Until recently, Lisa Donaldson, MSc, worked at Dublin City University in Ireland in the Teaching Enhancement Unit. There she was responsible for Loop Reflect, DCU's ePortfolio platform based on Mahara. In our conversation, Lisa shares how everything started at DCU, and what some of the important steps were that the University took to grow its portfolio initiative.
Click through to the episode page for the transcript.
Connect with Lisa and ePortfolio organisations she's active in
Publications of interest
Portfolios at Dublin City University
Audio editing support: Sofia Kokoreva
Kristina Hoeppner 00:05
Welcome to 'Create. Share. Engage.' This is the podcast on portfolios for learning and more for educators, learning designers, and managers keen on integrating portfolios in their education and professional development practices. 'Create. Share. Engage.' is brought to you by the Mahara team at Catalyst IT. My name is Kristina Hoeppner, and I'm delighted to talk with Lisa Donaldson today.
Until recently, Lisa worked at Dublin City University in Ireland in the Teaching Enhancement Unit. There she was responsible for Loop Reflect, DCU's ePortfolio platform based on Mahara. In our conversation, Lisa shares how everything started at DCU, and what some of the important steps were that the University took to grow its portfolio initiative.
Lisa, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Lisa Donaldson 00:57
Good morning, Kristina. I'm delighted to be here and lovely to you today. Yes, so I'm a Learning Technologist by trade. I'm a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I'm currently living in Dublin, Ireland, in sunny Malahide, well sunny today, by the coast, with my two kids and my needy rescue dog. And as you said, yeah, I have spent the last nine years with Dublin City University. Originally, I was there in the School of Nursing, working on blended learning projects, and after that, I moved to the Teaching Enhancement Unit, which is a centralised teaching and learning unit with an absolutely amazing team there. So it was responsible for many projects, one of which, and my biggest role, in fact, my primary role, was that for leading and implementing ePortfolio across all faculties in DCU.
Since then, since the first of June, I've actually moved role. I'm with the Irish College of General Practitioners, which is a postgraduate body for the training of GPs, and I'm the Academic Program Manager there now. So my brief there is the design of blended learning resources and also - not surprisingly - the development of an ePortfolio platform to document their GP training lifecycle. So I've been pretty well immersed in a portfolio over the last couple of years.
Kristina Hoeppner 02:10
Yes, definitely sounds like it. And well, I would think more than the last couple of years because if I remember correctly, you were quite instrumental in starting the portfolio platform Loop Reflect at DCU. Can you tell us a little bit about those early days and why you actually went with portfolios for your students?
Lisa Donaldson 02:31
Yeah, I suppose my history with ePortfolio does go back a little bit further, and actually back as far as my Master's degree, which was a wonderful programme, which involves ePortfolio based assessment. I really enjoyed working with ePortfolios back then. And what I found subsequent to finishing the Masters is that years afterwards, I kept going back to my portfolio because I knew there was valuable information in there that I always seemed to need. So I found myself continually going back to my ePortfolio well to pull out that material. So I suppose I became a devotee for a portfolio based assessment based on that, and when, as part of the DCU strategic plan 2012-2017 if I get those years right, it called for ePortfolio to support graduate attributes for DCU students.
So when the opportunity came up to work on the project, I put my hand in the air and Mark Glynn, my wonderful boss in DCU, was happy to have me work on lead on that. So right back in the very early days, it was, I suppose 2016, and we were briefed with introducing an ePortfolio platform, ostensibly to support graduate attributes, but really, it was broader than that. It was for ePortfolio based assessment and as it turned out, ultimately, an ePortfolio has now been used for so many different aspects and extracurricular activities as well across DCU and across all faculties there.
But it wasn't all plain sailing. That's for sure. There was a couple of failed attempts at trying to introduce ePortfolio before we did introduce as you say, Loop Reflect, which is based on the Mahara platform. That was done, I suppose quite well, and that we did start with a pilot project. Now our pilot project would probably make a lot of people's hair turned gray because our pilot project because of really great engagement on behalf of the teachers that some of which we asked to participate and others had heard word of mouth about ePortfolio coming in and could they engage with it. Our pilot project had nearly 6,000 portfolio users. So it was a rather big pilot, and it became much bigger than we expected and that was purely as I say because of engagement and word of mouth, and it worked well particularly across our, you won't be surprised to hear, our teaching degrees. So it was meant to be just for first year Bachelor of Education students, but it went so well within a number of weeks that it was broadened out to all our teaching programmes. There was a lot of engagement and a lot of really good feedback on the back of that.
