Technology has changed education. From online resources to course management, post-secondary education has been reshaped by the internet and computers. Among the many affected areas is critical reflection. McMaster University is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to address this.

In 2013, McMaster University created the Learning Portfolio. According to a 2013 Learning Portfolio Working Group report, the project aimed to “enhance the experience of undergraduate and graduate students at McMaster” by creating an online resource where students could track both academic and extracurricular experiences. Students would create online portfolios for themselves, documenting learning goals and reflecting on their experiences.

What has ensued in the four years since its creation are a series of changes and, more recently, a struggle between the university and the McMaster Students Union. The MSU has asked for the LP project to be discontinued, but the university continues to make changes to try to push the LP as an important tool for students.

How the LP came to be 

The LP idea is a “major… initiative arising from Forward With Integrity” which is a 2011 letter from Patrick Deane that outlines priorities for the university moving forward. The idea comes from a group called the Student Experience Task Force. A SETF document dated July 12, 2012 introduces the project as a way to capture the entire student learning experience, while encouraging mentorship and personal critical reflection. The LP is part of the Teaching and Learning branch of Forward With Integrity, along with the MacPherson Institute (formerly known as McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning).

“For a lot of us, it means connecting all the dots in the learning process, taking learning as a holistic entity; what’s happening in the class, in courses, across courses, co-curricular activities and professional volunteerism,” said Zafar Syed, associate director, educational technology at the MacPherson Institute.

“It’s a way of capturing and connecting all the various inputs that you’re getting and making meaning out of that.”

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The McMaster LP is a part of the larger higher education trend towards e-portfolios, an umbrella term referring to digital portfolios. E-portfolios have been a part of higher education academia since the early 2000s and education academics are optimistic about the tool’s ability to facilitate reflection and authentic learning experiences; ideas that are at the centre of McMaster’s goals for their own LP.

The LP launched in Sept. 2013. According to the press release, “[r]oughly 3,000 students, primarily in first year, [would] create portfolios as part of their course work.” The purpose of this was to introduce students to the tool, not to mandate its use, as research has shown that e-portfolios have to be student-driven to be successful. Syed says that many programs have introductory courses that use the LP.

Mixed Results

In the past four years, the project has used a number of different tactics to encourage student engagement with the tool. After two years of the LP being hosted by Desire2Learn, the same company that manages Avenue to Learn, the university adopted a different e-portfolio software: PebblePad.

“A number of people who started using [the Desire2Learn tool] had found that challenging. It wasn’t doing the kinds of things they were wanting to do with this process,” said Syed.

PebblePad is not without its own challenges. The Student Success Centre provides links to four sample learning portfolios. Within these samples, there are pictures that are cut off and pixelated, text that overlaps and garish backgrounds colours. The samples look like blogs rather than an academic tool.

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This sample portfolio was made in 2014, using the old software. It is still on the Student Success Centre's website as an example.


When asked about what measurables MacPherson uses to determine the success or effectiveness of the project, Syed said the nature of the LP makes that difficult.

They can track the number of users and number of uploads, but they do not know how much of the content is related to course requirements. There is no way for the university to track if students are using the LP after an introductory course.

“Some of that information is probably difficult to determine because the portfolio belongs to the individual. We can’t go in there and ask them ‘oh you created this thing, what it is for?’” said Syed.

Despite some hiccups, Syed is positive about the LP so far.

“If you’re going to measure it as have we achieved the goals that we put in front of us, I think, in some cases I would say yes. If the goal was to get more people exposed to and using this process, I think there’s been quite a bit of success.”

Good idea, poor execution 

MSU president Justin Monaco-Barnes paints a much grimmer picture.

Each year, the MSU makes recommendations to the university on funding. Monaco-Barnes says the MSU is recommending that the university cease to operate the LP, citing consultation with students and professors about the effectiveness of the program.

“There are profs who have told us that not only has it not improved the experience but it’s made the experience worse for students in the classes. It’s hindering some students’ learning experiences. These are signs to me that something needs to be addressed,” Monaco-Barnes said.

Conversations about the LP have been taking place throughout the past few years. A committee meets to discuss the project and how to move forward and improve the project. Monaco-Barnes and vice-president (Education) Blake Oliver sit on this committee, representing students, along with other university staff. Their experience has not been positive.

