Expanding Active Collaborative Learning on Diversity Projects Through E-Portfolio Systems

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida


Active learning is about arousing students in a course to be active in doing learning (Linder, 2017).  Active collaborative learning is about engaging students with others in the learning process.  The competence of students in diversity in a multicultural population is an area of knowledge addressable in authentic collaborative community-based learning.  Digital portfolios, as applied to diversity-focused student projects, can enhance the collaborative learning process (McGill & Klobas, 2009). In this paper, the authors discuss the benefits of e-portfolios for active learning in a higher education institution, with a population of people with disabilities.

Description of Projects

Digital portfolios are an amassment of artifacts derived from the projects of students.   Digital portfolios document student experiences on projects (Cambridge, 2010), enabling faculty to evaluate their students’ learning (Rapuano & Zoino, 2006).  Pace University is evaluating—through a Mahara 17.04 facility for e-portfolios—the learning process of undergraduate students in projects for a community-based course in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, in which students collaboratively develop Web sites face-to-face with people with disabilities.  The focus of this paper is on the cognitive comprehension impacts of these projects on students as they mentor this marginalized population.  For the students, the heart of the learning is the impact the projects have on critical thinking (Wilson, 2016), as they reflect and think about a population with whom they are often unfamiliar.  Recorded in the e-portfolios, student reflections on their projects form a foundation for review (Barrett, 2007).  The reflections provide first-hand accounts of the learning process occasioned by interacting with a population often perceived through negative stereotypes. Through the projects, students are now perceiving this population through positive stereotypes (Leahy, Holland, & McGinn, 2011).  In essence, the e-portfolios facilitate and document the student learning process as they work with this often misperceived and misunderstood population of society.

Highlights of Diversity Projects

The course is called Web Design for Non-Profit Organizations.  The course is creatively engaging 24 mentor students and 24 higher-functioning (i.e. moderately impaired) mentee people with disabilities in developing Web site projects. The people with disabilities are from AHRC New York City, a non-profit organization helping people with developmental and intellectual disabilities (IDD), which is partnered with the Seidenberg School.  The projects are engaging the people with disabilities in “a co-creator culture of passionate problem-solving teams” (Bjorklund et al., 2017) for three hours on 14 Tuesday sessions over the semester.  The students are not lectured, but rather mentored in the learning process by the course professor, James Lawler (co-author of this paper), on goals of critical thinking.

The community-based course e-portfolios consist of: blogs or logs for documentation of engagement project reflections after each session; critiques for documentation of reflections on societal stereotype stories (Mueller & Schweber, 2018), also after each session; and essay journals for documentation of learning progress reflections at mid-term and at the end of the semester. Each blog, critique, and journal posting is followed by comments by the professor, which provide encouraging input for the students. The blogs, critiques, and journals are crucial in determining the impact of the learning of the students, as these activities enrich the learning process, especially in terms of higher-order skills. For example, reflections on societal stories are important in the learning process, as they demand the high-order skills of genuine inquiry and interpretation (Nilson, 2018), as well as critical systematic thinking (Borst & DiYanni, 2018).

During the fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters, the authors descriptively evaluated the blogs, critiques, and journals of the e-portfolios for expressions (Weichselbraun et al., 2018) of higher-order thinking. Using Bloom’s taxonomy as their point of reference (Preville, 2018), the authors learned that the students were improving in their analysisapplicationevaluation, and synthesis higher-order thinking skills (in addition to gains in lower-order skills of comprehension and knowledge) from developing new perspectives on, and reflecting on their work with, people with disabilities.  The undergraduate students were and continue to be inquiring and interpreting in an active collaborative learning process—“[critically] doing things and [critically] thinking about things” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991)—as shown by a sample of student comments:

  • “greatest impact was how to interact with others”;
  • “learned people with disabilities are humans … learned of the discrimination … learned how to fight for them”;
  • “more passionate about them … will stay with me forever”.

