The New Digital Stars Of Higher Education

Peripheral characters have a funny way of changing our perspective. Once bit players, they invert our understanding of the plot, turn heroes into villains and reframe the issues. Looking at challenge — or stories — from the outside-in brings minor events to the forefront of the narrative to help us figure out what really happened — and why.

Consider poor, misunderstood Captain Hook’s take on the better-known version of Peter Pan. Or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an inverted version of Hamlet, where Hamlet plays a small part — his story retold through the lens of his bumbling, doomed childhood friends.

Higher education is going through a well-documented digital revolution. Colleges and universities are awash in data. Accelerated-learning “bootcamps” challenge the supremacy of the establishment. But, as it turns out, it just might be higher education’s digital sidekicks that have the potential to unmask — and transform — higher education’s greatest challenge.

Today, millions of students are creating digital repositories for their work — the evolution of faculty-assigned, print-based portfolios dating back to the eighties. The rationale for so-called ePortfolios was simple: create an easy way for students to collect their work to highlight and reflect on what they’ve learned.

Historically, the audience for student portfolios was limited to faculty; the decision to adopt ePortfolios was viewed as curricular and, therefore, the province of individual faculty. Digital content and learning management systems, like Blackboard, had the leading role. But in the past year, ePortfolios are drawing interest from presidents, provosts and employers. Just last month, Cal State rolled out a massive initiative to make ePortfolios available to more than 3 million students and alumni.

Why are ePortfolios becoming the new star of higher education? Because they have the potential to solve three major problems for employers, colleges and universities.

Peripheral characters have a funny way of changing our perspective.

First is what Peter Capelli of Penn’s Wharton School calls “The Home Depot” problem. There are more than five million unfilled jobs — and as many articles featuring employers whining about unprepared workers. In the absence of better data, employers look to specific degree programs or institutions as a proxy for quality and alignment with workplace needs. Hiring a new employee is like “replacing a part in a washing machine.”

The store either has the part, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, the employer waits — to the detriment of job-seeking graduates. The ubiquity of ePortfolios means that, for the first time, student work is machine-readable. Employers can look beyond the degree to spot patterns across student work, assess its relevance to workplace demands and use predictive algorithms to parse competencies and match candidates to job descriptions.

Newfound data from ePortfolios also allows employers to identify future talent (e.g., sophomores and juniors), develop a candidate pipeline and begin meaningful engagement through internships to evaluate student work firsthand.

The second problem stems from increasing skepticism about the value of a college degree. Colleges and universities need to make the case that the value of the degree extends beyond its component parts. Tuition costs are up, perceived value is down. Reports suggest that half of recent graduates are unemployed or under-employed. Colleges and universities need to provide students and graduates with additional training and tools to improve immediate employability.

From the perspective of the Valley and policymakers, alike, the explosion of more granular, student-level data enabled by ePortfolios can help solve an even more vexing, and arguably important, problem: Diversity.

Fifty years ago, higher education was viewed as the great engine of American social and economic mobility. Increasing evidence suggests that the motor may have stalled.

Seventy-five percent of students at the 200 most-selective colleges come from the top income quartile; only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile. The persistent achievement gaps of our K-12 education system extend into post-secondary education — and are reflected in our tech diversity gap. But that, too, is changing. More than 30 states now require that all students create ePortfolios and individualized learning plans, as early as middle school. More and more are digital.

Where there’s a market disconnect, digital marketplaces often evolve to make beneficial connections.

Last month, 80 of the country’s most selective institutions — including the Ivy League schools, Stanford, University of Chicago, Amherst, Swarthmore and Williams — announced a plan to offer free ePortfolios to high school students.

Students will be encouraged to upload examples of their best work, starting in ninth grade, to provide colleges and universities with more and better information about their capabilities and potential. Critics contend that the process risks exacerbating the college admissions arms race, as wealthy students, aided and abetted by consultants, create mega portfolios to improve their odds.

In many ways, the talent and diversity gaps that plague higher education represent the same sort of interoperability challenges we’ve faced in other sectors. And like so many other sectors, where there’s a market disconnect, digital marketplaces often evolve to make beneficial connections.

Once a side-show, ePortfolios are beginning to play a more central role in higher education, connecting both forward (graduates to jobs) and backward (high school students to admissions).

Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the days of viewing ePortfolios as peripheral rather than central are dead.