Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Portfolios as a tool to respond to the big questions about private higher education

It is not clear what higher education will look like in a decade.  Or, to be more precise, it is clear that higher education will be even harder to describe in 10 years than it is today.  There will be more varieties of schools, more ways to get degrees, more degrees available, more disagreement about higher education's values, and more debate about the value of higher education.  Some well-regarded schools will be shuttered; schools that you've never heard of will surge to prominence.

But while the higher education environment of the future is hard to describe, the questions that will form that environment are clear.  Campuses will distinguish themselves by how they respond to these questions, and by the tools they choose to craft their responses.  By choosing to use portfolios to support, track, and assess student achievement of Westminster's college-wide learning goals, we are selecting certain responses to these questions.  in turn, those responses can help distinguish a Westminster experience from those at other colleges and universities.  A portfolio system, then, is nothing unique.  But the way we use it at Westminster will allow us to bolster our claims of uniqueness while strengthening those portions of the learning experience that we do best.

 Here are the big questions:
Which students will an institution choose to serve? There is a disjunction between the major trends in college-going and the sorts of students that many private colleges and universities hope to recruit.  More and more college students will be first-generation students, or students of color, or from low-income homes, or returning to school after a career.  Many will need remediation, and many will face added difficulties staying in school.  At the same time, most private colleges and universities will compete for two other classes of students--those that can pay a large portion of private school tuitions, and those whose prior educational achievement adds to the prestige of the institution.  These students may be more likely to be retained, but their number is relatively small.

Adopting a portfolio for all undergraduate students allows Westminster to aim for a broad range of students, because the assumption of portfolios is that they help students demonstrate their growth over time. Doing so allows us to shift the conversation away from demographic characteristics and towards the fit between students and the learning environment of the college.

How will those students learn? Prognosticators assume that this is a closed question--that  in the future more learning will take place via technology.  This is undoubtedly true, but hardly meaningful, since educational technology has always tracked with technological innovation in society.  The bigger question is whether students will learn only in one way, and only in the classroom; or whether their learning (or the learning we count) will be various and take place everywhere.

By investing heavily in the learning environment--in undergraduate research, and civic engagement, and environmental programs, and global learning, and student life--Westminster is wagering that learning will be varied and constant.  And by requiring a portfolio for all undergraduate students, the college is arguing that students need to be aware of and responsible for the varieties of their learning.

How will they demonstrate their learning? Colleges and universities have a long list of ways for students to demonstrate their learning--tests, papers, projects, presentations, lab reports, reflections, performances, etc.  Students, at the same time, often say that while they learned a lot in class, the most significant learning in their lives took place outside the classroom.  This is undoubtedly true, and undoubtedly difficult to demonstrate.

A portfolio system attached to the college-wide learning goals makes a bold claim--that learning inside and outside the classroom can, with the right measures in place--be demonstrated in the same way.  Artifacts provide evidence for learning whether they come from a class or a club or an act of civic engagement.  And reflections require students to make connections between the artifact and the learning outcomes, showing how learning outside of class is equivalent to that from within.

What role will faculty and staff play in that learning? While the phrases "sage on the stage" and "guide on the side" refer to two main varieties of in-class faculty behavior, it is the case at Westminster that faculty play a much more complicated role in student learning.  A faculty member, through the entire course of her interaction with a student, is a recruiter, an advisor, a mentor, a teacher, an antagonist, a colleague, and an evaluator.  Increasingly staff members play a similar range of roles.

The temptation in higher education is to specialization--to decoupling these roles in order to be more efficient.  A portfolio system, though, helps to link those roles, since it asks students to make connections across their experiences and asks faculty to facilitate those connections rather than focus entirely on classroom interactions.

How will campuses innovate? Some campuses innovate relatively little.  Others focus largely on finding efficiencies in their systems, but do relatively little innovation in the academic setting.  Still others locate innovation largely in the creation of new academic programs.  And many of the most innovative campuses innovate in silos, so that individual innovations do not add up to something in common.

Portfolios should strengthen the innovation culture at Westminster in two ways.  First, they help students draw together their experiences with innovative programs--so that, for example, they see how participation in the Westminster Scholars program, their concern for environmental sustainability, and their majors go together.  Second, they will help the campus see where innovation needs to take place.  If the quality of work in, say, the "leadership, collaboration, and teamwork" learning goal is relatively small, it signals that the college needs to strengthen its work there.  Or if portfolios show us that learning is particularly robust in "global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness" then we know that we have an advantage in that area.

How will campuses demonstrate their value to stakeholders? This is perhaps the biggest question for the institution as a whole.  Parents, students, funders, legislators, employers, accreditors, and campus members are all asking whether college is worth the cost.  A portfolio system allows a deep response to this question.  It helps students identify how their college experience as a whole was valuable.  It demonstrates to employers what graduates can do, not just what they know.  It shows legislators, funders, and friends what the results of a Westminster experience are, and it portrays concretely the college's ability to live up to its strategic plan and mission.  In this way, then, portfolios allow a new richness in the way schools sum up their work, for they give us evidence, in a common format and on common themes, of the power of a Westminster experience.

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