Our institution has recently completed its third year of personnel reviews that rely completely on electronic portfolios. All retention, promotion, and instructional academic staff rehiring decisions now depend on electronic portfolios drawn from a common source, as do all internal annual reports and some external reports.
Like all large-scale transitions, the process included some bumps. However, we now have a paperless process that allows for work to be reviewed from any secure Internet site.
With the benefit of hindsight, here are some recommendations regarding the transition.
Assemble a cross-disciplinary team. We developed a cross-disciplinary team to research the options for a vendor, and another cross-disciplinary team to develop and roll out the project once the vendor was chosen. In addition to representation from each of the three academic colleges, we actively solicited faculty from the fine arts department to ensure the cross-disciplinary utility of the process and outcome.
Get information technology on board early. Although the information that faculty enter regarding their teaching, scholarship, and service is stored via the vendor, uploaded documents (such as syllabi and reprints) are stored on a local server. The vast majority of technical issues we encountered involved the efficacy of the hyperlinks to the documents, so we would recommend involvement with a specific IT liaison on campus. In addition, whoever is most knowledgeable about workload data such as teaching schedules and student credit hours must be an integral component of the process and the decisions.
Rollout speed. It took approximately a year to develop the project and make most of the faculty aware that change was coming. It took another year for the process to become the standard practice. In some ways, it would have been less jarring to convert one college first to discover the bumps that deployment would uncover. But the decision to convert the entire campus allowed us two benefits: First, when problems were discovered, it was easier to request changes all at one time. Second, the wholesale approach clearly communicated the fact that the change would occur.
Leadership matters. Senior administrative and faculty leadership was crucial to the process. The provost’s office worked carefully with the three academic deans to decide on the basic format of the portfolios that would come forward for review for retention.
A faculty liaison is necessary. A faculty member with knowledge of personnel processes makes the best liaison with the vendor. She or he can best understand the concerns of the faculty users and the role of the product in the personnel processes. Although we are now in a “maintenance” phase, we still estimate that at busy times of personnel review, the liaison is allotting at least 25 percent of his or her time to the process. During the development and rollout, the time committed was closer to 50 percent of overall responsibilities. The liaison currently responds to all troubleshooting and facilitates the annual rollover of information and the upload of course information (number, name, and enrollment) each semester.
Mind the gap! The digital divide is real, and like most colleges and universities, we still have a few faculty members who do not utilize email and resist technology. Consequently, we had users who had never attached or uploaded a document, and for whom “browse” meant a stroll down a library stack. We also had faculty members who didn’t understand why changing a typo on the report drawn from the database did not fix the typo in the database. As we rolled out the product, we offered individualized hands-on workshops for each department, during which each faculty member worked at a computer.
Continue the training. We developed a substantial Web page devoted to the use of electronic portfolios including short video-capture films that show how to use of the software. We have annotated portfolio samples and, with the permission of the faculty involved, we post samples of successfully promoted portfolios. Most importantly, faculty members within each department now serve as informal liaisons to new faculty regarding the use of the system.
Security issues. We continue to face security issues regarding the integrity of the documents. Users quickly found issues such as the need to remove Social Security numbers from grants before uploading them into the system. The fundamental problem remains, in that we have to balance the ability to make the materials accessible to appropriate readers with the need to keep materials somewhat secure. One security solution is the use of our classroom management system (D2L) as the home for the portfolios. Both departments and committee set up sites where they can control access and upload the documents.
Factors ensuring a less painful process. The single greatest benefit our university had going into the process was the existence of a “page limit” on paper portfolios for promotion. The university-wide committee had a one-inch binder rule. Faculty submitted a three-page narrative on teaching and two pages each on scholarship and service. We kept the page limit on narratives, but replaced the one-inch binder with the standard of 10 hyperlinks per workload area—teaching, scholarship, and service (syllabi were excluded from the limit). We limit the size of a document or upload to 10MB, but we do not have a page limit. Department chairpersons load information regarding student evaluations, merit reviews, and letters of review.
Technology issues. Our campus is approximately 75 percent PC and 25 percent Mac. We continue to find oddities in terms of processes that work well on one and not on the other. PDF documents save space and are more easily read across platforms. Access to a fast scanner is necessary and the ability of individual faculty to convert documents to PDF aids the process.
Final benefits and drawbacks. The primary drawbacks are the cost of the vendor, the fact that the campus supports a person who devotes a portion of his or her job solely to process and the frustrations with technology when it doesn’t work, and the number of sites and junctures at which problems can arise. Like all technology, when it works, it is a time-saver, and when it isn’t working, it eats up copious amounts of time and patience.
As expected, the process benefits new faculty members the most. They have a single interface with a program that allows them to enter information and upload documents once, and that can then be compiled over time and drawn on for a variety of personnel-related reports.
Administrators benefit from the ability to pose queries of the data (such as the number of peer-reviewed publications in the college) without laboriously asking chairpersons and faculty. Committee members appreciate the fact that they can review files from the comfort of offices or homes. The promotion committee was uniformly positive about the use of electronic portfolios the first year in terms of accessibility.
However, the most lauded aspect was the existence of a single format for organizing portfolio materials. Committee members appreciated the fact that for each candidate they could systematically find the information they needed. Overall, the process of converting to electronic portfolios prompted a series of decisions that helped clarify some of the muddier points of personnel review at our university, and made the review of portfolios more effective and accessible.
Dr. Betsy L. Morgan is a professor of psychology and department chair at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She led the conversion to electronic portfolios when serving as the faculty assistant to the provost.
Excerpted from “Tips for Converting to E-portfolios for Faculty Personnel Review.” Academic Leader, 26.1 (2010): 4-5.