MSLOC Expands Use of Digital Portfolios

Every year, approximately ten to twenty faculty receive a Provost's Digital Learning Fellowship. The fellowships were created in 2014 to encourage faculty to develop innovative digital or online projects focused on enhancing Northwestern students’ learning. Now in the fellowship’s fourth year, some members of the Northwestern community have been asking “where are they now?”

This article—written after an interview with MSLOC Associate Director, Jeff Merrell—is the first in a series of articles addressing that question. We will be profiling faculty projects (some complete, and some still in progress) funded through the Provost’s Digital Learning Fellowship, sharing insights into their successes, challenges, and findings so far.

Digital Portfolio Ecosystem

The Master of Science in Learning & Organizational Change (MSLOC) program at the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) began using digital portfolios as part of its coaching certificate program in 2015. In 2016, a team of faculty and staff from MSLOC including Kimberly Scott, Jeff Merrell, Melinda Turnley, and Michelle Albaugh teamed up to make public-facing digital portfolios a more active component of MSLOC’s degree and certificate programs.

What are digital portfolios? Merrell defines them as “a personal, public website that is a collection of posts, resources, and stories that can be used to represent an individual’s professional identity. In our case as part of a professional master’s degree program, it may include a lot of work representing steps along each students’ learning journey, telling their story about being (or becoming) a particular type of professional.”

Using funding from the Digital Learning Fellowship, the team designed and developed a digital portfolio ecosystem to support two programs associated with MSLOC: the Organizational and Leadership Coaching Certification and Designing Organizational Effectiveness Certification (DOEC). The ecosystem includes a central hub for each program that publicly aggregates student work from their digital portfolios, provides a home to share research and topical content related to each program, and offers the opportunity to engage with a larger network of global talent professionals.  

Preliminary Findings

One lesson learned by Merrell and the MSLOC team is the need to be both realistic about the challenges of encouraging students to share their work publicly, and also creative in finding ways to help students overcome their hesitations.  

Since the beginning of fall 2017, students in the DOEC cohort have generated nearly 30 digital portfolio blog posts publicly syndicated on the hub site. These posts were not a requirement of the students’ coursework and were instead co-curricular activities guided by each student’s own learning goals.

“Students do a lot of work with each other in their coursework, but the extra layer of putting it into a blog post on their portfolio site, which then gets aggregated into the public hub site, requires a bit more bravery,” said Merrell.  

In a similar vein, Merrell also noted that, “Using a publicly-available web space to reflect, synthesize, and think out loud is a tough habit to get into. In prior years, the way the portfolio was integrated into the coaching curriculum was that many students didn’t really have to actively work their digital portfolio until the third course in the program. We asked ourselves: ‘what are the ways students can build muscle so that we can help them create portfolios representative of themselves?’ So this past fall, Michelle [Albaugh] started experimenting in the first coaching course with having students write six to eight 100-word reflection posts. This early experience seems to help ease the transition for students and we have been seeing some amazing stuff coming out already.”

A recent article authored by Michelle Albaugh, Kimberly Scott, and graduate student Amy Conn, provided student feedback on their experiences with MSLOC’s use of digital portfolios. The research is helping inform MSLOC’s focus on reflection and professional identity for their Digital Fellowship projects. One student reflected, “I don’t think that I would have the perspective I have as a coach if I had not done that portfolio…the whole process…forced me then to actually integrate it because I’m writing this—integrating this—into my own approach to coaching.”

Phase Two: Authoring Your Professional Self

In fall 2017 the team was awarded a second grant, allowing them to expand on last year’s Digital Portfolio Ecosystem project by rolling out an online, non-credit course available to all MSLOC graduate students (approximately 130 in total). In addition to providing self-paced instruction for mastery of digital portfolio basics, this course will also highlight the potential for digital portfolios to change one’s professional identity through public reflection and showcasing their emerging expertise and credibility as a practitioner.

One of the driving forces behind creating this co-curricular course was the persistent challenge of getting students up to speed without interrupting other coursework. For many students in the fall start of the DOEC program, it was difficult to begin to start blogging before late October, which is precisely the time that their other coursework ramps up. Faculty were doing a significant amount of handholding to get students started with their portfolios. It takes months to “build the muscle” so they decided to “take all of that energy and put it into its own course so that faculty have a structure that students can engage with that is common and creates a valuable experience.”

What’s Next?

Merrell says the next step is to make the content as visible as possible, “not necessarily to engage external audiences, but rather as an experiment to see what happens. Who knows, maybe we will inspire alumni involvement, but it’s still a bit too soon to tell.”

In the meantime, the team plans to present at the 3rd Annual TEACHx forum (May 23rd on the Chicago Campus) and hopes to be able to involve some MSLOC faculty and students in a panel presentation on their experiences so far.