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Southampton Solent University: Notes from filmed interviews

Page history last edited by Ros Smith 9 years, 7 months ago

These notes, taken during the course of filming for the Southampton Solent University video case study, provide a further insight into the implementation strategies outlined in the Toolkit case study.


Dr Barbara Lee, Reader in Learning and Teaching

We have always had paper-based systems for personal reflection. What we wanted to do was to make the same processes work within a digital environment. There is a need for a space that fits seamlessly with the other things students use. The value offered by e-portfolios is that they offer a private area which allows students to interact with their learning in ways that are meaningful to them.


An e-portfolio tool also puts non-technical students on a par with those who are competent in web design, so that the ‘top face’ element of the e-portfolio is presented well. This matters for future employability.


Why Mahara?

We experimented with other systems and found that Mahara worked technically in the way we wanted it to and was usable by students. Mahara integrates with Moodle, our VLE and, like Moodle, can be personalised to give it an appealing look.


Because Mahara was an open source product, we could build in the templates that Careers had already in use. Careers worked with us in the developmental stages of the pilot – a collaboration that has become a strength in this project. Students often have difficulty choosing which aspects of themselves to present to others. Now they can work with Careers to rehearse through their e-portfolios what they will present to an employer.



I have been both a member of the Learning and Teaching Group (which found funding for the project from senior management) and have also worked at the faculty level. I suppose I was the person who identified there was a problem that needed a solution and then focus groups got to work on which tool was the best for us. The challenge was to find or develop a tool that would support a student-owned approach to reflection. We wanted a space provided by the university that was private, could include any aspect and could be taken away with the student.


The team has changed at different stages, although it has always been driven by learning and teaching considerations. The make-up of the team has changed from the people who get things off the ground to those that explore implementation issues and approaches in the context of individual faculties.


We looked out for early adopters to take things further. Students sometimes fell into that category; they can have a more informed idea about PDP than we give them credit for. Since we had a positive response from the students, we started to see e-portfolios as a potential solution to other problems that were sitting there waiting to be resolved. The ability to develop students’ employability and graduate attributes was an obvious one.



It’s important to have the right people involved and some good examples of use. Then you need to work on the help pages. There is no doubt that these aspects are important but the key learning point for us was how much integration matters – integration with key student support services plus student ownership. Space for storage, how long you store stuff for and whether updated systems still work with one another, these are all things you will eventually sort out. The more evidence you have of successful adoption the more use you will get. The support you put in place for students can also be picked up by staff. Most people learn by doing.


However, we still have to resolve how access can be granted once the student has left. You need to have products that are LEAPP2 compliant so that e-portfolios can be taken elsewhere.


Lessons learnt

Evaluation is down to the individual faculties led by teaching fellows and discussed in course validations. The information about evaluation is a faculty responsibility. But the key lessons I would identify are:

  • You need effective help pages

  • To increase adoption, you need short courses for individuals and faculties – you cannot do too many of these

  • You have to use all the ways you can to make people aware. People don’t always connect to the centre

  • Locate the entry point to the e-portfolio at the topmost level of the VLE. The button for MyPortfolio on the front page of Moodle is quite a hint to students when they log in. It’s not buried somewhere else.


The future

When mentions of e-portfolios start to appear in unit/module reports and annual monitoring, e-portfolios will become the norm. This is the second year of full implementation here at Solent and I think we might expect to see e-portfolio use as part of staff CPD in five years’ time, together with an increase in student use. Another key achievement will be thoughtful use in course design, so that e-portfolios are more than just a required element.


Key messages

  • Take the technology seriously and be sure you have the right people on board

  • Liaise between interested parties

  • Survey students

  • When the technology works well, put effort into help and accessibility angles.


Roger Emery, Learning Systems Development Manager

The Learning Technology unit sits within the Learning and Information Service. Some of our learning technologists look after the web, others the e-portfolio. Then there are e-learning support officers who work with staff to implement technology.




The initial project was to update a paper-based employability process –online CV technology had come of age. There are also increased expectations; it is now much more the norm to have an online presence. We have seen the rise of Web 2.0 which gives the individual more control over their digital identity. We realised that the VLE gave staff control but there wasn’t an equivalent for students. An e-portfolio system would give students a walled garden with publication tools that were secure because they sat on our servers. If functions like CVs and assessed work were located on our servers, they would be safe because they are backed up.


A senior academic, Barbara Lee, worked with the faculties then sat on the Solent Life Group which decides where funding should go. The Group came up with a vision for growth. Then to convince senior management, we needed a demonstration of the operational possibilities. The success of the pilots was fortunately very convincing and, with branding in place, it all looked more professional, increasing the gravitas of what we were doing. It started to look like a valuable tool for employability.


Why Mahara?

We felt we could adapt it to what we wanted it to be. We had already added additional functionality into Moodle so felt we could customise Mahara as well. It was an immature tool to start with but we saw that we could combine the system with both careers and academic drivers to make a potent triangle.


