You are Facebook’s product, not customer

You are Facebook’s product, not customer

Do you prefer organic food? Did you study in Mexico? Do you like red shoes? Such bits of information about Facebook users may seem insignificant in isolation but, once harvested on a grand scale, make the internet giant billions.

If you’re not paying, you’re the product

Newbies signing up for Facebook are greeted with the promise that the social network is “free, and always will be”.

But if users don’t pay, then how does Facebook generate its massive profits, nearly $16 billion in 2017, up 56 percent from 2016? The answer is: via advertising, which at the last count made up a whopping 98.5 percent of the company’s total revenue.

Facebook puts into practice what marketing specialists have long summed up in the slogan: “If you’re not paying, you’re the product.”

The “product”, in this case, is all the personal data that users hand over to Facebook every time they react to a post by clicking “like”, add an emoji, post something themselves, or launch a search on the site.

Data, that treasure trove

This mass of information is invaluable for online advertisers because they can use it to “target” people with messages that are more likely to get their attention because many of their tastes are already known.

This is a big selling point for Facebook, which gives advertisers detailed instructions on how to identify and target their preferred group.

“Find people based on traits such as age, gender, relationship status, education, workplace, job titles and more,” is one approach suggested by the company. “Find people based on what they’re into, such as hobbies, favourite entertainment and more”, is another.

“Two billion people use Facebook every month. With our powerful audience selection tools, you can target the people who are right for your business,” Facebook says.

It’s all legal

Facebook’s business model is perfectly legal: The network does not itself market any of the data, but instead sells access to the data to third parties, which often don’t read or respect the terms and conditions of use.

This can lead to allegations of data breaches. The Cambridge Analytica firm is accused of misusing data of 50 million Facebook users for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, in violation of Facebook’s policies.

Facebook also only uses what users freely divulge about themselves.

“Facebook does not look for anything beyond what you yourself have put on the web, and that’s the user’s responsibility,” said Gaspard Koenig, head of GenerationLibre, a French think tank. “But it’s all done in a way that people can’t change those terms of use,” he said.

Facebook does allow users to restrict advertisers’ access to their personal data in the Settings page of their account. This will not remove all ads, just the ones specifically targeted at them.

Worried about privacy?

Use for your business and be assured your private data is not sold to third parties

How to Cultivate Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride on Your Team

How to Cultivate Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride on Your Team

As a leader, what traits should you cultivate in your employees? Grit – the ability to persevere in the face of challenges? Sure. A willingness to accept some sacrifices and work hard toward a successful future are essential for the members of any team. But I believe there’s another component that matters just as much: grace. I don’t mean the ability to move elegantly or anything religious. Rather, I mean qualities of decency, respect, and generosity, all of which mark a person as someone with whom others want to cooperate.

Consider the results of Google’s Project Oxygen, a multiyear research initiative designed to identify the manager qualities that enhanced a team’s success. What they found is that yes, driving a team to be productive and results-oriented mattered, but so did being even-keeled, making times for one-on-one meetings, working with a team in the trenches to solve problems, and taking an interest in employees’ social lives. In fact, these “character” qualities outranked sheer drive and technical expertise when it came to predicting success.

This makes sense. Innovation typically requires team effort. Expertise has to be combined to solve problems, necessitating cooperation. And cooperation requires a willingness to share credit and support one another as opposed to always striving to take credit for oneself.

So as a manager, what’s the best way to instill grit and grace in your team? My research shows that it’s about cultivating three specific emotions: gratitude, compassion, and pride.

These three emotions not only increase patience and perseverance, but also build social bonds. For most of human evolutionary history, the ability to succeed rested almost entirely on the ability to form relationships. People needed to be honest, fair, and diligent — qualities that required a willingness to inhibit selfish desires to profit at the expense of others. And it was moral emotions like gratitude, compassion, and an authentic pride that motivated these actions. For example, research has shown that when people feel grateful, they’re willing to devote more effort to help others, to be loyal even at a cost to themselves, and to split profits equally with partners rather than take more money for themselves. When they feel compassion, they’re willing to devote time, effort, and money to aid others. And when they feel proud – an authentic pride based on their abilities as opposed to a hubristic one – they’ll work harder to help colleagues solve problems. And all of these behaviors draw others to us. People who express gratitude, compassion, and pride are viewed positively by those around them.

These emotions also build grit. They increase the value people place on future goals relative to present ones, and thereby pave the way to perseverance. Work from my lab, for example, shows that people induced to feel grateful show double the patience when it comes to financial rewards. They’re twice as willing to forgo an immediate smaller profit so that they can invest it for a longer-term gain. In a similar vein, people made to feel prideor compassionare willing to persevere more than 30% longer on challenging tasks compared to those feeling other positive emotions, such as happiness, precisely because pride and compassion induce them to place greater value on future reward

Unlike using willpower to keep your nose to the grindstone, using these emotions also helps solve an increasingly common problem of professional life: loneliness. Today, loneliness has become an epidemicin the U.S., with 53% of American workers regularly reporting feeling isolated in their public lives—an immense problem given the toll loneliness takeson the both physical and mental health. Regularly feeling gratitude, compassion, and pride—because these emotions automatically make people behave in more communal and supportive ways—builds social connections. For example, people assigned to engage in simple interventions to feel and express gratitude show enhanced feelings of social connectionand relationship satisfactionover time.

Because of the connection between these emotions and grit and social connection, managers who cultivate gratitude, compassion, and pride in their team will see increased productivity and wellbeing of their workers. As one example, Adam Grant and Francesca Gino examined perseverance in an environment that is rife with more rejection than almost any other: fundraising. Over a two-week period, they recorded the number of calls fundraisers made in an effort to solicit donations for a university. Between the first and second week, however, half of the fundraisers received a visit from the university’s director of annual giving, during which she expressed her appreciation for their work. To get a sense of how this expression of gratitude affected the fundraisers, Gino and Grant had them report how valued and appreciated they felt by their superiors.

Whereas the average performance of both groups had been virtually the same during the first week of the study, those who had heard the grateful message upped their fundraising efforts by 50% during the second week. What’s particularly interesting here is the way the benefits of gratitude and pride can feed off one another. In another study on fundraisers, Grant and Amy Wrzesniewski found that the gratitude managers expressed toward their employees stoked the employees’ pride, which in turn, bolstered their efforts.

Compassion, too, builds dedication. Surveying over 200 people working in different units within a large long-term care facility, Sigal Barsade and Mandy O’Neil found that those who worked in units characterized by higher feelings of social attachment, trust, acceptance, and support—a composite that could easily be called empathy and compassion—not only showed superior performance and engagement, but also increased work satisfaction, less exhaustion, and lower absenteeism.

Gratitude, compassion, and pride make us more willing to cooperate with and invest in others. But because they accomplish this feat by increasing the value the mind places on future gains, they also nudge us to invest in our own futures. In so doing, they make both teams, and the individuals who comprise them, more successful and resilient.

The Importance of Employee Engagement

The Importance of Employee Engagement

What some might argue is a never-ending cycle, understanding the importance of employee engagement still reigns true even in 2017. Increasing engagement should never go away and always be a priority for organizations seeking success. But with so much on the line, new generations entering the workforce and demands changing–what does it take for your organization to stay in the know with employee engagement?

According to a recent Human Resources Today article on engagement trends, the notion of unlimited soda and ping pong tables in the workforce has become a tired bonus for young employees.

We broke down this article into sections so feel free to click on a jump link below:

If you would’ve looked at any employee engagement report a half-decade ago, you might’ve considered investing in ping pong tables.

