Boston University’s Experience with Digication ePortfolio Technology

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Summary: The greatest advantage of Digication as a platform has been the company’s dedication to customer service and continuous agile improvement. It has made great strides just in the past couple years and we look forward to continuing to work with it.

Author: Amod Lele, Educational Technology, Training & Outreach, Information Services & Technology, Boston University

Amod Lele

Our Technology Story

Platform

Since the beginning of our ePortfolio work, Boston University has used Digication as its ePortfolio platform. Overall, we are very satisfied with the platform. We appreciate Digication’s beautiful user interface and its ability to aggregate users into courses. Most valuable to us, however, has been the welcome technical support and development provided to us by the Digication company itself. Digication’s CEO has visited our campus several times to work with a variety of staff and programs. The company has also been very responsive to our feature requests. The two most major of the requests we made in the past year and a half have already been implemented, and some minor requests have been implemented within a week. Its greatest weakness overall has been a cumbersome interface that required far more clicks than necessary, but the company has made significant strides at fixing this.

One of Digication’s most important features, added in late 2011, is the Organizer tool, which allows users to move content (using a drag-and-drop interface) across different parts of their portfolios, and especially from one portfolio to another. Combined with Digication’s privacy controls, this tool is essential for reflective pedagogy, because it allows students to write rough drafts in a portfolio visible only to instructors and classmates, and then copy or move the polished versions into a professional portfolio available to the public.

For professional development, Digication’s relatively easy learning curve and attractive look are important. It allows faculty to showcase their work in a way that appeals to viewers without requiring them to spend a great deal of time learning the tool.

For outcomes assessment, it is helpful that Digication allows courses and templates to provide a standard format for similar portfolios, and that it allowed us to create a back-end XML gateway to synchronize with our registrar’s information. This is a large-scale feature and it is important not to have to enter student information one at a time.

One continuing weakness is the lack of a revision-history feature that would allow instructors to see what changes were made and when. This is particularly important for group work, but also matters for more basic assignments. Currently, in order to make sure students haven’t tried to change their assignments to challenge their grade, faculty must use the very cumbersome Assignments tool.

 

Support and Collaboration

The budget for Digication at BU is covered by the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. While CEIT is a small entity on campus with only one full-time employee, it is closely involved with many projects for innovative teaching around the university. Technology planning in general has previously been covered by IS&T, the university’s technology body, but on educational and pedagogical issues it works closely with CEIT, especially through IS&T’s Educational Technology, Training and Outreach office.

We have recently upgraded to Blackboard 9 (Learn) as our learning management system. In order to maintain a continuity of student experience and make Digication more visible, we have created an ePortfolio tab within Blackboard 9 which allows the user to open Digication within a Blackboard frame. (To avoid confusion, we have disabled Blackboard’s own ePortfolio functionality, which meets our needs less fully.) There is no additional connection between Digication and Blackboard beyond this. Faculty are encouraged to use both platforms – roughly, we say “Blackboard is for you to get information to your students, Digication is for them to get it to you” – but this can create some duplication of effort and additional learning time.

Fortunately, Digication has just announced a building block for Blackboard Learn, and we are now in the process of getting this activated for our campus. We are excited by the prospect of a deeper integration between the two systems.

 

Evidence

While we have used ePortfolios to collect evidence about the effectiveness of our teaching, we have had less chance to collect evidence about the effectiveness of ePortfolios themselves. To some extent, this is because we have not had a fully integrated setup that would allow us to exchange student data with Digication; currently the system receives only students’ name, email and student ID. A project is now being estabilshed to allow the system to track students’ school, major, undergrad/graduate status and year of graduation, and we hope that this will provide us with more detailed evidence about the use of ePortfolios across our campus.

