MAKING LEARNING VISIBLE: Finding Every Learner’s Potential:
21st Century Learning with Differentiated Assessment & ePortfolios

Evangeline Harris-Stefanakis, Ed.D.
Boston University School of Education

  21st Century Learning, Technology, And Assessment For All

Based on developmental research in assessment for learning PK-20 (Stiggins 1998, Wiggins 2005, Stefanakis 1995,1998,2003,2005,2010) this is a story of building a learning culture at the university level where the power of ePortfolios becomes a way for multiple stakeholders to sit beside the learner to see their assets, to learn how they learn and continue to grow in transitions from high school to college and graduate school. Clearly to best equip individuals who will become the 21st century workforce, it is important to consider what they learn, how they learn, how they document what they learn. This perspective allows professionals in many fields to take a 21st century approach to learning, technology and assessment for all individuals and then design learning environments to use what they know in a life-long and life-wide approach to “learning how to learn” and “grow” academically (Barrett, 2005, Stefanakis, 2010)

Education for the 21st Century:

Diverse Students and Learning Challenges

Advice to the U.S. President from Education Leaders

 Our president has to look at how we are going to bring our …educational system into the 21st century. . . . We have been operating the most unequal educational system in the industrialized world, with dramatically different resources available to different students. At this point in the knowledge economy what…learners need to be able to do is to frame and solve their own problems, find and manage information, organize themselves in teams, and—with collaboration—tackle novel issues. We need to focus our curriculum for tomorrow’s global citizens… on standards that evaluate how people can think and problem solve and invent and create and use knowledge in new ways and continue to learn independently. That means we have to change the assessments that we use. Most countries in the world that are high achieving (Finland, Singapore) have assessments that ask students to think and problem solve and investigate and conduct research. We are still having our learners take exams in blue books and completebubble-in multiple-choice tests, which focus on recall and recognition rather than on these higher order-thinking skills.

Linda Darling-Hammond, President
Stanford University (Education Week, 2009, p. 295) 

Examining the Challenges of U.S. Assessment Policy and Practice

Are current learning environments that educational leaders call schools designed to reveal and teach to the abilities of the learners they serve? Several critical questions, as Linda Darling-Hammond suggests, plague U.S. educators as they strive to develop programs and policies that reach and teach every learner from preschool to college age:

  • · How do we educate today’s diverse population of adolescents to become tomorrow’s global citizens?
  • · How can research on learning and teaching help update educational assessment policies and practices?
  • · How do we comprehensively assess what these individuals now know and will need to know?
  • · How do we “differentiate” assessment to address diverse learning abilities?

This section will outline how ePortfolios at Boston University are bringing about systemic, innovative reform. The effort,  supported by the provost’s office and called, “MAKE LEARNING VISIBLE” uses ePortfolios ( to allow faculty, staff and families to support adolescent learning and learn how to see the assets in challenging learners to provide modifications to better serve their needs. First however it is essential to look at the premises that the “Assessment for Learning” model (Stiggins, 2004) calls for.

ePortfolios: Make Learning Visible To Finding Every Learner’s Potential

As educators responsible for individuals who need to love learning as they transition to adulthood, I pose a key question to reflect on:

How do we, both faculty and students, make it so that we are capturing and demonstrating the true potential of every individual’s diverse mind?

As individuals mature and develop from preschool to graduate school how can an educational system capture the complexities of a “ learner’s mind” through a way of assessment that is comprehensive, visible and available for our multimedia, technological world?

How do today’s professionals and adults interpret the title? It has two parts;

(1) Making Learning Visible (Project Zero, 2003), and
(2) Finding every learner’s potential (Stefanakis 2010).

As a teacher and parent, I’m asking concerned adults who design learning environments this fundamental question. If the goal of education is to “teach individuals how to learn, and what to learn” and then how does an educational system or learning environment “make that learning visible to multiple stakeholders who can “find every learner’s potential and offer a world class body of knowledge. This I believe is a first step for higher education to address the need for deep reform in teaching, learning and assessment. Further, those in higher education also need to better connect to employers who need tomorrow’s professionals who know how to use that knowledge to thrive in a 21st century workforce. Simply put, “ to make learning visible to adults and young people simultaneously so that “ we can actualize each learner’s potential” it requires systematically documenting the process and products of their learning to maximize their growth academically, socially and emotionally.

Assessment For Learning Models For Colleges

 To address this question of how to assess learner’s  at the college level and find their potential, I begin at the beginning of the where we, as a country are in the field of teaching and learning. A picture is worth a thousand words; this image says a great deal about our collective challenge in designing learning environments for tomorrow’s young learners?