Kristina Hoeppner 05:08
So you said your pilot started with 6,000 students, or within a few weeks with 6,000. How many students does DCU have?
Lisa Donaldson 05:17
A number of different Irish universities merged into Dublin City University: St. Patrick's Campus and others who were mainly involved in teacher education. So we became much larger over time, in fact, over a very short amount of time, so approximately 16,000 students we have.
Kristina Hoeppner 05:37
I'd actually just like to circle back briefly to your own portfolio because you said you use it in your Master's for assessment purposes. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal practice then? Did you use templates? Or how did you go about creating your portfolios and learning kind of what it was all about?
Lisa Donaldson 05:57
You're not going to like the answer to this, Kristina [laughing]. I'll tell you that now. It was an award winning Master's programme in eLearning. And it was an absolutely super programme, and 15 credits were devoted for ePortfolio. This was very, very new. And I loved the concept. I'm a bit of a doer. I much prefer that way of learning, and the concept of ePortfolio was introduced to us, and we - it was suggested and we received training on Mahara to use as the platform and I'm sorry to say, Kristina, that back in the day, I chose not to go the Mahara route, and instead because I like to tinker with things, I actually went with WordPress actually as the platform. So that's, that's the tool. And I add in the caveat now, for everybody listening, that Mahara is a wonderful tool now. Eight years ago, it was a little less flexible, I think, is probably the best way to put it; a little less flexible than it is now.
What I found was that I was really engaged with the learning. And as part of that, I really wanted to document what I was doing. I wanted to learn more. And what I found was every day after we had a class session, I would dash home and almost as a learning diary, write up everything that we had done, and all our assessments were to be placed into the ePortfolio as well. And I found I just I went beyond the requirements of the assessment itself, just purely because I enjoyed the process of capturing what I was doing. I enjoyed the ability to use multimedia. I enjoyed doing video based reflections as well as text based reflections and, you know, collating all my links, and, you know, uploading all my assessments, and I just found it a wonderful way to centralise everything that I was doing over the two year programme. What kept us engaged, which I think was very useful that for the whole class was that there were regular work in progress session. So even those that weren't perhaps, you know, as engaged, they had targets that, you know, they needed to show and share their ePortfolio. And it was a wonderful way of sharing, you know, your thesis as as it was progressing, and basically your overall progress with the degree. So I really enjoyed the programme. I really enjoyed the process of using ePortfolio, and I suppose that would be part of the reason why I'm so inclined to get involved with the ePortfolio project in DCU.
Kristina Hoeppner 08:31
So from your own experience, from the portfolio, to the DCU initiative, how did you get everybody excited and involved so quickly? What is your success recipe there that you can share?
Lisa Donaldson 08:46
I wish it was a simple recipe. I have to be honest in that it was very much trial and error and very much leaning on the community. So whilst I would have been an ePortfolio user, I certainly had no experience of implementing ePortfolio in an institutional capacity. And I also wasn't very familiar with Mahara as well. So what I did was I, I leaned on people. I worked with people, and I collaborated with people that knew more than I did. And I highly recommend that because what I found was with the Mahara community, it's very open, very welcoming, and very given to sharing. So at the outset of the project, I reached out via the community site and the forums on Mahara, and I just reached out to institutions that I knew were using Mahara, that perhaps could give me some advice. And I got some wonderful help. I got offers of resources, handbooks, you know, ideas about how it was structured and other places. So I was armed then with a lot of really, really good information.
And I suppose collaboration was key then throughout the entire project because I worked very closely with our pilot users to ensure that they had everything that they needed to be able to work with me and design ePortfolio templates, that their students were supported. And we did a lot of hand holding and sessions with students to make sure that they were comfortable, not just with the platform, but with, you know, folio thinking really, as regards, you know, what ePortfolio was about and the benefits of using ePortfolio over and above other forms of assessment and how it enabled them to, I suppose, show a more holistic view of their learning.