However, HR Today says younger employees desire better mentoring and collaboration opportunities. And more likely than not, your business is willing to provide these opportunities if you knew they’d work. This is why valuing employee engagement is as important to your organization as ever.

Employee Engagement Is More Than Happy Workers

The importance of employee engagement goes beyond happy workers and good benefits. Instead, you should practice this across all facets of your organization from top to bottom. Senior-level staff play just as critical of a role as your newest hire straight out of college.

In a study from Harvard Business Review, less than a quarter of businesses believe their employees are highly engaged within the organization. That number is even more astonishing when you realize a Gallup poll found the percentage of engaged employees was at 32% in 2015 and 31.5% in 2014.

The trend of low employee engagement has existed for years. The same Gallup poll noted the percentage of engaged employees has remained under 33% since they began tracking the metric 15 years ago.

This shouldn’t scare your organization away from attempting to increase engagement. In fact, it’s absolutely critical to know what an unenthusiastic and uninspired workforce can do for your organization.

The Negatives of an Unengaged Workforce

For years, HR professionals have understood the importance of employee engagement. When workers are engaged, productivity rises and daily performance increases across the board. Creating a great workplace culture can positively reflect on employee behavior while shaping the future of your overall organization.

However, if you don’t address the importance of employee engagement, you can fall to the negatives, which include:

  • Poor Decision Making: Unengaged employees tend to have poor outlooks on the company. In a nutshell, this immediately affects decision making processes. While not everyone loves making decisions, an unmotivated environment drives little participation.
  • No Focus or Drive: Participation is key to employee engagement and when people are comfortable, they’re more likely to produce out-of-the-box ideas. Positive motivation helps people focus as their care for the organization grows.
  • Extra Training: Organizations with lackluster employee engagement strategies often spend more time on training. Unmotivated employees need more time to digest things they don’t care about. If there’s no insight into the end goal of your business, workers will cut corners, costing you money.
  • Over Hiring: Just as poor engagement increases training time, it also makes businesses over hire. Motivated, free-thinking and engaged employees are willing to work outside of silos and help the team as a whole. This creates less need for bigger staffs in segmented departments.
  • ROI of Employees Decreases: Unmotivated and hesitant employees don’t provide you with moon-shot ideas or have the desire to show you what they can do and what their work is worth. This means over hiring, additional training and higher salary spend to get workers into your stale work environment.

Breaking Your Common Employee Engagement Myths

Before we dive too deep into how to improve your employee engagement, let’s go over a few myths first. Employee engagement myths are as common as celebrity gossip. Rumors about whether engagement can be earned through trust or a higher paycheck are all too common.

However, we’re here to debunk a few common myths you might come across:

1. Higher Pay Means More Loyal Employees

A common myth is higher pay always equals more engaged employees, but this is simply not true. Even the most loyal employees are willing to listen to other offers from other companies if the job provides more personalized benefits to the worker.

In fact, an Adobe 2016 report found 47% of US workers would leave their current position for a more ideal job that pays less. Just because you pay your workers more doesn’t mean they’re more loyal or engaged.

Your organization must find the appropriate middle ground of paying workers for a job well done or extra effort tasks. This means instead of offering higher wages simply to attract employees, find out the benefits your employees would want besides salary.

2. Your Organization Can’t Reach Everyone

Sadly you’re never going to be able to make every employee happy. No matter how well you roll out your benefits, company perks and opportunities to grow, there’s always going to be room to improve.

In today’s job market, people are constantly changing their future end goal. Research from a Cornerstone study discovered 42% of employees plan to see up to three careers in their worklife. That means there will be new industries, trades and markets to learn and grow in.

Don’t hold on to employees for dear life because careers can change. It’s better to focus on making your organization stand out in the industry for being helpful to those who stay three months or three years.

3. Hands-on Management Hurts Engagement

Hiring managers and team leaders are often in a battle on whether or not to be overly hands on. Many people believe hands-on management actually prevents workers from being fully engaged and happy. However, this is just not true.

Certain hands-on management can help employee performance by constantly providing an avenue to succeed. For those who prefer siloed and independent management tactics, you run the risk of isolating and ignoring your employees.

While some people might say they prefer to work solo, management needs to know what will help keep workers connected so their top concerns don’t go ignored.

How Your Business Can Better Engage Employees

Improving employee engagement can seem tedious or even impossible to some businesses. But every organization should know that investing in growth and reducing unnecessary expenditure improves overall business.

Far too often, companies cautiously step around ways to further engage, which stunts a consistent growth pattern. Instead, follow these tips to improve employee engagement within your organization:

Focus on Growth & Employee Recognition

Employee engagement has to start on day one for it to be effective down the road. Growth is one of the most essential aspects to businesses and starting early will only help. In fact, a Harvard Business Review reportsurveyed businesses on their biggest focuses for the organization currently compared to three years prior.

harvard business review graph on growth

Data showed that investing in growth had the highest uptick from the previous three years from 16% to 24% of organizations saying it’s their primary goal. Effectively focusing on growth means businesses must work from the top down.

HBR graph on executive engagement

This means your executives down to the entry-level positions must be on the same page. The same Harvard Business Review report found executive-level employees were 11% more engaged than senior-level management and 14% higher than everyone else in the company.

It should come to no surprise that executive staffs are more engaged, but the silver lining is employee recognition. Organizations have to successfully communicate and promote employee recognition within the workforce.

Whether it’s recognition for a completed project or taking initiative on a new one, positive reinforcement across the company is critical.

Transparency & Visibility

Begin from the top. Transparency within the organization is a major benefactor for employees. As you can imagine, trust plays an important role between management and staff. A SHRM 2015 Job Satisfaction and Engagement survey discovered 64% of employees ranked trust between management as a necessity between workers.

shrm trust in managers graph

The survey also found 75% of employees believe their importance to the organization is the main source of their dedication to the company. This should be a siren for management to invest in company visibility, whether it’s newsletters, social media or frequent organizational updates.

Maintaining visibility within the organization and explaining the importance of your staff (in detail) helps improve employee engagement.

Hold Managers Accountable for Engagement

Your managers are in the trenches every day with your employees. While engagement efforts have to be parallel across the organization, you need to rely on your managers to keep employees happy.

Employees feel comfortable and have a better road for success when they trust the leaders of the organization and their senior leadership. Again, trust in management is one of the most essential aspects to respecting and providing career path outlooks for your employees.

According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, employees are 67% more engaged when cooperative management is in place. If you hold your managers accountable for engagement, they’ll have a better pulse and oversight on the staff.

Describe Success Without the Jargon

Like we mentioned before, clear goals are necessary to see true employee engagement. However, your goals shouldn’t just be related to yearly success. Instead, make goals based on day-to-day experiences.

This will build commitment within your staff to shine and prosper each day. When employees know that all the little things throughout the day can make a difference (and more importantly, will be noticed), the commitment level rises.

Also, try to leave out the complicated jargon of your employee goals. The clearer your goals and expectations, the more likely they’ll be done. Don’t give your employees an excuse to miss deadlines or more errors. Easy-to-understand actions and goals will help promote success.

Provide Effective Employee Engagement Tools

Business leaders have to invest in the right employee advocacy tools and training methods. This helps reduce turnover, save money on training and keep the company engaged. With employee engagement tools like Bambu, you can easily update employees on critical things like:

  • Company objectives/missions
  • Employee guidelines
  • Corporate documents
  • Job openings
  • Benefits updates
  • Wages information

The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

The Stages of Learning: How You Slowly Become More Competent at New Skills

When you learn a new skill, the beginning tends to be the most frustrating part. Often, you’re not sure what you should be doing exactly, or how you should be doing it. This applies to everything from starting a new sport, to trying to speak a foreign language.