 So as educators focused on understanding a model of “assessment for learning”, we need to draw on the expertise of many professionals outside of our field. The community of concerned adults and citizens today may have to collectively bring their talents to the table to address a growing achievement gap in the United States between poor, Afro-American, Latino and other minority groups (add citations). Simply, what we are going to do about it as today’s learners who are digital natives who know more than their instructors in how to learn through the world of technology.

Better ways to assess and teach all learners, especially those from diverse populations is critical to tapping into the “potential” of tomorrow’s high skilled workforce that will lead us into a strong 21st century economy. 

It’s an image that tells about our future. Truth be told, research (add citation, Langer 2009) has shown that babies can learn language through computers at a rate of 5 times as fast as what they can learn from their mother and father in the limited hours they spend with them. So therefore, as much as all of us have been babbling to our dear learners, they need more from us that can allow them to really actualize their learning potential.  A baby learns 10,000 new words a day during their first four years and must continue at that pace until 12 years old in order to master the cognitive academic language of the “ state tests of achievement” that determine their progress through the grades. What does this need to develop immense academic vocabulary by grade 4 suggest for those individuals who may not have the necessary opportunities to learn and grow at this rate academically?


Confusing The Terms Assessment & Evaluation?
Clarifying The Language And Ideas For 21st Century Learning

This is a picture from Stanford University, documenting a very important picture. If you look at the large figure to the right, it has the head of education on it, and it is holding a magnifying glass that says intelligence tests. This image from the autobiography of Lewis Terman, the inventor of intelligence tests that were created at the turn of the 20th century in response to a wave of immigrants brought into or came into the United States. As a graphic etching of history, this whole scene was fabulous depiction of educational reform in a book called “ Schools as Sorters” about Terman and the impact of his “invention” because these intelligence tests were designed around the scientific inquiry, psychology of individuality, and psychometrics (the books in the hand of the large figure of education—all new sciences to study the psychology of individuals that had just been created. Thanks to Lewis Terman, the father and inventor of Intelligence tests,


the field of education could  measure whether an individual was “intelligence” or smart, or not so smart. If one looks deeper into the etching in the background there is the “old methods of educational assessment” used which was basically scooping  the wave of immigrant learners  flowing into schools into bins of class A, class B, and class C. So why do you think students were sorted into Class A, Class B, or Class C? Any hints? How did we sort individuals in the 1900’s into the classes they belong in?  Perhaps it had to do with the language they speak, do they speak English?  Then the obvious that one can see has to do with the clothes they wear, which depicts the money they have –socio-economic status (SES). As historians of American education would reveal it had to do with the color of their skin perhaps, as well.  If this is the new method of the 20th century was the intelligence tests, I’m going to suggest do we see a pattern related to the national movement of education from about 2000?  Could substitute names of new tests in the magnifying glass—SAT’s, ACT’s for college entrance? Could I put graduate entrance and exit based on GRE’s, LSAT’s, GMAT’s or MCAT’s? Could I also add to the magnifying class Mandated High School Graduation tests including MCAS or Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (a Test), NY Regent Tests, Texas Assessments of Achievement (TASS) or a myriad of other high stakes tests developed in the last 10-15 years?

I’m wondering if in a hundred years we’ve learned anything? As educators focused on higher education, I am going to suggest that I think we have terminology that is vital to learn. I’m going to suggest we are very confused about two key educational terms that govern “how judgments are made about learners and their entrance into educational institutions.  There is a serious confusion about the terms  “Assessment” and “Evaluation”. To assess- literally from the root word –“assidiere” in Latin – or “assez-vous” in French --means “to sit beside the learner”.  

Simply, when we sit beside the learner ,we look at what the learner can do directly at eye level, not from a position of power in front of the group. That is, as a faculty member I can sit right down next to a student in my class and observe the process and products of their learning and see how this individual writing and taking notes. She or he could tell me what about what they are writing and thinking with specific details about their thinking process about a topic or assignment.


As faculty members, to assess individuals as children, adolescents, and adults, we need to add assessment to the world of evaluation. As educational policy makers, we also need to  stop claiming that we are assessing and insist that we are just evaluating the potential of our learners to take tests statistically validated and created by the College Board or other test publishers who drive this system in a clear business model determined by those who can afford the necessary “test” preparation courses that determine high scores for most students.