“Some of the feedback we provide doesn’t seem to fully translate into next steps, which can be frustrating at times for us, considering this program is meant for the students that we directly represent,” he said.

Artboard 1The president says the MSU agrees with the importance of the different issues that the LP tries to address, like critical reflection and mentorship. He believes that the LP lacks specific direction.

“There needs to be a target. Is it leadership, is it mentorship, is it reflection? The way it is now, it’s so convoluted that everyone has a different perception of what it is, it’s hard to make forward progression because everyone has this unique thing in their mind that we can’t agree upon,” said Monaco-Barnes.

At the heart of the issue for Monaco-Barnes is cost, and he has not received a clear answer on what the university is spending.

Evaluating the costs and effectiveness

Through a Freedom of Information and Protection and Privacy Act request, the Silhouette was able to obtain a variety of costs since the beginning of the project. To date, the university has spent $710,789.93 on the project. They are also currently paying for software they do not use, as they signed a contract with Desire2Learn and abandoned it in favour of PebblePad.


Determining a true cost of the learning portfolio project is difficult. The LP is housed under the MacPherson Institute, and according to the university, employees are not specifically tasked with working with the e-portfolio, therefore the labour costs are not available.

The university has developed pilot courses in an attempt to engage students with the LP. Two of these courses were Social Science and Humanities 2LP3, run in 2013 and 2015 respectively. The costs to develop and run these courses are unknown, and both courses ran for only one term.

McMaster has spent $135,000 over three years to fund “learning portfolio fellows”; professors who “developed research proposals that study the utility and effectiveness of the Learning Portfolio” according to a press release on Forward With Integrity’s website.

It is equally difficult to evaluate the project’s effectiveness because of the lack of both statistics available and goals for the LP. One original target has changed.

“There was talk initially that every student should have this and that it would be across the whole system. That’s a very high-level goal that requires resources and set up. I don’t think we’re there,” Syed said.

MacPherson and the MSU both rely on anecdotal evidence from students and professors to inform their stance on the project. It is unclear what the next steps for the project are, as one side says it can be effective because some students and professors have had positive experiences, while the other side claims the opposite.

A time for critical reflection

The current Board of Directors’s term is up, but the LP struggle will not end with their tenure. Monaco-Barnes says he will be discussing the LP with the incoming president, as addressing the project is a priority.

Artboard 1Syed says MacPherson will continue to work through “user-case examples” to find out what the next steps are.

But is ending the project a possibility? Given that the university’s belief in the Learning Portfolio stems from the university president’s vision letter, this seems unlikely. Abandoning the project without an alternative means the university would leave behind a stated goal of their president.

The university will continue to foot the bill for a project whose legitimacy has failed to be proven in four years of existence.

The Student Experience Task Force met weekly in the winter of 2011.

The committee of professors was told to dream big to enhance the student experience at McMaster. They envisioned a course that all McMaster students would take, emphasizing co-curricular learning through a supportive network of mentors.

They suggested calling this the learning “passport” or “portfolio”.

But when McMaster officially launched the Learning Portfolio in September 2013, it manifested very differently, as an online tool that has received a lukewarm reception from students and faculty.

The learning portfolio was developed with good intentions, but why hasn’t the funding input been matched by enthusiasm amongst students or professors?

What is the Learning Portfolio?

If you’ve been on campus over the past two years it’s hard to miss the Learning Portfolio.

It was launched with great fanfare. Then came a boot camp to teach educators how to use it. After that it took centre stage at a showcase. Now, six learning portfolio fellows a year will receive up to $9,500 each to champion it and research its effectiveness.

The Learning Portfolio is a virtual tool, hosted on Avenue to Learn and designed to stimulate reflection. The Portfolio aims to help students connect the bigger picture of what they gain from their degree through web pages with multimedia and text reflections.

“The portfolio is an opportunity to provide students with an additional tool... to integrate the learning that happens inside the classroom with the learning that takes place outside the classroom,” said David Wilkinson, McMaster’s provost.

The platform also has the support of some key student leaders on campus. They see reflection as an important skill that students otherwise miss out on at university.

“What we really value is the skills, the things that the students will be able to learn through the use of the Learning Portfolio,” said Rodrigo Narro Perez, MSU VP (Education).

