In May 2008, the University of Wolverhampton will host the Third European First Year Experience (EFYE) conference, which brings to the table academics, researchers, support staff, and students, who share similar concerns regarding new student generations' opportunities to have successful, quality, and positive experience in a university environment (http://www.wlv.ac.uk/default.aspx?page=14007 2008).
European higher education is going through a dramatic change of its market structure, which is affected by the economic and political trends of globalization (Ehrenberg 2003, p. 2). The major feature of this change is an increased mobility of the University-age youths across geographic areas and across socio-economic groups. Caused by the overall decrease of transportation and communication costs, the raise in the population's disposable income, better access to student financial aid and scholarships, students' mobility is also increasingly informed by a variety of media sources (Ehrenberg 2003, p. 3).With the help of the Internet and television, today's high school students are able to compare and contrast university programs around the globe and make an intelligent choice of a university that would best fit their needs and interests.
That is why, in the modern higher education market, universities not only have to compete for their students nationally and internationally, but they also have to accommodate highly diversified needs of a group of national and international students that enter their freshmen programs each year (Ehrenberg 2003, p. 3). The high-school-to-university transition of this group and their first year experience at the university will define these students' academic and professional success and will affect the ranking, reputation, and the perspectives of the university. Therefore, it is essential for European universities to support their freshmen through the period of adjustment to the new academic lifestyle.
A traditional First Year Experience (FYE) program pursues four main goals: to “increase student retention/persistence to the second semester and second year of college, increase preparedness for future academic coursework and academic engagement, identify connections between [university] coursework and [the students'] future plans and goals, and to build the relationships and community and help students engage in campus life” (Cornell & Mosley 2006, p. 23).
The University of Wolverhampton's Institute for Learning Enhancement (ILE), whose responsibility is to ensure that the university's educational environment meets a diversified student body's needs, focuses its efforts on enabling first year students to “develop skills and personal attributes which will enrich their lives and enhance their achievement and employability” (http://asp2.wlv.ac.uk/celt/place/LT_Strategy%202006-10.pdf 2008). In a pursuit of this goal, ILE is actively involved in developing a university-wide ePortfolio system, which is imbedded in many of the first-year modules and enhances such students' learning and social skills such as personal and professional planning, self-reflection and self-assessment, relationships-building and networking, creativity, and so on (http://www.wlv.ac.uk/default.aspx?page=7024 2008).
The problem addressed in this research is the mismatch between the labor market's expectations toward the university graduates and the goals that young people pursue when enrolling in a university. While high school graduates view the university as a chance to explore a range of career opportunities and receive specialized professional knowledge and credentials, their potential employers search for strong working ethics, social adaptability, self-motivation, initiative, and self-guided learning skills (Avraamova & Verpakhovskaia 2007, pp. 8-10). Such discrepancy negatively affects the workforce market by creating a situation, when high demand for educated professionals coexists with the high unemployment and underemployment rates because the existing pool of university graduates does not possess/exhibit employable skills. This situation might gradually lead to a higher education's crisis by diminishing the value of a university education. Therefore, universities need to create an educational environment, which would direct students in developing highly employable personal skills starting from their first year.
The purpose of this research is to demonstrate that an ePortfolio system can enhance the advancement of students' personal and professional skills and can better prepare them for successful self-actualization by encouraging them to start planning their careers and build their employability as early as the first year of university education.
In addition, the study aims to show that the students, who use an ePortfolio system, are more satisfied with their university experience than their peers who do not use ePortfolio.
- Is their a statistically significant difference between the first-year students who use ePortfolio system and those who do not regard to initiative, self-motivation, level of professional orientation, level of social skills development, and the intensity of self-guided educational inquiry?
- Is there a relationship between the level of the first-year students' satisfaction with their university experience and the students' using and not using an ePortfolio system?
The Population and the Research Sample
Since the University of Wolverhampton served as the research site, all the first-year students - the students enrolled in their undergraduate program for the year 2007-2008 - were defined as the research population. Twenty members of the sample were invited to participate in the research on a volunteer basis through an email solicitation. During their first semester at the university, ten participants were enrolled in a module with imbedded ePortfolio assignments and ten were enrolled in modules, which did not use an ePortfolio system. During the second semester, none of the participants was enrolled in a course, which require the use of ePortfolio. The sample participants were neither randomly selected (the participants were volunteers) no were they randomly assigned to the use/non-use of ePortfolio (the use of ePortfolio was a preexisting condition). Therefore, the study was a quasi-experiment with intact groups of participants (Gersten et al. 2005, pp. 150-151). The group of ePortfolio users served as an Experimental Group (EG) and the group of non-users was used as a Control Group (CG).
