From Bach to Tupac
Using an electronic course portfolio to analyze a curricular transformation
By Elizabeth F. Barkley

From the June 2001 AAHE Bulletin


“Sometimes I feel like a partner in an unholy alliance,” commented a colleague. “I pretend to teach, and my students pretend to learn.” Recalling my own early experience teaching a general-education course in music history, I smiled at his understatement: In my course, the handful of students sitting in front of me weren’t even pretending to learn! They stared at me with bored, apathetic faces as I struggled to engage them in a lively discussion on the structural nuances of a Beethoven symphony. Beethoven? Their music heroes were Tupac and Nine Inch Nails.

This curricular crisis was the catalyst for a five-year transformation out of which I created an entirely new course, Music of Multicultural America. My efforts paid off. Annual enrollment increased from 45 to 782, filling my course with enthusiastic students who had enrolled on the advice of friends. Students testified not only to how much they loved the course but also to how much they had learned.

This transformation created considerable attention, and it was on an exhilarating wave of success that I was selected by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a Carnegie Scholar. (For more, visit

As a Carnegie Scholar, I was challenged to design, implement, and report on a research project that would contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning in my discipline of music. Like many of my Carnegie Scholar colleagues, I anguished over what to do. Suspicious of educational jargon, I was skeptical that I could design a research project that would tell me anything I really did not already know. Or, if it did reveal something new and significant, I worried that the methodology would not withstand scholarly scrutiny.

After considering various project ideas and conversing with other Carnegie Scholars who were also struggling with documenting teaching and learning, I decided to construct a course portfolio in which I analyzed and documented the transformation of that general-education music course.

Why a Course Portfolio?
Course portfolios are a mechanism to help faculty investigate and document what they know and do as teachers in ways that contribute to more powerful student learning. I decided on a course portfolio for three reasons.

  • Course portfolios seemed to manifest the essential characteristics of scholarship: They could be made public, they were susceptible to critical review and evaluation, and they could be used and built on by others. Thus, course portfolios provided me with an almost ready-made template for delving into this new (for me) territory called “the scholarship of teaching and learning.”

  • Course portfolios seemed to allow for the messy complexity that I knew characterized teaching and learning. I hoped that a course portfolio might help me capture the subtle but important aspects of teaching and learning that crisper methodologies might miss.

  • Because I knew, deep in my heart, that over that period of five years and before any conscious concern about the scholarship of teaching and learning, I had used my intuitive sense and natural talent as a teacher to transform that music course in very deep and meaningful ways. A portfolio offered the fullest and most nuanced way to share this transformation with other teachers, disciplines, and institutions.

Once I decided to construct a course portfolio, it did not take long to move to the next step of making it an electronic course portfolio. Electronic course portfolios offered several advantages over their paper counterparts. Much of my own and my students’ work was already in electronic format, an electronic portfolio could be easily accessed and disseminated, it could be layered to include multiple points of entry and ways to navigate through the information, it could incorporate multimedia, and it had the potential for integrating interactivity.

What Did I Learn From the Analysis?
The foundation of my course portfolio was the analysis of the course transformation, an extremely instructive analysis. Why was Music of Multicultural America so popular? Self-reflection combined with analysis of students’ comments revealed four curricular themes:

Content. The earlier version of this course was based on European classical music. Although this curriculum remains the standard for higher education, it simply does not engage a large percentage of contemporary students who listen to popular music and have grown up in an increasingly diverse multicultural society. The transformed course uses ethnicity as a central organizing principle to trace the development of popular musics such as blues, jazz, country, Tejano, Cajun, and so on from their roots in the ethnic traditions of a specific immigrant group to their development into a uniquely American music.

Empowering Students to Be Architects of Their Own Learning. The baseline course had been taught in the sequential, passive, pyramidal approach of traditional higher education. The transformed course allows students to select from a variety of activities to construct their own learning in ways that meet their individual learning styles and personal interests. Although all students do core readings and work sheets, they build on this common foundation by choosing activities from a varied menu that includes concert reports, museum and historical site visits, attendance at cultural events, Web quests, film observations, book reports, independent research, interviews, and participation in online academic forums.

