Online portfolios make learning visible at ASU

September 24, 2015

What do an Arizona State University-Starbucks business student in Washington state, a sustainability research collaboration in Germany, and seven English classrooms on the ASU Tempe campus have in common? 

All took part in an online portfolio pilot project — ePortfolios hosted by Digication — undertaken to boost student learning and outcomes across a range of ASU learning environments.   ASU-Starbucks freshman Jessica Bishop and her family Jessica Bishop, an ASU-Starbucks student-barista, believes that having online tools such as ePortfolio to critically think about her work has proved quite valuable. Photo by: Jessica Bishop Download Full Image

Although the use of portfolios as part of the learning process isn’t new, “the shift to an online, multimodal vehicle for expression has added new dimensions to online, hybrid and classroom learning, assessment and curriculum development,” said Katherine Heenan. Heenan is a lecturer with ASU writing programs in the Department of English; senior lecturer with Barrett, The Honors College; and co-led the pilot project with professor Shirley Rose. 

“By making their writing visible to the public online, to an audience that extends beyond a teacher or other students, students are much more invested in their work,” Heenan said. “The ePortfolio can also be directly linked to career development and job applications after graduation.” 

Jessica Bishop is in the first year of a bachelor’s in business sustainability through the ASU-Starbucks program. A barista with a prior degree in fashion design, she hesitated to leap into a career in creativity without developing some business acumen. 

“Having my work public was initially intimidating,” Bishop said. “But I found having to critically think about my work through the lens of learning outcomes and ‘habits of mind’ was quite valuable. I learned how to include secondary sources in my work, something I had never had to do before, and the process helped me see my areas of opportunities as a writer as well as areas where I excel.”  

Bishop’s ePortfolio, developed for Writing 101 with ASU Writer’s Studio instructor and clinical assistant professor Michelle Stuckey, reflects her learning journey through creative-writing reflections and intimate photo essays.

“There is no better way to have a student or educator understand how much a student has learned than this approach,” said Duane Roen, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences and dean of ASU’s University College. “No test can measure all the learning that a student has done. An ePortfolio is evidence across a range of file types — video, audio, photo — of what an individual can do. As university instructors, we should all be engaged with the public; ePortfolios are part of being connected with the greater world. Powerful stuff.”  

ASU senior James MacDonald agrees. A transfer student, he will complete his bachelor’s in political science with a minor in sustainability next May. He developed an ePortfolio as part of a three-semester, hybrid classroom experience with Leuphana University in Germany. One requirement for this global classroom was development of a shared research project and publication of an academic research paper. 

“I’d never done research before or had long-distance collaborative learning experience. Using this tool, I was able to stretch myself in new ways and show my academic progress,” MacDonald said. “The added benefit was that my partners in Germany and I could formulate the best approach to writing our academic paper, critique and review our shared progress directly through the online interface.” 

ASU ePortfolio pilot, which started in 2013 with 300 students and one program, has added nearly 10,000 accounts just this fall as it transitioned into a standard tool for more academic units and classrooms. The tool is also being used by American Indian Student Support Services to support Native American students outside the classroom. 

An added benefit to expanded use of ePortfolios is that faculty members can assess the effectiveness of their curriculum and whether the outcomes for each course are achieved. In the Department of English, writing programs’ students and teachers also compete for Exemplary ePortfolio Awards for their projects.

Additionally, the thousands of student ePortfolios already in progress provide an archive of student writing for faculty research purposes, noted Heenan, who created her own ePortfolio

Bishop, however, points to much more personal rewards of this learning process at ASU:

“Instead of writing to only fulfill the requirements of the class, I wrote to fulfill myself. Everyone in my family is making sacrifices so I can pursue this endeavor. Going back to school has been hard, but I am forever thankful and very humbled by this gift of education. The values I am instilling in my three kids through my hard work and determination will be something that they will carry with them forever.”

For questions about ePortfolio at ASU, contact Christopher Sheehan:

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


Being human: ASU study looks at how we began to make it

September 24, 2015

How did humans get from using stone tools to using power tools?

Not on their own, according to the results of an Arizona State University study released Thursday in the journal Nature Communications. Stone axe/hammer from Slovenia Leaps forward in tools — such as this stone axe/hammer from Slovenia — are an example of how humans learn things from others that we couldn’t learn on our own. Photo by: Wikipedia Commons Download Full Image

While the occasional Edison or Einstein can produce a dramatic innovation in one fell swoop, the experiment found that groups of people can create things more complex than a single individual can in the same amount of time.

Technology has allowed people to live in places to which they’re poorly suited, like the Arctic and the Sahara. However, we don’t have a good understanding of how humans produce the complex technologies that allow them to exist where they shouldn’t.

“There’s no other animal species that adapts to as wide a range of habitats as humans, and the way we do that is by learning from each other,” said Rob Boyd, co-author of the study. Boyd is Origins Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and research affiliate in the Institute of Human Origins.

“The idea is that people make gradual improvements, generation after generation, and on timescales that are long,” he said.

The study — a computer-based experiment, involving humans and learning bots — is the first demonstration of cumulative cultural evolution within the lab, said co-author Maxime Derex, a postdoctoral research associate in the Institute of Human Origins.

The experiment involved a computer game in which participants had to build virtual "totem poles" by discovering increasingly complex innovations. Some individuals solved the problem on their own, while others could observe the solutions of other members of their group. The researchers found that human reasoning plays a part in innovations, but they also found that participants with access to social information were able to create more complex artifacts than individuals.

“In this experiment, we wanted to make sure that populations of individuals are able to accumulate more information than single individuals,” Derex said.

Specialists aren’t characteristic for most of human history, according to Boyd.

“There is some division of labor with age — old men tend to sit around and give advice — but there’s not much specialization in skills,” he said. “Everybody does everything. And yet you have tons of accumulation. You get lots of fancy things that are completely beyond the learning capacity of individuals on their own without any specialization.”

One of the things that distinguish humans from other animals is that we learn stuff from other people we couldn’t learn on our own. It’s not about a single guy figuring something out and teaching everyone else. It’s more like a group of people sitting around going, “Hey, you know what worked for me on this?”

Tools are the easiest example, said Boyd. If you go back 200,000 years, you see very simple stone tools. Then, around 70,000 years ago, a burst of what the study calls “cultural complexity” occurred. Beautifully made spear points began to appear. No one knows why, Boyd said.

“We don’t really know what the transition was that allowed people to start learning from each other,” he said. “Whatever it was, that’s a good candidate for why we had this big increase in learning. … As soon as people can learn from each other in a way that allows cumulative knowledge, you can get all kinds of stuff accumulating and that allows for this efflorescence of technology.”

Scientists don’t know whether the change was in the brain or something else.

“And why did it happen there, and then?” Boyd said. “It’s not clear. It happens all the time in evolution.”

Most animals can’t learn much from each other. Humans are very good at it.

“Cultural transmission, where we learn from each other, requires a bunch of mental cognitive tools that humans have and other animals don’t seem to have,” Boyd said. “Accumulation allows populations to create things little bit by little bit.”

The study was funded by the John Templeton Foundation to the Institute of Human Origins. The $4.9 million, three-year grant, the largest of its type for human origins research, will support 11 linked investigations of where, when and how unique human capacities for complex cognition, cumulative culture, and large-scale cooperation emerged.

Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU Now