What We’ve Learned


Our project’s goal was to prepare Master of Education students for a dynamic and evolving future, supporting learning and engagement through curricular cohesion, pedagogical integrity, and learning-centered interpersonal engagement. To achieve this goal, we needed to redesign the fundamental system in which program development and revision takes place. While it is premature to report quantitative results, positive written feedback at multiple levels of academic administration indicate that our system is indeed in the midst of purposeful, dynamic, and invigorating change. Faculty are also reporting a dramatic improvement in the quality of student work.

What We’ve Learned

The Master of Education program at Northeastern has been the primary focus of the school’s Connect to Learning involvement. We began our work with one simple question: “Are we moving the needle in the areas of student learning and development that are most important to us?” At the beginning of our project, answering this question proved difficult — even when we carefully examined student portfolios and samples of work — because we hadn’t yet articulated our aspirations for learning. The program redesign has changed all that.

We’ve learned that ePortfolios can be a visible manifestation of student engagement and learning, but portfolios alone are not a magic bullet.  They must be part of a larger systems change in order to effect significant results.  ePortfolios create an opportunity for transparency regarding  the purpose and priorities for attaining the educational mission of the institution, and this dialogue in turn fosters ongoing growth and synergy across all sectors.  This is evidenced by the feedback received after a recent presentation on the Masters Program redesign in the College of Professional Studies (CPS):

This type of transparency and sharing is inspirational, and has spurred my thinking in many ways…I am excited about all of the possibilities and connections between our programs. This type of leadership that you are all exerting is phenomenal – and makes me VERY proud to be here at CPS.

To read more about the components involved in fostering sustained and meaningful change, see the pieces entitled Letting Learning Serve as the Driver and Ingredients for Scale (links open in a new window).

We’ve learned that you can’t assess what you haven’t identified, but also that it’s important to have a vision for student learning before you dig down into a strategy for assessment. Our visioning process started with three questions:

  1. If we could gaze in a crystal ball, what would we see as the future of education (across all sectors)?
  2. Given that future, what competencies (skills, abilities, understandings) do education professionals need in order to thrive, lead the way, and continue to grow?
  3. Taking these predictions into consideration, how can the Masters program help equip its learners — what experiences will cultivate these competencies?

Our goal is to prepare students for a dynamic and evolving future that supports learning and engagement through curricular cohesion, pedagogical integrity, and learning-centered interpersonal engagement. To achieve this goal, we needed to redesign the fundamental system in which learning takes place.

To read more about new models for curricular redesign, see the piece entitled Are We Who We Think We Are? (opens in a new window).

We’ve also learned that how we talk about ourselves is important. We debated whether to call the redesign an “ePortfolio Program” or to emphasize that we are a program in which portfolios support the process of evidence-based, integrated learning. We have opted for the later, because the goal is not the tool (ePortfolio), nor is it the process (evidence-gathering and inquiry). While this may sound semantic, the distinction holds many implications for markers of success.  A “portfolio program” places portfolio pedagogy and technology at the center. But from the Catalyst perspective, portfolios are one element in a larger systems change that touches all sectors of the institution. From this perspective, ePortfolios correlate with improved learning, engagement, and persistence, but they do not necessarily cause it. In the case of Northeastern’s Master of Education program, redesign changes included the articulation of a program mission statement, competencies, course-based signature assignments designed to evidence competencies, and a process that engages students in ongoing documentation, interpretation, and integration of their learning.

Finally, we’ve learned that, in tracking the impact of a new initiative, it’s important to match the evidence-gathering strategy with the goal for improvement. New ventures often serve more than one purpose, and the goals may differ depending on the stakeholder. What do the key participants care about most? For example, faculty members might be interested in improving the engagement and motivation of students, directors might want to gain deeper insight into their programs’ accomplishments and opportunities for improvement, institutional researchers could be looking ahead to the data required for reaccreditation, and perhaps the deans are interested in rethinking the system through which programs are developed and revised. Each perspective has tremendous implications for evidence-gathering. What’s most important? What’s logistically and financially feasible to document? Are there sufficient resources to gather multiple forms of evidence, and if so who needs to be involved and how will responsibilities be coordinated? These questions may seem daunting, but they are essential for consideration even though there may be no “right” answer.

