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Monday, 20 July 2009

Chicken or Egg?

We have a very difficult situation concerning the introduction of e-Portfolios into the classroom. Until such time as teachers are able to free themselves from old didactic methods, until they are brave enough to let go of the reins or at least allow a bit of slack, there is very little reason to use an e-Portfolio.

On the other hand, without adequate technology, both in the classroom and beyond there is little hope of being able to do even the simplest of tasks that would benefit from using an e-Portfolio.

Unfortunately, there is also a third element with which we must contend, that of the silo-mentality of many institutions who only see the e-Portfolio as a one-purpose tool for the use of their individual institution. (see my paper, ‘Who’s Hijacking Our e-Portfolios?’)

Prior to using an ICT solution perhaps one of the first activities that caught my imagination was that of dividing my class into groups and brainstorming an issue on a large sheet of paper. But after several re-draws of the proposed solution something of the fire of the activity had died down. Yes the discussions or even arguments that took place were always excellent but somehow we never captured the dialogues between the students.

Later on I introduced the concept of blogging, starting by using a paper-based activity. Yes, again this produced howls of laughter and a definite broadening of understanding about how others felt on the topic in question.

If teachers are comfortable with this level of freedom within the classroom, where the outcomes may be quite different to what one might have planned, and if the teacher is then able to help the students learn from the exercise, then, and only then, might we be able to demand on the grounds of curriculum enhancement the technologies we want.

Senior Leadership and Management Teams (SLMTs), as we call them in the UK, need to be convinced however that the learning will be deep learning. This needs demonstration of teacher competence in managing such scenarios as the above before the leap of faith that justifies the investment in equipment and the access to electronic collaborative tools.

Yes, blogs and wikis may be a good start but are not necessary if students have a good e-Portfolio system. As a senior head of department for many years, I would prefer to provide my teachers and their students with an e-safe system that allows the controls to be gently lifted from a totally secure or private condition through stages of group collaboration and steadily expanding the number and variety of school-based and external audiences with which any individual child is able to cope.

A good e-Portfolio, such as eFolio, provides adequate facilities to manage one’s artefacts, to use feedback from peers and mentors, to reproduce electronic versions of the collaborative activities as mentioned above and repeatedly revising one’s planning, drafting and reflections within the e-Portfolio.

In the UK I feel that most schools have been encouraged for a number of years to develop these collaborative skills either on paper or in small groups huddled around a limited number of computers. Similarly, in the UK, we have experienced over the last ten to fifteen years a large number of technological initiatives (and more still to come!) that have prepared us for the next leap of faith. But thirdly, we also have had several initiatives concerning the personalisation of learning. Again, the e-Portfolio is that special place where one’s individuality, learning styles and support by other adults lends itself to a unique repository of learning far different to the formal content delivery mechanisms of our Learning Platforms.

I would argue strongly that the UK is therefore potentially ready for e-Portfolios. However, despite my statements above, this will require a massive amount of staff training in order to help teachers understand how the e-Portfolio fits into our curriculum and can in actual fact enhance it!

BUT, this e-Portfolio explosion is not about to happen throughout the world. Many countries, even if they had the technologies and 1:1 pupil:computer ratios are still teaching in didactic, teacher-led authoritarian regimes which may not allow the individuality which an e-Portfolio supports. I suspect (and am willing to be corrected) that some parts of America are as traditional or conservative in their teaching and learning methods as mid- or eastern Europe. In other places, such as New Zealand, many teachers are already actively developing the collaborative culture upon which e-Portfolios thrive but the hierarchy are still discussing what an e-Portfolio is.

So, in returning to my original question, ‘Chicken or egg?’ I suggest that those education authorities who are most ready to introduce an e-Portfolio culture should be considering a ‘controlled explosion.’ We need all the elements of an independent learning culture, of collaboration, of an adequate sufficiency of access both within institutions and remotely through home access policies. Perhaps most fundamentally, we need a teacher education programme which can pull together all the separate benefits of an e-Portfolio for the learner.


Matt Montagne said...

We definitely have a chicken or egg phenomenon going on with relation to building a true ePortfolio culture in our learning communities. Here in the USA many of our schools are subject to scripted curricula that merely serves to prepare students for national, regional, state, and/or AP (advanced placement) exams. What type of engaging artifacts would students have to share in their personal ePortfolios from these scripted classes that are largely lecture based and teacher directed? Would they submit a scanned copy of their latest multiple choice exam, quiz, or in-class essay? Maybe some students would, but by and large, rich learning artifacts and objects are not often created these scripted, teacher-directed classes.

But I do believe there is hope...and that lies with our parents. To put it quite simply, parents enjoy seeing the work that their children create in schools. Having access to their child's work gives parents dinner table conversation starters that extend the learning in a meaningful way at home. Eventually parents will demand ePortfolio types of assessment in schools as it paints a much more detailed picture than the typical letter grades that appear on a report cart 4 times per year.

Let's continue to prepare for the 'controlled explosion!' ;-)

kev brace said...

Good points Ray, how can we move towards more of a student centred way of learning?

And this of course means introducing new assessment methods - which scares many in academia?

Ray Tolley said...


I feel for you and the quandary that academia might be in concerning assessment. I have no such worries.

In mainstream education it is invariably the VLE that handles assessment tools. It is 'hard wired' to the MIS, to curriculum content, to rubrics and to home-school reporting.

The place of the e-Portfolio, as being independent of any VLE system is that the formative, informal (in-formative?) assessments from teachers, mentors and peers is highly personal and should not be part of the formal course assessment procedures.

Of course, if within a formal assessment a teacher wishes to document the fact that some constructive advice given in the e-Portfolio was followed/not followed, that the learner followed/ignored the advice of peers or mentors, that the learner collaborated and contributed to the progress of other, such things can easily be noted. This is part of normal assessment methods whether electronic or paper-based.

I feel that it is a hole that some sections of academia have dug themselves into by claiming the e-Portfolio concept as a replacement for poorly developed VLEs or MLEs. I first came across this confusion when looking at a local e-Portfolio system (name not disclosed) that was little more than a content delivery system which apparently gave almost no 'ownership' to the learner. Worthy as all their work was I just felt that their research and development work only went to prove that their product was NOT an e-Portfolio by our definitions. For those who haven't seen it, see my paper on '10 Prime Directives'