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Friday, 22 April 2011

Independent learning?

Child on a bed browsing her laptopA recent post by Gerry White of DERN got me thinking - 'How independent can learning ever be?' Obviously even the books we read, the style of writing, the bibliographies that we check out all influence our learning, nevermind our own preferred learning styles. However, what clearly impressed me about both Gerry's article and the initial document by Chau and Cheng is that of the controlling factors that influence how a learner sets about a particular task.

Questions arise as to how much influence the culture of a country, the ethos of the institution, the background of the teachers, their presentation styles, the curriculum, the school's resources, home resources and relations with other students all combine to form the learner's individual learning environment. In response to the Chau and Cheng article, therefore, I wrote:

The Chau and Cheng article makes good reading but perhaps inadvertently highlights a number of issues which, for me, make me feel that the whole ePortfolio exercise in the Hong Kong university was missing the point. Firstly, the aspect of peer-review and collaboration. To quote:

"In general, peer feedback was hardly found because it was not mandatory in the competition. Students tended to assign less significance to peer comments, but consistently agreed on the usefulness of teacher feedback for language learning in both cognitive and affective terms."

To me this is one of the most important features of an ePortfolio, that of feedback which can clarify, confirm or even change one's thinking. - Apart from anything else, peer review or that of mentors or 'other experts' reduces something of the workload of teachers.

Secondly, the feedback from teachers appears to be mainly summative, whereas I would argue that the ePortfolio is an excellent medium for allowing the teacher to apply 'a guiding hand on the tiller' before things get completely out of hand. It is generally recognised that so-called summative feedback is too late and of little consequence 'after the event'.

Thirdly, the Chinese University's concept of the ePortfolio appears to ignore its central concept of being learner-owned. It appears to be being used as a learning management system. I quote:

"Where the students’ desire to meet evaluation criteria prevails, the potential of e-portfolios for individualised developmental performance is eroded. Where teachers struggle to forge their identity in the shift towards a learner-centred paradigm without appropriate and adequate scaffolding, e-portfolios may be seen as another externally mandated exercise in which teachers are coerced to participate. Where institutional policy takes developing graduates’ competitiveness as its focus, e-portfolios bear the risk of perpetuating a culture of ‘dressing up’ achievements at the expense of candid interrogation of weakness for progress."

Fourthly, I am concerned that the sample ePortfolio as in Appendix 3 is a very scant example and is apparently lacking in any real personal identity. How does the material showcased relate to the rest of the student's life etc?

I think that the time is well overdue to look beyond 'pilots' and to try and define what a real ePortfolio should be capable of doing, how the ePortfolio can widen the owner's learning experience and how, secondly, it can also make work better for the practitioner.


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