Blogs and ePortfolios and Assessment: Thinking Out Loud

spiderweb.jpg

Three recent moments–reading my spring semester teaching evaluations, reading Lanny Arvan’s post on LMS, and participating in a lively and stimulating discussion with Pete Smith ( UT-Arlington) and Jan Marston of the DULAP program, and Barbara Sawhill of Oberlin College on her languagelabunleashed skype show— have me considering the relationship between blogging, ePortolios and evaluation in my classroom. And while I have used the term portfolio to describe our blogging, I’m not sure I will in the future, for I don’t want my students or anyone else confusing what we’re doing with blogs as solely filling the traditional role of a portfolio, that Scott Wilson in his eportfolio PPT describes as “a collection of artifacts that say something about the subject.” (Slide 8) . Now, I’m no expert on ePortfolios (see Scott Wilson or Helen Barrett, who in her white paper on “Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement” writes:

…an educational portfolio contains work that a learner has collected, reflected, selected, and presented to show growth and change over time, representing an individual or organization’s human capital. A critical component of an educational portfolio is the learner’s reflection on the individual pieces of work (often called “artifacts”) as well as an overall reflection on the story that the portfolio tells.

Also complicating research and literature regarding portfolios in education is the fact that there are many purposes for portfolios in education: there are portfolios that center around learning, assessment, employment, marketing, and showcase or best work. With so many purposes for portfolios it becomes clear that the term “portfolio” should always have a modifier or adjective that describes its purpose.

Cautioning against eportfolios being turned into static vessels for deposit of artifacts only, she and others emphasize the importance of reflection and of storytelling in the making and content of eportfolios.

Explore, too, the TenCompetence site from Europe or the excellent paper, “Creation of a Learning Landscape: weblogging and social networking in the context of eportfolios” written by David Tosh and Ben Werdmuller in 2004 as they worked on ELGG, the open source learning landscape platform. What they describe is what I am after:

It can be argued e-portfolios are more valuable when used continuously throughout a course as an integral part of the learning experience, as opposed to a reporting mechanism used after the main body of learning is completed. To affect this, there are three important aspects a system would need to encompass:

• Reflection – the student can map out his or her thoughts on a course, a piece of work, or more general experiences.
• Communication – the student can communicate his or her reflections to other students, staff, tutors and lecturers.
• Sharing – the student can give selected other users access to their digital objects. Learning is not as effective in isolation; there is a great deal of discussion involved in traditional courses, and this would need to be reflected in any electronic learning aid. The importance of linking together people, ideas and resources cannot be overestimated.

It’s a complex series of possibilities, this ePortfolio phenomenon, and one that Lanny touches upon when he thinks about what his institution needs in a robust, flexible, responsive LMS–should there be a way to evaluate the group as well as the individual? My response to LMS will have to wait for another post, but that he brings up blogs in the same breath as LMS and assessment means that I can no longer use such terms as portfolio when I talk about our blogging, as casually as I have in the past.

In my classrooms blogging is about organic, emergent possibilities, a fluid weaving of the group’s and the individual learner’s many stories –to try to articulate this narrative as a portfolio of any kind perhaps limits blogging by asking it to be one thing only–something to present, assess, evaluate, collect, select. Blogging with learning communities not so much captures that which traditional learning portfolios do: snaphots of a student’s work at given intervals and often in relation to specific competency benchmarks, but as Pete said during the skypecast, by weaving these moments into a larger tapestry, builds a linked, richly textured conversation with the self, the work, the learning community and the world by including and valuing just about everything created in conjunction with the course (images, text, podcasts, digital stories–informal and formal, drafty as well as polished, conversations with the group as well as individual work. We don’t do much selecting, if selecting means keeping drafts and failures off the blogs–we do selecting through the tagging, the naming, the categorizing of the posts) .


If I had my druthers, we would resist evaluating blogging formally, according to stiff rubrics, and rather let them unfold as authentically as possible, without counting posts or holding students to some exacting standard–in my experience over the past five years, by pulling away those constraints, the students have produced thinking and writing and communicating far more interesting and meaningful and accomplished than when they are thinking about specific competencies and evaluation. We do reflect–frequently– on the learning-in-process and its relevance to our goals beyond the one semester, the one course, the one discipline. This conversation not only extends the learning by contextualizing it in the world, feathering the strands of inquiry into real-world contexts (see the interactions with dispatx art collective, , for example), it deepens the learning by examining just what is being learned and to what end. How do you evaluate that kind of mix between formal and informal learning that is as much about what the student is seeking as about what a course is trying to cover? How do you evaluate the rich, often informal conversation that emerges on the blogs and in the classroom?