Multimedia Instruction (Including Online). The baseline course had been taught in the traditional lecture face-to-face format. The transformed course uses blended delivery in which students select, on an ongoing and flexible basis, where they want to be on a continuum from traditional face-to-face learning activities to entirely Web-based activities.

Authentic Assessment. The baseline course had used traditional, objective, and subjective in-class testing. The transformed course uses a point accrual system in which, within clearly articulated guidelines for both quantity and quality, students earn their final grades by submitting multiple and varied artifacts demonstrating their learning.

I investigated these themes using both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Quantitative data included enrollment trends, demographic characteristics, and students’ success and retention rates over six years. To generate qualitative data, I conducted surveys, used various classroom assessment techniques, and enlisted 15 “student investigators” selected through a controlled random selection process to probe deeper into the learning process. The data I collected have been a gold mine of information that I continue to excavate and that lead to new course strategies.

For example, one of the most interesting pieces of information was the increasingly large percentage of students of color in comparison with white students. In fall 1995, the class comprised 66 percent white students and 33 percent students of color. By fall 1999, the ratio had inverted, and students of color constituted 67 percent. I was thrilled with this statistic until I pulled apart the various race/ethnicities to find that there was a slight but steady downward trend in black students. Additionally, black students were at highest risk for not completing the course (only a 46 percent success rate, whereas the collegewide success rate for black students was 76 percent).

I surmised that a contributing factor was probably the discomfort and resentment black students might feel at hearing a white woman discuss black history, music, and social experience. As a solution, I engaged as a teaching partner a black professor who specializes in African-American music and the historical context in which that music developed. I am going to track this trend to see whether it will make a difference.

What Did I Learn From the Creation of the Course Portfolio?

The greatest challenge for me was figuring out how best to organize and present the information. Ultimately (and after many different drafts), I decided to organize the portfolio into four major sections. “The Project” provides an overview and contains answers to the questions who, what, where, why, when, and how of the course portfolio. “The Data” consists of a series of linked PDFs so that readers can access and download information such as syllabi, tests, student comments, and enrollment trends. “The Summary” provides a brief narrative of the project, with essential information and results.

The final section, “Transformation Themes,” organizes the analysis into the four curricular themes identified earlier (content, empowering students, multimedia, and assessment) and then addresses these themes in four stages: baseline course, analysis, transformed course, and significant research and findings. Toward the end I added an additional component, “Issue Bin,” in which I identified enduring concerns associated with that section and provided an interactive opportunity for portfolio readers to contribute their comments.

How Did the Electronic Aspects of the Course Portfolio Hinder or Help Success?
In several ways, going electronic made the course portfolio more difficult. For example, to make it electronic, every document needed first to be created as a Word or graphics file and then converted to HTML and positioned in a series of linked Web pages. This process of creation and conversion was very time-consuming and, I am sure, at least doubled the work. Plus, once created, an electronic site requires constant maintenance and updating if it is to remain viable.

The construction of an electronic course portfolio poses other challenges. I am accustomed to thinking in the linear mode of print media. Because of the multilayering and navigational options of the Web, constructing documents suitable for this environment forced me to think in a nonlinear manner.

It also required brevity: There is only so much information that fits on a single Web page, and one needs to minimize the number of linked Web pages because the portfolio reader’s computer must go back to the server to retrieve them. This back and forth process interrupts, slows down, and potentially aggravates the reader. And there is the gnawing fear that this constant distilling for near “sound bite” simplicity sacrifices significant depth, accuracy, and nuance.

Finally, website construction requires attention to visual appeal to sustain readers’ interest. To create an appealing site requires visual literacy that includes not only aesthetics but also good choices about what verbal information is most effectively replaced by graphics.

Certainly, many of these negatives have their flip side. For example, I suspect that logical, linear thinking can only be enhanced and enriched by the creative connections and “genius solution” flashes of insight that come from nonlinear thinking. In this era of information overload, it may be important to keep distilling information to its essentials. If we wish to continue to communicate effectively in the contemporary environment (especially with our students who have come of age in a visual and digital milieu), we may need to constantly update our visual literacy and our technological knowledge.