From passport to portfolio?

The original idea for the Learning Portfolio, according to the Student Experience Task Force report, was to develop a learning portfolio or passport as a strategy to recognize and facilitate student learning in both curricular and co-curricular environments.

The original proposal recommends one of the key objectives of the passport would be to credit students for their activities and learning outside the classroom.

The task force recommended the creation of a course that all students would take. They also recommended that a committee involving faculty and students should together establish what activities would be credited on the passport, and what would be sufficient for course credit.

However, the current manifestation of the Learning Portfolio on campus has deviated more towards the purpose of inspiring reflection. Although a key part of this is still to engage students in extracurricular learning, students do not receive credit for the extracurricular involvement, unless it is somehow integrated into a course curriculum.

A limited uptake

Over the past two years the University has spent $530,000 on the Learning Portfolio. This sum includes salaries for dedicated personnel, events, communication and training materials, research projects and fellowships.

In September 2014, over 3,400 McMaster students used the Learning Portfolio.

But the majority of students have failed to embrace this tool, arguing that it is redundant with other platforms for reflection and job application processes.

According to a poll hosted on Avenue to Learn of 2,407 respondents, 69 percent had not used the Learning Portfolio. The Silhouette solicited feedback through an online survey on the Learning Portfolio.

One survey respondent said, “I also don’t think the average employer is interested in seeing these — there’s a reason résumés are supposed to be one to two pages in length, so I don’t think Learning Portfolios provide that extra edge in getting hired.”

But the Learning Portfolio is not designed to replace these traditional means of reflections, or applying for work, but rather provide a supplementary venue for students who don’t currently reflect.

“And where it is redundant and [reflection is] already happening in different ways, then that’s fine, the intent is not to duplicate that,” said Wilkinson.

The amount of students using the Learning Portfolio will likely increase as the tool becomes a mandatory method of assessment in some courses.

In some cases this manifests as a graded reflection uploaded to a Learning Portfolio site or course goals. Some students who responded to The Silhouette’s survey expressed frustration that class time was spent on how to use this tool.

“We should not have to spend class/tutorial time learning about this tool, where this time could be used to actually learn the material on the courses,” said one McMaster student.

Some professors seem to be equally disapproving of the Learning Portfolio as one survey respondent said “[I] noticed in some faculty specific forums (ie. Learnlink threads) that instructors are actually openly disapproving [the Learning Portfolio] and suggesting alternate, external platforms for reflection ie. Evernote.”

Despite this negative feedback, the University Affairs Commissioner thinks students have yet to learn how to properly use it.

“I think it’s important to also note that these learning technologies are very new and the only way that we’re going to get feedback whether or not it’s useful to students is through widespread promotion and awareness,” said Alan Rheaume, the MSU University Affairs commissioner.

Narro Perez is also a proponent of the tool, and has been involved with the Learning Portfolio since before it was launched.

“In terms of the Learning Portfolio I do see your point, that there seems to be a push, but not everyone’s going to be using it,” said Narro Perez. “It’s like saying exams suck. We all do it and we see the benefits after.”

Should McMaster consider a different model?

Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia created a tool called the “Co-curricular Record”. Their  tool inspires reflection, but also creates a system to verify and legitimize students’ extracurricular involvement.

“It’s a document that acknowledges both academic and non-academic experiences. The document is an official transcript essentially, that is signed by the University President, Vice-President of Student Affairs and myself,” explained Chris Glover, the Associate Director of the Career & Leadership Development Centre at Dalhousie.

Reflection is not a primary purpose, but rather one component of a tool that aims to legitimize the extracurricular involvements of students.

The Co-Curricular Record is open to both undergraduates and graduate students.

Dalhousie was able to implement the Co-Curricular Record thanks to a gift to the university, so the costs to operate the program do not influence the operating cost of the university or students’ tuition.

One of the reasons Dalhousie created this tool was to address demands of employers to be able to verify the extracurricular activities of students.

So the Co-Curricular Record contains a code that employers can submit to a Dalhousie website that will then verify the activities.

In fact, the Co-Curricular model, which affirms activities while also promoting reflecting, has been adopted by many institutions including Western, Waterloo and McGill.

