Ingredients for Scale

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Overview: Context, Vision, & Relationships

Scaling Up – Guiding Questions

“Scaling Up” is a key to the Catalyst for Change model, but what that means will vary depending on the institutional scenario. There are many factors to take into consideration: desired learning goals and outcomes for students, political climate and history, interpersonal relationships, and the extent to which other elements of the Catalyst model are in place. ePortfolio initiatives will enjoy greater success if they operate within a scale that’s appropriate for the context, while also stretching just enough to nurture program vitality.

When we speak of “scaling up” with ePortfolios, we usually focus on aspects of the organizational system that make scaling possible, such as formalization of new systems and policies. These developments are manifestations of scale; they are outward and visible signs of internal progress.

But we must not confuse these external markers with “scale.” The history of education reform is littered with models that failed because they were applied in cookie cutter fashion across schools. Scale springs forth from growth within the hearts and minds of many people within an organization, from intrinsic motivation and consensus that change will be beneficial. Scale is a manifestation of organizational learning.

ZPDIn the landmark work Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Lev Vygotsky coined the term “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) to describe the space between what the learner can do unaided (current state) and what the learner cannot yet do (desired learning outcome). This theory also holds true for organizational growth and learning.

To scale up with ePortfolios, we need to discern the ZPD within our organizations so that we can nurture growth in that area with finesse. For example, the ZPD and optimal outcome for a program or a small college is unlikely to be the ZPD and desired outcome for a large university. If we advocate for a scaled model that is not commensurate with the goals and needs of our institution, we will be perceived as unhelpful and out of touch. If we push people to reach too far, too fast, our partners will become so anxious that we will accomplish nothing. If we are too tentative in our advocacy, the organization or project will succumb to complacency and even boredom. To identify the ZPD we need to maintain contextual cognizance of the present so that we can partner with others to reach toward a dynamic vision for the future.

Current Status and Recent History

poklopLaurie Poklop, Ph.D.
Center for Advancing Teaching & Learning Through Research
Northeastern University

The following report describes several initiatives within Northeastern University. Each of them has a different scope and purpose, each has attained a measure of scale, and each is a work in progress.

ePortfolio use in undergraduate programs at Northeastern is currently at its greatest level of breadth and depth and at the same time far from “scaled” or institution-wide. At the undergraduate level, ePortfolios have taken the strongest hold in two programs that cut across departments and colleges: the Writing Program and the Honors Program. This is both a strength and a challenge: a strength because it means students in all departments are experiencing ePortfolios and a challenge from an ownership/sponsorship and funding perspective at an institution with a decentralized financial model.

gail_reduced_white_eye_cropped_vert200Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Ph.D., Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University

At the graduate level, ePortfolios are operating at scale within the Master of Education program, with a program-wide requirement, and in the beginning phase of taking hold across multiple programs.

Undergraduate Writing Program: The Writing Program began using ePortfolios in a 2010 pilot involving seven instructors and approximately 350 students. The pilot had an explicitly experimental approach and was focused on what instructors could learn about their classroom pedagogy from using ePortfolios. The instructors met throughout the semester as an “inquiry group,” discussing both technical and pedagogical concerns. The group documented their results in a web site, constructed as a series of blog posts, to share their experiences with the larger department of approximately 85 instructors (

Each semester following the initial pilot, the number of writing instructors has grown organically (now approximately 20 instructors and 1,500 students annually or ~25% of the program). The group continued to meet as an inquiry group for five additional semesters, with the focus and process of the group shifting somewhat each semester.

ePortfolio use in the Writing Program has continued to focus on classroom pedagogy, and instructors are using ePortfolios in a variety of ways, some of which extend instructor’s traditional pedagogies and some which represent fundamental changes in approach. Recent research conducted by Writing Program Director Chris Gallagher and Laurie Poklop documented three distinct genres of ePortfolio in first-year writing classes: process portfolios that document the developmental process of individual writing projects (essays), showcase/reflective portfolios in which students evaluate their work over the semester, and project portfolios in which the ePortfolio becomes the platform for delivering an individual writing project (a web site).

Undergraduate Honors Program: In the Fall of 2012, the Honors Program launched implementation of ePortfolios program-wide. Students are required to submit an ePortfolio documenting their undergraduate experience to receive their Honors distinction.

In a pilot project during the Spring of 2012, Laurie Poklop offered a series of five workshops based on the Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process™ for 24 freshman honors students who volunteered to participate. Both students and Honors staff were pleased with the results, but it was clear that the intensive format of the experience could not be replicated with the Fall 2012 incoming class of 500-600 students with whom Honors staff have limited structured contact. The program emulated a scalable model developed by the University of Washington (

Students use a template to begin their ePortfolios and are required to make a minimum of ten entries in a variety of categories across their undergraduate careers. An entry includes both an artifact and an annotation explaining its significance. In the freshman year, the entries are specified: a particular reflective assignment from a required seminar and an overall reflection at the end of the year. Students’ portfolios will be reviewed with their Honors advisers on an annual basis.

