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Getting started with e-portfolios: University of Westminster

Case study by Jeanette Nicholas of the use of e-portfolios in the law school at the University of Westminster, one of three pilot projects undertaken as part of UKCLE’s Using e-portfolios in legal education project. If you would like to know more about the use of e-portfolios at Westminster contact Jeanette on e-mail:

The law school at Westminster piloted the use of e-portfolios with undergraduate law students on a work-based learning module during 2006-07 and 2007-08, and as a personal development planning tool during 2007-08. For details of the project evaluation, including student comments, see Evaluating e-portfolios in law, a report on all three e-portfolio pilot projects.

The software

Two software packages were used during the course of the project. During 2006-07 the project used Blackboard, Westminster’s approved VLE, as a student guidance and advice tool to support the project, while in 2007-08 the project trialled PebblePad, an online ‘personal learning system’, for the portfolio itself.

The two programs complement each other well as learning tools. Blackboard has the edge for communications – students are accustomed to accessing materials and receiving messages via a VLE – but it was not designed as an e-portfolio system and is not intuitive to use for this purpose. There is no ready made blank portfolio – users have to create a blank one using the content management system and link content to webpages using a WYSIWYG style program, and assessment via the digital dropbox is time consuming.

PebblePad is more interactive and user friendly, allowing students to use their imaginations when constructing their portfolios. As a result they feel more engaged and in control over how they present their material, which in turn produces more interesting work – always a plus from a staff point of view! The main drawback is cost – Blackboard is free to use at Westminster, whereas PebblePad costs at least £1,500 a year just for the number of students enrolled on the work placement module. It would be more cost effective if it was rolled out across all core modules on the LLB, but this is not currently planned.

The staff team was positive about both Blackboard and PebblePad and overwhelmingly in favour of retaining e-portfolios as a method of reflective practice and assessment. Students on the whole preferred online to paper submission, and staff felt that online preparation of material for assessment enabled students to engage more effectively with set tasks.

E-portfolios continue to be used at Westminster, with the following improvements planned for 2008-09:

  • more supervised sessions on the software to assist those students finding e-portfolios a challenge
  • all templates to be HTML rather than Word (more compatible with PebblePad)
  • once the facility is available from PebblePad, portfolios to be converted into a format accepted by the Turnitin UK plagiarism detection service
    h3. The PebblePad e-portfolio

a PebblePad e-portfolio (note the customised home page)

PebblePad enables users to create new records of learning (thoughts, blogs, action plans, achievements, experiences, portfolios), as well as to upload other evidence. The most common uploads were Word documents, but some students uploaded video clips, YouTube links and music files.

These records of learning, known as ‘assets’, can be tagged with appropriate categories (such as personal, work, education) and eventually be used to form part of a portfolio designed by the student using the ‘webfolio’ (the PebblePad term for e-portfolio) menu. Assets can be stored and used in an unlimited number of webfolios, and can be sent to other users in the same user group.

Examples of portfolio entries:

Supporting resources

Examples of portfolios and links to external sources on employability, reflective learning, learning styles questionnaires and PebblePad tutorials were provided on Blackboard. Most course materials, such as presentations, e-journals, module handbooks, were also saved as assets on PebblePad and shared with the user group.

Students were instructed on how to use PebblePad in compulsory workshops, and were able to contact the module leader by e-mail or in person if further assistance was required. The module leader had access to the PebblePad helpdesk for technical assistance.

Students submitted their e-portfolios for assessment using PebblePad’s ‘gateway’ system. Any asset can be submitted for assessment via the gateway system – the contents of the asset are then ‘locked’ so it cannot be amended later:

submitting a webfolio

The students’ webfolios were then opened and marked by staff. An account was created for the external examiner, who was given access to the course materials and instruction manuals, as well as to assessed work and feedback.

The work placement module

The module consists of two one day workshops plus 60 hours work experience in a legal environment. It had been entirely paper-based for four years, and students were finding it increasingly difficult and cumbersome to produce evidence of learning in the workplace which could more easily be submitted electronically.

During the introductory workshops the students were given instruction on how to construct reflective statements, create a blog and compile a directory of assets for their portfolio. They were expected to complete a number of elements, including a skills rating, SWOT analysis, personal development plan, log sheet, online application form and written assignment, and encouraged to read the suggested materials and prepare the elements in advance in order to be informally assessed by their peers in the workshops.

In feedback the students said they would be more likely to build on the evidence they had gathered as a result of compiling evidence of achievements online. They liked the convenience of an e-portfolio, as it enabled them to organise their thoughts more effectively and to submit evidence in a greater variety of formats.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010