To read more about aligning evidence-gathering with goals, see the Outcomes Assessment section of the piece entitled An Ecology of Support (opens in a new window).

rippling waterThe Masters redesign was primarily intended to improve the integrity, cohesion, and impact of the program on student learning. But a secondary goal emerged during the redesign process: to craft a model for program development that would be useful to others. The quality of student ePortfolios will provide us with evidence of progress toward the first goal. The ripples and echoes of our work throughout the institution will provide evidence of progress toward the secondary goal.

Because our redesigned curriculum launched in Fall 2013, we are in the early stages of gathering evidence about the impact of program redesign on student learning. It takes several iterations to work the kinks out of a new course, and therefore the plan is to conduct a systematic review of the post-redesign portfolios in Spring 2014 after the new courses have been taught several times. As of December 2013, the anecdotal feedback is promising even though the first formal review is months away. For example, we received the following unsolicited comments at the end of the Fall 2013 term:

Faculty: I am very excited about the new M.Ed! I found it very useful in my course to be part of a cohesive program — to be able to situate my course in the program-wide endeavor of the 4 core competencies, Signature Assignments, and the ePortfolio. It really did feel different than before when I was teaching [name of course]. I always felt like my class was just a stand-alone. This term, I felt the power of knowing the course was part of something bigger. And I believe my students felt it too. Thank you for all the work on making the ePortfolios so user-friendly! I can’t wait to see what our students do with them in the capstone.

Student: I can’t believe we’re done [with the first term]! Thanks so much for all your feedback and insight this semester. This was one of my first courses in the program and I absolutely loved it! I’ve submitted my ePortfolio for you to review. I made several changes as per your suggestions. I’m really happy with what I’ve added so far and I’m already looking forward to the new information and opportunities I’ll get in my next courses to develop it more.

To read more about the impact of course design on student learning, see the pieces entitled Zooming in and Out and Seeing the Forest for the Trees and Zooming (links open in a new window).

We are also recognizing that, when we focus on the evidence and transparency of learning outcomes, new questions emerge.  For example, respondents to a recent staff/faculty survey wondered:

Will other program areas decide to include this type of presentation in their new program/revised program?

How are the curriculum and competencies communicated to students?  Can we communicate how the courses, ePortfolio, and faculty work together to create a unique learning opportunity to applicants?

I’d like to hear more about the most influential changes of the redesign after one year. Also, I would like to hear post-completion student feedback. Did they internalize the methods behind the madness? Are they really able to verbalize their newly acquired competencies?

Moving forward, this means that we will need to gather additional forms of data to address these questions, assess our impact, gain insight, and continue our journey of improvement.

Even though our initiative is young and evidence of sustained college-wide impact is yet to be seen, early interactions with others are promising. The program redesign has created opportunities for dialogue among faculty, deans and directors, as well as people from marketing, admissions, enrollment, academic operations, academic technology, online learning, institutional assessment, co-op and career services. It’s not often that these diverse stakeholders get a chance to talk about the intersection between program design and learning mission. Transparency makes it possible for everybody to join in the conversation about our purpose, mission, and vision for learning. Recent feedback from people involved in academic administration included the following:

The process that your team went through was necessary and meaningful, and is reflective within their energy and in the work that the M.Ed. students are demonstrating.

This was such a great example of the power of collaboration in program development. There are a lot of people scratching their heads saying “why don’t we all do it that way?” It just makes so much sense!

Rather than just do a “before and after,” [the program’s faculty and program director have] shared the thought process that lead to the changes such as pedagogy, aligning curriculum with industry needs, experiential learning, assessment, and evidence of learning (e-portfolio). The academic units can use this as a model for programs that go through a redesign.

The ultimate goal of our work is to foster support for student success, integrity of assessment, curricular cohesion, and pedagogical improvement — to create a process and system that serves as a Catalyst for Learning. Return on numbers is a work in progress, but comments such as those above indicate that our system is indeed in the midst of purposeful, dynamic, and invigorating change.

Project Dashboard

  • 3,000 –  Student Users (approximate)
  • 40 – Faculty Using ePortfolios in their Coursework (approximate)
  • Full or Partial Program-Level Integration:
    • Master of Education Program (full)
    • CPS Online Experiential Learning Initiative (full)
    • Writing Program (partial)
    • Honors Program (partial)
    • Nursing (partial)
  • Platform: Digication

Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sea-turtle/3920818927/sizes/l/

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