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New center gives electronic portfolios a high-tech push

Dec. 1, 2005

KALAMAZOO--A new high-tech initiative at Western Michigan University will make student electronic portfolios virtually universal and help University academic departments assess the results of their programs.

Both efforts are part of a new center called CEPA--Center for Electronic Portfolios and Assessment--a state-of-the-art technology center that could serve as a national model for speeding the spread of student electronic portfolios and managing the assessment of student learning outcomes.

The sweeping, high-tech plan is among the largest of its kind, according to its two corporate partners, Sungard SCT and Nuventive, the firms supplying the new center with two software products needed to make it a reality.

"One of the things they keep pointing out to us is that WMU's implementation of these two products is probably the largest on any university campus," says Dr. Katharine Cummings, associate dean for academic services in the WMU College of Education, who is spearheading the effort. "Our goal is to become a national model and provide some real guidance for other institutions trying to do similar things."

The use of student electronic portfolios is taking off, particularly in Europe, and offers many advantages over traditional paper portfolios, Cummings says. Cummings recently returned from a conference in Great Britain, where electronic portfolio proponents are looking at extending the service to every student in the country.

"I've always been a paper and three-ring binder person," Cummings says. "But I've become a real convert. There's a lot we can do with a portfolio electronically and it also makes it easier to share with others for their review."

The center also will support the assessment efforts of University departments, Cummings says. Each department has developed an assessment plan that has been approved by a steering committee. The new center will serve as the University's support structure and research center for assessment activities at WMU.

Sungard SCT and Nuventive are providing two major software products, TracDat, for assessment documentation, and iWebfolio, for electronic portfolios. Together, the two products will comprise the backbone for an integrated assessment and electronic portfolio system for students, faculty and the University.

Electronic portfolios can include such information as resumes, samples of class assignments and photos of students at work on a project. Students can make them available to prospective employers, friends, family or whomever they want, anywhere in the world. They may create them for a class, to meet requirements of an overall department program or just for fun.

"It's entirely student-driven," Cummings says, adding that students will be guided by employers, who are offering their feedback on what they'd like to see in an electronic portfolio.

After they graduate, students can download their electronic portfolio and take it or continue to keep it up and running by paying a fee. The center also is working to make electronic portfolios available to members of the community at large to help with their employment needs.

The University's academic departments also will benefit from the new center. Assessment of student learning outcomes is necessary when seeking accreditation from an outside agency or association. Student electronic portfolios also can be used for assessment purposes. TracDat software will make it much easier to manage the assessment process and issue reports on how departments are doing and improvements that have been made.

"More and more of our external accrediting bodies want to see evidence of student performance," Cummings says. "The new center will make this much more readily available."

The center also will help departments share their knowledge with each other.

"We want to be able to focus on some of the energy and effort that's being made so that we can all benefit from it," Cummings says. "If we're learning lessons in the business college that can inform the College of Fine Arts, we should be talking amongst ourselves."

The new center comes after about a year's worth of planning, Cummings says. About a dozen organizers worked closely with faculty and staff and representatives of the two vendors providing software to design its operations. Cummings is serving as the center's founding director, but organizers hope to hire a full-time director down the road. An advisory board made up of international, national and local representatives also is in the works.

"We want to showcase the good things that we're already doing and identify places where we need program improvement," Cummings says. "We already have people who are doing some exemplary things, but we also can always improve and build."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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