Luckily, the process of becoming better at new skills is relatively predictable, and can be broken down into different stages. Once you understand how it works, you will understand why the beginning is hard, and you will be able to identify your ‘position’ in the learning process. Overall, this will make you more aware of your abilities and more conscious of your learning, which will help you learn new skills better and with more motivation.

The levels of competence

  • Unconscious incompetence- in the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re not entirely aware of what the new skill entails or what your goals should be. You make mistakes without realizing that you’re making them.
  • Conscious incompetence- at this stage, you know you’re still making a lot of mistakes, but you’re now at least aware that you’re making them. You still don’t know a lot, but you can recognize what you need to learn in order to improve.
  • Conscious competence- if you’re at this level, it means that you’re relatively proficient in the skill, so that you have a good understanding of it, and you make only a small amount of mistakes. However, performing at a high level still requires a significant effort on your part.
  • Unconscious competence- at this point, you are so well-practiced in the skill that you can perform at a high level with relatively little effort. For you, the necessary actions are now mostly instinctual and automatic.

These stages are often mentioned in discussions of learning theorySome researchers also propose a fifth stage, called “unconscious supercompetence”, which is similar to “unconscious competence”, but at a higher and more effortless level. However, because this stage is less clearly defined, it is less commonly referenced in literature. In reality, whether or not this distinction exists isn’t truly crucial, since it only matters if you’re at the highest level of proficiency anyway.

Historical note: this theory is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, who also developed the hierarchy of needs. However, it’s not clear whether the theory actually originated with him, and there are disputes regarding who came up with it first. It’s entirely possible that this is because several people came up with similar conceptualizations of the model independently from one another. In any case, this doesn’t matter too much, as it doesn’t have any effect on how the theory is applied today.


Applying this in your learning

This framework is not intended as an absolute, 100% accurate psychological model. Instead,  it’s meant to give you a rough idea of the stages of competence that you will go through as you learn new skills. Use it to recognize where you are in the learning process, and how you’re advancing.

Keep in mind that you are likely going to fluctuate between the different levels, or have certain subsets of the skill at one level, while other subsets will be at different level. For example, if you’re learning a new language, it’s possible that your reading will be at a higher level than your writing, or that you’ll be better at understanding what other people say than at speaking yourself.

The main takeaway is this: feeling that you have no idea what you’re doing in the beginning is perfectly fine. When you eventually start realizing that you’re making tons of mistakes, that’s not a bad thing either. Instead, these are both predictable and necessary stages of learning, that you go through as you slowly improve.


Summary and conclusions

  • When learning a new skill, you advance through several stages of competence.
  • You will start at unconscious incompetence, advance to conscious incompetence, followed by conscious competence, and finally unconscious competence.
  • Your abilities might fluctuate a bit as you learn, and it’s natural for different subskills to be at different levels.
  • If you’re feeling helpless when you start learning a new skills, don’t worry; it’s a natural part of the learning process.



Developing a Competency Framework

Developing a Competency Framework

The question is: How do you define the skills, behaviors, and attitudes that workers need to perform their roles effectively? How do you know they’re qualified for the job? In other words, how do you know what to measure?

Some people think formal education is a reliable measure. Others believe more in on-the-job training, and years of experience. Still others might argue that personal characteristics hold the key to effective work behavior.

All of these are important, but none seems sufficient to describe an ideal set of behaviors and traits needed for any particular role. Nor do they guarantee that individuals will perform to the standards and levels required by the organization.

A more complete way of approaching this is to link individual performance to the goals of the business. To do this, many companies use ‘competencies.’ These are the integrated knowledge, skills, judgment, and attributes that people need to perform a job effectively. By having a defined set of competencies for each role in your business, it shows workers the kind of behaviors the organization values, and which it requires to help achieve its objectives. Not only can your team members work more effectively and achieve their potential, but there are many business benefits to be had from linking personal performance with corporate goals and values.

Defining which competencies are necessary for success in your organization can help you do the following:

  • Ensure that your people demonstrate sufficient expertise.
  • Recruit and select new staff more effectively.
  • Evaluate performance more effectively.
  • Identify skill and competency gaps more efficiently.
  • Provide more customized training and professional development.
  • Plan sufficiently for succession.
  • Make change management processes work more efficiently.

How can you define the set of practices needed for effective performance? You can do this by adding a competency framework to your talent management program. By collecting and combining competency information, you can create a standardized approach to performance that’s clear and accessible to everyone in the company. The framework outlines specifically what people need to do to be effective in their roles, and it clearly establishes how their roles relate to organizational goals and success.

Design Principles of a Competency Framework

A competency framework defines the knowledge, skills, and attributes needed for people within an organization. Each individual role will have its own set of competencies needed to perform the job effectively. To develop this framework, you need to have an in-depth understanding of the roles within your business. To do this, you can take a few different approaches:

  • Use a pre-set list of common, standard competencies, and then customize it to the specific needs of your organization.
  • Use outside consultants to develop the framework for you.
  • Create a general organizational framework, and use it as the basis for other frameworks as needed.

Developing a competency framework can take considerable effort. To make sure the framework is actually used as needed, it’s important to make it relevant to the people who’ll be using it – and so they can take ownership of it.

The following three principles are critical when designing a competency framework:

  1. Involve the people doing the work – These frameworks should not be developed solely by HR people, who don’t always know what each job actually involves. Nor should they be left to managers, who don’t always understand exactly what each member of their staff does every day. To understand a role fully, you have to go to the source – the person doing the job – as well as getting a variety of other inputs into what makes someone successful in that job.
  2. Communicate – People tend to get nervous about performance issues. Let them know why you’re developing the framework, how it will be created, and how you’ll use it. The more you communicate in advance, the easier your implementation will be.
  3. Use relevant competencies – Ensure that the competencies you include apply to all roles covered by the framework. If you include irrelevant competencies, people will probably have a hard time relating to the framework in general. For example, if you created a framework to cover the whole organization, then financial management would not be included unless every worker had to demonstrate that skill. However, a framework covering management roles would almost certainly involve the financial management competency.

Developing the Framework

There are four main steps in the competency framework development process. Each steps has key actions that will encourage people to accept and use the final product.

Step One: Prepare

  • Define the purpose – Before you start analyzing jobs, and figuring out what each role needs for success, make sure you look at the purpose for creating the framework. How you plan to use it will impact whom you involve in preparing it, and how you determine its scope. For example, a framework for filling a job vacancy will be very specific, whereas a framework for evaluating compensation will need to cover a wide range of roles.
  • Create a competency framework team – Include people from all areas of your business that will use the framework. Where possible, aim to represent the diversity of your organization. It’s also important to think about long-term needs, so that you can keep the framework updated and relevant.

Step Two: Collect Information

This is the main part of the framework. Generally, the better the data you collect, the more accurate your framework will be. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider which techniques you’ll use to collect information about the roles, and the work involved in each one. You may want to use the following:

  • Observe – Watch people while they’re performing their roles. This is especially useful for jobs that involve hands-on labor that you can physically observe.
  • Interview people – Talk to every person individually, choose a sample of people to interview, or conduct a group interview. You may also want to interview the supervisor of the job you’re assessing. This helps you learn what a wide variety of people believe is needed for the role’s success.
  • Create a questionnaire – A survey is an efficient way to gather data. Spend time making sure you ask the right questions, and consider the issues of reliability and validity. If you prefer, there are standardized job analysis questionnaires you can buy, rather than attempting to create your own.
  • Analyze the work – Which behaviors are used to perform the jobs covered by the framework? You may want to consider the following:
    • Business plans, strategies, and objectives.
    • Organizational principles.
    • Job descriptions.
    • Regulatory or other compliance issues.
    • Predictions for the future of the organization or industry.
    • Customer and supplier requirements.

