Digital Environments for the Liberal Arts Seminar (LAS)

The Liberal Arts Seminar (LAS) is a twelve-credit year-long class for first-year students in Georgetown College. It is taught by teams of faculty members (two in the fall, two in the spring) for three years at a time. We are part of the team selected to begin in 2014/15, focusing on the role of empires in history. In the fall semester, taught by Jonathan Ray and Paul Heck in the Theology Department, students studied the relationship between empires and religion in the Mediterranean world. In the spring semester, which we taught, students engaged in a comparative historical study of empires.

The eighteen students we had enrolled in two sections of Interdisciplinary Studies (IDST-002 and IDST-004). In practice, though, we designed the class as one organic whole. Drawing on our own research expertise, we focused on the ancient Roman empire (especially in the years 200 BCE – 300 CE) and several early modern European and New World empires (mainly those of the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, Inca, and Aztec). We eschewed a chronological approach and instead tackled a series of major themes. After two introductory case studies and then a week-long unit considering “What is an Empire?” we examined these topics:

  • narratives and strategies and staging of conquest
  • organizing peoples and places
  • miniature Romes, little Europes
  • making subjects and slaves
  • cultures of resistance
  • critiques and celebrations

The class ended with a weeklong discussion of “legacies.”

Class sessions were entirely discussion-based with commentary by us kept to a minimum. Virtually every day students discussed assigned readings (mostly primary sources) in an open forum. In some sessions, students were broken down into smaller groups to work on small projects. There were also role playing exercises. An important component of the course was a series of field trips (viewing a performance of Shakespeare’s Tempest; a walking tour of Georgetown; a tour of Dumbarton Oaks; and a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Overall, we drew on the methods of history, literary and cultural analysis, and archeology to introduce students to the history of empires. We also sought to improve students’ ability to analyze and critique primary sources, to identify and critique scholarly arguments, and to write analytic papers in a variety of genres using primary and secondary sources. (Some of the papers we assigned including writing an op-ed, imitating the correspondence between a Roman emperor and provincial governor, and writing a letter to the Council of the Indies.) Our goal was to equip students to join – and enjoy – the conversation of history and to help them better situate themselves as global citizens.

Our hope for ePortfolio was that it would help students to synthesize and integrate what they were learning. Specifically, we thought that ePortfolio could:

  • help students experiment in making historical comparisons through informal writing
  • provide a space for exploring primary source materials
  • facilitate reflection on field trips
  • allow students to make connections with their work in the fall semester
  • provide a place for students to return to later in their Georgetown careers to integrate and blogging
  • first-year learning

After attending the two-day workshop in December we met with Rob Pongsajapan in January to set up portfolios for each student. We created a central class page, with students names listed in a column on the right. Clicking on the name would take you to the student portfolio. Each portfolio had an introductory page and then three tabs (“Experiences”; “Readings”; and “Writing”). Our plan was to use the central page to post occasional prompts. Students would post to their portfolios their response to these prompts, assigning them to one of the three categories just mentioned. In essence, we were envisioning ePortfolio as a sort of online discussion board – except that students would be able to view their own work discretely and retain it for the future. Altogether we had students make about ten posts over the semester.

Maggie Debelius attended a Cohort workshop and gave a brief but inspiring presentation on how she used ePortfolio in her first-year writing class. As we listened to her, a light went on in our heads. We had planned for the LAS to culminate in a 5000-word research paper, comparing some aspect of two empires over time (e.g., Roman and Incan road-building and infrastructure investments). While ultimately we did require all students to complete a research proposal, we then gave them the option of crafting a much more finished ePortfolio in lieu of writing the final paper itself. Our requirements for the portfolio were modeled very closely on Maggie’s. Students were expected to create a full introduction to themselves; fully revise and upload two course papers with explanations of their revisions; upload their research proposal and introduce it; upload another piece of writing and introduce it; and produce a final historian’s reflection on their year’s learning. We also had students engage in peer review of one another’s papers and portfolios. (See the attached document for the full set of guidelines. We would like to thank Maggie here as well for her generous help in reviewing a first draft of our guidelines.)

In our class of eighteen, twelve elected to create more finished ePortfolios while six wrote research papers.

We were hoping that ePortfolio would:

  • enhance the learning environment of the LAS by providing a platform for students on which to build specific academic skills (such as close analysis of documents or artifacts) while also integrating learning from different fields and disciplines
  • allow students to learn from one another outside of class
  • foster continuous reflection by students on their learning across the entire year in the LAS, including out-of-class experiences
  • help students develop a body of work which could be used as a springboard for more ambitious research projects
  • create for students at least a partial summary of their first year at Georgetown to which they could return later for reflection and evaluation of intellectual growth across their years in college

Because the class had the option of doing a final project using ePortfolio, we waited to gather feedback until after the semester had ended. We invited candid responses via email. We provided three prompts:

  1. How did ePortfolio help you synthesize and integrate your learning in the LAS this year?
  2. If you wrote a final paper, how did that help you synthesize and integrate your learning?
  3. Do you have suggestions on how to improve the use of ePortfolio?

12/18 students emailed us their evaluations: 3/6 students who wrote a research paper, and 9/12 students who did the final ePortfolio assignment.

These responses were consistently thoughtful and helpful. We analyzed them to discern key patterns. We also considered the ePortfolio final projects carried out by 12/18 students in the class to comprise a valuable body of information that demonstrated how this particular mode of organizing and reflecting on a semester’s work might be fruitful in a class setting.

The students who had opted to write a paper agreed that they were glad to have done so, although all also agreed that it was a daunting assignment and one that they thought required more work than the ePortfolio assignment.

The students who chose to do the ePortfolio final assignment were also uniformly pleased to have done so. Some of these students had been skeptical of ePortfolio over the course of the semester and could not see its value (a sentiment we occasionally shared ourselves) but savored the opportunity to immerse themselves in their semester’s work through the final assignment. They liked being able to read through all of their ePortfolio writings and to explore their intellectual development over the course of the semester. They also appreciated the opportunity to link their work to another class, something we explicitly required them to do by posting a paper or other type of writing with an introduction. One of these students thought that the ePortfolio assignment required more work than the 5000 word research paper.

Among the key findings from the student responses:

  1. Students for the most part valued the writing they did on ePortfolio, especially the writing that connected course readings and extracurricular experiences.
  2. Students appreciated the less formal nature of ePortfolio writing. They found that it gave them more latitude than formal papers and permitted more creativity.
  3. Students would like to do more writing on ePortfolio. Some specific suggestions include:
    • Reflecting on ePortfolio after class, not before, as a way to consider their understanding of the reading in light of interaction with peers.
    • Reflecting on ePortfolio at the end of a course unit as a way of developing their comparative skills and gathering their thoughts before they move to the next topic.
    • Substituting one of the formal papers for more ePortfolio writing.
    • More ePortfolio writing before class: all students agreed that such writing enhanced class discussions, which we had also observed.
  4. Students had some structural suggestions that reflected in part our own uncertainty about how ePortfolio might work in our class. They recommended, for example, standardized deadlines for ePortfolio writing, clearer guidelines about expectations, and possibly a minimal grade for ePortfolio posts.
  5. Students liked having their course writing available in one place, in contrast to the writing students often do on Blackboard or ephemeral in-class writing. One student thought all course papers should be posted here, something we had considered and had originally planned to do but then determined that it might be problematic to require students to post unrevised papers that might have received poor grades.

We learned that ePortfolio supported many of our course goals in the ways we had envisioned, but that we need to do a better job integrating it from the beginning of the semester and explaining its value to the students. We also learned that we should consider making ePortfolio a more robust part of the class and should explore more ways to enable students to reflect on their learning over the course of the semester and to develop their skills in comparative historical analysis.

We also learned that to the ePortfolio mantra of “collect, select, reflect” we would add connect, since facilitating students’ ability to make connections—between semesters and classes, within different aspects of our class, to extracurricular experiences—was at the heart of our goals for this technology.

We plan to use ePortfolio again in Spring 2016 for the same class, and are eager to implement some improvements based on our learning this spring.

We started the semester of the pilot ePortfolio program almost entirely unsure about how this technology might be helpful for us and poorly prepared despite the lengthy December training. Now that we have a semester’s experience to consider, we envision building ePortfolio into the class in more robust and systematic ways. We found that ePortfolio did indeed enhance the specific learning goals we had for our class, but we believe that we can expand our use of the technology and integrate it more fully from the beginning of the semester. We envision using ePortfolio more consistently to help students make comparisons across empires, building in some new prompts and revising others. We will use ePortfolio as a post-class reflection tool, something a student recommended that we had not thought of but that seems ideally suited to this technology and our learning goals. We plan to have one or two of the students from the Spring 2015 class come to our class at the beginning of the semester and show their ePortfolios, so that students can understand what this technology looks like and how they can make it their own. We also might add a peer review component to the class before the final project. As part of this more robust use of ePortfolio, we will think about the number and nature of formal assignments in the class, possibly reducing the number of formal papers to balance greater ePortfolio writing.

We plan to continue to give students the option of writing a research paper, rather than a final ePortfolio project, but hope that these envisioned changes in our use of ePortfolio will make ePortfolio as meaningful and valuable to them as it was to the students who reflected on their semesters’ learning using this technology. We also plan to add a peer editing component to the research paper, since that process was so fruitful for the students in the ePortfolio project cohort.

One technological challenge that we envision for Georgetown in terms of using ePortfolio in classes more generally is the problem of setting up the student sites. History colleagues, for example, have expressed interest in using ePortfolio in some of our large (70 student) History classes, but these classes often have fluid enrollment at the beginning of the semester, and each student’s site must be created by hand. It thus becomes virtually impossible for faculty to integrate ePortfolio into a class at the beginning of the semester (just when such informal writing can be so fruitful for students and faculty alike), because many students will not have access to the site. Our class was unusual in that it was a year-long class, open by application only, and the January enrollment was certain. The university needs to resolve this challenge if faculty are to pursue ePortfolio in the context of a class. The contrast with Blackboard is stark in this respect.

Another challenge we found that bears consideration for future ePortfolio use was the conceptualization behind the ITEL pilot program, which gathered people with very different aspirations for ePortfolio. The emphasis of much of the ePortfolio training and subsequent conversations was on gathering and showcasing credentials, not deepening student learning in an academic setting. For our purposes, we needed to learn how faculty at Georgetown or at another comparable institution used ePortfolio in a class to enhance student learning. While we appreciated hearing how colleagues in other parts of the university were using this technology, and enjoyed meeting these colleagues, their projects’ goals were quite remote from our own, and were occasionally divorced from student learning.

We recommend that CNDLS maintain a list of faculty who have used or are using ePortfolio in the context of a class so that colleagues can find them to get advice for their own projects and specifically for how to connect classroom learning goals with this technology.