down reflective journals in a PPT form, based on which they would offer feedback on a regular basis. This allows the students and teachers to manage the learning process effectively and eventually, greatly enhances the operational efficiency of e-portfolios [14, 15]. In this way, students and teachers can work together to quickly remove obstacles and clarify misunderstanding in a timely manner, allowing learning to occur in the right direction.
E-portfolios enabled students to clearly present their learning process so as to allow teachers to correct their mistakes made therein. For example, after watching a video produced by a student of Course B, the teacher quickly figured out the mistakes made by the student during an experiment. A student of Course D pointed out a mistake made by one of her peers when exercising English pronunciation after watching the video he uploaded as part of his e-works.
All students of the four courses have attested to the advantages of using e-portfolios to replace standard examination. They agreed that the e-portfolios enabled them to present their products and abilities in multiple dimensions. Instead of indulging themselves in memorising static information about a course, they could now showcase both their learning products and processes through e-works. This was extremely helpful and practical for students of Course A and B. Students of all the four courses agreed that, when compared with traditional examination, e-portfolios could make complicated or abstract knowledge much more vivid, creative and easier to understand. Meanwhile, it may also reduce test anxiety, which was commonly seen among the test-takers in standard examination .
Among the 102 students, >50% thought that the creation of various kinds of e-works was exciting by itself. Many students compared the construction of e-works to that of playing games. They enjoyed the new learning style and were willing to explore more. What's more is that they were also happy to find that their ties with their peers had been strengthened after cooperating and supporting each other in producing their e-portfolios.
However, the path to implementing e-portfolios was not entirely smooth and unclouded. Around 30% of the 102 students had expressed their confusion regarding e-portfolios. These students thought that the adoption of e-portfolios was simply another part of the ongoing globalisation efforts, and that their teachers just wanted to keep up with this trend. About 11.76% of 102 students thought that the goal of e-portfolios was to cater to the teachers’ working-at-home style. With e-portfolios, teachers did not need to carry the heavy load of paper homework back and forth between home and campus. About 16.6% of 102 students considered the e-portfolios to be a waste of time. According to these students, the e-portfolios were fairly time-consuming.
About 14.7% students of Course D mentioned that the anxiety was aroused with e-portfolios. They said that they did not know how to make excellent PPT document and video recording though they had strong expectation for doing it well. They had become fairly depressed because they usually spent more time on preparing presentation than on content. About 0.09% students had conveyed the message that better, time-saving, education-oriented and easy-to-use application suits needed to be developed so as to help them better present their work while enabling them to focus their efforts on content instead of form.
All teachers of the four courses used students’ e-work as part of their final evaluation, which accounted for 20% of the total score. Though all the 22 teachers agreed that e-works were an effective way to conduct formative assessment, >68.62% students were sceptical about their validity and reliability. A total of 17 students directly expressed their anger towards teachers and thought that they were not fairly scored. They thought that teachers just made their judgement based on personal preference. In addition, they also doubted if the e-works assigned by their teachers were consistent and well-designed, and if they may effectively represent the teaching purpose of the course. When asked if they could do better had they been given another chance, most of the students offered a positive answer. Failure testimonies from students revealed that most of the students thought that it was the technology and not their learning abilities that prevented them from achieving better grades.
About 24.5% students said that they had received prompt feedback from their teachers. Most of the students’ questions could not be answered by the teachers in a timely manner. Students wondered if IT staffs could find a way to solve this problem from a technology front.
About 4.9% students had mentioned problems associated with privacy in the e-portfolios. These students did not like to demonstrate their learning plan, processes, questions and products to their peers due to personal reasons. They preferred to communicate only with teachers. However, uploading their e-portfolios to qq group made them feel like they were being stalked by their peers, which elicited much anxiety from them. For these students, e-portfolios had defeated their enthusiasm for learning. Thus, a more secure system needs to be devised [17,18,19].
E-portfolios play an effective role in promoting productive learning and information literacy, enabling formative assessment and critical thinking, visualization of the learning process, reducing test anxiety, and in stimulating students’ motivation to learn. A careful analysis of the above study reveals the following scope for improvement.
Current technology infrastructure is still far from adequate to support timely feedback from teachers.
IT support team dedicated to e-portfolio implementation is urgently needed on campus.
IT team shall work together with college teachers to develop better and easier-to-use e-portfolio-specific applications.
Research regarding the reliability and validity of e-portfolio evaluations should be conducted.
Scientific assessment rubrics should be developed for e-portfolio evaluation.
College teachers should develop consistent, authentic, systematic and course-specific e-portfolio tasks.
Real e-portfolio system is still rare in West China, which offers a good opportunity for IT businesses.