The electronic portfolio has other benefits. First, the Web has emerged as the current communication medium of choice. By creating my portfolio online, I had the glorious self-satisfaction that I was up to date with contemporary trends. Second, the multimedia capabilities provide a much richer and more complete picture of the course, because graphics and video and audio clips allow nuances impossible to achieve through conventional print media. In addition, I could make accessible to readers an extensive number and variety of documents through PDFs that would have been much too cumbersome as print attachments. Third, through the multilayered and navigational qualities of the Web, readers can customize and hence pursue efficiently those aspects of my course portfolio in which they are specifically interested.

Finally, the Web-based electronic portfolio allows me an exportability and interactivity that paper portfolios simply cannot possess. The portfolio for this course has already attracted attention all over the country, and I no longer need to say, “I’ll mail you information.” Because of the electronic portfolio and its location on the World Wide Web, readers can investigate numerous aspects of my course at any time they wish and with minimum additional effort on my part.

How Has the Course Portfolio Helped Students?
Again, I need to separate the course portfolio from the electronic course portfolio. There is no question in my mind that the thoughtful and reflective analysis of my course was, and continues to be, highly beneficial to my students. But I was already doing that during the five years of course transformation that antedated the portfolio.

The added value of the course portfolio was that it moved me beyond intuition and anecdote to a culture of evidence. The course portfolio also created a framework that organized the investigation in such a way that I was forced to gather data that did teach me things that I did not know. Although I had a general sense that enrollment was growing and that racial and ethnic diversity was increasing, I did not know the specifics until the portfolio framework required that I investigate it. Students have been helped because, as a result of this information, I have identified new interventions that I hope will improve instruction.

The electronic aspect of the course portfolio is less obvious, but I can see at least three advantages for students. First, constructing the Web-based portfolio has forced me to learn to think in the digital and visual ways that I believe dominate many of my students’ ways of seeing and knowing. Narrowing the gap between us must certainly help clarify communication and enrich their learning. Second, I plan to use the Web-based portfolio to provide students with an easily accessible and much richer “picture” of my course than I can currently provide them with the conventional paper course syllabus. Third, the public nature of the course portfolio has put me in touch with teachers of similar courses, enabling us to share materials and strategies that strengthen and enrich all of our courses.

Would I Do It Again? Absolutely.
When I was finished, I felt that the portfolio really did provide a framework to analyze, capture, and represent the reality of the course transformation. And, like all good research, it raised issues that pointed me toward additional research. For example, in fall 2000, I took much of the information I have learned from the course portfolio and applied it to a resurrected version of my old course on Western European classical music, planning to investigate to what extent the three noncontent curricular interventions (empowering students, multimedia delivery, and more authentic assessment) will affect students’ enrollment and engagement in the original baseline course. I will construct another electronic course portfolio to document and analyze this process.

Six years ago I found myself wondering whether trying to teach today’s students had become my worst nightmare. Most of the students were different not only from me but from one another — in race and ethnicity, in their preparation for college education, in the music they listened to, in their world view. Transforming my course into one that bridged the gaps while not compromising academic integrity seemed an impossible dream. Too young to retire, however, I began the process of change.

My electronic course portfolio attempted to analyze and document that transformation. The analysis has perhaps raised as many questions as it has answered, but I believe I am moving in the right direction. Teaching no longer feels like an “unholy alliance,” but instead like a healthy and invigorating partnership in which my students, colleagues, and I work together to achieve more powerful learning.

Elizabeth F. Barkley is professor of music at Foothill College. Contact her at

To view her electronic course portfolio, visit the Carnegie Foundation’s Knowledge Media Laboratory at; to access the portfolio, you will need to register as a site user.

Electronic Portfolios
A Tool for Students, Faculty, and Institutions

Professor Barkley’s essay is excerpted from AAHE’s latest publication, Electronic Portfolios: Emerging Practices in Student, Faculty, and Institutional Learning (2001, 224 pp). In the volume, 19 portfolio practitioners describe the constructing of electronic portfolios by:

  • Students to display and reflect on work for a specific course or program
  • Faculty to document and reflect on their classroom practice and allow comment by colleagues or others
  • Institutions to demonstrate accountability to their stakeholders and as a vehicle for institution-wide reflection, learning, and improvement.

For ordering information, visit AAHE’s online catalog at, or call 202/293-6440 x780.


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