Method and Instrument
The data for the analysis was collected with the help of a pen-and-paper self-administered survey. The researcher emailed the research participants the location at the University Student Union and a one-hour time period to stop by, pick up, and complete the survey. The students were given an option of completing the survey at the meeting place or at any other comfortable location for them as long as they were able to return the survey within a preset one-hour period. This arrangement was used to minimize the evaluation anxiety of the students by diminishing the dominant role of the researcher (Onwuegbuzie 2000, p. 24).
The first part of the survey questionnaire asked students to evaluate five of their personal qualities: initiative, self-motivation, level of professional orientation, level of social skills development, and the intensity of self-guided educational inquiry. Each quality was measured as a sum of answers to three questions, in which students were asked to declare how often they engaged in a quality-related activity or how good they could forecast their career development (Chapman 2003, pp. 7-9). The list of possible answers was “often” (3), “occasionally” (2), “rarely or never” (1) and “I know well” (3), “I know some” (2), “I am not sure” (1). For example, one of the questions related to self-guided educational inquiry was, “How often do you read one or more books from the list of Suggested Reading in the course syllabus?” with possible answers “often” (3), “occasionally” (2), “rarely or never” (1). Thus, each participant could receive a maximum score of “9” and a minimum score of “3” for each of his/her personal qualities.
The second part of the questionnaire offered the participants to rate their overall level of satisfaction with three aspects of their first-year university experience - social, academic, and professional - on a five-point Likert scale, in which “5” meant the highest level of satisfaction and “1” the lowest. Each aspect was rated separately; however, for the purpose of the research, the three ratings were summed up to produce one satisfaction score per participant. The maximum score was “15” and the minimum was “3”.
Data Analysis and Research Findings
The data collected from the sample was sorted according to the groups: the users and nonusers of ePortfolio. The mean scores were counted for each category within each group.
An independent variable in this study - the students' use/nonuse of ePortfolio - is a categorical/grouping variable. All the dependent variables on the list can be characterized as continuous/ratio. Therefore, in order to answer the first research questions, the data was analyzed with the help of an independent t-test as the most appropriate statistical test for the groups' means comparison (Coladarci 2004, pp. 283-308). The results of the test are summarized in Table 2. Overall, except for the “initiative”, the users of ePortfolio demonstrated a statistically significantly better developed personal qualities than their peers who did not use ePortfolio.
Since the second research question is asking about the relationships between the same categorical/grouping independent variable - the students' use/nonuse of ePortfolio - and one of the continuous dependent variables, the Point Biserial correlation test was used to analyze the data (Chen & Popovich 2002, pp. 26-28). The test showed a statistically significant relationship between the students' use of ePortfolio and their level of overall satisfaction with the first-year university experience: the students who used ePortfolio were more likely to declare a high level of satisfaction.
Threats to Validity
In addition to the threats to validity mentioned earlier in the report, several other issues are necessary to clarify. First, if this were a full-scale study, the research outcomes might have been interfered by the “treatment diffusion”: university students interacted with each other on a regular basis; therefore, ePortfolio users would share their knowledge with nonusers and advance the latter students' personal qualities development (Wallen & Fraenkel 2000, pp. 181-185).
Further, some of the personal qualities might develop because of the natural students' maturation not the ePortfolio involvement ((Onwuegbuzie 2000, p. 15).Thus, the research data needs to be screened by the researcher for this interference. Finally, in order for the research findings to be generalizable to the Wolverhampton University's student population, a full-scale research should have representatives of each School in the research sample.
This Pilot study demonstrates that an ePortfolio system used by Wolverhampton University has a dramatic effect on first-year university students' experiences in all the spheres of their activities: social, academic, and professional. In addition, the system enhances the development of crucial for the future employability personal characteristics and encourages students to start planning their careers immediately after enrolling in the University. These results are aligned with the mission of the University and the goals of the FYE and ILE. Thus, the system is beneficial for the students, for the University's reputation, and for society.