ePortfolio Research

I previously worked with Dr. Lisa McNair on her NSF CAREER grant examining ePortfolios and graduate student development. This has resulted in multiple conference opportunities and a journal publication listing for my CV. It has also been part of the inspiration for my preliminary exam format – this ePortfolio is a metanarrative defending my status as a graduate student who is prepared to perform independent research by incorporating my own work on ePortfolios.

The motivation for doing something is as important as the action itself. When I read a book, it might be because I want to enjoy it, or to learn something new. When I put something online in this ePortfolio, I do that for a specific purpose as well.

Firstly, I think that creating an ePortfolio is important in terms of crafting my online identity (see more explanation on my page regarding Digital Homes).  I prefer this proactive approach that allows me to mold the image that others find when they search for “Martina Svyantek.” This includes reflections on my experiences navigating through academia, as well as artifacts such as nametags and conference proceedings that serve as the evidence of these experiences.

Second, while written papers offer the traditional, classic standard for an assessment, I think that there are a lot of potential benefits to writing the narrative of how I have gained my experience and skills. If the purpose of the prelim is to ascertain that I am ready to perform independent doctoral research, then examining my experiences performing research, as well as all of the other experiences that have been a part of my doctoral training, makes sense.

The cover of the International Journal of ePortfolio, Volume 5, Number 2, 2015Within my ePortfolio work, I have analyzed previously collected survey data to observe the potential effects that the process of creating an ePortfolio has on graduate students in engineering fields. This work was published by the International Journal of ePortfolio during the fall of 2015. The experience of coming into a research project and analyzing previously collected data; collaborating on the drafting and editing a paper; and waiting through the review and revision cycles gave me a much greater appreciation of the efforts involved with the academic publishing process.

Related to both the grant work and my experiences with ePortfolios, I have also presented this work to colleagues at conferences and within graduate school. I’ve also been examining ePortfolios from a Disability perspective with respect to digital performances and accessibility.

While research exists exploring how the use of ePortfolios as an assessment method, or as tools of professional development, there has been less focus on the performance aspect of ePortfolios themselves.  One way that performance has been examined is by Kathleen Ramirez in her 2011 IJeP article, “ePerformance: Crafting, Rehearsing, and Presenting the ePortfolio Persona”. By looking at them as a theater performance, Ramirez explored the relationship between ePortfolios, their creators, and their audience, explicitly naming the ePortfolio “as an elastic, ultra-accessible theatrical arena in which students may create, rehearse, and present themselves” (2011, p. 7).

It is this phrase, and the use of the term “ultra-accessible” that helped to spark the ideas leading to my co-mingling of ePortfolio and Disability. What does it mean to be “ultra-accessible” – both in the world of ePortfolios and the world we navigate in our daily lives?

In addition to looking at ePortfolios as performances, I have been developing a new understanding of those digital performances (including my own) through the use of terminology used in the field of disability studies. The term “accessible” is a loaded one, especially when you begin to examine in in the light of disability studies.

I’ve run workshops related to this idea of ePortfolio performance at both AAEEBL conferences and at the 2016 Gender, Bodies, and Technology conference. This year, I have proposed a workshop* for the national AAEEBL conference examining the use of alt-text; this is the text associated with a visual that is supposed to convey the same information as the image. The abstract for this workshop is provided below:

ePortfolios offer different forms of spaces for self reflection while shaping a digital representation of identity. Identity performance and what individuals choose to curate within ePortfolios also reflective of audience. Who then do we include in our consideration of audience? Will it always be someone who accesses information in the same manner as the creators of an ePortfolio?

For example, have you ever considered incorporating universal design principles into your ePortfolio development? Have you heard discussions around online ADA requirements and/or accessibility, and don’t know what that really means? If so, this workshop is for you! We will be focusing on the potential to incorporate reflective practices throughout the ePortfolio, moving beyond familiar narrative into alt-text.

Alt-text development encourages the ePortfolio creator to question their own assumptions – do they want their audience to see the big picture, or to focus in on narrow details? By posing these questions, current reflective practices might expand to the benefit of the creators as well as their audience.

