Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Learning Through E-Portfolios

This semester my class has been piloting a new e-portfolio project at Westminster. The overall goal of the initiative is to have all undergraduates create e-portfolios showing that they have achieved the college-wide learning goals. The portfolio would include artifacts and reflections from the student's entire time at the college, and from the co-curriculum as well as the curriculum.

During the semester we have been testing the e-portfolio software (Foliotek) as well as seeing if first-semester students care about things as abstract as our learning goals, can use rubrics, can reflect on ways that their artifacts are evidence of learning, etc. And we have been investigating whether this can happen in a freshman seminar.

I cannot speak for what the students have learned, but I've learned quite a bit about learning goals, definitions, rubrics, and e-portfolios. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Come around to the learning goals--my students are cool to abstraction, so when confronted with a learning goal like "global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness" they cannot get much traction. But start a discussion about how outlawing DDT preserved the environment in the US while heightening the impact of malaria in the developing world and they connect right away to the goal. Present them with a definition and the class becomes as interesting as a dictionary. Ask them to create a definition based on the DDT conversation and all of the sudden definitions are more interesting. Of course this is true, you will say. But a lot of the work on learning goals/outcomes, whatever its aim, comes across as abstraction.

2. When using a rubric, have students score the work of strangers first--one of our goals was to see if the rubrics for our learning goals made sense to students. So I asked them to use our rubrics to evaluate their work. As is almost universally the case, the students overestimated the quality of their work. Consistently. Through the semester. But when some students used the rubrics to analyze the work of professional journalists writing about science, the rubrics gave them a framework to point out the gaps in professional writing. The lesson? A rubric is a frame that makes sense of the world, not a window into your own soul.

3. Creativity is a good way into reflection--I had students write reflections about their work in critical thinking, ethical awareness, and communication. Their reflections tended not to show much self-awareness. But when I asked them to reflect on their creativity, the reflections were much more powerful. In retrospect, this is understandable. We understand creativity as being personal and internal--something emerging from who we are. Communication is external--a tactic rather than a trait. By writing about their acts of creativity students were much closer to who they think they are, good and ill.

4. A small barrier is all it takes--with something new like an e-portfolio, a small barrier was all it took to discourage students from participating. In the foliotek system a student can begin to create her e-portfolio only upon receiving a user name and password from foliotek. (Foliotek sends them out once we request the creation of an account in a particular student's name.) For students who deleted the email, or skipped it, or who never read their campus email account, the small obstacle of having to hunt down the email was very likely to keep them from getting started on the portfolio or doing good work in it. I know, I know--causation vs. correlation. But when I do it again I am going to make sure I lower the barriers as much as possible for students, because if you don't start you go nowhere.

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