These are just a few of the options McMaster may wish to consider adding to the Learning Portfolio, to make it more relevant for students. However, it remains unclear whether Desire2Learn (the provider of Avenue to Learn) owns the content students add to their portfolios. If this is the case, there is some possibility that it would affect McMaster’s negotiations and with Desire2Learn and their likelihood to change platforms when the contract with D2L expires.

The future of the learning portfolio

An important component of integrating technology at the university is objectively evaluating its impact.

Although this is difficult to do, the team behind the Learning Portfolio has worked hard to ensure there is ample opportunity for feedback to be incorporated and for evidence to be collected.

The University Affairs committee has been working closely with the developers to make improvements.

But more students and faculty will need to be convinced if the Learning Portfolio is to be a success.

“The idea behind it is great; I think it makes total sense that McMaster would invest money in something like this in an attempt to better market their students,” said another McMaster survey respondent. “But realistically they platform they’ve created is clunky, slow, and horrible to work with. They’d do much better if they partnered with some kind of preexisting platform, rather than Avenue.”

McMaster has taken a different direction from what was originally recommended by the Student Experience Task Force. But it is perhaps worth reassessing whether this direction is worth sticking to.

A day that celebrated the achievements of Forward with Integrity initiatives left the overall state of the academy largely undefined.

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David Wilkinson, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), gave his State of the Academy address on Oct. 10 after presentations and receptions of various Forward with Integrity had taken place throughout the day.

"Forward with Integrity," an open letter by McMaster President Patrick Deane in 2011 was turned into an initiative allowing students to apply for funding to complete projects that would make Deane's vision a reality. 78 projects have been funded since, including the Learning Portfolio on Avenue and a psychology project studying how people can be perceived differently when conducting job interviews over Skype.

Beginning at 11:30a.m., presentations of numerous FWI projects filled the schedule at CIBC Hall, leading up to the State of the Academy. Wilkinson called his own address “window dressing” to a day of celebration.

“We decided this year’s State of the Academy Address, as it was originally called, to turn it into a whole day event of celebration,” said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson’s address, to a room filled with faculty and staff, highlighted academic research issues and remained vague regarding the overall state of McMaster University.

The Provost highlighted a few FWI projects with positive fanfare and video presentations. The Learning Portfolio received strong attention and was touted as a growing success.

“It really is an opportunity for students to integrate their learning into one place,” said Wilkinson.

With the address, Wilkinson said that he hoped to develop an identity for McMaster as both a research-intensive and student-centred school.

“Strong linkage between student centered-ness and research focus is really how we intend to define ourselves as an institution," Wilkinson said.

When it came to more technical matters, Wilkinson left a few questions unanswered.

He chose not to speak to the school’s budget in his address, instead referring the audience to the University Factbook for details.

“The State of the Academy can be all about budgets and numbers. I didn't want to do that last year and I’m not going to do it this year either. So we won’t talk a lot of budgetary situations,” said Wilkinson.

“The University Factbook…was released a couple days ago. It has an update of all of the numbers.” The document is available on the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis website.

Wilkinson was also vague with when it came the Ontario government’s push to have post-secondary institutions specialize further.

On the matter, he said “The government pays the freight, and when they want to change something, we have to pay attention to that.”

Wilkinson explained that McMaster will have to negotiate with the provincial government over the course of this academic year.

He was relatively unclear in what the school will be doing to prepare for this, saying, “One of the key things for us to do as an institution is to get our ducks in order and be prepared to state how we wish to be seen as a differentiated organization compared to other universities in the province.”

“I think, actually, we’re in pretty good shape to develop that process.”

With regards to McMaster’s internationalization, Wilkinson said, “This is the one area of Forward with Integrity that hasn't received the attention it deserves.”


Christy Chan
The Silhouette

McMaster has officially launched the Learning Portfolio in an effort to enrich the education experience beyond grades and exams. The Learning Portfolio, available through Avenue to Learn, is an online tool designed to allow students to plan, record, and reflect on the valuable experiences they encounter throughout postsecondary education.

The initiative is a key priority outlined in Forward with Integrity, an open letter written by McMaster President Patrick Deane regarding the priorities best suited for the development of the University.

Technology has become a crucial part of the student experience. The Learning Portfolio is yet another way to enhance student learning and critical thinking through an online platform. For instance,

users are able to include numerous forms of media in their Learning Portfolios, ranging from audio files and graphics, to presentations and documents.