    Job analysis that includes a variety of techniques and considerations will give you the most comprehensive and accurate results. If you create a framework for the entire organization, make sure you use a sample of roles from across the company. This will help you capture the widest range of competencies that are still relevant to the whole business.

  • As you gather information about each role, record what you learn in separate behavioral statements. For example, if you learn that Paul from accounting is involved in bookkeeping, you might break that down into these behavioral statements: handles petty cash, maintains floats, pays vendors according to policy, and analyzes cash books each month. You might find that other roles also have similar tasks – and therefore bookkeeping will be a competency within that framework.
  • When you move on to Step Three, you’ll be organizing the information into larger competencies, so it helps if you can analyze and group your raw data effectively.

Step Three: Build the Framework

This stage involves grouping all of the behaviors and skill sets into competencies. Follow these steps to help you with this task:

  • Group the statements – Ask your team members to read through the behavior statements, and group them into piles. The goal is to have three or four piles at first – for instance, manual skills, decision-making and judgment skills, and interpersonal skills.
  • Create subgroups – Break down each of the larger piles into subcategories of related behaviors. Typically, there will be three or four subgroupings for each larger category. This provides the basic structure of the competency framework.
  • Refine the subgroups – For each of the larger categories, define the subgroups even further. Ask yourself why and how the behaviors relate, or don’t relate, to one another, and revise your groupings as necessary.
  • Identify and name the competencies – Ask your team to identify a specific competency to represent each of the smaller subgroups of behaviors. Then they can also name the larger category.
  • Here’s an example of groupings and subgroupings for general management competencies:
    • Supervising and leading teams.
      • Provide ongoing direction and support to staff.
      • Take initiative to provide direction.
      • Communicate direction to staff.
      • Monitor performance of staff.
      • Motivate staff.
      • Develop succession plan.
      • Ensure that company standards are met.
    • Recruiting and staffing.
      • Prepare job descriptions and role specifications.
      • Participate in selection interviews.
      • Identify individuals’ training needs.
      • Implement disciplinary and grievance procedures.
      • Ensure that legal obligations are met.
      • Develop staff contracts.
      • Develop salary scales and compensation packages.
      • Develop personnel management procedures.
      • Make sure staff resources meet organizational needs.
    • Training and development.
      • Deliver training to junior staff.
      • Deliver training to senior staff.
      • Identify training needs.
      • Support personal development.
      • Develop training materials and methodology.
    • Managing projects/programs
      • Prepare detailed operational plans.
      • Manage financial and human resources.
      • Monitor overall performance against objectives.
      • Write reports, project proposals, and amendments.
      • Understand external funding environment.
      • Develop project/program strategy.

    You may need to add levels for each competency. This is particularly useful when using the framework for compensation or performance reviews. To do so, take each competency, and divide the related behaviors into measurement scales according to complexity, responsibility, scope, or other relevant criteria. These levels may already exist if you have job grading in place.


  • Validate and revise the competencies as necessary – For each item, ask these questions:
    • Is this behavior demonstrated by people who perform the work most effectively? In other words, are people who don’t demonstrate this behavior ineffective in the role?
    • Is this behavior relevant and necessary for effective work performance?

    These questions are often asked in the form of a survey. It’s important to look for consensus among the people doing the job, as well as areas where there’s little agreement. Also, look for possible issues with language, or the way the competencies are described, and refine those as well.

Step Four: Implement

As you roll out the finalized competency framework, remember the principle of communication that we mentioned earlier. To help get buy-in from members of staff at all levels of the organization, it’s important to explain to them why the framework was developed, and how you’d like it to be used. Discuss how it will be updated, and which procedures you’ve put in place to accommodate changes.

Here are some tips for implementing the framework:

  • Link to business objectives – Make connections between individual competencies and organizational goals and values as much as possible.
  • Reward the competencies – Check that your policies and practices support and reward the competencies identified.
  • Provide coaching and training – Make sure there’s adequate coaching and training available. People need to know that their efforts will be supported.
  • Keep it simple – Make the framework as simple as possible. You want the document to be used, not filed away and forgotten.
  • Communicate – Most importantly, treat the implementation as you would any other change initiative. The more open and honest you are throughout the process, the better the end result – and the better the chances of the project achieving your objectives.

Key Points

Creating a competency framework is an effective method to assess, maintain, and monitor the knowledge, skills, and attributes of people in your organization. The framework allows you to measure current competency levels to make sure your staff members have the expertise needed to add value to the business. It also helps managers make informed decisions about talent recruitment, retention, and succession strategies. And, by identifying the specific behaviors and skills needed for each role, it enables you to budget and plan for the training and development your company really needs.

The process of creating a competency framework is long and complex. To ensure a successful outcome, involve people actually doing carrying out the roles to evaluate real jobs, and describe real behaviors. The increased level of understanding and linkage between individual roles and organizational performance makes the effort well worth it.


The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.


WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.



Cultivating Resources for Informal Learning

Cultivating Resources for Informal Learning

Depending on who you ask, 70, 80, or even 90 percent of what the average individual learns on the job takes place informally.

Some of this learning is intangible: on-the-job experiences, informal mentoring and networking with peers. But there’s also a significant portion of informal learning that comes about deliberately when the employee seeks out information to help them learn about a specific skill or product.

Nicole Bunselmeyer, principal consultant with Intrepid Learning, a learning technology company, says that this type of learning goes on with all of us nearly every day. “This is what you’re doing when you’re looking at something that sparks your interest, and you think, ‘I’m going to Google that!’” she says.

The problem comes when employees waste time and resources while struggling to find a specific piece of content that will help them with their inquiry. One way Learning and Development departments can help is take the time to curate valuable, well-vetted resources to help employees find what they’re looking for quickly.

“It helps us become faster and more efficient if we can leverage ‘best of breed’ things, find a way to contextualize, and share them out with the learner,” says Bunselmeyer. “Curation is probably one of the best skills a learning organization can hone.”

Blending Informal and Formal Learning

Informal learning resources can be built into formal learning initiatives. In this case, an employee may initially work through a course that’s built sequentially, and at the end the materials are opened up to be accessed as needed.

This is a model that Alan Betts recommends. He’s CLO of HT2, a company that develops online learning technology like course-curation platform Curatr. “What we’ve found works really quite well is a mixture whereby you put people through a course that moves over time, but at the end of that you open it up so that they can dip in and out, even if they didn’t finish the whole course in the first place.”

Bunselmeyer agrees, noting it’s important to tailor how information is delivered to the learner’s experience. “If they’re brand new to a topic, you might offer a way for them to move through it prescriptively,” she says. “If they’re more experienced with the topic, you might structure that content as questions, so the learner can quickly find what he or she needs to know.”

The key is to structure the initial course in bite-sized chunks of content that are easily digestible. Providing three 3-minute videos broken apart by discrete topic is much more useful to the informal learner than one 10-minute video that may cover a variety of topics.

Repurposing Content Within the Organization

Where should all this content come from? The good news is very little of it needs to be created from scratch. A good majority of what an organization needs may exist already within the organization, or can be found from trusted, vetted sources outside the organization.

