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Thursday, 11 November 2010

A few questions...

Well, the full title should be, A few questions before you launch into implementing ePortfolios at your education institution.
Graphic: doll outlines: people asking questions

For some time now, I have been following the adventures of Sarah Stewart and her application of ePortfolios to the work of midwives in New Zealand and Australia. Recently she posted some 10 questions which potential implementers of ePortfolios should ask themselves before taking such a leap of faith. With her permission I have duplicated her questions and provided some answers:

1. What are you wanting to achieve?
Does an ePortfolio system allow you to achieve that aim or would something else be more appropriate? For example, you would like to use an ePortfolio to allow a seamless submission of assignments by you need an ePortfolio to do this, or can you achieve that function via your current learning/student management system?

Any half-legitimate institution for teaching and learning should have its own VLE with a good range of resources including rubrics, rich media, archived materials, and powerful tools much broader than the standard syllabus in order to allow students to develop their own personalised learning environment. So, what we should be doing is looking at those aspects of an ePortfolio that a VLE cannot easily deliver.

2. Is what you are wanting to achieve pedagogically sound?
In other words, do you have a sound educational reason for implementing ePortfolio or are you attracted by the technology with all the latest bells and whistles?

Introducing an ePortfolio system will not suddenly change teaching and learning strategies. Rather, a student-focussed approach should inevitably suggest that an ePortfolio is the best medium to manage a range of learning activities where peer-review, feedback in all its forms, use of alternative media, supplementary information about students etc is possible. Above all the ePortfolio should allow the ability to present selected artefacts to a variety of audiences, under controlled access.

3. What is the evidence about ePortfolio in your context?
Is there solid evidence that ePortfolio makes a difference to students' learning or is ePortfolio another fad you are following for the sake of it?

There is a growing body of evidence from both students, teachers and administrative staff that ePortfolios have a demonstrable impact on both teaching and learning. However, this takes time for new-start institutions. It takes several years for most institutions to settle down to ePortfolio thinking. Until teachers have discovered what works/does not work for them, until exemplar materials related to ePortfolio processes are tried and tested, until an institution has a good body of alumni who understand ePortfolios, until a good cohort of mentors can advise from their own previous experiences, that evidence will be slow to materialise. Administrators, too, have noticed a significant increase in retention rates.

4. What ePortfolio tools best suit your students' needs?
Before you sign off on an expensive proprietary ePortfolio platform, is there an online tool already available that will better suit your students' needs? For instance, if you want your business students to be prepared to find a job, would they be better off developing a LinkedIn account? Would your carpentry students be better off uploading photos of their work to Flickr? Would a blog suit students' needs for a reflective ePortfolio?

This question suggests a restrictive view of teaching and learning. All students should have access to a wide range of tools, such as they prefer to work with, such as Flickr, Prezie, PhotoPeach, Issuu or Audacity to name just a few. But these are NOT ePortfolio tools as such. ePortfolio tools consist of facilities such as making individual artefacts private, shareable or public. Tools such as polls, surveys or Likart scales as well as pre-set forms which can be ‘switched’ on or off all allow different methods of providing feedback. Similarly, blogs or wikis can be contained within the ePortfolio so as to create a private but collaborative community where students can work together with some confidence that their efforts and mistakes will not be seen by ‘outsiders’. - Anyway, who says a proprietary system has to be expensive? - eFolio certainly is not!

5. Who is in control of the ePortfolio?
If you dictate the ePortfolio to the students they are far less likely to engage with it than if they have total control over it. The ePortfolio must belong totally to the students so it can be developed to meet their needs, as opposed to your needs as lecturer and that of the institution.

In many cases it might be better for the institution to provide the ePortfolio with some level of scaffolding to help students get off to a good start rather than having to build from a blank canvas. A range of good support features will enable the student to identify what things can be changed immediately and what things can be modified at a later date. It is up to the teacher to decide how much ePortfolio support each student may need, but, as when encouraging a baby to walk, there comes a time when hand-holding is not necessary. Control is a matter of gradual release.