Something I have worked on is an easy interface. You don’t want users to have to go hither and thither to work out where to go and how to use it. Then you need to put in careers advice as an embedded element. Careers do it the other way round of course – ie they link to MyPortfolio – but either way it’s seamless and easy for students. The open source nature of Mahara made it possible to do this.


However, there is a misconception that open source is free. The OS community provides some support but you need people in house to add, mend and develop. Expect the money saved on licence purchase to be spent on developer costs to make the tool more institutionally focused – the language used, for example. But there is a very real advantage in being able to develop the tool the way you want instead of waiting for the development company to meet your needs.


The future

We hope over the next few years to see all students creating an online profile to prepare for employment and, through this, gaining experience in presenting themselves to different audiences. To take this further, we need to know which sectors will spend time looking at online CVs and how we can integrate professional development with the assessment side of things so that one can inform the other.


Some of our students are beyond reach of networks - for example, maritime workers and those employed in banks. These students also need to evidence their competences and obtain tutor guidance so students’ e-portfolios must be accessible via mobile devices – 60-70% of students now have a smart phone. We need to be able to deliver on this platform and are working with a developer to make a richer e-portfolio tool which also offers opportunities to work offline and synch once the student are able to log into a network.



The key advantage for students is the sense of control e-portfolios give them. An e-portfolio can involve links to all sorts of things, plus there is the option of a secret URL to hide the different work applications the student has made so that one employer cannot see who else the student has applied to.



The challenge from the point of view of support staff is getting students to try e-portfolios out for themselves. Pilots don’t show up every problem; some issues only emerge once the tool is used in a variety of ways. We accept that there could be more challenges to come once MyPortfolio is made obligatory institution-wide.


Some subject areas can also present challenges. A law student pointed out that they get assessed by exams not by e-portfolio, but fashion and art and design students are used to portfolios already. Journalism students are already familiar with publishing online and are also comfortable with the concept. You can also see other uses creeping in –for example, a group of law students had recently found MyPortfolio and used it unprompted for their group work.



We have reduced student resistance by creating a button for MyPortfolio on the Home Page of the VLE. We have drawn up advice in different formats and made sure the language used within the tool matches that used elsewhere in the university – for example, units rather than modules. In some areas, we have worked with academics to create templates that are pre-loaded into MyPortfolio.


If something is assessed, it’s mandatory but, if it’s voluntary, students need more persuasion to do it. If they see they do not get graded, it’s harder to persuade them. So you need good examples. When students see advantages, take-up increases.


Assessment is always uppermost in the mind of academics so we have two main uses of the e-portfolio – assessed course work and employability. But I think we need to refocus more on employability. We are working very closely with the Careers Department to do this.



We have worked with students to get it right for their individual needs – for example, a screen reader user has gone through our systems and offered advice. We accept, however, that an e-portfolio tool is very visual and presents challenges for sight-impaired students. There is more work to do.



You need to decide what you want the e-portfolio tool to do. PebblePad is more advanced in its mobile application. Mahara is less mature in that respect.


Samantha Moss, Learning Technologist

e-Portfolios have different functions: file storage, reflection, CV building, plus the ability to create and publish, for example. We have a really good Careers Department here which offers an online service as well a face-to-face one. Academics are also focused on promoting employability so e-portfolios have become part of that agenda. As Mahara is an open source tool, our careers advice and templates can be directly embedded in it. The systems developer worked on customising the tool and my job was to demonstrate it to staff and students.



It all began in 2008 when we were asked to look at different e-portfolio systems to support PDP. We liked Mahara because it was open source and could be adapted to our needs. It was compatible with Moodle and breaks down easily into sections. A team was set up of careers staff, academics and systems developers. We demonstrated pages set up in Mahara to show what an e-portfolio could look like. Mahara was then piloted with small groups and with any academic team willing to give it a go. But there are many thousands of students here and we needed a usability study.


I have also presented to Heads of School so that awareness of the potential could trickle down. This led to a lot of discussion and interest. Then we presented to the Solent Exchange showing what people were beginning to do with it –for example, induction of new students and a fast, accessible presentation tool for students who previously had had to know Dreamweaver to achieve the same effect.


In the pilot we inducted 120 students into the use of the tool, then let them alone to see what they would come up with, then injected some more ideas. We developed exemplars and mocks ups of CVs and encouraged sharing of ideas.



It’s very much the same as the VLE. Initially some people don’t ‘get it’ and it’s up to us to show what can be done with the tool. We stress that students are going to work in a digital world and that we now need to change what we do to prepare students for the workplace. You overcome most challenges by hard work and working alongside academics to sort out the issues.


We have had a mixed response from students. On some courses, they collect, create and comment on material all the time –for example, journalism. Others, however, are less used to reflective writing. There are different ways of working on different courses.



It is difficult to pull out statistics of the extent of use, but there are now 11,000 student accounts which will have different levels of use. But we aim to get all students to write an online CV as the bottom line. For this, they will need to collect evidence to support their applications. We don’t force them to do it, but stress the benefits. The first years we started out with will finish their degrees this year so we will see the results soon.


As one measure of success, the Careers team are experiencing a lot more enquiries, so students are seeing the purpose of e-portfolios, and journalism students are definitely using their e-portfolios to make applications.