“Once you can start to look at your existing content and see how it can be broken down into bite-sized nuggets, you can often leverage a ton of what you already have,” says Bunselmeyer. Most organizations end up creating huge amounts of content from each department, which ends up disorganized on a content management site like Sharepoint.

Those fantastic chunks of existing content end up useless because no one can find them. “It’s kind of like Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the end,” says Bunselmeyer. “Where they’ve put the Ark into the warehouse.”

She recommends searching for larger resources like white papers, and digging out short, digestible pieces of content. That way, instead of directing a learner to hunt through a 20-page document, the learner can easily find the content he or she needs.

Vetting Content From Outside the Organization

If the content needed doesn’t exist within the organization, both Bunselmeyer and Betts recommend turning to the trusted subject matter experts (SMEs) outside of the organization. This can be in the form of blog posts, or even videos like from places like TED-Ed, or Harvard Business’ YouTube Channel.

Not only is curating these resources more time-saving than producing them from scratch, it also provides content with more value than is possible to create within the organization. “Why would you try to do it yourself when you have the world’s experts, who are saying things in a very clear and appropriate way?” asks Betts.

Curating User-Generated Content in Real Time

A third source of valuable content comes from participants in the learning process. This isn’t a new concept – instructors in instructor-led training have always recommended books on the fly in response to a question, or highlighted an insightful comment in order to further their point.

In online informal learning environments, encouraging discussion is trickier. Curatr tries to build in that level of engagement, by offering learners experience points and badges when they contribute. “We nudge them to actually consider the topic rather than just hit the next button,” says Betts. “There’s a double-whammy effect of making a comment. First, it helps you remember it better because you’ve thought about it to comment. Then, it helps everyone else because they come along and see you’re excited.”

Learning and Development departments can foster this type of engagement by highlighting top discussion threads and elevating strong comments in forums, or through using a platform that allows peer voting on useful posts and threads.

In addition to organic discussion, moderators can also respond in real time to questions that keep appearing.

“We find that being able to share out something in an organic, semi-polished way is really effective because it was delivered at the moment of need,” says Bunselmeyer. “It can be more valuable than something that was responded to later on, created professionally, then shared out after the experience has happened.”

Tie It All Together With Context and Value

A great piece of content will do the learner no good if they don’t know why it’s important. That’s where creating context comes in.

“We always need to bring it back to the learner,” says Bunselmeyer. “It’s important to wrap these pieces of content with just enough information to explain why it’s relevant. Give me two or three lines that are scannable, that says: ‘As you watch this, think about these two things.’”

Curating resources for informal learning can create a powerful learning experience for the learner – but only if the content that’s curated offers high value. Otherwise, organizations risk their employees going back to inefficient Googling and hunting for information.
When curating content for your organization, says Bunselmeyer, “You need to be ruthless, and cut out everything that doesn’t provide value. Because curation is about allowing only the most powerful pieces to rise to the top.”

Sourced from
on Dec. 19, 2106

Five Reasons Continuous Learning Platforms are the Future of Professional Development

Five Reasons Continuous Learning Platforms are the Future of Professional Development

After graduating college twenty years ago, a mentor advised me that “continual and perpetual education is the key to success.” I interpreted that advice as the following: work a few years, take an evening class or two, go to grad school and continue to subscribe to the New York Times, all while pursuing a career in my chosen profession.

As we know, a lot has changed over the last 20 years. The internet and interactive communication—for better and worse—has transformed and disrupted virtually every industry. As we now brace ourselves for a future of AI-enhanced productivity—including robots and self-driving cars—it’s quite possible that most industries as we know them today will be unrecognizable a generation from now.

In this environment, continual and perpetual education is essential. Continuous education requires all of us to discover new ways to learn that are enabled by technology but are also driven by connections that exist in professional learning communities.

Educators who self-organize on Twitter and other social networks to share knowledge, resources and best practices with peers around the world are pioneers in the continuous learning movement. Continuous learning platforms are now emerging that incorporate these always-on, community-based learning opportunities into more formal professional development programs.

Here are five reasons why continuous learning platforms are the future of professional development for educators.

1. Learning Management Systems Are Not Designed For Professional Development

While professional development is a component of some learning management systems, LMSs are most often designed to process administrative tasks including student registration, scheduling and curriculum delivery. Interactions are typically contained within a school or organization, and resource availability is most often determined by administrators with limited opportunities for others to socialize and surface up new information.

No learning management system is predicated on professional development, nor set up to provide collaborative learning opportunities that educators now expect and are finding in other outlets including Twitter Chats, Edcamps and edtech conferences.

2. Knowledge Is Best Transferred Through Professional Learning Communities

These days, many new skills and resources become outdated by the time they are institutionalized in top-down professional development environments. This is why so many educators are attracted to professional learning communities and networks that enable them to share ideas, best practices and new digital technologies including apps, videos and open educational resources.

What better source of advice can there be than from real-time communities of educators who have tried, failed, and iterated upon the very approaches you are considering for your classroom and instruction. Whether it’s through the hundreds of regularly scheduled or slow Twitter Chats for education, weekend and summer Edcamps, or other viral communities spawned from tools like Voxer and Google Hangouts, continuous sources of insight and inspiration are now only a hashtag away.

3. Curation And Discovery Must Exist In Open Environments

There are hundreds of thousands of worthy educational applications, videos and digital tools currently accessible via iPad, Chromebook and other connected devices. Educators are organically discovering these through professional learning communities, blogs, conferences and a myriad of other settings. Professional development programs and learning management systems typically limit access to a finite list of top-down, pre-approved resources that are outdated and often uninspiring.

Continuous learning platforms have open resource discovery and curation environments that allow communities of educators to identify compelling resources, and then tag them for subject, grade level, standards and other attributes. Here, there are no limits to what is accessible (outside of blacklisted tools that have no merit in educational settings). As well, communities of educators who are sharing best practices for current, excellent resources inform what becomes surfaced for everyone else accessing them.

4. Accomplishments Deserve To Be Recognized And Shared

Professional development must be predicated upon learning, practice and evidence of impact on student outcomes rather than seat time or a scan of a badge at an education conference. Continuous learning platforms are designed to recognize and showcase how teachers are learning and sharing insight with their students through badging and a suite of credentialing opportunities.

From interactive courses where educator output and student impact is evaluated by a community of peers, to incorporating new resources discovered during a Twitter Chat or Edcamp, to creating a collection of apps, videos and websites to teach a current events topic, continuous learning platforms track, document and advance professional learning in all of its dynamic forms.

5. Ideas And Resources Must Be Shared Globally

Professional learning communities are interconnected. While continuous learning platforms allow any school, district or organization to maintain private communities where educators share resources, ideas and interactive courses, there are always opportunities to connect with other organizations and individuals on the platform that can provide value.

In the 21st century, education must be continual, perpetual and global. Continuous learning platforms are designed to harness all of these connections to power teacher learning and classroom practice in order to achieve better student outcomes across the world.

ePortfolios Explained

ePortfolios Explained

At one level, an ePortfolio is nothing more than a digital collection of artifacts that belong to or represent a person. In an academic context, these artifacts might include a student’s essays, posters, photographs, videos, artwork, and other course-related assignments. Additionally, the artifacts might also pertain to others aspects of a student’s life, such as volunteer experiences, employment history, extracurricular activities, and so on. However, while these digital artifacts are important, they are static products. They are simply things that the student has produced or done or experienced, and a good ePortfolio ought to be more than just a collection of products. It should also be a process – specifically, the process of generating new or deeper learning by reflecting on one’s existing learning. It’s important, then, to think of an ePortfolio as both a product (a digital collection of artifacts) and as a process (of reflecting on those artifacts and what they represent). An ePortfolio can have additional purposes, too, which we’ll get to later on. But those additional purposes only emerge if the ePortfolio is first construed as both a product and a process.

