Teaching Notes from Year 2 of COMM ePortfolios

The past two years have provided me with the opportunity to work with my colleagues (Dr. Beck, Prof. Harrell, and Dr. Lefever) in the design and implementation of the COMM ePortfolio. As I reflect on the experience, I would like to briefly highlight what I've learned. (Since this is a blog entry, I'm taking a casual, anecdotal approach to my observations and will sometimes use italicized statements for my 'stream of consciousness' observations).

The experience as a whole improved my approach to teaching, and especially with regard to teaching online. Specifically, I took time early on in the process to reflect on how the objectives would best be developed and produced in writing experiences by students in 300-400 level COMM courses. I wanted to evaluate them throughout the semester, but I wanted to encourage better peer review and responses. I cannot say I succeeded in that across the board in all classes, but there was significant improvement to the peer reviews of formal and informal writing prompts.

For example, in COMM 351 (Interpersonal Communication in Organizations) I asked students to evaluate mission statements and recruitment/job calls for language that would indicate what a work culture might be like for a new employee, and to assess the inclusiveness of the organizational statement (working from Dr. Brenda Allen's Difference Matters). Students then had to produce a PowerPoint presentation with recorded analysis of the organizational statements they reviewed. They shared these presentations on their COMM ePortfolios, and peer reviewed each others work to see what common statements, language, and work cultures existed within the environments they may work in. Many students noted that the assignment (while challenging--yay-- win for me as the instructor!) helped them see how corporate cultures are developed, and how they as budding communication experts could use their knowledge to design more inclusive work spaces.

In COMM 333 (Persuasion), I asked students to read several articles covering current events, and to complete theoretical analyses of the events to connect theory to the 'real world'. These assignments were lower stakes (thanks QEP training!) and helped me see where to expand direction or coverage of a theory. Therein lies the challenge (for me at least), in an online class this meant 2 things: a LOT closer reading of the peer responses to make sure they were 'getting it' as they reviewed each other (correcting/critiquing when necessary of course), and making time mid-semester to record additional brief 5-10 minute mini-lectures on a theory to make sure I highlighted what was perhaps a common misinterpretation, or to offer more examples. These are activities that occur almost naturally in face-to-face classes (usually?/hopefully?), but are harder to manage in online classes. Still, with more dedication to producing videos or commentary (or any other type of resource) I hope that the students benefit. (Plus, I grow my archive of resources, right?) These lower stakes writing helped students prepare for the more expansive analytical work that ended up on their COMM ePortfolios. Sure, there is a challenge for some students to see the worth of sharing their writing online, but as noted in our FAQ page, Dr. Beck and I believe that as the practice becomes more common or adopted by the Department and University we will not see this challenge as often. On that note, here are my top 5 tips (so far) or faculty thinking they would want to adopt a COMM ePortfolio in their class (of course, besides the wealth of resources we've developed with help from Departmental and QEP grants)!

My Top 5 Tips for Adopting Faculty:

1. Discuss the relevance of an ePortfolio early and often.

(Well, maybe this isn't the BEST gif for this advice!) Instructors will need to share the relevance of the showcase approach of a COMM ePortfolio when introducing the class to the semester long project. While most 'get it' early on, it may seem that it is an additional assignment to the 'usual' coursework. Not so, what we're asking it for students to take their best work and share it in a public platform to network, highlight their best skills, and receive feedback from their instructors ahead of joining a workforce, or perhaps moving up in the workforce. As each new assignment is completed and added to the COMM ePortfolio, students should be able to identify where improvements might be needed or where they might wish to expand or improve their image online. In my experience, examples work best-- including faculty and student pages. Yes, this means we have to develop our own faculty COMM ePortfolio! As the semester draws to an end, instructors are encouraged to highlight the 'what's next' resources available to students to direct them on post-class, post-grad, or other uses for their COMM ePortfolio after they leave our individual class.

2. Streamline submissions.

Once you know what your assignments will be, I recommend determining a similar submission expectation for as many assignments as possible. First, this streamlines the directions you might add to a pre-existing assignment (think, Lit Review, and once completed, 'should be added to your Course Projects page as a PDF, then your updated WIX link submitted to your instructor for evaluation/grading'). When we incorporate new technology to a class we must be prepared to direct students on the most efficient way to utilize the technology for our class purposes. And to keep our sanity while grading, it really helps to have either a 'batch' of assignments to grade, or links to click on so we aren't searching everywhere for student work. This tip relates mostly to my experience in online classes, but I think would be useful to face-to-face classes as well.

3. Incorporate peer review/interaction/feedback into the assignment.

We know reviewing peer work is tedious. We know we have to direct students on what a substantial, critical, and supportive peer response/evaluation looks like. And we know students are better for the experience.

Look for ways to encourage better posts (if using a Course Management System), discussions (if hosting in face-to-face teaching), but whatever the medium of dialogue, go with Nike on this one.

4. Provide templates, not samples, for new genres of writing or design.

Templates! If we want students to gain experience with different types of professional writing (coming from an Organizational perspective here...) then there are 'right' ways and 'less correct' ways of producing certain documents. Templates might be drawn from a variety of industries and can help to direct students that there are correct ways of doing things without documents being uniform. That said, in some cases (some public relations documents and project management documents) students need to see how critical writing must be reframed and synthesized for a wider non-academic audience. Another example, if I'm asking students to write a White Paper-- not only am I teaching what a White Paper is, but I also need to instruct why this type of document is relevant in different industries, how communication experts might be expected to share knowledge in this manner, and direct students on how to write the document. Taking a 'templates' over 'sample' approach helped me to focus on encouraging creativity (when appropriate), formatting (as required by various writing styles or industries), and most importantly, the content produced as students related to class topics or theories.

5. Live & Learn.

Not every assignment is a clear 'hit' or 'win' the first semester it is offered, and not every student will 'get' the importance of an ePortfolio in a modern recruitment environment, and not every set of directions it error-free. Don't worry, there is a bright side to this tip! Ultimately as instructors we should feel confident that as each semester begins and ends we are learning right along with our students. We can take the 'well that didn't go exactly as planned' moments and make them our own 'teachable moments'. Altering the design of an assignment, clarifying the objectives ahead of the assignment, providing additional templates, inquiring for feedback from colleagues, or rethinking the best way to evaluate an assignment are all ways we can continually improve our classes and the student learning experience.

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All content prepared within this site is available from the Communication ePortfolio Team.
Department of Communication & Theatre Arts, Old Dominion University 
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