A new tool aimed at highlighting the range of skills acquired by students in African universities during their studies that could be shared with employers has been piloted in three East African higher learning institutions.
Users and promoters are confident that the electronic portfolio could also enhance learner skills. The ePortfolio has been tested at Makerere University in Uganda, the Open University of Tanzania and Kenya’s Maseno University in an initiative involving 197 students and 16 lecturers.
An ePortfolio is a digital tool used in several universities across the world to document, capture, store and archive a student’s learning journey. This includes content learned, exams results and assignments and activities undertaken. It includes input of lecturers and the industry.
The ePortfolio is a repository that acts like a page but can be shared with others. It showcases a student’s academic data and qualifications for employment applications, professional registration, and career advancement, or when seeking research awards and grants.
Aim is employability
As part of the pilot project, the universities have benefited from a three-year €4 million (US$4.83 million) European Commission-funded project, the EPICA Initiative.
EPICA is a consortium that brings African and European role-players together such as the African Virtual University (AVU), the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), learning technologies tool developer MyDocumenta, and the Open University of Catalonia (OUC) in Spain.
The universities participating in the pilot are also included. The EPICA ePortfolio is specifically adapted to the skills and demands of the African job market, said Torunn Gjelsvik, the secretary-general of ICDE at a virtual conference, “Increasing university graduates’ employability chances through the use of an innovative ePortfolio”, hosted by eLearning Africa on December 10, 2020.
“The main users of the EPICA outcomes will be teachers and administrators from universities, employers … and, of course, students,” Gjelsvik said. Gjelsvik said the ICDE’s interest in the EPICA project is to help enhance employability of graduates through education and innovative use of technology, while promoting “crosssectorial partnership as well as the north-south collaboration”.
Through the project, an “innovative and scalable ePortfolio” was developed to enhance the visibility of skills and competencies of graduate students.
Proof of proficiency
According to Rebecca Stromeyer, founder of eLearning Africa and the director of Integrated Communications Worldwide Events (ICWE), an ePortfolio describes an electronic folder to collect documents such as publications, writing examples, research, presentations, assignments, research papers as well as digital media such as audio and video projects.
The goal is to demonstrate what a student has learned, and what skills and competencies he or she has acquired. “It can serve as a proof of proficiency. It also serves to present the learning outcomes and learning paths of one’s learning journey,” Stromeyer told University World News.
It helps learners document their skills and accomplishments, and serves as a medium for self-reflection of their personal development. It helps teachers by making a student’s learning path and outcomes visible. “At the same time, it benefits employers by enabling a deeper understanding of the candidate’s competencies with proper examples,” she added.
Some universities in South Africa have been using the tool for some time for assessment and for keeping records of learners’ academic progress, but it has not been widely adopted elsewhere on the continent.
Its usage in Europe has been growing over the past 10 years and the European Commission has been funding projects like EPICA to promote them as a ‘pedagogical practice’ to help minimise the gap between the needs of the labour market and the skills universities offer, Stromeyer said.
Visibility of skills
The ePortfolio is more entrenched in the United States as a learner-centred tool to reflect students’ achievements and goals. However, the big difference with the EPICA ePortfolio is its focus on skills visibility and the direct engagement with employers in a bid to increase the employability of its users, she explained.
It is suited to both undergraduate and postgraduate students. With the pilot ending last December, the next stage will be for African universities to adapt the ePortfolio’s use as the developer looks for distributors across Africa, she said.
According to Michael Opiyoh, EPICA coordinator at Maseno University, a good degree in a relevant field is important, but this might not make a student stand out. Now employers can also have insight into soft or transferable skills, which are separate from the technical knowledge a graduate possesses, he said.
These skills mainly included communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork capabilities, creative and critical thinking skills. Others are digital skills and leadership self-motivation capabilities and generic attributes such as patience and punctuality.
Similar education management tools in the market include the open source Mahara, developed by New Zealand ICT company Catalyst.