So I worked very closely across DCU. So we did get good engagement in that way. But I think what really helped, certainly, from the DCU perspective, is that there was a dedicated champion. And certainly I've said that when I've been talking about our implementation. And we were lucky. We were lucky in that I was appointed - not saying that it's down to me or anything - but it was just because there was a champion. So that really, really helped, you know, working with the faculty, then working with the students because what I did was with the numbers that you saw, you know, 5,000, 6,000 users for pilots, we were over 10,000 users by year one when we formally launched.
So to support and make sure that the students had a good user experience and were supported in everything that they were doing with ePortfolio, I couldn't do that single handedly. So I engaged with students, and again, this was good advice that I got through the ePortfolio forums from other Mahara institutions back at the beginning. And I engaged with students and they became eterns, and they worked in a voluntary capacity to help me to support other students, and they often work with lecturers as well. They were absolutely wonderful. So we had a number of eterns every year and absolutely could not have been done without them. And beyond just the support and the promotion of ePortfolio, they really had some good ideas about what we could do and changes, even in wording of, you know, there are customised dashboard, they were absolutely phenomenal, dedicated champion. Use the eterns, and you know, when you engage with faculty, what I actually did then was broaden that engagement beyond the walls of DCU. And knowing that we were really at the very beginning of an ePortfolio journey, and none of us were experts at that point, it does take a village [laughing]. I firmly believe it takes a village. So we reached out to other institutions across Ireland to see who else was interested in ePortfolio, who was engaging with ePortfolio and see what we could learn and work with one another. And that then formed our Mahara users group initially and became Eportfolio Ireland then within a year or two once we rebranded so that anybody who had an interest in ePortfolio, we were all working towards the same ends, so we all came together and had some wonderful events. So I think collaboration would be key, whether it's with faculty, with students, and you know, within and beyond the institution.
Speaking of your eterns, how did you recruit them? You mentioned that they worked on the voluntary basis. What did they get out of the entire experience?
Lisa Donaldson 13:14
That's a really good question. Yeah. How we recruited them first off was one of the other things that I learned from others in the space was the benefits of student showcase, annual student showcase competition because in that way, students got to get some benefit in themselves, get some of the limelight to showcase the amazing work that they had done and to win prizes, and, you know, share practice. So we instigated an Annual Student Showcase Competition, which still goes on and is wonderful. We get lots of fantastic ePortfolios that come in. So actually, what I did was I contacted everybody who had submitted a student showcase ePortfolio because obviously, they had enjoyed the ePortfolio process, they were engaged with the ePortfolio process, and I just hoped that they might, you know, enjoy what they were doing enough to become an etern and work with me.
What we found was the eterns were actually really eager to get engaged, even though it was a voluntary role because they did gain in technical skills, in getting closer to the platform, and any of the other tools that were used in conjunction with the platform. They gained in communication skills and working with others, and a lot of our eterns were trainee teachers. So working with and training others would have been really, really useful. I was also a great source of a reference then when the students needed it because they had this work experience, and it could be used in conjunction with a module that we had; an extra credit module. So they could use their work as part of the etern ePortfolio project as credit towards that module. There was always a thank you at the end of the year as well, but still, it was definitely a more voluntary role than anything else.
Kristina Hoeppner 15:01
How many eterns did you usually have per academic year, Lisa?
Lisa Donaldson 15:06
Generally two or three. The first year, I think we had four, but generally it rounded out to two or three.
Kristina Hoeppner 15:13
Last year for the AAEEBL conference in 2021, we interviewed two of those eterns. So I'll definitely make sure to also link to those interviews so that our listeners can hear directly from them about their ePortfolio experience.
You've been involved in Eportfolio Ireland quite extensively and also the AAEEBL community, the equivalent, essentially, in North America. Have you observed any recent trends in the use of portfolios in Ireland or also internationally?
Lisa Donaldson 15:49
Yeah, I suppose if there is a trend to be seen, it's that progression from being very much beginner practitioners, certainly across Ireland, to the start of actually documenting and researching what is happening in the different institutions with ePortfolio because there was a dearth of literature around ePortfolio practice in Ireland. We were very much only in the beginning stages when, you know, I founded Eportfolio Ireland in 2017 or so, whereas now with an amazing steering group on board, and, you know, engagement across so many institutions in Ireland, that collaborative development of the literature now, which can kind of, you know, give a much better picture of where we are as a country with ePortfolio, and I suppose, just to highlight specifically, the special issue, the ePortfolio special issue from the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning that particularly Orna Farrell, I have to give amazing credit to Orna Farrell and Tom Farrelly, and of course, Karen [Buckley] and others, but that was really, I suppose, ground breaking in that it did capture two issues, really, you know. There were so many different articles on different aspects of portfolio practice, and the breadth of use of ePortfolio was fascinating to see. So even in the space of three to four years, the community has gone from very much beginning the practice of ePortfolio to the growth and spread of it to becoming much more central to teaching, learning, and beyond. So that's been really, really interesting to watch.