The blogs, critiques, and journals collected in the e-portfolios provide evidence that their learning is active, not passive (Fulbright, 2018). Moreover, the learning involves students not as insensitive technologists of the Web, but as personable socializers with those with disabilities, prompting more thinking on their part, which is integral to their learning.  The e-portfolios are clearly the enabling mechanisms for the learning process of this community-based learning course.

The course is designed for learning about people with disabilities, especially through the project reflections of the students, which also promote critical thinking.  However, students are learning not only higher-order skills in critical thinking, but also listening, negotiation, perseverance, problem-solving, and sensitivity skills—so-called soft skills. Though the primary, social learning outcomes depend on the project reflections of these students, the projects offer other benefits as well. The technology and design aspects of the projects require students to think creatively, and to help the people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to positively position themselves through the power of the Web (Gillespie, 2018).  The benefits of a diversity project are not only for the students, but even more for a neglected population of society.

Lessons Learned on Projects

The benefits of active learning in the community-based course and the e-portfolios can be seen in the lessons learned by students from the diversity projects:

  • The blogs, critiques, and journals enhanced the active learning process of the students. Extant literature highlights the importance of active learning tools (Mukherjee & Bleakney, 2018).  Students were individually involved in the learning process through these tools;
  • Features of the e-portfolios enhanced the active collaborative learning process of students, who informally shared content with students on other teams, fostering inclusive learning;
  • The format of the e-portfolios and projects helped improve outcomes in creative and critical skills, as students documented and reflected on the learning process with their non-profit partners on the projects. Such skills are especially important in life planning, regardless of the studies of undergraduate students (Association of American Colleges & Universities et al., 2013);
  • The format of the e-portfolios and projects also helped improve outcomes in higher-order thinking skills as defined by Bloom’s taxonomy, as students performed and reflected on project tasks;
  • The format of the e-portfolios further helped improve outcomes in listening and other soft skills. Soft skills are important for information systems students who may be lacking such skills as mere technologists;
  • Learning was improved by the infectious inspiration of the professor, who taught not as a lecturer, but rather as a mentor to the students. The professor was not a “sage on the stage”;
  • Less important to the active learning of the students were the project technologies, as the students were already adept with the tools of the Web;
  • More important in the active cultural learning of the students were the projects, which were real to them and inspired reflections on the real world (Aronson & Laughter, 2015), which in turn stimulated their thinking (Paff, 2018). This will also be important to the learning process of those with disabilities, as more nimble students with disabilities join students without disabilities in institutions of higher learning (Snyder, 2018).
  • Not to be neglected was the pride and satisfaction of the students, and of those with disabilities, whose dreams were now a reality on the Web;
  • And projects with a neglected population, such as those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, were noted to increase performance satisfaction among undergraduate students, not only in response to the real results of the projects, but also in response to the reflection activities.

In brief, the community-based projects in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University are helping the active collaborative learning of students.  The “goodness of fit” (Goodhue, & Thompson, 1995) between the e-portfolios and the diversity projects are improving the learning of the undergraduate students.  The benefits of the lessons learned on the projects, in this broader model of liberal education (Salovey, 2018), will be helpful on other projects of public service.


The benefits of active learning can be realized through authentic collaborative learning on diversity projects. Designing and evaluating diversity learning projects is difficult, however, if the documentation of student experiences is not curated through learning management systems, such as e-portfolios.  The empathy and enthusiasm of an influential professor, who inspires the learning process instead of only lecturing students (Ward, 2018), is a further ingredient in involving them with a perceived problematic population, such as those with disabilities.  Higher-order skills of thinking are the eventual impacts of active, confident and enthusiastic learning (Kelley, & Kelley, 2013). Accordingly, community-based diversity projects are an effective means of active learning.


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Resources for Further Study

Eynon, B., & Gambino, L.M. (2017). High impact e-portfolio practice: A catalyst for student, faculty, and institutional learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Light, T.P., Chen, H.L., & Ittelson, J.C. (2012).  Documenting learning with e-portfolios: A guide for college instructors. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Reynolds, C., & Patton, J. (2014).  Leveraging the e-portfolio for integrative learning: A faculty guide to classroom practices for transforming student learning.  Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

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Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning