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Macaulay Springboards: The Capstone as an Open Learning Eportfolio

a later version of this essay appears in Eportfolio as Curriculum, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, from Stylus Publishing.

Macaulay Springboards: The Capstone as an Open Learning Eportfolio

Joseph Ugoretz

Macaulay Honors College, CUNY

 

Introduction

A department office at a large public university is often a busy place. When I was an undergraduate, long ago, that was certainly the case. There was a small room, though, through a frosted-glass door, attached to the department office at the university where I was a student, and that room was not busy at all. Nobody, it seemed, ever went in or out that frosted door. One day, while waiting for a signature on a form, I opened the door and looked in. The room was full of filing cabinets, tall, grey and solidly packed against the walls. Even peeking through the door, I could see dust on the tops of the cabinets. These were not cabinets for frequently-used files.

Closing the door, I asked the department secretary what those were. “The honors thesis files,” she said. “To graduate with honors, you have to write a thesis. When you turn it in, I file it in there.”

I was certainly not an honors student myself. I wasn’t going to write a thesis, turn it in, or have it filed anywhere. But I was struck by the dusty, secluded fate of those theses.

Later, as a graduate student, I would write a thesis. And a dissertation. I would serve as an advisor and committee member receiving and evaluating many of them. Later still, I would see the movement (in many institutions) from the strict definition of a thesis to the somewhat broader concept of a capstone.

It’s with that concept that I want to begin.

The Capstone Requirement

A capstone project is a project of significant reach and scope designed to bring together and demonstrate a student’s learning in a specific major or program. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities Brief Overview of High-Impact Educational Practices, “these culminating experiences require students nearing the end of their college years to create a project of some sort that integrates and applies what they’ve learned.” (https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips)

Generally speaking, a capstone, like a thesis, is supposed to culminate an educational experience and demonstrate that a student is now experienced and capable as a scholar and practitioner of the field in which she has been trained. The idea of the capstone is the idea of demonstrating and documenting and making clear that there is now a level of expertise and that there is a significant example of accomplishment that can be certified. Certification and exhibition are the keys to the capstone. Generally, these productions are judged, rated, accepted by some body of experts that rules them acceptable. A capstone is often supported by a course or group of courses, and may also include creative or artistic productions, but, more frequently than not, it is a long (usually, but not always, longer than the final assignment for a single course) formal paper. Often it takes the form of a “mini-dissertation,” complete with the sections that are often found in a dissertation or monograph produced by advanced scholars in the student’s chosen field.

My institution, Macaulay Honors College, is the honors college of the City University of New York. We have high-performing students across eight campuses, in over 300 different majors, united by a common identity as honors students, a common set of interdisciplinary seminars in critical thinking in the first two years, and a common set of rigorous academic requirements (spelled out in the student handbook at https://macaulay.cuny.edu/community/handbook/). One of those requirements, from the launch of the Honors College in 2001, has been the requirement to complete an honors thesis or capstone project. This is a common requirement in honors programs nationally; the National Collegiate Honors Council includes an honors thesis or capstone requirement as one of the “Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors College” (https://www.nchchonors.org/uploaded/NCHC_FILES/PDFs/NCHC_Basic_Characteristics-College_2017.pdf). At Macaulay, these projects were completed in the student’s own major or program on their own campus in most cases, and with the advisement of a faculty member from that department. The departments were responsible for assigning, reviewing and judging these projects.

Each year, advisors, campus directors, or the students themselves could nominate a thesis to be considered for the annual Thesis Award to be presented at commencement. These awards, in fact, were the only central review of the projects that took place, even though creating the projects was a central requirement. Almost every project nominated was, as should be expected from honors students, of high quality and broad scope, within a specific academic area. It was often difficult for the committee to select a winner, and the Thesis Award (later renamed the Capstone Award as that broader terminology became more current, but most awards were still given to students whose “capstone” was a thesis) was a pleasant surprise and a positive reinforcement for the students who received it.

Beginning in 2005, Macaulay Honors College also provided a course, a year-long (two-semester sequence) “thesis colloquium” as a purely optional or voluntary support mechanism for students who wanted extra structure and encouragement in completing their projects. This course accepted students from different majors or programs, as well as those who had interdisciplinary or hard-to-classify interests. It was a successful course and students who took the course had uniformly strong thesis projects at the end, as well as presentations at national and local undergraduate research conferences. Because it was optional and the students taking the course were self-selected, the numbers were always small—often only five or six students (out of a graduating class of approximately 500 in the honors college as a whole).

So this was the model at Macaulay—a not uncommon model for an honors college, or for many kinds of similar programs. Students were “required” (although the stringency of that requirement was somewhat inconsistent) to complete a project that was called (variously) a thesis or a capstone. The college (and the departments) provided varying levels of support and scaffolding for these projects, but for the most part, like a master’s thesis or a dissertation, they were independent projects, closely echoing the master’s thesis or dissertation but on a slightly smaller scale.

At the same time, we had introduced (beginning in 2008) our own eportfolio platform for all students. Eportfolios@Macaulay (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios), built in WordPress to allow maximum flexibility and individual control for students, was being used as a learning management system, as well as for group projects, individual student projects, student and faculty publications, class assignments, reflective travel journals, and a wide range of other purposes. The diversity and individuality of the eportfolios was appealing to students and the openness and flexibility of design and audience interaction was providing students with a strong motivation to do impressive work and spend time and energy on representing and reflecting on their learning.

As the then-Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Technology, I consulted with the instructor of the thesis colloquium course and showed her a few examples of the kinds of work students were doing with eportfolios. She was impressed by the students’ increased sense of ownership of their work, the integration of the diverse elements of their learning and the students’ participation in actively deciding what was most powerful and significant for inclusion in their eportfolios. She agreed to make a small preliminary adjustment to the thesis colloquium course. As an addition to the assignments and activities of the course, all of which led to the traditional thesis paper, we asked each of the students to create an eportfolio as a representation of the thesis project.

There was still a lengthy, well-researched written paper as a final outcome or production of the class, but some students (this started out as a non-required option) also elected to use an eportfolio to do something more than simply posting the paper online. They included early drafts, initial research directions that weren’t ultimately followed, and personal reflections. The first students to take this direction, in the spring of 2011, were those with interests that were more interdisciplinary, more connected to contemporary culture, and (not surprisingly) students who were more fluent and capable with digital tools.

And in the first projects that took this direction, we started to see a kind of richness, a kind of connection to the material, and a kind of life beyond the requirement, beyond the bachelor’s degree, and beyond the dusty secluded fate of the thesis room’s filing cabinets.

An early and successful example is “Ending Dualism at Hogwarts” (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/hpapocalypse/ ). There are several implications of this project that we noticed as the student was developing it and that we wanted to explore further. First, the student was able, through the “about me” section, as well as the FAQ, to provide a context and a connection to her own interests—to what made the thesis project interesting and valuable to her, beyond the scope of a requirement or assignment. “Why Harry Potter? Wouldn’t a more serious thesis be a better way to spend your time and energy?” the student asks in her FAQ list. Her answer,

[the enormous popularity of these books] puts a lot of kids (and adults!) on the receiving end of a pretty explicit moral message about the importance of love, selflessness, tolerance and social justice. I don’t think it would be a waste of time to study how Rowling was able to achieve that kind of success. It would certainly be of interest to future authors and anyone else who also wants to promote those values in a way people can understand and enjoy. As someone who falls into that latter group, I think this project is just about as serious as it gets.

links her own project to a wider universe of discourse, as well as to her own identity and personality.

Also, in making design decisions, in thinking about how to present and organize her eportfolio site, she was able to think about categories and taxonomies for her work (when is a draft a draft? What makes a revision into a separate direction?). And because the site lives on the open web, she could make decisions about licensing (she chose a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial license) and sharing. Not only could she decide that her work (or portions of her work that she selected) could move beyond the secluded file cabinet, but she could actually invite and encourage further interaction beyond the moment of “completion” of the project and the degree. (And in fact, this student does still link to the site on her LinkedIn profile as of this writing, more than six years after she graduated, now that she is fully established in a post-graduate career).

As an English teacher and student of literature, I like to think through terms and terminology, and dig into metaphors. Looking at “Ending Dualism at Hogwarts” and other projects from our early efforts to use eportfolios as part of a capstone experience, I started to think further about the term “capstone.” A capstone is a crowning accomplishment, a moment of completion.

It’s also, as an object, outside of any metaphorical meaning, in the most literal sense, a stone. This idea was somewhat troubling.

We didn’t (and don’t) want the final project of a student’s undergraduate degree to be something heavy and limiting. A “stone” that is a “cap” implies an end to further exploration, a finished structure that can’t be altered, a maximum high point that can’t be surpassed. A capstone is something that will sit in one place, immovable and unexamined. But that was not the kind of product that we wanted these projects to lead to, and it was not the kind of experience that we wanted for our students as they finished their undergraduate degrees.

The Springboard Concept

It was this thinking that led to the idea of the “springboard” course and the “springboard” project. In using the term “springboard,” I was thinking of the typical understanding of the term–a diving board at a swimming pool–but I was also drawing on some of my own long-past circus experience and imagining an act that we called the springboard, but that I’ve since learned is usually called the Russian Bar (http://www.fedec.eu/en/articles/416-russian-bar) . The Russian Bar is held on the shoulders of two strong performers while a lighter agile performer (the “flyer”) does jumps, twirls and stunts using the launching impetus gained from the flexibility of the bar and the strength of the holders. I liked the idea of the project as a launching pad, an impulse to further growth and research and exploration, but more than that as a type of performance that was practiced but also public, meant to be shared and received by an audience, and actually even produced as a community effort. The student creating a springboard project, like the flyer on the Russian Bar, launches higher because she’s working from a flexible base and because there are others helping and pushing and working in concert. The individual performance is not completely or solely an individual effort based on individual strength. The concept emphasizes the reality (one of our desired outcomes) that every individual project is also collective. Without the participation of others, every project is incomplete and doesn’t go as far as it needs to.

So with this metaphor in mind, with this new approach developed, we recruited students for a new version of what used to be our “thesis colloquium.” This course used the eportfolio as a central organizing element of the curriculum so that students from diverse academic interests and with diverse types of projects could work together to produce the products, the springboard projects, that would be represented in the eportfolio projects that would be (along with the written thesis project that they still produced) the final outcome of the course. Students in the course would develop eportfolios as part of the process of taking the course, and a final eportfolio (sometimes, but not always, the same site) would be the final presentation and product, in addition to whatever written thesis or creative work their academic program required. This was an additional requirement in a course that already had a heavy workload, but by integrating the springboard project (the eportfolio) into the thesis colloquium, the additional requirement could work as a support system for the existing requirements. Working on the springboard helped the work on the thesis, and the thesis helped the work on the springboard.

We launched the course with a website (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/springboard/) , developing the idea and proposing it to interested students, in the spring of 2013, for students who would be able to begin the course in the fall of 2013 to graduate with completed projects in the spring of 2014. On the site, and in presentations for students to explain the idea, we started with a set of foundational principles:

The springboard project:

  1. Builds on a student’s earlier work and displays and reflects that work.

  2. Proposes new directions, asks unanswered questions, poses unresolved dilemmas. In response to these challenges, the Springboard Project proposes specific research and learning pathways, providing a plan with clear goals and defined next steps

  3. Includes personal reflection, uniting the affective and the cognitive elements of research.

  4. Includes multimedia facets, utilizing appropriate tools and presentation techniques to present extra-textual resources.

  5. Is presented to, and open to the interaction of, a wide public audience. It is a multidirectional communication.

These have remained as the guiding principles or ground rules for the course as it has continued to be offered, although we have continued to modify and develop the practical expressions of these principles. Each of these principles feeds directly into eportfolio-connected activities within the course curriculum, and each draws from the particular affordances of eportfolio pedagogy.

The Springboard Course

The springboard course, as the first principle states, is designed to be integrative, to pull together the disparate pieces of a student’s educational career (during college and before. And after). One way to help students make these connections, we have found, is to ask them to develop and post online digital, multimedia, educational timelines and to post those to their eportfolios. These digital timelines allow students to map out the course of their education from their earliest days (in elementary school and before) to the present and projecting into the future. Because the timelines are digital, students are able to include illustrative images, videos, links to websites and

other media to represent each of the separate moments or dates on the timeline—moments or dates that the students designated as significant in their educations—and to provide a sense of movement and progress that a static text-based timeline can’t easily communicate (we generally have students use the open-source TimelineJS tool for this). In most cases these separate dates or moments on the timelines were also developed and described in posts on the eportfolios. By building this assignment into the course curriculum and making the presentation of this wide-ranging timeline part of the presentation of the final project, we ask students to locate the final projects not only as culminations or final achievements of their education, but as connected pieces of the larger set of experiences. Students include classes and in-school activities and assignments in their timelines, but also life events and discoveries that are not connected directly to school (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/thevictoriaproject/timeline/ is one example. The student includes her daycare experience, various elementary and middle school teachers and projects that were memorable for her, college courses and study abroad trips, and more.

We also specifically ask students, in connecting their classwork and outside of classwork to these final projects, to look ahead, as well as behind. The eportfolios, by providing students a space to capture their research process and to reflect on it as it was ongoing, prompt a projection of their work into the future, beyond the confines of the undergraduate degree. Locating learning as a process that is ongoing and integrated helps students to see that they could plan out specific paths and directions (even when those were unclear at first…or even when they remained unclear) for uniting their interests and launching their learning into new areas and new interactions (“With my springboard project,” writes one student, “I sought to figure out what factors cause frustration in the math classroom, and then I looked at different techniques currently used by educators to reach ELL [English Language Learner] students. Hopefully, I can take these lessons with me, as I move forward with my goal of becoming a math teacher in the New York City public school classroom.” https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/mehnaj/springboard-project-improving-secondary-mathematics-instruction-for-english-language-learners/ ).

Similarly, we ask all the springboard students, no matter their field, to complete an assignment to create and post on the eportfolio a syllabus for a future class, that the student would teach, on the subject of her project. Even students who don’t have majors or career goals in education have years of experience with classes and syllabi (from the student side) and very strong opinions about what makes an effective or ineffective syllabus. This assignment gives students the opportunity to conceive of their education as something that gives them the role of expert, of sharer of expertise. Making their syllabi public on the eportfolio gives them a concrete reality and commitment to communicating their expertise and participating in the further development of their field.

 

One of the things that so often gets lost in the thesis or capstone project is, as our third principle tries to address, the affective component that is so critical to personal connection with the work. Advanced scholars know that the joy of research is what balances the frustration. The suspense and inspiration balance the tedium and the concentration. The eportfolio model, with reflection central and with a space (able to be prominently featured) for journaling the process as well as the product, allowed our springboard students to include, rather than denying, the different emotional responses they were having to the work. The students keep research journals right in their eportfolios, and that section can enliven the final product while still allowing the students to have and honor the emotional component as well as connecting it to the intellectual component (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/monsters/2016/11/08/salem-reflections/) “At some point in my research, I knew I would have to visit Salem,” begins one such journal from a student researching monsters in popular culture. Her journal entry details not just her research, but the entire process of dealing with an unfamiliar small town, problems with weather, businesses being closed and uncertain public transportation, and all the emotional effects of these obstacles.

When I could contact the family who tried to help me get out of Salem, I expressed my fears, uncertainties, gratitude, fatigue, and chill. I sent photos of how red my hands had become, jammed in the pockets of the winter jacket, and the inability to Facetime just covered the embarrassing tear-streaks over reddened cheeks as I tried to make my voice normal for them. I spoke more of the cold and the quick turn of the weather than the real life horror scenario I’d just run through.

And she connects her own experience to the subjects and her research,

My experience of uncertainty and fear was brief and largely psychologically built, but life in the colonies was filled with uncertainties and fears of that nature in day-to-day life. These could include insecurities about health of the self or young children, where mortality from sicknesses was much higher than today; insecurities about crops or catches leading to food insecurity or commercial insecurity; insecurities about the weather impacting home and property; insecurities about wild animals and other dangers of the wilderness surrounding them; and even insecurities in soulcraft, where Satan was real, his effects visible, devils prominent, and salvation uncertain and subject to rescindment.

In addition, because the eportfolio captures all the different steps of the process, students are able to evaluate for themselves what kinds of techniques (outlining, annotating, mind-mapping, interviewing, fieldwork, lab experimentation, etc.) are most effective for their own particular learning styles and topics. All these techniques and the students’ self-evaluations of them become pieces of the larger picture that the project presents—it’s not just about the product, but the entire process.

Eportfolios, unlike traditional written papers, provide the unique opportunity for the inclusion of multimedia materials. Interactive digital timelines are one such element, as discussed above. Beyond timelines, students include video, maps, drawings and photography, and audio files, as appropriate and connected to their projects. This has proven especially helpful for students who are using the springboard option to pursue a more interdisciplinary approach than their major field of study would normally include. When a student’s academic interests include both biology and art, for example, and she wants her research and project to include the connections she sees in these two areas, an eportfolio is often the best space to make those connections. Because an eportfolio can take a range of different designs and make connections via hyperlink, allowing the connections to be multiple, multi-directional and digressive when necessary, a student can create a design that is actually about (for example) medical illustration as a unified, complete and integrated interest, rather than segregating her skills in only lab research or only charcoal drawing. She doesn’t need to ignore or short-change any of her interests or diminish the connections between and among them. (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/wormsandlearning/)

The fifth principle of the springboard course and project is one that is uniquely fulfilled by the eportfolio, and one that is a direct response to the problem of the dusty filing cabinets in the thesis room with which I began this essay. Macaulay’s eportfolio platform, based in WordPress, provides a range of options for publication and sharing. Students themselves can decide whether to make their final eportfolios public, public only to the Macaulay community, password-protected (so that only individuals to whom they give explicit access can see it), or private. And they can make these decisions in different ways at different times, changing the settings themselves, as they develop the eportfolios. They can also choose to have only certain parts or sections of the eportfolio public, or partially public, at certain times. It’s not an all-or-nothing decision. This gives students the freedom to take risks and explore difficult material, but also to have sharing and taking part in a wider intellectual community as a sanctioned goal.

WordPress is (if the student sets the options to allow this) a platform that is extremely well optimized for search engine discovery. So students’ work, rather than sitting isolated and abandoned, is discoverable widely and by the entire range of learners who might be interested in their topics (to the extent that students share their work). And those external learners, that wider community, have (again, with the student’s control and moderation) the potential to add comments and further the discussion. This openness to participation from an audience is a key feature of the eportfolio. Some students, in fact, in a move that we encourage when appropriate, even actively promote and invite participation from their audiences, through FAQ’s, posting and linking to their eportfolios on social media, or even opening a “share your story” page right on the springboard eportfolio site. (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/storytelling/share/). In some ways this openness to external participation calls into question the traditional definition of an eportfolio. If an eportfolio includes the work of others, rather than just the student herself, is that still an eportfolio? Is it still the work of that student? These are open questions, not just about eportfolios as a genre, but about the overall nature of scholarly inquiry. They are questions that we want students to see as live issues, as philosophical positions on which they can have a stance and to which they can contribute. In making decisions about what kind of sharing what kind of participation they want to offer to readers, even into the future, students are pushed to actively consider and debate, rather than just passively receive, conclusions about research and scholarship that will continue to influence their learning far beyond college.