Like a Learning Management System, ePortfolios exist online and support student learning. They differ from Learning Management Systems in two key ways: namely, ownership and control. In a university course, the Learning Management System is “owned” and controlled or managed by the instructor: he or she decides who has access, what tools are turned on or off, and so on. With an ePortfolio, it tends to be the student who is in charge: he or she decides who can view the ePortfolio, what artifacts get added, how it is designed, and so on. Typically, a student loses access to the Learning Management System when courses end; in contrast, many ePortfolio platforms are designed to follow the student after he or she has finished university.

It’s useful to think of ePortfolios as a tool for what has come to be known as Personal Development Planning, which is “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect on their own learning performance, and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development” (Jackson, 2001). As Quality Assurance Agency in the UK has articulated, Personal Development Planning helps students in the following ways:

  • plan, integrate and take responsibility for their personal, career and academic development, identifying learning opportunities within their own academic programmes and extra-curricular activities
  • recognise, value and evidence their learning and development both inside and outside the curriculum
  • be more aware of how they are learning and what different teaching and learning strategies are trying to achieve
  • be more effective in monitoring and reviewing their own progress and using their own records and evidence of learning to demonstrate to others what they know and can do
  • evaluate and recognise their own strengths and weaknesses and identify ways in which perceived weaknesses might be improved and strengths enhanced
  • develop their identity in relation to their academic, professional and personal progression
  • develop a vocabulary to communicate their development and achievement
  • be better prepared for seeking, continuing or changing employment or self-employment and be more able to articulate the skills and knowledge they have gained to others
  • be better prepared for the demands of continuing progression and career development in professional and academic careers

Different kinds of ePortfolios

When reading about ePortfolios, it becomes apparent that some educators primarily see them as a tool for generating new or deeper learning while others primarily see them as a tool for assessment (of students and, by extension, of university programs). At the 2008 Making Connections conference, Helen Barrett described the difference in perspective this way: “There’s a major tension right now between student-centered and institution-centered ePortfolios.” Student-centered ePortfolios, she added, are driven by “assessment for learning,” while institution-centered ePortfolios are driven by “assessment of learning.” In a 2007 article in Campus Technology, Trent Batson also suggested that the “learning idea” of ePortfolios was being “hijacked by the need for accountability.”

Even within the “student-centered” approach to ePortfolios, it’s possible to distinguish different kinds of ePortfolios based upon the purpose of the ePortfolio for the student. Different organizations use different names, but the distinctions are more or less the same. Here, for example, are two taxonomies, one from an organization in California and the other from an educational institution in New York:

ePortfolio California LaGuardia
Developmental (i.e., working) – a record of things that the owner has done over a period of time, and may be directly tied to learner outcomes or rubrics. Assessment ePortfolios, where the audience is internal to the institution and the goal is to support institutional outcomes assessment.
Reflective (i.e., learning) – includes personal reflection on the content and what it means for the owner’s development. Learning ePortfolios, where the audience is students themselves, and the goal is helping students examine and reflect on their learning.
Representational (i.e., showcase) – shows the owner’s achievements in relation to particular work or developmental goals and is, therefore, selective. When it is used for job application it is sometimes called Career portfolio. Career/Transfer ePortfolios, where the audience is external, and the goal is to provide students with a tool for showcasing their achievements to employers or transfer institutions.

As you can see in the above chart, different labels are used, but the distinctions being made are similar. LaGuardia is perhaps most helpful in proposing a fourth kind of ePortfolio, one that combines or facilitates the three different kinds of student-centered ePortfolios. The name proposed by LaGuardia for this multi-faceted ePortfolio is “the integrative ePortfolio.”

ePortfolios: a growing trend

In certain fields, such as art or architecture, practitioners have always kept portfolios of their work, since that was their key means of convincing other people to hire them. In the 1970s, the idea of having students build paper-based portfolios of their work began spread to other disciplines in some universities, such as Alverno College in Wisconsin. In the late 1990s, the idea of “electronic portfolios,” which later came to be known as ePortfolios, began to emerge, but even in 2002 they were still considered a new tool. In that year, the Vice Chancellor for Information Technologies in the Maricopa College District, said that “E-portfolios are on the horizon… But what they really are is still being defined.”

By 2008, though, ePortfolios were becoming a familiar and powerful technology on university campuses. That year, the Campus Computing Project reported that in higher education, “the use of of e-portfolios has tripled since 2003.” This growth is no doubt what prompted Kathleen Blake Yancey (former president of the National Council of Teachers of English) to say, in 2008, that ePortfolios were helping to create a “tectonic shift” in higher education and were “remaking the landscape” of how students learned.

By 2010, ePortfolios had become even more widely accepted, as affirmed that year by a report from LaGuardia:

The ePortfolio movement has grown dramatically in significance over the past decade. Linked to sweeping economic, demographic, political, and technological changes, the ePortfolio is an increasingly salient feature in US higher education. As this data suggests, many US campuses have launched ePortfolio projects in the past five years.  This is true at in all sectors of American higher education.  Meanwhile, usage of the ePortfolio is expanding rapidly overseas, particularly in Europe and Australia. —

In 2011, the Campus Computing Project analyzed the growth of ePortfolios across different types of American educational institutions, as rendered in the following chart:

Chart of ePortfolio growth

Moreover, it’s notable that the growth of ePortfolios is not limited to educational institutions. For example, in the United States, the state of Minnesota provides an ePortfolio to every citizen who wants one. At present, that state has over 100,000 ePortfolio users. A recent survey commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 80% of employers said that “an electronic portfolio would be useful to them in ensuring that job applicants have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their company or organization.”

This sudden growth in ePortfolio usage has been caused, according to J. Elizabeth Clark, by four factors:

  1. The technology itself has matured. Early ePortfolios were often put onto CDs. The ability to put them online expanded their accessibility enormously. Additionally, the online platforms for making ePortfolios have greatly improved over the past few years. Back then, even the best ePortfolios looked clunky and awkward. In fact, an article that appeared in 2002 in the Chronicle of Higher Education described them as little more than “extensive résumés.” Now, almost anyone can make an attractive, engaging, and visually effective ePortfolio. As the technical sophistication of the ePortfolio platforms has grown, their pedagogical potential has also expanded. In 2002, the aforementioned article in the Chronicle of Higher Education said that “students will show off their portfolios to potential employers or to parents eager to see where their tuition money is going.” We’ve now moved beyond that limited view ePortfolios. Additionally, due to the popularity of social media tools such as Facebook, students are more comfortable creating digital representations of themselves.
  2. A pedagogical change has occurred in higher education, one that values student-centered, active learning. The lecture-based tradition of the “sage on the stage” is being challenged by the pedagogical model of the “guide on the side.” Social Constructivism (the learning theory that proposes that people learn best when they construct their own knowledge in a social context) continues to transform how education happens.
  3. For many people, especially students, life has become more “fluid” than it once was. Students are more likely than they once were to change institutions or to take courses from several institutions as the same time. Recent graduates, too, are more likely than they used to be to move from one employer to another. As a result, it’s beneficial for them to have what J. Elizabeth Clark calls an “education passport,” which helps them to “represent their learning and carry it with them as they move from one setting to another.”
  4. In many countries (including the United States and Canada), there has been an increased expectation from governments that universities must be able to demonstrate their accountability; in other words, they must be able to show that the funding they receive results in effective learning. Since ePortfolios can be used not only to assess a student’s individual learning outcomes, but also (collectively) the outcomes of entire programs, administrators have been have happy to encourage their adoption.

