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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.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Shoebox thinking

Picture of young graduate girl holding a stack of boxes.For the last two weeks I have been wrestling with the sad case of the 'Shoebox Mentality' as illustrated in Donald Clark's blog ( ) Yes, there is a case for the 3yr-old to place items in a shoebox, or more often a tidy-box. And then for parents to enjoy the look of surprise and wonderment of the child who had forgotten about a worn-out teddy bear, a drawing or a photograph of the child a year before. And yes, from this has developed the concept of the 'memories box'.

However, Donald failed to understand that the 'shoebox mentality' is only one very small step of a thousand in terms of ePortfolio thinking. The girl in the photograph has a collection of shoeboxes, possibly organised to contain different artefacts, for different purposes and for different audiences. Note that she has ownership of the boxes and that one would hope that the massive libraries, either hard-copy or virtual, that she has access to is stored within possibly several institution.

I feel that I must publish my reaction to Donald Clark's outbursts as I feel that much of his performance was directed at my presentation immediately prior to his:

I noted Donald’s diatribe with some amusement. I do really wonder what planet he comes from. His blog-post reminds me of the exclamation of the proud mother, watching her son out on parade, “Look! Everyone is out of step except my son!” As an articulate speaker, Donald certainly amused his audience at the recent ‘Assessment Tomorrow’ conference at which I spoke. However, this was a meeting of assessors and educationists, which he was certainly not. As a self-confessed employer from a previous generation he certainly had little understanding of the education market, of the extent to which an ePortfolio culture is spreading within all areas of Teaching & Learning, and, for that matter, how teaching and learning methods have changed since he was at school.

Amongst a group of circa 200 delegates most were ‘pro’ ePortfolios in some form or other. To this group the title of my presentation was “ePortfolios – why so slow on the uptake?” ( ) In this presentation I explored some of the reasons why ePortfolios are not making as rapid progress as we might expect. I am therefore flattered that Donald should take several of my concerns eg of the 40+ VLEs providers in the UK, institutionalised systems, interoperability, the lack of ePortfolio related CPD, the contrast between traditional didactics and a modern generation of Web2.0 learners, the steady revolution in Teaching and Learning styles etc. However, despite the massive world-wide interest in ePortfolios and the take-up by hundreds of universities, CoPs and many thousands if not millions of mainstream learners, he took the problems that I referred to and turned them on their head, not as issues to be understood and constructively overcome, but rather reasons for the obdurate rejection of ePortfolios. (Babies and bathwater come to mind.)

I did mention that recent accessions to my blog had reached over 11,600, and that there have been over 100,000 thousand accessions to my posted works on SlideShare and Issuu. Even to the extent that last Monday I had my first reader from Mongolia, on Tuesday a reader from Siberia and even whilst I was speaking, a first-time reader from Sierra Leone – in all, readers from 131 countries.

I did, of course, mention the impressive interest shown by people in New Zealand and Australia, along with the whole-State provision of eFolio in Minnesota and the scores of initiatives throughout America and Asia. Also that all mainstream learners throughout the whole country of South Korea were provided with an ePortfolio and that through the national provision of the GLOW VLE to all schools in Scotland pupils had access to a form of ePortfolio.

Donald rejects the ‘Shoebox Syndrome’ out of hand. But I wonder if he has photographs at home, or framed certificates in his office, or artefacts in his attic that he might reflect upon and gain some satisfaction? Does such a person go through life without celebration of special events or reflection of past glories? Can life really be that sterile? Can such a person go through life without ever attempting to present him/herself in the best light without a short CV or evidence of credentials? To Donald I say. “Wake up! You live in a digital world where the ePortfolio is that natural ‘preferred option’ for so many of us. Because you choose to think differently is no reason to condemn the rest of us to a pre-digital age.”

One comment on Donald's blog is worth quoting:

"If you do not see adult "fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands and wives" as life long learners then that is your point of view. But the fact is that all living species are in a constant state of "change". That change is learning, learning to be a father, to be a mother and so on. So, in essence we are all doing something with our lives that is increasing or decreasing our understanding and knowledge about things and situations around us. So, if we would like to assess that "increase" or "decrease" by designing e-portfolios, then why should it be considered "shoeboxing". "