Main_campus_timelineTimeline of ePortfolio work with undergraduates at Northeastern

Graduate School of Education: A program-wide ePortfolio requirement was instituted for Masters in Education students in January 2012.  The Masters Program includes four concentrations for disciplinary specialization: k12 Learning and Instruction, eLearning Design, Higher Education Administration, and Special Education. Approximately 700 students are enrolled at a given time in the program.

The first incarnation of the requirement was entirely dependent on student initiative, with the assumption that graduate-level students could carry out this work on their own. Students were given the link to a resource site and directions on how to create an ePortfolio, provided with a template that included reflective writing prompts, and instructed to post an artifact of work and reflection in their portfolios for each of their courses. Some faculty embedded ePortfolio exercises in their coursework, but most did not. In August 2012 the faculty examined the ePortfolios and determined that more support would be needed to orient and guide students in the use of their ePortfolios for self-documentation.

Concurrent with this decision, between June 2012 through August 2013 the Masters faculty redesigned the curriculum to articulate program-wide competencies, identify signature assignments within every course that aligned with competencies, and position ePortfolios as a vehicle for the documentation of and reflection on signature assignment work. The revised program includes the 5-credit gateway course entitled Education as an Advanced Field of Study, a fully online course whose fifth credit entails orienting students to portfolio technology and pedagogy. Students work within their ePortfolios every other week during this 12 week course, which is designed to provide apprenticeship in portfolio technology and metacognitive process.

Catalyst and Connector

Even though each initiative is unique, involving different sectors of the institution, they share similar challenges and successes: reconfiguration, interpersonal relationships, stamina, and vibrance.

Reconfiguration: A number of the initiatives experienced significant changes in leadership and organizational restructuring. This jeopardized the follow-through on decisions and policies that had been set in place. Those that grew organically from the bottom up and the top down were more likely to flourish even in the midst of organizational change and uncertainty.

Bass_model_interpersonal_smallInterpersonal Relationships: ePortfolio success in one sector can lead to success in other areas of the organization. For example, a Masters program student in the Higher Education Administration concentration enjoyed developing her ePortfolio so much that she showed it to her Co-op Program Director. The Director then contacted Laurie Poklop, investigating the opportunity for launching a similar initiative at their school. This aligns with Everett Rogers’ concept of Diffusion of Innovations, and the Frank Bass Model, which indicate that relationships and imitation among friends are essential for an innovation to take root in mainstream practice.

Diffusion_innovationsScaling up with ePortfolios often depends on interpersonal networks; politics is local, and scale is social. The trick is finding a social bridge between early innovators and mainstream users.

Stamina: Organizations, units, and individuals all need stamina to thrive when taking on something new. Stamina can be defined as the optimal relationship between resources and demand. The process of scaling up can be compromised if a key player burns out, funding is uncertain, or support in key areas is withdrawn. Some interventions can promote stamina at critical junctures, such as the infusion of resources from an external grant. Connect to Learning helped increase stamina in the institutions involved in its network: a supportive community, new ideas, and modest funding.

Vibrance: There is an inherent tension between the motivation of grass roots innovators and the pervasiveness associated with scale. Innovators are usually attracted to experimentation, variety, and personalization. Scale is often associated with formalization, standardization, and institutionalization. When an innovation is taken to scale, there is always a risk that its value will be diminished. Success is dependent on increasing capacity without compromising vibrance.

Developmental History: Key Stages

2002-2007 Isolated pilots on diverse platforms

In the early 2000’s the EdTech Center supported several isolated ePortfolio projects in response to faculty requests. We built a home-grown platform with a database back end that was intended to serve as a developmental portfolio for physical therapy students. We participated in an NSF assessment grant and developed an ePortfolio system for Biology that was based on the Open Source Portfolio system (OSP). We tracked a pilot of Chalk & Wire in an MBA program. Though each of these efforts had some limited success, they were each sponsored by individual faculty and failed to take hold programmatically.

2007-2009 Structured piloting on a common platform (12 projects; none still active)

In 2007, grass roots ePortfolio efforts got a boost from a request from upper administration (which seemed unrelated to the grass roots efforts) to investigate an ePortfolio solution for the University. The then Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education convened an ePortfolio task force, with representatives from every college, that worked for an academic year to document requirements, define ePortfolio use cases and select an ePortfolio platform to pilot. There was broad variety among the use cases, ranging from programmatic assessment to professional ePortfolios to developmental portfolios. TaskStream was selected as the platform, and 12 pilot projects were identified and implemented in the 2008-2009 school year. Again, most of these projects achieved some success, but by the end of the pilot year, the financial crisis had occurred and institutional priorities and interest in an ePortfolio system had shifted. All but one of the original pilots died out after the first two years.

2010-present Broad use in cross-disciplinary programs

Current ePortfolio use among undergraduates at Northeastern is concentrated in the Writing program and the Honors program, both of which serve students across colleges and majors. At the graduate level, ePortfolios are used by the Masters program within four concentrations that span k12, higher education, and adult learning. Each of these programs was initiated by a specific champion, and each also has an interdisciplinary dimension.

