To my mind, it is the proper mission of educated individuals, as well as those who are under their charge, to engage in regular and appropriate reflection on their goals, the various means to achieve them, their success (or lack thereof) in achieving these goals, and the implications of the assessment for rethinking goals or procedures. (174)
--Howard Gardner in Multiple Intelligences.
The term "assessment" refers to what can sometimes seem like a dizzying array of procedures and goals. As you plan your webfolio projects, you will definitely want to consider on which of a variety of goals your department, discipline, or program places the most emphasis, and how many of those goals can be reasonably addressed by webfolios. Often, one process truly can serve a variety of needs--especially since the various goals are so closely related-- but trying to do too much too quickly can backfire, inadvertently fueling faculty and student resistance to assessment, and undermining important efforts to establish authentic assessment measures, not to mention explorations of the exciting new technological and multi-media arenas that powerfully support and extend student learning.
Accreditation and Institutional Assessment
Clearly, satisfying accrediting agencies is the single most pressing motivation for developing assessment procedures in higher education at the moment. To what extent will portfolio and webfolio assessments satisfy the requirements of the North Central Association? In "Assessment Measures and Methods: Advice from NCA" (NCA), Cecilia L. Lopez offers the following observations about portfolios (advice that also applies to webfolios):
Portfolio Assessment. Evaluators observe that the use of student portfolios to measure student learning is found effective by academic units that utilize them. They urge academic departments that use portfolios for assessment purposes to provide evaluation protocols in departmental assessment program documents as to how the portfolios are to be reviewed (e.g., what the portfolio will include, how it will be assessed, by whom, and at what time intervals). They caution departments against permitting each faculty member to submit his/her own "protocol" for evaluating student work in her or his courses since that practice makes it impossible to gather and compare comparable data from area to area and across years.
Those who are planning to integrate webfolio assessment with capstone courses will want to consider Lopez's observations on the "capstone experience" as assessment process, as well:
Evaluators urge faculty who have decided to use the capstone experience as an indicator of student academic achievement to provide information in departmental assessment plans and in public documents available to internal constituents, including students, about the standards they use for evaluating student learning during and upon completion of the capstone course or project.
Note that, in both instances, three factors play a crucial role in the success of the assessment: 1) common, 2) clearly articulated, and 3) widely published evaluation criteria that are readily accessible to all stake holders.
In some respects, program assessment and assessment for accreditation are inseparable. Still, it's worthwhile to look beyond the "outside" and "top-down" pressures we all face with an eye toward considering to what extent a webfolio process will provide the kinds of information that can support and improve local efforts. Will you use the results to facilitate potential revisions to course requirements or materials? To reconsider course sequences and core requirements? To support proposals for new courses or emphases within the major? NCA evaluators rightly expect that we not only gather information, but do something palpable with it. That turns out to be good news for those charged with leading assessment efforts, for it encourages faculty to own assessment, defining it as a means of supporting their classroom and research activities.
Webfolios offer students a means not only of developing their professional personas, but also of forging professional connections, gaining professional opportunities, and perhaps even ultimately securing the positions they desire. If the webfolio processes and rubrics you develop emphasize students' creation of a professional public persona or presence, then actual placement of graduates becomes a reasonable area of assessment. Do online or CD-ROM teaching portfolios, for instance, typically offer your graduates an edge over the competition they face? Surveying, interviewing, or otherwise tracking graduates who have used the online materials they produced in your program to support their job searches could yield valuable information about how best to prepare future students for either the job market or graduate level academic work.
Assessment is most successful when undertaken in an environment that is receptive, supportive, and enabling.
from Assessment in Practice, Bana, Lund, Black, and Oblander, 1996.
The self-reflective pieces students typically generate as part of online portfolios create an ideal opportunity for classroom assessment and research. When rubrics allow students to select which works they will include and which they will "silence," those choices, too, can provide valuable insights into teaching and learning processes and their relation to learning outcomes. For departments, disciplines, and programs that are only just beginning the process of exploring and analyzing how online work can complement and extend traditional classroom practices (and certainly for those that have not already made significant strides toward developing paper-based portfolio assessments), envisioning the webfolio as an arena of classroom assessment/research may make the best possible starting point. Begin by identifying your early adopters, unrepentant technophobes, and enthusiastic techno-tyros, especially those with a constructivist bent and/or prior experience with portfolio methods. Supporting those professors' (graduate students', too, perhaps) forays into the webfolio realm lays the groundwork for broader, more inclusive future efforts. What can those professors teach their colleagues about the best ways to support students' learning via webfolios? What have they discovered about the pros and cons of this approach? What can they tell you about how webfolios influence the working relationships between professors and students? What fabulous flops and instructive errors have they and their students generated along the way? Successful cultivation of large-scale webfolio assessment begins with successful cultivation of initial attempts.
As Gardner observes in Multiple Intelligences, regularly reflecting on our teaching practices and their outcomes is the "proper mission" of any educator. No matter the means of assessment we ultimately opt for, when we focus unswervingly on doing our utmost to support students' learning, we create exactly the kind of “receptive, supportive, and enabling” environment in which we can best fulfill our interdependent missions:
To facilitate learning.
To forge mutually beneficial relationships with our colleagues.
To satisfy our personal and professional commitment to life-long learning.
To nurture our personal and professional growth.
To support the goals of our institutions.
To serve our communities.
To participate in the transformation of higher education as it evolves to meet the needs of the twenty-first century learner.
Given plenty of of attention to planning processes, webfolio assessment projects can support each of those missions.
Copyright © 2000-2004
Kathy A. Fitch
Vice President, Technology Services
Axis Business Solutions, LLC
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