Dr. Beth Marquis, professor in the Arts & Science program, serves as the Arts & Science program contact at Learning Portfolio focused meetings of Associate Deans from across campus.

“The Learning Portfolio, to me, is a tool that can encourage students to reflect on and synthesize their curricular and co-curricular learning experiences at university,” she said.

Marquis further explained: "It provides students with a context to make explicit their individual learning goals, to connect these to the learning experiences they have inside and outside of class, and to collect evidence of the extent to which they meet their objectives."

This academic year, students can expect to see the introduction of the Learning Portfolio in 20 courses.

Dr. Laura Harrington is the project director for Forward with Integrity, and she believes the Learning Portfolio will become even more integrated.

"There are several instructors that are using the tool this academic year, and we expect this to grow over time.  We’ve looked at how other institutions are using similar tools within courses to draw some ideas from the experts, and we are also looking to find new, innovative uses within courses at McMaster," she said.

This tool can also be used outside of the educational world.

“On a more practical level, this documentation of the learning process can also provide valuable material to give to potential employers, to faculty writing letters of reference for grad school applications, etc.,” said Dr. Marquis.

There are online training tools available on Avenue to Learn along with workshops that can be attended through getting in touch with the Student Success Centre or Institute for Teaching and Learning.

The annual State of the Academy address is meant to be an opportunity for the Provost’s office to share information with the rest of the university on the school’s progress over the year. But this time, it was supposed to be different.

The 2012 State of the Academy was promoted for its “new format,” a conversation between university administrators and the greater campus community, rather than a speech. According to current Provost David Wilkinson, it was meant to “engage [McMaster] in a cross-campus dialogue.”

Convocation Hall, equipped with two audience microphones, reflected this change. Wilkinson and university president Patrick Deane, who joined him for the presentation, were seated comfortably in armchairs at the front of the room.

In elaborating on talking points offered by moderator Gord Arbeau, Director of Public and Community Relations, the two administrators made it clear that their impression of McMaster’s current situation was positive.

“When you look at the [McMaster University Factbook], what it would show you is that…as an institution we’re doing very well in difficult times,” said Wilkinson.

“There are lots of great things going on, lots of challenges, but the future really looks rosy at McMaster.”

Although a variety of topics were offered for discussion, the speeches from both Deane and Wilkinson circled back to “Forward with Integrity,” the president’s 2011 letter that offered a set of guiding principles for McMaster as it moves forward.

The emphasis of the presentation, in conjunction with “Forward with Integrity,” was to “rephrase” the goals of McMaster, and to reemphasize the “research-focused, student-centred” nature of Mac.

“We’re at a phase in laying out our sense of the institution’s future in which we need to build on what has been strong historically here and that very close connection between teaching and research, which is part of the Mac culture [and] has been since the beginning,” Deane explained. The president was intent on underlining McMaster’s reputation, reaffirming that “we are an institution devoted to learning through inquiry and discovery.” He encouraged students and faculty to “bring...[the] power of the critical and inquiring mind.”

It was broader ideas like these that made up the bulk of the presentation.

In addition to the university’s culture, Deane and Wilkinson also touched on such initiatives as the “learning portfolio,” a new emphasis on experiential education that was encouraged by “Forward with Integrity.”

“[We want] students [to] actually have a portfolio of experiences that extends beyond what shows up on their transcripts,” said Wilkinson.

The most controversial topic of discussion was the internationalization of McMaster, something the president has admitted to not always being comfortable with.

“I am very much averse to what I regard as an exploitative model of higher internationalized higher education,” Deane said, elaborating further to say that he is “not persuaded, either in terms of the long-term benefits or the ethical compulsions of this model which basically sees the world as a market to be drawn on to subsidize our current operations.”

International students now make up roughly five per cent of McMaster’s student body. The recruitment of these students is seen by many universities to be an economic benefit because of the hefty additional fees they pay. Deane emphasized that true internationalization would involve “being changed by the students who are invited to come here.”

It seemed that the audience, made up primarily of faculty and staff, with only a small representation of students, was not moved by this, or any other topics. When the floor was opened to questions, no one in the audience stepped up. Despite the insistence on dialogue, the new townhall format did not result in the high amount of audience participation that was initially envisioned.

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