Seeing the Forest for the Trees

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Overview: ePortfolios & Experiential Learning

Social Pedagogy – Guiding Questions

Many programs involve students in internships, capstone projects, and practicums, but if you scratch the surface you’ll see that workplace-based learning often takes place in parallel with curricular learning, not as an ongoing dialogue between scholarship and practice.  Graduate students are often expected to integrate the two domains of experience on their own, without intentional dialogue to forge cognitive connections with peers and faculty, and without the integration of 360 feedback from employers.  Because workplace-based learning is rarely embedded in the curriculum, the academy inadvertently reinforces binary thinking that academic learning exists in a separate sphere from the learning that takes place in “real life.”

This polished practice describes two models for integrating workplace-based experiential learning within the curriculum of graduate-level professional degree programs at Northeastern University. It is offered as an work-in-progress, not as a polished practice, in hopes that readers will build upon, and benefit from, the model that we are developing.  The work is ongoing and therefore the program’s design is fluid; its final implementation will no doubt vary from the description that follows.

Northeastern University has a longstanding reputation for experiential learning. The University’s Co-op program helps undergraduate students integrate school- and work-based learning.  But graduate students typically do not have this opportunity because they already work full time — especially people participating in fully-online programs. This promising practice describes a model for embedding workplace-based experiential learning into fully-online, graduate level professional programs.

Model One: eLearning and Instructional Design Concentration

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

In Fall 2013 the Master of Education program launched a new concentration, entitled eLearning and Instructional Design (eLID).  eLID is designed from the outset as an integrated learning experience that marries the art of learning design with the evidence-driven inquiry of learning science, placing special emphasis on learning within online and mobile contexts. The concentration’s mission statement reads:

The eLearning concentration opens a world of professional opportunity as the contemporary landscape of learning increasingly requires a digital component. eLID prepares its graduates to shape the future of any organization whose mission involves learning, including corporate, non-profit, higher education, K-12, and government.  Participants explore fundamental principles of learning, design engaging online and mobile environments, develop new models and strategies for motivating learners, and respond innovatively to societal and institutional changes that impact the field of online and mobile education.

The curriculum includes an experiential component that integrates self-assessment and professional goal-setting with program-based and workplace-based learning.  The Masters of Education degree is described as a “portfolio program” and each course includes a “signature assignment,” mapped program competencies, that students are expected to incorporate into their ePortfolios.

First Steps in the Program: Participants begin with a program-wide core course, “Education as an Advanced Field of Study” (EAFS), designed to help students orient themselves with the profession of education.   EAFS is a five credit course during which participants work within their ePortfolios every other week, embedding an orientation to portfolio pedagogy and technology in the program’s foundation.  EAFS is designed to help participants orient themselves with the profession of education.  They begin by developing “positionality statements” in which they reflect upon the life experiences that motivated them to enter the field of education, their motivations for pursuing advanced credentials, and their beliefs and convictions regarding education.  These statements help them become more self-aware of their lenses (perspectives and bias) and interests.  They author a first draft at the beginning of the course and place it in their ePortfolio to document a baseline.

Immediately after writing the first draft of their statements, participants scrutinize the websites and conference programs of professional organizations that are related to their field of study.  These exercises help them identify pressing issues and controversies that directly relate to their interests, and also serves as a springboard for learning how to access peer-reviewed research and use research to improve their practice.

Participants revise their statements at the end of the course.  The revised statements are expected to reflect their developing professional identities and to also integrate ideas from course readings and other sources.

Getting Started in the Concentration: “How People Learn” (HPL) is the first course in the eLID concentration.  As with EAFS, students begin this journey with self-assessment.  They become oriented to the concept of a “professional development portfolio” and the Masters program competencies.  Instead of providing students with fully-completed rubrics, they are expected to work within groups, using the research skills they developed during EAFS, to investigate and develop their own rubrics.  For example, what does it mean to have “professional expertise” in the field of eLearning?  What understandings, skills, and abilities are in demand, and how are recent developments in the field disrupting the models and expectations associated with the profession?

After the rubrics have been developed, each person does a self-assessment of strengths and opportunities for growth, then develops a “professional learning plan” to carry out during the first half of the program.

