Portfolio as a tool for academic education and professional development: problems and challenges



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1.2. Context


In 2002 Utrecht University decided to implement a digital portfolio system. The university aimed to provide flexible, demand driven education. Within the set requirements of cohesion and standards, students should have considerable freedom to put together their own study programmes, transcending disciplinary boundaries if they wish. Utrecht University also attaches great importance to its students’ academic development. In line with various university educational traditions (i.e. teaching to think, investigate and put into practice), students are required during their studies to develop in intellectual, academic and professional regard, attaining the level required of a bachelors or masters degree.
Students do not acquire the requisite intellectual, academic and professional expertise according to fixed patterns. We know that interdisciplinary education stimulates intellectual development, single-discipline education the development of knowledge and understanding of a particular subject area, and dual education professional development. We also know that under certain conditions students are able to learn a great deal through active forms of work, authentic experiences and social interaction, that development is a Know-Can-Do process, that expertise does not come from studying a subject and having a shot at it in practice but rather from a rationally planned curriculum, and that a curriculum can only be effective if the institution in question and the climate of the study programme are in tune with it. Moreover, students do not develop purely within the context of their studies but also outside them (i.e. informal learning) and therefore have their own learning aims.
Against this background Utrecht University decided to implement a digital portfolio system designed to perform three functions in any particular curriculum. The first function deals with testing students’ intellectual, academic and professional development. At the end of a bachelors degree programme, students’ portfolios should contain the kind of material demonstrating that during their studies they have evolved into an intellectual and a professional worthy of the designation ‘academic’. The second function is designed to monitor students’ intellectual and academic development. Portfolios should include the possibility of critically tracking students’ academic development during their studies and, where necessary, tweaking it in good time. Finally, the third function is designed to stimulate students’ intellectual and academic development. Their portfolios should be integrated into their studies and used in such a way that they are coaxed into reflecting on their own academic development, at the same time enabling teachers, supervisors and fellow students to give them individual, effective feedback on their development. The fact that Utrecht University decided on digital rather than paper portfolios was primarily due to the logistic and practical advantages involved.

By now practically all degree course programmes at Utrecht University have worked with digital portfolios. The reports vary: there is some enthusiasm but this is certainly not unqualified. Educational advisers at the IVLOS Institute of Education, also involved in the implementation of electronic portfolios, have analysed the situation to gain a clearer view of the extent of the problems and challenges at issue.




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