Key Decisions

One of the key decisions that has influenced the success of the current ePortfolio programs has been to start small and to balance grass roots and top-down support. For example, the Writing Program Director made a top-down decision to become involved with ePortfolios, but was also committed to beginning with a small group of interested instructors, allowing broad leeway to instructors in terms of how they implement ePortfolios, and growing the program organically.

Another key decision was to switch ePortfolio platforms from TaskStream to Digication. ePortfolio enthusiasts often stress that “it’s not all about the technology,” because the most important ePortfolio innovations are pedagogical. However, technology that is expensive and difficult to use can jeopardize the success of an ePortfolio initiative. There is much greater enthusiasm for Digication among students and faculty from a look-and-feel perspective, the ease of use makes it easier to scale support and technical training, and the enormous price difference makes a great difference to administration. Tool change is not without its challenges, because faculty and students need to become accustomed to a new work flow, content needs to be migrated, and support materials must be updated.

Connection to Core Strategies

Advancing through Professional Development and Building a Culture of Learning – Faculty Inquiry Groups: The core of the Writing Program ePortfolio implementation has been an ongoing “inquiry group” made up of the instructors teaching with ePortfolios, Chris Gallagher the Writing Program Director, and Laurie Poklop of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research. This group, which has met for a number of years, has taken a slightly different organization and focus each term. In the first term, the original pilot group of seven instructors focused on technical issues, implementation strategies, and what they were learning about their own pedagogy from using ePortfolio.

The group used the term “de-familiarizing and re-familiarizing” to describe how ePortfolios influenced their views of their pedagogy. In the second semester the group doubled in size and split into three smaller groups focused around different interests: issues of power in teaching with ePortfolios, using ePortfolios with different student groups, and ePortfolios in collaborative work. Small groups meet several times and reported back to two large groups sessions. In the third and fourth semesters, the group returned to large group meetings, though two were scheduled each time to accommodate schedules. The focus turned to looking at student ePortfolios together and discussing how the work was/could be evaluated and how working with ePortfolios was affecting what the instructors valued in student work. So far, meeting of the current semester have been focused on the change of ePortfolio platform (to read more about the Inquiry Group model, see

Connecting to Programs – Program-Wide Requirements: When a school elects to institute ePortfolios program-wide, the initiative is more likely to succeed during times of change and wavering support. Once one program has an ePortfolio requirement, and the system of support is put into place, it becomes easier for other programs to adapt the innovator’s materials and systems for their own purposes. Diffusion of Innovations Theory predicts that successful programs in one area of an institution will breed similar programs within other areas of the institution.

Engaging Students: As noted earlier, students who have a gratifying experience with their ePortfolios will serve as grassroots advocates for the expansion of this approach to learning. For example, students who used ePortfolios extensively in a certificate program asked faculty to view and comment on that work when they entered the Masters program.

Student engagement can extend beyond conferral of a degree.  A graduate of the Master of Education program invested considerable time and thought in the development of her ePortfolio.  She went on to become a Northeastern Admissions Recruiter. She now shares her ePortfolio with prospective students to illustrate the program and its impact on her life.

Next Steps

The next steps for ePortfolio work at Northeastern will involve broadening the core strategies described, using ePortfolios for outcomes assessment, and integrating the use of ePortfolios into workplace-based experiential learning.

For example, the inquiry group strategy used in the Writing Program for faculty development could be adapted for other departments. This strategy emphasizes ePortfolios a catalyst for reflecting on teaching practice and “building a culture of learning.” An inquiry group format could also be used across disciplines, emphasizing the development of a network of connections.

The foundation of work in the Writing Program could also be used to both broaden and deepen ePortfolio practice by expanding writing portfolios beyond class-level usage to include the two required writing classes in the core curriculum and perhaps even writing intensive course requirements in the disciplines.

One strategy that needs attention is the development of an effective campus ePortfolio team with members at administrative, faculty, staff and student levels. To date, efforts have remained relatively local. A place to start with this goal would be to bring together the disparate programs using ePortfolios to begin a conversation.

The initiative developed by the Master of Education program strives to strike a balance between evidence of learning (gathering work samples that are aligned with program competencies, for the purpose of outcomes assessment) and reflection for learning (ePortfolios as personal learning environments). The next stage will be for faculty to examine ePortfolios to assess evidence of learning in relationship to the identified outcomes.

The College of Professional Studies, within which the Masters program operates, perceives ePortfolios to be a key strategy for improving the experiential learning component of professional programs dedicated to connecting theory with practice. Early signs indicate many opportunities for synergy: systems that have been put in place for the Masters program are being adapted by other programs, and the Masters program is also emulating the learning designs that are being developed by peer programs.

Connections to Other Sectors of the Catalyst

Scale is the manifestation of synergy between the sectors of Pedagogy, Professional Development, Outcomes Assessment, and Technology. Scale is a visible and external marker of internal learning and growth. Many institutions have tried to achieve scale without tending to the other sectors. Even if the resulting ePortfolio use is widespread and sustained, this top-down approach is unlikely to be generative.

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