Universal Learning Design: Multiple Entry Points Into Assessment

The issues of entrance into higher educational institutions is clearly determined by high stakes evaluations that are criteria for admission and selection across the US regardless of research that indicates that these tests are discriminatory for particular populations of minorities and women (Steele, 1997, Heubert et all 2003). Entrance into the learning environment and the curriculum and assessment of high educational institutions also does not provide equal access to all populations of students represented in the demographics of the US. A system that acknowledges the potential of technologies to scaffold the entry of diverse groups into the world of education like offering a ramp rather than sets into the building is UDL or ‘universal designs for learning”.

 In our diverse world of higher educational systems has the term” Universal Learning Design” ever been suggested as a key element of planning, programming and service delivery to accommodate the diverse learning styles and backgrounds of students entering the learning environment? Universal Design for Learning developed by Dr. David Rose at Harvard Graduate School of Education and CAST ( suggests that if our learning environments are going to offer access for people with disabilities, or other minority groups, perhaps those with physical disabilities who use a wheel chair, we need to design the building and create a ramp into that building from the beginning to offer the same opportunity to learn to those individuals.

As with current legislation in the field of architecture, this now is a federal mandate in our educational institutions which require specifically designed spaces in classrooms, bathrooms and hallways so that for individuals with disabilities they have access to negotiating the learning environment independently. For everyone, this is part of the preparation of the facility and the resources inside for adults and children are equally available it is accessible to all people, including those who are disabled. Universal Design for Learning is a term borrowed from architecture but directly applicable to the use of technology as a tool to make “ Learning Resources Accessible to those with disabilities or other learning challenges” who are individuals who need a ramp into the “ learning environment”.

Therefore educational planners, policymakers, and faculty members are all in the position to open that door and build in that ramp in to the delivered (Yancey, add date ) curriculum and assessment programs. Therefore, a key question for 21st century educational learning systems is to ask, “How can we combine the element of the redesign of everything from the building of the doorway, to the delivery of the curriculum and assessment to provide a universal design for learning that offers equal access to the educational opportunities for the diverse population it provides for?”

Overall, to approach that attempts to offer “ universal design for learning” suggests that concerned adults need to move to a new paradigm where assessment is about learning how learners learn, and that assessments designed to evaluate are about “measuring up to others” for accountability as well.  

Applying Assessment For Learning Models For Educational Systems

A key idea is what are the purposes for assessments and how are their information used to make decisions about learners. In my experience as an educator working with high school and college age populations if faculty can let students make an ePportfolio and ask them what are the standards and rubrics that govern that portfolio they take ownership of their learning process and products.

Further when there is a collection of student work to begin the conversation, faculty can personalize the learning process for individuals when needed. As an advisor a faculty member can, if needed, talk to a struggling learner, sit beside them, take a minute to allow them to self assess, and in fact be able to find out how to encourage each student’s potential. Its not just about improving student learning, it’s about making learning visible so it is possible to look at how individuals know that they know, and then offer them a ramp into the building so that they can travel through and use the resources available and eventually learn on their own. 

Its also about that if you’re the parent, you have a right to see what your individual learner is doing everyday because maybe they are not having the opportunity to learn, or taught what they need for the test or for anything else. Finally, for those of us who teach, it becomes a question of looking at student’s work to ask “ how are we doing (teacher and students) and how can we” teacher and students” do better. If we regularly look at work samples of our students we can see need if the individuals are “understanding what we teach” and if they are not getting this offers information for faculty to go back and do something different and approach the content in a different way or use a different learning method. In conclusion, an “ assessment for learning model” for 21st century learning environments is a vital next step and e-Portfolios are the vehicle for “Making Learning Visible. By “Making Learning Visible” to multiple stakeholders, which is only possible using an e-Portfolio then we can work on improving the capacity of learning environments to reach these standards of student achievement and bring together every learner’s potential.


Can we design environments to give them that opportunity? I am not sure that we’ve given our learners the opportunity to learn that they deserve and we are in this room and we’re thinking, who could do that? As a case study in institutional reform, Boston University (BU), is an institution, that is supporting an “assessment for learning “model where every student leaves BU’s undergraduate school with an ePortfolio.  As part of  a new innovation, Making Learning Visible” project supported through the Provost’s office and IT (Institutional Technologies) center which is described in the following section of the chapter. We are actively involved with 7,500 first year students at BU, telling their story visually.