The future

Social networking uses could grow. We would like to create more opportunities for students to support one another and expect that more students will enter the university with an understanding of what an e-portfolio is.


Key messages

  • Start small. Just because you know how to use it, it doesn’t mean staff and students will

  • People need living examples

  • Involve Careers and recognise that an e-portfolio is not just a tool to submit work through.


Fiona Burton, Careers Advisor

Students can apply for jobs using paper tools or an e-portfolio. However, the e-portfolio route combines an online CV with real examples of your work – for example, fashion students can link to examples of their own designs. This is a new technology that works particularly well for creative courses.


Students cannot always articulate their skills on paper. Employers often say they cannot find what they are looking for, but you can show what you have achieved in an e-portfolio.


There is great emphasis at the moment on employability skills that back up the qualification the student achieves. Students are not all naturally good at showing what they have done or reflecting on it. With an e-portfolio, it is a more natural process to look back over how far you come and reflect on your journey. e-Portfolios encourage students. They can catalogue what they have done and retrieve things more easily during the application process.


Preparing for employment

We have created an optional course in Careers and CV Building and recommend that students use e-portfolios to market themselves. An example is in journalism where a range of skills is needed –blogging, digital photography as well as writing. Now students can link to examples of these skills. Sports coaching students can similarly show videos of their exercise drills.


The unit comes under our Curriculum Plus programme and looks at self-promotion, interview techniques and uses the e-portfolio as evidence of achievements. Students don’t have to use an e-portfolio for this, and don’t get credit for it, so because they are not graded, some don’t use it. However, e-portfolios add value because they demonstrate the skills students say they have.


We advise students that building an e-portfolio is a good way to prepare for interviews. The e-portfolio sits on the VLE on the Home Page. Over the 2-3 years it’s become better known and the more employers want to see it, the more students will use it. At the moment it’s a chicken and egg story, but as pupils use e-portfolios more in schools, and bring these with them to university, the greater the usage at this level will become. I definitely see a future for e-portfolios.


Some students embrace e-portfolios, others don’t, but this does depend on the course they are on. At the moment, employers are the sticking point. Those in the creative industries use portfolios but others may not. That’s where we are at the moment.


Of course students don’t have to present an e-portfolio to an employer to use one. It can still be used as a store and a reflective tool. Students can go back to their e-portfolio to answer competency-based questions and they can use it to practise their self-presentation. It’s a safe environment in which to do this.


Julia Newman, Senior Lecturer, Journalism

I use e-portfolios in class for coursework, blogging and presenting oneself. It occurs quite naturally. There are two main benefits: students can play at developing skills in online publishing and there is a high rate of interest from employers. Students use them to set up work placements and for reflection. The structure also acts as a prompt – for example, reminding someone they haven’t got a blog and should start one.


Challenges for a practitioner

The main challenge was understanding the possibilities myself. That’s what we have a younger generation for! Point them at the screen and they show you things. I made my own to start with. That way you can get a handle on it. Now I show my students my e-portfolio as an exemplar.



e-Portfolios enable someone to show what they are good at. They can attach items to statements in different formats – video, audio and images. The tool accepts different formats which enables you to get creative.


I now introduce the e-portfolio in week 1 of year 1 – as soon as students arrive, in other words. If your students make you a friend, you can see what they are doing. Then it’s a case of lighting the blue touch paper and retiring! Students learn about online skills by doing and over time can build up a useful profile. My students also like e-portfolios for group work and I have introduced e-portfolios for assessed work in two groups, which worked very well. You can, for example, assess elements of the blog such as what has been learnt on work placement. But it’s a different way of thinking; this is something the student owns, not the practitioner.


Scott Balaam, Student, Sports Journalism

I have decided to go public with my e-portfolio to create a web presence for myself. It has been built up over the course so far –for example, on work placements.


When making an application, you can include a link to your e-portfolio with a standard letter of application. I have come from a recruitment background so I know the value of this, especially in a competitive context such as journalism. From a recruiter’s perspective, you need to be able to differentiate between applicants. An e-portfolio gives you an opportunity to show that you are better than the next. At the moment, my e-portfolio is rather text-based but by the end of year 3 there will be video and audio interviews in there.


Key messages

  • The first thing that comes to mind is that the tool must be user-friendly so that everyone can use it in class. In my experience, that was the case. Some students were slower than others but everyone could handle the task.

  • Our tutor talked us through the process and showcased her own e-portfolio. There need to be lots of avenues for support, online as well, but tutor engagement is very important.

  • You need to keep updating your e-portfolio. I generally access mine through my laptop but can access it through my phone as well. You definitely want your best work to be visible. It’s nice to chart your learning journey but you do need to amend/delete as you develop for employability purposes.

  • Don’t just use an e-portfolio tool to connect with friends. Use it to develop and maintain your professional identity. It’s definitely worth taking the time; it can look daunting but it’s worth it.

  • I like the fact that you can display everything you have achieved. In comparison, the standard paper-based application is only a piece of paper.



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