Putting Concepts and Ideas Into Action: At the midpoint of their studies, students take a course entitled “Connecting Theory with Practice.”  The students use their ePortfolios to examine the work they’ve done so far in the program to

  • Review their progress in relationship to Program and Concentration competencies,
  • Identify their strengths and opportunities for growth in relationship to the Program and Concentration competencies,
  • Document interviews with prospective co-op employers (or conduct an environmental scan within their own places of work), and
  • Develop a proposal for a piece of significant professional work that addresses a real topic or issue related to the future of eLearning Design, placing the practice of eLearning Design within its field of study.  The employer is also involved in approving the plan.

This guided but flexible structure makes it possible for both transitioning and established professionals in the field to benefit from workplace-based experiential learning. Because this component is entirely online, it is referred to as a “Virtual Co-op.”

Program participants carry out co-op work independently during the second half of the program, with periodic online gatherings (jams) during which they are asked to journal about a common concern (e.g., ethics in the workplace, putting theory into action), and provide each other with feedback on works in progress.

Bringing it All Together:  The Capstone course includes two major assignments.  First, each student is expected to create a multimedia retrospective of her or his co-operative learning work, embed it in the learning portfolio, and present that work to a panel of faculty and recent program graduates.  Second, students use Melissa Peet’s Integrative Knowledge Portfolio process to assess their strengths and passions, create a professional portfolio, and refine their professional online presence.  This can include the revision of work, integration of social media within the portfolio, incorporation of portfolio work within other professional tools such as LinkedIn.

Click the image above or to see a video overview of the program

Model Two: Interdisciplinary Pilot Program

In summer 2013, Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies launched a pilot program designed to involve fully online, adult learners in the development and implementation of a 3-5 month experiential learning project that brings students, peers, faculty, and employers into dialogue about the connections between school- and workplace-based learning. The first cohort is scheduled to complete its course and project work in December 2013.

Students in four College of Professional Studies (CPS) master’s degree programs are participating in the pilot: Corporate and Organizational Communications, Leadership, Project Management, and Non-Profit Management. ePortfolios are a key strategy for connecting workplace-based experiential learning and academic coursework.

Approximately halfway through their graduate studies, cohorts of graduate students take a six-week “Preparation Course” during which they assess progress toward program-related competencies, personal visions for the future, and the potential for putting theory into practice within their respective professions.

Program participants draw on these assessment to develop a proposal for a 3-5 month project, a scholar practitioner workplace-based experience.  Participants use a portfolio-based template to develop their proposals (see example at Both the faculty and the employer approve the proposal, and the proposal must address a topic or issue that is a current concern within the field of project management.

Following the Preparation Course, students participate in a twelve-week “Companion Class” designed to take place in conjunction with the proposal implementation.  The companion class provides a framework for reflection, dialogue, and feedback between students, faculty, and employers.  Some Companion Class work centers on common concerns, such as workplace ethics; other work involves feedback and improvement of works-in-progress.  This process of reflection, self- peer- assessment, and revision of is documented in a learning ePortfolio that is viewable only to students in the cohort, Companion Class faculty, and perhaps also key people at the workplace site.

The development and implementation of student projects takes place in conjunction with periodic quantitative assessment (pre, midpoint, post), using instruments developed by the school’s office of assessment.  The combined use of ePortfolios and quantitative instruments will serve as data that can be triangulated (assess program impact in more than one data format) and increase the credibility of proclaimed outcomes.

Quantitative assessment takes place at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the cohort’s work.  Qualitative work in ePortfolios and quantitative research conducted by the office of assessment are aligned with articulated program competencies.  The intent is to demonstrate that the program, and the experiential learning component, “moves the needle” on development of program-level competentencies.  Even if the results are inconclusive, the documentation will serve as formative assessment for use in refining and improving the program.

Following completion of the Companion Class, students are expected to continue implementing the plan (projects are 3-5 months in duration, extending beyond the end of the course).  This work is completed in parallel with the second half of the participants’ course of studies.

Upon completion of their workplace-based experience, students convert their learning portfolios into showcase portfolios, and those will serve as the basis for graduation and celebration of achievement in a capstone course.

The diagram below depicts current thinking about the model.

Note that because these programs is still in stages of pilot and development, evaluation data gathering is ongoing and findings have not yet been released.

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