Successful Student-Centered Assessment at Boston University




Boston University is entering a stage of tremendous growth in supporting students as they create, develop and optimize their use of ePortfolioa as assessment and learning tools.  The institution believes that the academic work produced by a typical student over the four-years of an undergraduate degree program represents an extremely valuable, and perhaps the most representative body of scholarly, creative, and reflective activity in a person’s life, much, of it usually supervised or taught by eminent scholars in the field. Taken as a whole, this material constitutes an intellectual and creative profile of its author, and it can be showcased for many audiences includin: graduate schools; job applications; use as writing samples; auditions and design competitions; for accreditation and licensing bodies, and, of course, for personal use. It is also important for documenting the extracurricular activity of the student—clearly a large part of the college experience— by showing show how all of the branches of learning over the four-year experience are attached to a common trunk, in short, how the student has unified it all in a personal and professional way.

The BU ePortfolio Project, “Making Learning Visible,” aims to make available to all students an ePortfolio site in which they can create a digital ePortfolio of their academic, creative, and curricular work that can be used for their professional and/or academic goals. As students become more exposed to research in the classroom as a result of a greater commitment to inquiry-based learning—a central recommendation of the recent “One BU” Report on Undergraduate Education— ePortfolios will be crucial in documenting students’ own academic history, offering a complete picture of their achievements. Moreover, as interdisciplinary programs become more embedded within the culture of the University, ePortfolios will offer an environment in which both the diversity and consolidation of this material can be showcased.

A cycle of conferences about ePortfolios, open to all students and faculty, entitled “Making Learning Visible,” was initiated at Boston University in 2008 and showcased the ePortfolio programs currently underway at BU, while also intending to place Boston University in a leadership role within the New England area in the promotion of ePortfolios as a pedagogical and assessment tool.  In just over two years, ePortfolio projects have expanded from a pilot project at the BU Academy high school program for 100 students) to the adoption by almost 5,000 users. Departments that are making use of ePortfolios at BU include Musicology, Music Education, the School of Public Health, the Writing Program, the College of General Studies, and the School of Education, in addition to nascent programs underway at the schools of Dentistry, Social Work, Rehabilitative Sciences, and Medicine.  


Beginning in 2007, faculty and administrators at Boston University began developing a comprehensive assessment system using ePortfolios to document the process and products of student learning.  So far, seven schools and colleges at the university have adopted ePortfolios. The BU ePortfolios include a variety of student work using multi-media formats, as well as student reflections on selected artifacts, writings, movies, art, graphics, posters, and audio, that have been successful in providing “a window into the learner’s mind and diverse abilities” (Stefanakis, 2003). For the Making Connections FIPSE team, the College of General Studies (CGS) leadership team, and the Writing Program leadership team, in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), will be the focus college programs for documenting student and faculty learning.


Scale of Use: Currently there are over 6,000 active portfolios, with another 2,500 planned before June 30, 2011. This includes full implementation in undergraduate programs represented in the College of General Studies, Arts and Sciences in the Writing Program, and the University Honors College, the last an ahead-of-the-curve program that attracts The Decision Group 1 Freshman. At the graduate level, professional studies are piloting programs using ePortfolios in seven schools: Public Health, Education, Rehabilitative Sciences, Medicine, Dentistry, Management and Social Work.

Current Practice in Relation to the Connect to Learning Framework

For the Making Connections Grant activities on campus, teams of 6-8 selected undergraduate BU faculty members and two project leaders will meet monthly at The home campus using the facilities of the Center for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching (CIET) to:


a)     Document the teaching and learning practices and to cultivate student-centered assessment and reflection through ePortfolios over the three-year period using classroom video

b)    Collect data from faculty and student focus groups each semester for three years to understand the challenges for faculty and students using ePortfolios in their courses

c)     Compile and present 14-15 case-studies of student learning from a gallery of undergraduate student ePortfolios in humanities, natural sciences and social sciences 

d)    Facilitate a discussion analyzing these 14-15 case studies of student ePortfolios using interdisciplinary rubrics developed  at BU, based on AAC&U models.

 Institutional interest in ePortfolios  

Strong interest, enterprise and site-license solutions for the software, and adoption of pilot work has led to unusually quick implementation of ePortfolios in undergraduate education, Public Health, (SAR) Dentistry, Graduate Education, and Fine Arts. Clearly, as a result of high demand across the large urban university, there is a need for more support in creating, developing, revising, and optimizing the use of ePortfolios for individual faculty and students to further deepen and customize their projects.