Not so directly connected to the eportfolio element of this course’s curriculum, but nonetheless critical to our efforts to have students open their projects to a wider audience, has been our commitment to having students present their work in this class publicly at national conferences (such as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and others). Traveling together as a class, having the experience of acting as members of an academic community and sharing their research with other scholars across disciplines provides the students with a perspective on their work and its place in the intellectual landscape they are entering.

Conclusions and Looking Forward

As the springboard class and its curriculum has developed over the past few years, moving beyond the pilot initiative, we have noticed some surprises. Perhaps connected to the way we originally proposed and presented the course, we have encountered larger numbers of students who have interdisciplinary or otherwise unusual ideas for topics. A major challenge for the course and the students has been pushing the students to narrow and focus these topics. The freedom that the eportfolio curriculum offers, the inclusiveness of digressions and of a range of only minimally connected material, has sometimes been more of an obstacle than a benefit. Yet at the same time, the eportfolio’s emphasis on process and reflection has allowed the course instructors to point clearly and concretely to when these obstacles were arising, and for the students to take the advice (after narrating and processing it in the eportfolio’s research journal) to narrow and specify when necessary (while preserving the digressions and “unrelated” pathways as directions to be pursued in the future).

Another challenge for the course instructors has been that students sometimes undertake projects that have subjects well outside the instructor’s own area of expertise. The math major in a springboard class taught by a historian, or the comparative literature major in the course taught by an ecologist, have challenges that are not there for a more typical thesis project supervised by a professor in that particular field. We work with this challenge by asking for some consulting from colleagues when necessary, but also because one emphasis of the course and the project is in communicating to a wide range of audiences. A student writing a math thesis may have a thesis (that will be included in the eportfolio) that will not be readily understood by a non-mathematician. But the research process, the journaling and the reflection, as well as the student’s own summaries and proposals about the project are readable and understandable (and directed towards) by a wider range of audiences, who can then decide whether or not to read the thesis itself and will certainly have the context required to understand that thesis more fully, even if they are themselves mathematicians.

We also have found (what should not have been surprising) that this curriculum is not a panacea. The eportfolio-centered curriculum, the collaborative support and scaffolding of assignments, the shared commitment to presentation and personal engagement and integration—all of these are helpful for students with a wide range of abilities and levels of commitment to the project. The factors that make this class different tend to have a positive effect on even the weakest students, even those most distracted by life events and stressors. But the class and the project do still require intellectual ability, motivation and commitment. Even in a self-selected group of students, even in a course pilot that is optional and open, we still do not always see that.

Looking to the future, we hope to make this model more prominent, to convert a majority of our current thesis or capstone projects to springboard classes. Already in the few years since our first pilot, we have transferred the instruction of the course to several different professors, all of whom have added their own elements and refined the approach. Each year, the number of students volunteering for this option has grown. There are requirements to successfully implement this type of curriculum. The instructor has to have an interdisciplinary bent (in the 2017-2018 academic year we are experimenting with a team-teaching approach with two instructors and two linked sections of the course) and be willing to work closely with a group of students with varying interests over a full year. The class size has to be small (the amount of close participation in student work through many stages is otherwise too onerous). And the instructor has to be extremely adept in the eportfolio platform as well as the other digital and multimedia tools that the students will want to explore and utilize. At Macaulay, we assign an Instructional Technology Fellow (a doctoral student with both teaching experience and digital technology expertise) to assist in the course, helping students (and the professor, no matter how adept) to use the most current tools for research, communication and presentation, and to incorporate these into the eportfolio.

The eportfolio-centered curriculum of the Macaulay Springboards is developing, for our students, as a productive and powerful alternative to the dusty seclusion of the filing cabinets of the thesis rooms. Students in this program are able to complete projects, to develop eportfolios, that situate their learning in their larger life narratives, that integrate their studies across disciplines and fields, and that give them a place in the wider scholarly and intellectual communities across academia and the digitally-connected world.

 


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