Universities are finding new ways to use technology so students can keep an online record of the skills they have developed to show employers. Students have long used paper portfolios to store their academic work, but in the past few years universities have been introducing electronic portfolios.
An ePortfolio is a web-based storeroom for students' academic achievements and work history. It is designed to help students identify and record what they have learnt against a set of generic graduate capabilities.
For example, an ePortfolio might ask business students who studied a subject such as strategic management to reflect on how they developed communication skills.
ePortfolios are favoured over paper ones because students can keep their work in one place, and add sound and images to the text.
Research at Queensland University of Technology indicates there are now 20 ePortfolio initiatives at Australian and New Zealand tertiary institutions.
The deputy vice-chancellor of teaching, information and learning support at QUT, Tom Cochrane, said a major reason for introducing ePortfolios at his university was to add "value to students' linkages with future employers".
To help achieve this, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council of Australia contributed to the initial planning of ePortfolios at QUT.
"They (industry) get quite interested in any constructive engagement they can see where they might be able to affect university approaches to curriculum in order to strengthen the generic capabilities and attributes of graduates," Professor Cochrane said.
Online portfolios, he said, could also enhance the students' university experience because students would not only graduate with a certificate, but also with a more personal and detailed statement of their capabilities.
The university had also taken steps to ensure that graduates have life-long access to their ePortfolios by holding them in archival storage. This would allow graduates to update them.
To set up the portfolios, QUT ran pilots with selected groups, and gave all students access to them in 2004. Professor Cochrane estimated that the project had cost under $300,000.
The student ePortfolio project manager at University of Wollongong, Sarah Lambert, said university funds were also used to help get the online portfolio initiative off the ground.
Wollongong has been developing and trialling different ePortfolios since 2002, and is now using an ePortfolio tool that works in conjunction with the university's existing learning management system.
Ms Lambert said external pressures had prompted her to investigate different ePortfolio tools the university could adopt.
For example, the Australian Universities Quality Agency recommended that students be able to exhibit the university's set of graduate attributes in their work, while the Australian Medical Association had made it compulsory for graduates to show evidence of their learning.
In March, 83 students from University of Wollongong's new Graduate School of Medicine were given ePortfolios, and students from other faculties have also taken up the chance to use them this year.
"Some students don't know that they need this [ePortfolio] until they do their first job application," Ms Lambert said.
A senior lecturer in education at the University of New England, Chris Reading, said it was decided to make ePortfolios compulsory for education students after the NSW Institute of Teachers had made it mandatory for graduates to show evidence they had achieved a satisfactory standard for accreditation.
As a result, the ePortfolios were designed to take account of the institute's seven graduate professional teaching standards, including communicating effectively with students. But Dr Reading said even if students' ePortfolios had "all the bells and whistles", they would be useless unless graduates had the skill to talk about them at job interviews.
The University of Melbourne's engineering faculty is designing its ePortfolio for first-year students to use in 2008 based on Engineers Australia's professional standards, which are designed to improve the quality of engineers.
The director of the university's engineering learning unit, Roger Hadgraft, said the portfolio would ask students to identify how they had developed graduate attributes, such as problem-solving skills, in their subjects and work experience.
A recent federal government commissioned report on employability skills found that employers favoured the ePortfolio approach as a way of obtaining a more informed picture of a graduate job applicant.
QUT is leading a consortium of universities in investigating the development and use of ePortfolios.
The research, which is expected to be completed next year, is funded by a Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education award.
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