6. Will the ePortfolio be integrated into the curriculum?
If the ePortfolio is an extra add-on to the students' work, they are unlikely to engage with it. Thus, you need to consider how you will integrate it into the curriculum and assessment. This may require a lot of work for faculty staff, so you have to decide if this effort is "worth it".

This might create a bit of strain for those educators who have not made the transition to collaborative teaching and learning. However, having access 24/7 to a student’s ePortfolio means that monitoring progress is easier, particularly if you have a few students who need ‘prodding’ to get going. Similarly early intervention if a student is beginning to veer off course actually saves the teacher considerable work when students begin to get towards the date of submission. As mentioned previously, this can help retention rates.

7. How portable will the ePortfolio be?
What will happen to the ePortfolio when the students leave the institution? Portability is one argument for using the cloud such as Google Apps, as opposed to a platform that is restricted to student use only.

Portability is a fundamental question and although questions about teaching and learning MUST come first, the issue of portability will actually influence teaching and learning strategies. I have heard too many HE students say “Why should I bother, I can’t take it with me!” If the ePortfolio is to be both Lifelong and Lifewide it MUST be capable of full portability without the destructive influences of extant interoperability systems. However, the rush to use cloud solutions is not without its drawbacks. A secure externally hosted system provides the best of both worlds. eFolio, for instance, is hosted externally in the UK and Europe. One of the significant drawbacks of a cloud-based solution is that of the lack of educational support whereas eFolio is provided primarily as a tool for learners.

8. Can the ePortfolio be integrated into the students' life as a professional tool once they have left university/college?
This is an especially important question for nurses and midwives who are required to have an ePortfolio as part of their statuary requirements for practice. There's little point in developing an ePortfolio platform that is different from one they will use once they are qualified. On the other hand, is this an opportunity to collaborate with hospitals and professional bodies to ensure there is a seamless integration of ePortfolio from life as a student into professional practice?

Yes, it is ESSENTIAL that the principle of the ePortfolio as being Lifelong should enable the newly qualified professional, for instance, to use the ePortfolio for the continuation of one’s career and other interests and to share with new colleagues etc. In a new situation, the cosmetic display and layout of pages, the selection of relevant artefacts should be capable of matching one’s new image.

9. How will you evaluate the ePortfolio?
You must have a process for measuring the impact of the ePortfolio as opposed to implementing it without further follow up.

Perhaps the most significant feature of evaluation is not that of the presentation of the ePortfolio nor of the artefacts contained within it and the temptation to think summatively, but rather to look at the reflections, the benefits of collaboration and the learning processes the student experienced that demonstrate an increased maturity of understanding rather than just a completed project.

10. Do you walk the talk?
Do you have an ePortfolio that models the process to both colleagues and students? How can you know the value of a pedagogical process if you do not engage with it yourself?

Yes, every teacher is a learner, a collaborator, and, where necessary a bit of an exhibitionist. The ePortfolio should be seen as a tool for learners, teachers, departments and institutions. The same tool can be used for many different purposes and all sections of society.


Sarah Stewart said...

Hi Ray, thank you so much for taking the time to consider my questions. There is a lot of stuff there and I haven't got time to answer all the issues you are refereed to. But I will say is that I get very concerned when I hear an institution say that they have going to implement ePortfolio if it is going to be the answer to all their teaching /learning problems. I believe ePortfolio has to be carefully considered is that it is aligned with curriculum (or curriculum is aligned to ePortfolio).

In your answers you assume all teachers take the same reflective approach to teaching & learning as you do...but they do not..hence some of my reservations...which are not about ePortfolio but rather the way it is used.

Ray Tolley said...

Hi, Sarah,admittedly in the UK most schools, colleges and universities have a VLE (or MLE) in place. Thus my first point relating to what the VLE can best do compared to what the ePortfolio does best. I cannot, therefore, see the point of the addition of an ePortfolio system to what they have already got if the institution is not willing to adopt collaborative and reflective practices.

I do not assume that 'all teachers take the same reflective approach to teaching & learning' - I know that they darn well do NOT!!! But my assumption is the sheer inevitability that they WILL have to face new pedagogies - and when they do, the ePortfolio will be able to support their teaching & learning, along with providing students with something that they can really feel proud of.

Best Wishes,
Ray T