*codeveloped with Ashley Clayson, a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of English at the University of West Florida

Teaching Philosophy

Individuals never stop learning. Students should leave the classroom with an interest in at least something that was discussed each day, whether it is on a micro or macro scale compared to the concepts and topics being covered. While I can’t make the students do anything (believe me on this point – I’ve taught high school students), I can increase their intrinsic motivation to participate in my courses (e.g., through the use of scaffolded assignments to increase their self-confidence in tackling open-ended problems) and encourage their growth as learners.
I encourage collaboration in my class by creating team-based assignments that combines the technical content of the course with skill development through presentations as well as technical reports. This focus on written, visual, and oral communication skills typically frightens students; it is my intention that through practice with presenting, my students will overcome the “fear of the unknown”, therefore becoming more comfortable with explaining their ideas to people both in and out of a classroom.
The drive for continuous learning includes me as well. As an instructor, I work at my side of the classroom to stay informed about new educational practices, technologies, and advances in my own field of study. I read current education articles in both research and practice to keep myself informed about changes I could incorporate into my classroom to be an effective instructor, such as encouraging student critiques of my own practices.
One example of my use of technology in the classroom is the development of an ePortfolio curriculum that can be scoped for multiple academic levels. ePortfolios (such as the one you are perusing now) incorporate many different types of media (audio, video, pictures, graphics, document files, etc.) as artifacts, necessitating that both my students and I myself learn how to develop and manipulate these resources. These different media types afford multiple avenues for self-expression and self-reflection; both of these help the “reader”, as well as the creator, understand not only the final product, but the process that goes into a well-crafted report, presentation, or college graduate.

Chris Hardwick on @Midnight assigning points to contestants

Photo from tvtropes.org

My beliefs about grading are very different for undergraduate and graduate courses. Undergraduates still need more structure in terms of the feedback that they receive on their coursework, and graded work can be a highly effective means of giving that feedback. For graduate work, I liken grades to Whose Line Is It Anyways…”where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter” or Chris Hardwick assigning points in @Midnight. It’s not that the points don’t matter, but that the development of graduate students as future academic peers cannot be easily parsed into a rubric or seven-point grading scale.

Pedagogy at VT

While at Virginia Tech, I have had many teaching opportunities. I have developed enormously from my first teaching assignments at Auburn, and continue to explore different teaching approaches within my current practices.
I have also had many places where I have worked on my own teaching skills, thanks to offerings such as the Graduate School’s Preparing Future Professoriate and the Contemporary Pedagogy courses. I personally found such courses to be very useful as they reconnected me with a wider variety of disciplinary perspectives; having all of these different people back in the same room after maturing within their separate disciplines (e.g., counseling, fisheries, communication, mechanical engineering, vet med, history) creates fascinating discussions which show us how much we, as graduate students, have already become products of our educations.

Fall 2016

During Fall 2016, I conducted a teaching apprenticeship with Dr. Ashley Shew as part of my iPhD. We co-delivered the Technology and Disability course. This graduate and undergraduate course is designed to introduce students to the material cultures surrounding Disability, the social meaning of “health” technologies, and the lived experiences of those who deploy, resist, and wrestle with technologies aimed at their bodies and minds. As a Teaching Apprentice, I lectured and co-facilitated classroom discussions on such topics as “Disability and Designers” and “Infrastructure: Access Fail Memes to Universally Designed Spaces” in a course with both undergraduate and graduate students. Such presentations have also been shared with a wider audience, especially as related to accessibility in higher education and engineering ethics.

Fall 2015-Present

My Diversity Scholar project proposal involved the co-development and piloting of a new series of sessions – the Inclusive Classroom Series – for the Graduate Teaching Assistant Workshop course. These sessions have been offered each semester, with graduate students from different disciplinary backgrounds self-selecting to participate. These GTAs then meet with each other multiple times over the course of the semester, fostering a sense of community within the group. During the sessions, my co-facilitator (Darren Maczka) and I facilitate discussions about creating inclusive and accessible learning environments, guide our peer in reflecting on their teaching experiences, and develop resources for future use. This workshop draws on activities learned through the Communicating Science course.

Spring 2015

I was selected as a new Member of the Academy of Graduate Teaching Excellence and inducted on April 29th, 2015. Academy members are committed to creating inclusive learning environments and improving the experiences of their students. The Academy provides mentoring, programs, networking, and other functions to its members.

Fall 2014


North Cross school newspaper article on course (scanned)

I developed the curriculum, assessments, and classroom environment for first year high school students at the North Cross School in Roanoke during the 2014 fall semester. The students enjoyed it so much, they contacted their school newspaper to write an article about the class (see image, left)!

One thing that I worked on was maintaining a constant line of communication with my students, their parents, and the school via email and a class webpage. This class webpage includes many of the class documents that my students had access to over the course of the semester, such as the syllabus.

 Student teams developed projects over the course of the semester. They received feedback from individuals affiliated with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (students, staff, and faculty) in addition to my own assessment of their work. Additionally, my students learned to provide constructive feedback to their peers during different stages of the design process.

Structures Lab

This page offers insight into my teaching experience within Civil Engineering. I focus on how this experience has impacted my current path, as well as what I have learned about working with students and curricular materials.

Personal impact

Prior to attending Virginia Tech, I was a student at Auburn University. There, I earned my bachelors in Civil Engineering in 2011 and completed additional graduate coursework in Civil Engineering (with a focus in Structures); during the program, I realized that Civil Engineering was not the best fit for what I wanted to do with my career.