The learning theory behind ePortfolios

In an educational context, the primary value of ePortfolios (according to the Co-Director of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research) is that they “are a way to generate learning as well as document learning.” Both of these aspects – generating learning and documenting learning – are important, but it is the first one (generating learning) that sometimes gets overlooked, even though it is crucial to the success of the ePortfolio process. Essentially, an ePortfolio generates learning because it provides an opportunity and virtual space for students to critically assess their academic work, and to reflect on that work and make connections among different courses, and connections between academic work and other activities, such as work experiences, extracurricular pursuits, volunteering opportunities, and more.

Randy Bass and Bret Eynon describe this process of critical reflection as one that makes “invisible learning” visible. By invisible learning, they mean two things.

First, they mean the intermediate steps that occur whenever a student, or any person, is attempting to learn something or do something. That “something” might be a tangible thing like writing an essay, or it might be a more abstract goal like understanding a theory. In either case, it’s easy to focus exclusively on the final product (the essay or the theory), and to disregard or forget about all the stages of learning and doing that preceded that product. All the steps and false starts and decisions that preceded the final product are one form of invisible learning. By reflecting on them, students can learn more: they can learn more deeply, they can learn more about how they learn, and they can learn how to do even better the next time. It’s rather like a tennis player. He or she might have a good serve, but it will probably improve only if the player reflects on all the motions that occur before the racquet actually hits the ball: how the feet are positioned, how the ball is tossed, how the racket is turned, and so on. To improve, the player needs to reflect on all those intermediate steps that are “invisible” in the sense that he or she doesn’t usually think about them in a conscious way.

The second thing that Randy Bass and Bret Eynon mean by invisible learning are the “aspects of learning that go beyond the cognitive to include the affective, the personal, and issues of identity.” In other words, the process of learning something doesn’t involve just the rational mind; rather, our feelings, our personality, and our sense of self are all involved – sometimes facilitating that learning process, and sometimes hindering it. For example, if a Canadian student is learning about global warming, then a memory about a warm winter when the local pond did not freeze might serve as a useful “anchor” for that student to hang certain facts on, or it might bias her to accept evidence that is not credible. Similarly, if a student suffers from a lack of confidence, then that poor sense of self might prevent him from learning as well as he otherwise might. By reflecting on those affective, personal, and self-identity factors, studentscan develop meta-cognitive skills that can enhance their learning.

From a broader perspective, ePortfolios fall within a learning theory known as social constructivism. That theory proposes, in part, that learning happens most effectively when a student constructs a system of knowledge for himself, rather than simply having information presented to him. Additionally, the theory proposes that another determinant of effective learning is that it happens in a social context – that is, we construct our knowledge through dialogue and interactions with others. With ePortfolios, the process of reflection originates as a solo activity, but becomes social through a feedback loop, as the student’s instructor, peers, mentors, and even family members respond to and provide commentary on those reflections.  In this regard, making and then sharing an ePortfolio with others is somewhat like telling a story: the story of one’s journey of learning. In this regard, ePortfolios can overlap with another recent trend in higher education – namely, digital storytelling. As defined by Educause, digital storytelling is “the practice of combining narrative with digital content, including images, sound, and video, to create a short movie, typically with a strong emotional component.” The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (at Georgetown University) explains why digital storytelling can be a pedagogically effective tool:

Digital storytelling works at the intersection of the emotional and the epistemological aspects of learning, bridging story and theory, intellect and affect. For many students an emotional engagement with the topic – or a problem in the most generative sense of the word – is the point of departure that allows them to connect their stories to the relevant theories. As emotions are reclaimed cognitively, they enable students to write themselves into existing discourses and to contribute personal perspectives to an academic community.

Like a digital story, an ePortfolio is a kind of story: it’s a narrative of a student’s learning. Additionally, an ePortfolio can include actual digital stories as part of its collection of artifacts.

Finally, because ePortfolios are a student-centered activity — one in which the student is free to choose what artifacts are included, and is free to reflect on the process of his learning – they foster engagement and motivation, as is affirmed by an article about ePortfolios in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology:

Research on student engagement with learning suggests that when students perceive that they have choices in how to learn subject matter they are more engaged and motivated to move beyond simple information acquisition to trying to gain an understanding of the subject (Entwistle, 1998; Kuh et al., 2005; LaSere Erickson & Weltner-Strommer, 1991; Marton & Saljo, 1984; Ramsden, 2003). Electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) appear to offer this opportunity for learner control and to be capable of supporting or promoting deep learning as students are able to make connections between the learning which occurs in different contexts: academic, workplace and community. Indeed, it is this recognition that learning occurs beyond the classroom that makes e-portfolios attractive to many educators.

In short, as Randy Bass and Bret Eynon asserted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “If we truly want to advance from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning, then a strategy involving something like electronic student portfolios, or ePortfolios, is essential.”

Other reasons for ePortfolios

While ePortfolios can help students develop new and deeper learning, they can also benefit institutions by providing evidence that program outcomes – that is, the skills and competencies that a student needs to acquire before graduation – are indeed being met. The traditional student transcript, with its list of the grades received in various courses, is intended to affirm that a student has achieved specified competencies, but an ePortfolio goes further. It not only affirms that the competencies have been achieved, but also shows how they have been achieved. They are a much richer and more compelling form of evidence. As the Association of American Colleges and Universitieshas stated, “The ePortfolio is an ideal format for collecting evidence of student learning, especially for those outcomes not amenable to nor appropriate for standardized measurement.”  Other experts have made similar claims. Peter Ewell, the vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, has noted that “Electronic portfolios simplify the process of setting learning objectives and meeting them.”  Barbara Cambridge, co-director of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, says that the ability to ensure that “institution-wide goals” are being met through curriculum and teaching practices is greater now than ever before, partly because “we now have the evidence that can be collected and shared in e-portfolios.”

ePortfolios: evidence of efficacy

As Aileen Wyllie observed at the 2010 ATN Assessment Conference, “the literature is generally positive about the benefits of ePortfolios.” She supports this claim with reference to a 2001 study by B. Cambridge, a 2005 study by G. Lorenzo, a 2008 study by G. Hallam, and others.  Wyllie also pointed toward research showing that ePortfolios “can enhance learning outcomes for students” such as A. Jafari’s 2006 study and L. Stefani’s 2007 book publication. These findings were echoed by a report submitted by Bowling Green State University, which found that “undergraduates using electronic portfolios had higher grade-point averages, credit hours earned, and retention rates than a comparable set of students who did not use the system.”

One of the largest studies pertaining to the efficacy of ePortfolios was undertaken by New York’s LaGuardia Community College, where nearly 50,000 students have maintained ePortfolios since 2001. The LaGuardia study reports that students using ePortfolios consistently earn higher grades:

The data shows that, in every semester that has been examined, ePortfolio students are significantly more likely to pass their courses than non-ePortfolio students. In ePortfolio courses, the pass rate is 77%; in comparison courses, sections of the same courses where ePortfolio is not being used, the pass rate is 72%. For a high pass — a C or above — the pass rate in ePortfolio sections is 73.6%; in non-ePortfolio sections of the same courses, the pass rate is 67.2%. In this most basic, faculty-driven assessment of student learning, faculty consistently indicate that students in their ePortfolio courses are more likely to achieve success.