Boston University Institutional Leadership: One BU Making Learning Visible

The Provost’s office, led by Associate Provost Dr. Victor Coelho, guides the overall development of the Making Learning Visible ePortfolio Project at the institutional level and oversees funding in cooperation with the Instructional Technology department and the office of research. At the school and college level, Dean and Lead Faculty teams implement the use of ePortfolios. Dr. Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, as Faculty Fellow in the Provost’s office guides the strategic development, training, research, and the pedagogical revision with schools and colleges. Since 2009, Dr. Coelho and Dr Stefanakis have fostered graduate faculty development in collaboration with Dr. Robert Schadt (Public Health), Celeste Kong (Dentistry), Mary Evenson (Rehab Sciences) and Ruth Freeman (Social Work). Doctoral students that are funded as “Portfolio Scholars” to develop a learning culture offer student-to-student support. Each college has a dean or faculty coordinator who organizes support training, faculty development, and other ePortfolio activities.


Undergraduate Campus Leadership Team: Compiled experiences and qualifications[BLK1] 

Dr Victor Coelho as Provost and a Professor of Musicology has a long history of use of portfolio to document performance, scholarship, and competency in specific domains of Fine Arts.  In 2007 when he became the first Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education he immediately spearheaded the “Making Learning Visible Project” to generate faculty development in new models for curriculum and assessment reform that are more students centered, multifaceted, and technologically based.

Dr Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, Associate Professor in Educational Leadership has a long history in implementing portfolios at the K-12 level, in collaboration with the Higher Education Partners and States of Massachusetts (Harvard) and New York (Teachers College Columbia). She has written two books on the use of ePortfolios, has consulted widely in the areas of assessment for learning and currently supports the training of adults and learners in collecting and reflecting on work in academics and professional learning environments.

The Leadership team at the College of General studies Dr. Linda Wells Dean, Dr. Natalie McKnight, Professor, Assistant Dean, and their faculty leaders has successful launched an ePortfolio project partially funded by a Davis Grant, involving all of its 1400 students and 50 faculty. They have used ePortfolio to innovate pedagogical practices, to encourage student to make connections between academic work and the world beyond academia and reflect on their learning process, and to assess the impact of the colleges two-year general education program. Members of the team have strong skills in the pedagogy of portfolio and will be making a presentation on ePortfolios at the AAC& U conference in Chicago in March 2011.

The Leadership team in the College of Arts and Sciences has considerable background in portfolio pedagogy from Harvard, Columbia, NYU and other institutions where they previously served.

Dr. Joseph Bizup, coming from Columbia, has been directing writing programs for over a decade. Dr. Brad Queen and Gwen Kondonwey has been teaching writing for over a decade and is currently engaged in a research project on "far transfer." Dr. Chris Walsh has primary responsibility for administering the Writing Program's portfolio-based curriculum. Members of the team presented their findings from this project at the AAC&U conference in Chicago in March, 2011. 

2010-2011 FIPSE[1] GRANTS:  Making Connections with Partners in Higher Education

In this Making Connections mini-grant the BU leadership team is a CORE CAMPUS and plans to engage in strategic partnerships with collaborating institutions related to ePortfolio development. The overarching goal at BU is to build an assessment-for-learning model for twenty-first-century Undergraduate Education at BU based on what we learn from participating in this project with other institutions. The mutual goals at BU and in joining the Making Connections network are to:

1) Advance Our Campus Initiative: working with external ePortfolio groups to better understand and document The internal work in ePortfolio and its impact on teaching and learning;

2) Build pedagogies at BU based on proven practices of Connections partners- planning for classroom and course strategies that can facilitate the further implementation of ePortfolios related to teaching and learning;

3) Plan for and document institutional and classroom change: conducting undergraduate program evaluation through developing models for assessing student portfolios based on AAC&U-driven rubrics.

4) Develop a BU undergraduate rubric, based on AAC&U models, to assess the quality of a two-year cohort of ePortfolios from two sectors of BU undergraduates.

Specifically between 2011 and 2012, the BU Making Connections team will focus on undergraduate education and will aim to:

  • Document teaching and learning practices through creating case studies 
  • Identify and problem-solve around the common implementation challenges for BU faculty and students in implementing ePortfolios and adopting rubrics for their assessment;
  • Study the quality of selected case studies from a gallery of student ePortfolios created at CGS and the Writing Program, and tracking the growth evident in student work samples from the first two years of college;
  • ·-Use case study research strategies to analyze cohorts of those portfolios which demonstrate improvement in student learning

In particular, the BU Making Connections Leadership team plans to consider how a comprehensive assessment system using ePortfolios can makes general education learning more visible for students, faculty, and administrators in their own programs and can be a collaborative efforts spearheaded by the “Dean of Students” office, the Provost, and the Centers of Institutional Technologies. 

[1] FIPSE stands for Federal Innovations in Post Secondary Education and are grants awarded by the Department of Education at a national level encouraging research and development in schools and colleges throughout the US.