Making the complex simple: a multi-program digital portfolio for Northwestern University

Leveraging the versatility of an educational content management system (CMS) my team had developed for the School of Communication, we were approached with a proposal by the School of Education and Social Policy to extend the CMS functionality to create a web-based platform for the Master of Science in Education program - based on a rubric, or conceptual framework, established by the certification body of the State of Illinois.

After an intensive series of interviews and user studies we defined the users/roles: candidatesreviewers and administrators; established the framework: artifacts and their corresponding reflections; and established the workflows: mapping of artifacts/reflections to the conceptual framework, assignment of reviewers to candidates; and movement through a series of 3 checkpoints to certification. 


The system's complexity was increased by 2 additional factors: (1) the various cohorts were drawn from multiple years, with start dates staggered across different semesters; (2) the framework varied across the 3 distinct user groups (School of Music, MSEd, MSLOC); (3) candidates and reviewers were allowed multiple iterations of any given artifact, and (4) candidates were allowed to create multiple portfolios - e.g. one for their program, and a professional portfolio.


The initial build was handled by myself and one developer, Marc Flury (Lead Developer for Guitar Hero, by Harmonix), and subsequent development was with another developer, William Siegrist (now with Apple's open source project, SourceForge).We used an agile-style method of software development - with rapid prototyping, testing and quick integration of feedback into functionality improvements and help/FAQ.


One of the unexpected benefits of the software design was that by mapping each artifact/reflection to the State of Illinois standard, (1) during cyclical reviews by the State, the programs were able to present a body of evidence (the student work) for the review process, and (2) prospective students were able to view the caliber of work being generated by current and previous students.


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