Additionally, the LaGuardia study reveals that retention is better for students who take courses involving ePortfolios; that is, they are less likely to drop out of their program. A sample of more than 5000 students showed that 76% of students using ePortfolios in one semester returned the next semester; for non-ePortfolio students, the return rate was 71%.

Finally, the LaGuardia study shows that students themselves appreciate the benefits of ePortfolios. When asked “How much has your experience in this course contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in understanding yourself?,” 80% of LaGuardia’s ePortfolio students said “Quite a bit” or “Very much” versus only 68% for LaGuardia’s non-ePortfolio students. As one student said, “when you’re in the process of going through some sort of growth, you don’t recognize it at the time because it is slow but then when you look back on things that is when you actually realize what’s changed and how different you are.”

Students themselves also report that developing and maintaining an ePortfolio benefited their learning:

  • “The most important thing I learned from using an ePortfolio was how to look at the ‘big picture’. In school so far, we’ve studied many accounting concepts. However, this is the first time that I have actually slowed down and taken all these small concepts and tried to understand how they are related in the grand scheme of things.” — B.H. Accounting
  • “The themes and the actual ePortfolio program might not be completely evident during the course and content work/volunteer experiences, but in retrospect they definitely have impacted the way I think and interact in the workplace.” — Student, Speech Communications
  • “I never knew  how important the team reflections from AFM 131 would be, until I began preparing for interviews for summer internships at accounting firms. I figured they would ask about team experience and I was fully prepared to answer their questions because I referred to what I had written in my team reflections [in my ePortfolio].” — Student, Accounting and Financial Management

Best practices for instructors

ePortfolios are most effective when they are established as an institution-wide initiative, or at least as a program-wide initiative. That way, students will be encouraged in all of their courses to use their ePortfolio, and to reflect on and make connections between all of their courses and academic experiences. However, ePortfolios can still be successful even at the individual course level. To ensure this success, it’s important to observe a number of best practices:

  1. If your students are not already familiar with ePortfolios, then spend time explaining the benefits to them. The benefits that will be of particular interest to students are probably the following:
    1. ePortfolios can help them develop new or deeper learning, which results in higher grades.
    2. ePortfolios can help them develop a better sense of themselves as students and as individuals.
    3. ePortfolios can be shared with friends and family members.
    4. ePortfolios can showcase their achievements when they are applying for a job.
  2. Explain to your students what you expect them to do in their ePortfolios. They will readily understand that an ePortfolio is (to some extent) a collection of the best work, but they will have more difficulty understanding the need for them to reflect on their work and the need for them to make connections between different courses and experiences. Use the term “critical self-reflection,” and help them understand what you mean by it.
  3. Provide them with numerous examples of successful ePortfolios that have been developed by other students. The examples don’t need to be from your university, though they might be.
  4. Scaffold your students as they begin to develop their ePortfolio. Help them start small: have them choose just one artifact (such as an essay) and have them reflect on the challenges they had to address as they wrote their essay. Or, have them select two assignments from different courses, and have them reflect on how each of those assignments helps them to better understand the other assignment. Alternatively, if your program or institution has identified key competencies, have students choose one competency and then have them reflect in writing on how a particular assignment helped them to develop that competency. Once they are comfortable with this kind of process, encourage them to expand it to other artifacts and reflections.
  5. Create an ePortfolio for yourself, and share it with your students. Doing so will help you understand the challenges and benefits of maintaining and ePortfolio, and it will also persuade students that it is a useful endeavour. As a student quoted in one study said, “The problem is that the people trying to explain it have probably never used it so they have no clue what they are talking about…. you as an outsider who have never even used it are telling us we should do this because it is the best thing since sliced bread but you have never used it… this kind of makes it hard for students to accept or appreciate it.”
  6. Make the ePortfolio an integral part of how you assess your students. Maintaining an ePortfolio demands a significant amount of time and energy from students, and they will resent it if their time and energy is not reflected in their final grade. If ePortfolios are merely an optional assignment that is encouraged but not required, most students will not undertake one.
  7. Encourage your students to look at and comment on one another’s ePortfolios. You could, for example, have a link to each student’s blog in the online space that your course has in your university’s learning management system. Additionally, you could create a discussion forum in that online space where students make helpful and encouraging comments on one another’s ePortfolios. The ePortfolios, then, become an integral part of the online community of students. Adam Rothman, of Georgetown University, refers to this approach as the “hub and spoke” model.
  8. Your ePortfolio platform should allow students the ability to customize the design and layout of their ePortfolios, so that they can feel that the ePortfolio is “theirs.” For example, a student should be able to control the colours that are used, the banner image, the background, and so on. As a student quoted in one study said, “If this is my e-portfolio that everyone can see then I want it to look good and to represent me.” At the same time, it’s a good idea to make sure that your students use a standard template for some aspects of their ePortfolio, especially with regard to how one navigates to the different parts of the ePortfolio. Doing so will make your job easier, because you won’t have to hunt for the various ePortfolio components as you visit the ePortfolios of dozens of students: the basic navigation structure will be the same for all of them.
  9. Your ePortfolio system should allow students to create different “views” or versions of their ePortfolio for different audiences. After all, the artifacts and reflections that a student wants to show her instructor might be different than the ones that she wants to show a potential employer or a family member. As a student who was quoted in one study said, “I think there are things you want to keep private but it might be good if you could create a group for your close friends to share some reflections and then an outside ring which is for everyone else and it could have things like your resume.”

Assessment of ePortfolios

Because ePortfolios require a significant investment of time and energy from students, it is important that they be assessed carefully, and that the assessment contributes in a substantial way to a student’s final grade in a course. However, there are challenges to assessing something as personal as an ePortfolio. How, for example, does one evaluate the quality of a student’s “reflections”? As a student quoted in one study said, “If this is my personal reflection then how can you give me 3 out of 5? You say, ‘Put in personal reflection,’ which we do – then we come in the next day and you turn around and say ‘You should have mentioned this and this and this – here is the check list.’” An additional challenge is that if students come to see their ePortfolios as “just another assignment,” then they will not engage with it in an authentic way; it will become just another “hoop” for them to jump through. As Helen Barret suggested in 2005, “high stakes assessment and accountability are killing ePortfolios as a reflective tool to support deep learning.” Accordingly, a balance needs to be found, one that strives to help students appreciate the genuine benefits that they will experience by developing an ePortfolio that captures their work and personal reflections, but which also acknowledges that assessing ePortfolios is not a merely “subjective” matter. In other words, ePortfolios can be personal in nature, and yet still assessable by objective standards.

Perhaps the best way to overcome these assessment challenges, while still ensuring that students benefit from their ePortfolios, is to assess ePortfolios by means of a rubric such as this one (DOC) developed by the University of Wisconsin.

Additionally, the reflective component of the ePortfolio can be assessed even more methodically by requiring students to include in their reflections some commentary on how the artifacts they have selected pertain to the achievement of targeted outcomes or competencies. Many programs and institutions have articulated such competencies. For example, the University of Waterloo has identified eight such competencies: Depth and Breadth of Knowledge; Knowledge of Methodologies; Application of Knowledge; Communication Skills; Awareness of Limits of Knowledge; Autonomy and Professional Capacity; Experiential Learning; and Diversity. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has another list of such competencies, and for each one of them has developed a rubric to assist instructors in their assessment.