Part of what led me to that decision were my experiences outside of disciplinary research. During my years at Auburn University as a graduate student, I held a dual role as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) and as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA).  Having the opportunity to try on a teaching role is part of the reason that I chose to pursue my new path at Virginia Tech. Once I began teaching the undergraduate structural analysis lab, I realized that something I found important was teaching engineering while gaining a greater understanding of HOW exactly to do that as a result of my research.

I took the opportunity to co-teach the undergraduate structures lab (CIVL 3610) for the Civil Engineering department during three separate semesters. Going through multiple iterations of the same labs afforded me opportunities to learn more about my own teaching styles, try new methods, and improve not only my own labs, but the lab manual itself.

Working with students

During my three semesters of co-teaching, I learned a lot about the content that I was teaching – structural analysis and the mechanics of materials. What I did not anticipate was learning about was myself, my students, and the fact that how I was teaching affected what they were learning. I also learned a few things myself over the course of those semesters. Initially, I discovered that there was a need to differentiate myself from the undergraduates. I was only a year or two older than the students I was teaching, so I dressed in business casual on the days that I taught so that my students would not automatically think of me just as a peer; wearing t-shirts and jeans would not have given that impression. I tried to present myself as a courteous professional who treated my students with respect, and for the most part this respect was returned.

However, one particular incident will forever stick out in my mind. One day in lab, a young gentleman, who later claimed he simply forgot my name, snapped his fingers to get my attention and called to me from across the room as “girl.” When this happened, a veritable flood of responses flashed through my mind, but I ultimately decided to go with my initial reaction of shocked silence. I could not form any verbal response to that.

Other students in the class were not as hampered. They took it upon themselves to correct the language of their peer, defending my status as a graduate student teaching assistant, instead of “girl.” They were the ones who reminded the gentleman of my actual name for future reference as well.

This incident continues (even now) to serve as a personal example of how far we still have to go in terms of creating a more welcoming environment for students who don’t fit society’s assumption of what an “engineer” looks like, and what “engineering work” looks like as well. It is a reminder that the work that I am doing now revolving around Disability could potentially disrupt the current perceptions of who is an engineer  and who is a client for a course’s service project.

I also spent time helping students who were experiencing anxiety about their lab report scores. I realized that the majority of the students were unprepared to figure out how their lab grades fit into the larger overall course grade. I created a short presentation to explain the breakdown of points, so they would no longer feel like an unanticipated grade on a lab report would ruin their final grade in the course. I also held office hours; not many students took advantage of this opportunity, but I do find it interesting to note that the two students who came by to ask the most questions pursued graduate studies themselves!

Working with the curriculum

Lab Manual

During my time as a graduate teaching assistant, I approached my supervisor about the need to update the lab manual that our department used for the structural analysis course. At that time, it was approaching twenty years old. At the end of Spring 2012, with the approval of the department and the professors in charge of the lab in the past year, I conducted a survey of the students in the lab to assess their needs and where the manual could be improved.

 I spent time during the Summer of 2012 working on editing the lab manual, specifically focusing on the introductory front matter. I also added an additional section to the front matter, one that the students had identified as a major need – Chapter 6 Sample Report. Most students coming into Structural Analysis had completed their required composition classes, but few had any experience with writing a technical document. Providing an example for them was seen as one way that the course could model technical communication for civil engineering students.
We also were able to make the lab manual available online for students, as many would avoid carrying around the hard copy of the document, even if that were the only way to have access to the material during class. It in now available to all students in the class through the course site as well as the complete printed document, so that those who are already coming to class with smartphones, tablets, and laptops would be able to open the documents on devices they already had with them. Those who chose not to bring the devices to class and also chose not to buy the manual could still print out a copy of the exercise for the lab day.


For each lab that I was assigned to teach, I also had to grade. I developed rubrics for each assignment to give feedback on the technical content of the lab reports. As I also had greater experience with technical communication (due to my interest in English and History, not to mention my enrollment in a Technical and Professional Editing course and time spent as a tutor in the Miller Writing Center), I was also responsible for grading two of the four technical communication reports each semester. These technical communication grades were used as part of the Civil Engineering department’s assessment of skills for ABET as well as Writing Across the Curriculum requirements.

My background with the Miller Writing Center led me to recommend that more time be spent at the beginning of the semester to prepare students to write technical lab reports. Many students understood the engineering concepts being presented as a part of the lab, but were unable to communicate that understanding. Spending more time on the actual mechanics of writing involved having a round of peer reviews as well as reviews from the course GTAs before the first lab report was due in order to get feedback before any grades were assigned. This change has been incorporated into the structures lab as part of the introduction to the course.