Kristina Hoeppner 17:34
When we talked over the last two years, you also mentioned that the uptake of portfolios at DCU increased because of the difficulties of running regular assessments. Do you think the ePortfolio will continue to have a big place in the assessment space in the Irish landscape? Or do you see another type of portfolio kind of taking more centre stage?
Lisa Donaldson 18:01
To be honest, I think it's going to continue to grow. I mean, I've said before that I think the pandemic was the catalyst for the huge growth, certainly that we saw in DCU. I mean, we would have had maybe 30 different programmes or modules using ePortfolio before the pandemic and, you know, increased to 110. So, I mean, that the growth was about as quickly as COVID was growing, to be honest. But I think that was the catalyst because it - as everyone was scrambling for, you know, alternative assessment practices, I think ePortfolio presented the most authentic, the most holistic way of demonstrating learning, you know, at a distance. I mean, certainly it was, in my opinion, it's always been far superior than an exam based assessment anyway, but I think it demonstrated to more and more people the benefits of using ePortfolio based assessment. So I think there is some benefits to that to the enforced move to online learning and alternative assessments because I think ePortfolio will stand the test of time.
Kristina Hoeppner 19:01
Now that we are getting towards the end of today's session, I'd like to ask your three questions for a quick answer round. Which verbs, and they are kind of up to three verbs, do you use to describe portfolio work?
Lisa Donaldson 19:19
Interesting. Well, actually, I may add an adjective rather than a verb [laughing]. And I've actually used the word already. And I think holistic, I think that's one of the most important facets of ePortfolio. It's holistic and gives a true sense of the person and true sense of the knowledge and the skills of that person. And I suppose the other word I would use there is for me, I think it's exciting. I think as a medium for assessment, I think it's exciting because it allows for creativity. It provides a showcase and a platform for the student to represent their true selves. It contributes to their digital skills, all of these things are exciting. So I think that's what I would say.
Kristina Hoeppner 20:03
What tips do you have for learning designers or instructors who create portfolio activities?
Be brave. Be brave. Take the opportunities that ePortfolio can offer and completely re-imagine assessment and re-imagine the assessment practice because ePortfolio can support so many different activities and different artefacts. And perhaps even just keep an eye to employability. And if you are designing assessments, wouldn't it be wonderful if you could enable and support students to develop something that they could share with prospective employers to demonstrate all of their learning from their degree in years to come and give them a step up ahead of you know, other students? So I think be brave when it comes to the assessment redesign.
Kristina Hoeppner 20:55
Since we have a tip for the learning designers and educators, let's also see if you have some advice for people creating portfolios, be that students or professionals.
Lisa Donaldson 21:09
Keep at it. I think 'keep at it' would be my overriding advice because I certainly let my ePortfolio go after my Master's and didn't continue and had to go back and start all over again. There is such a wealth of learning. We are lifelong learners these days, and I think just keep going. Keep the ePortfolio as that learning journey as you progress through your academic studies and your academic career because I think it is going to be a resource that will always be of benefit.
Kristina Hoeppner 21:47
Thank you so much for giving us a glimpse into your work today, Lisa. It's been amazing to see what you and many others at Dublin City University have done so far to establish portfolios amongst students and staff.
Lisa Donaldson 22:01
Thank you, Kristina. It was wonderful to chat to you again.
Kristina Hoeppner 22:04
Now over to our listeners. What do you want to try in your portfolio practice? This was 'Create. Share. Engage.' with Lisa Donaldson today. Thank you for listening. On our website podcast.mahara.org, you can find links to resources that Lisa shared and the transcript for this episode. This podcast is produced by Catalyst IT, and I'm your host, Kristina Hoeppner, Project Lead and Product Manager of the ePortfolio platform Mahara. Our next episode will air in two weeks. I hope you'll listen again and tell a colleague about our podcast so they can subscribe. Until then, create, share, and engage.