Some preliminary student surveys expressed negative reactions to ePortfolios – less to the Digication platform and more to the adoption of ePortfolios in the curriculum. The most common negative reaction expressed was that students did not feel the adoption of ePortfolios had a purpose; sometimes they mentioned that their faculty instructors had not explained why ePortfolios were being used. These reactions occurred in programs where ePortfolio use was mandatory for faculty, suggesting that the faculty themselves were not fully convinced of the value of ePortfolio pedagogy. Some more recent feedback has been more positive.

Connections to Other Sections of the Catalyst

Pedagogy

The greatest impact of ePortfolios on pedagogy at BU has been in the Arts & Sciences Writing Program and the College of General Studies, which have embraced a portfolio teaching model. In both cases, the goal is to collect artifacts of learning (within one course in the Writing Program and across courses in CGS) in a single virtual space that makes it easy for students to observe their learning and reflect at a metacognitive level. Digication’s ability to divide portfolios into easily accessed sections and pages is helpful. Still more helpful is the Organizer tool that allows content to be easily moved and copied across pages, sections and portfolios. Without that piece, that integrative and metacognitive learning had been much more difficult, because students had no way to organize their thoughts in a way that reflected their integration.

The Writing Program is an interesting space to observe the difference between print and electronic portfolios. The current chair of the program implemented portfolio teaching as a standard pedagogy across the program, and while he strongly recommended ePortfolios, he did not require them. Print portfolios are more cumbersome for students, having to organize everything physically rather than digitally.

Professional Development and Training

While Digication is a relatively simple system, it is not immediately intuitive for a novice user, and training is required. Faculty training for Digication is provided by an educational technologist, Amod Lele, working for the university’s Educational Technology, Training & Outreach department within the university’s Information Services & Technology. Dr. Lele provides individual trainings to interested faculty. He also conducts workshops in ePortfolio in tandem with the university’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching (CEIT). CEIT holds regular workshops on a variety of pedagogical topics. Every semester these involve at least one university-wide hands-on workshop on how to use ePortfolios, and often a workshop on the pedagogical advantages of ePortfolios as well (sometimes conducted by the Center’s director). Dr. Lele also holds smaller workshops for individual departments, usually in computer labs where faculty can create portfolios for themselves. Dr. Lele also created an online portfolio about portfolios within Digication, as a place for faculty to learn ePortfolios by exploring a portfolio while they read about them. At the inception of ePortfolios at BU, CEIT also produced documentation for students. Both the faculty and student documentation explore not merely the technical aspects of ePortfolio use, but the pedagogical benefits – why as well as how.

 

Outcomes Assessment

CGS and the Writing Program both use Digication for outcomes assessment. Digication makes it a straightforward matter for assessors and evaluators to view student work, without paper copies or even files having to change hands; students simply have to add the assessors as viewers to their portfolios, which can be done in minutes or less. Digication also has its own powerful built-in reporting system. Neither program has used this system yet, as it can be complicated to implement, but it is under consideration for the future.

 

Student Engagement

Digication makes it easy for students to own their ePortfolios. The student always has complete control over a portfolio generated, even from a template. At least as important, alumni retain free access to their portfolios for life, without the university being charged extra, as long as BU has a contract with Digication. (If BU were to end the contract, students would be able to maintain their accounts for $20 a year, or to export and download their portfolios.)

Faculty training in Digication is conducted by the educational technologist, Amod Lele. Previously, student trainings were conducted by two graduate students working for the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. These student instructors provided support for more training time than the technologist would be able to carry out, and they also provided continuity in the ePortfolio program during a time of personnel transition. As funding for the student instructors was recently cut, BU has moved to a “train the trainers” model where Dr. Lele provides faculty members with as much training as they need, and the faculty members train the students in their own classes.

 

Conclusion

In BU’s experience, Digication is a platform that has made great strides and continues to do so. The Organizer feature has greatly improved Digication pedagogically, and the reduced number of clicks has made a similar improvement to general user experience. We hope in the near future to see the improvements mentioned above – a revision history and a Blackboard building block – and we have high hopes that Digication will be able to provide them.