ePortfolios at the University of Waterloo: A Tool Supporting Student-Centred Learning

 What registration used to look like at the University of Waterloo (UWaterloo photo archives, 1968)."By Alisa Sivak, CTE Communications Associate

When I was an undergraduate student, there was no Internet. We lined up to register for courses in a hot gym. I went to class, researched and wrote papers, studied for exams, passed x courses with a minimum grade of y to receive z credits in return for a diploma. After it was over, I didn’t look back.

Perhaps that’s still the perspective new students have when they approach the University of Waterloo for the first time: What do I have to do to get my diploma? The answer, they’ll find out, is that they still have to navigate their way through a series of classes, coursework, exams, and maybe co-op placements and volunteer opportunities.

What has changed is the technology that’s available to help them make meaning of their experiences as a university student. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because it’s not really about the technology.

Student-centered learning

It’s about Waterloo’s shift to adopt a paradigm that focuses less on how teachers teach and more on the way learners learn.

Under a Teaching paradigm, instructors with expertise lecture from the front of a room, and students sit in rows and listen passively while taking notes.

Donna Ellis, Director of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence, describes the Learning paradigm in terms of creating an environment that provides opportunities for students to make discoveries, solve problems, and direct their own learning with support from experts and a community of learners.

So how can Waterloo support and even facilitate this kind of learning?

Introducing ePortfolios

An ePortfolio is a digital collection of what is often referred to as "artefacts" that demonstrate learning: the artefacts could be course-related work like essays, but they can also be creative pieces like artwork, photographs, or videos. In a learning context, an ePortfolio is designed to showcase academic growth, but it can also capture other aspects of a student's life.

ePortfolio technology has the capacity to support students on their learning journey by helping them make sense of their experiences, encouraging and providing scaffolding for self-reflection, and helping them draw connections. ePortfolios support the learning process from a student perspective.

Learners at Waterloo have been working with ePortfolios for over 12 years, but in the fall of 2018, a team comprising the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Instructional Technologies and Media Services, and the Centre for Extended Learning began working with instructors to pilot test a new tool: the PebblePad Learning Journey Platform. 

According to Jason Thompson, one of the CTE’s six Faculty Liaisons, PebblePad has a number of benefits as an ePortfolio tool:

  • Each PebblePad portfolio is connected to a student, so the contents don’t disappear when a course ends
  • Instructors can direct learning by developing modules that align with specific course outcomes, but students are also able to upload other content
  • The technology remains available to students after graduation, so they can continue to build and reflect on their learning journey

A handful of Waterloo instructors began pilot testing PebblePad in January 2019, and more will follow. Their experiences showcase the technology’s versatility. Click on the examples below to hear more about the ePortfolio experience in the Faculty of Engineering, School of Optometry & Vision Science, and the School of Social Work at Renison University College.

Interested in learning more about PebblePad? Sign up for a workshop or contact Katherine Lithgow, Senior Educational Developer Integrative and Experiential Learning at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.