Looking at my teacher evaluations really brought home how this use of blogs with my students has evolved to a point where I no longer give grades at all until I finally have to at the end of the semester, and the students not only go along with me on this, they are embracing this gradeless strategy. I am very excited about this outcome with a group of students conditioned to expect letter grades as a mark of their accomplishment for most, and as the goal for many. They want “A’s.” On this I have written before.

Although for over twenty years of teaching I’ve incorporated narrative self-evaluation by the students both in writing and in conference with me, until this past semester, I also gave grades on unit portfolios– reluctantly so–but because the students craved grades as guideposts they could understand, and because I felt that if I worked within a system that used letter grades to assess and to evaluate, I had to use them in an ongoing way through the semester. Interim grades could provide incentive, encouragement and reality checks. Since I started blogging with my students in the fall of 2001, I have pulled grades away from individual assignments, and done less and less of the evaluation myself, instead showing the students how and why to self-evaluate through the transparency and connectivity of the blogs. I have gradually pulled myself off the center of the course blogs and have provided little feedback on the students’ blogs so as to open them up to the fuller community of reciprocal apprentices and to help them take control of their learning (I have written frequently–and argued with other edubloggers–about teacher presence on the blogs). I have also largely pulled teacher-constructed formal rubrics away from the course descriptions, and instead have built rubrics with the class community based on their learning goals, their level of skill coming into the course, and our sense of what our standards of excellence and accomplishment ought to be in the course. As I have a wider perspective on reasonable goals than they can possibly have, I guide them in this goal-setting practice and at the beginning of the semester, meet individually with each student to set course goals. These practices emerged in part from the blogging–or rather, blogging helped me to realize them. But I still used grades.

When I returned from Australia this February and wrote about setting my syllabus plan on its head, I meant it–the course opened with an experimental unit about exploration and creative play and community building, using digital stories as a means of expression, and I pulled grades away from the units altogether–in consultation with the class– because the overview I had originally posted, included unit portfolio grades as I had used them in previous semesters. What emerged from this group experience was a jettisoning of all grades until the final grade (and I would have gotten rid of that, too, if I could have done so). Instead, the students, in writing and orally, reflected on their own progress, commented on each other’s work, and met frequently with me in conference to talk about the learning and for me to give them direct feedback on their writing through questions, suggestions for models–a reader’s honest response to their work. I took notes during our conferences, which we reread at each subsequent conference to ground us in where we had been and where we wanted to go.

I know that some hold grades as an important motivator and indicator of progress, feeling that without grades in an institution where grades are expected by students, they will slack off. Not so, I say, if the learning community and the individual learner’s responsibility to the community and to the self are tended to from the outset. In this course, everyone was engaged, motivated, and working hard for their own real reasons. Not everyone liked everything we did. Not everyone worked with the same effort at every moment. The course had its natural ebbs and flows, times when the conversation seemed more effective than at others. I came away from some class meetings wondering if I had done the right thing in letting the course evolve according to its own rhythms (though within a structure that met the department’s requirements for the course). It wasn’t always a pretty picture, in other words. Yet no one went through the motions, performing rather than learning. Not everyone liked the blog or used it to full advantage. A couple resisted it all the way through. But they were engaged with the learning–with their own, and the group’s, development. No one asked about grades. Not once. No one missed class unless they were quite ill–they seemed to forget that this experience was artificially constructed within a college or a semester.

In spite of the magic of the group experience, I have to admit that I was a little nervous when I received the course & teacher evaluations a couple of days ago. How would they respond to the question about how the coursework was assessed and evaluated? How would they respond to the question about how I interacted with them and their work?

Well, not a single student complained about the lack of graded evaluation. A couple of them marveled at how they really didn’t know how I was going to figure out grades, but they didn’t think it even mattered, for they knew what they had reaped from the course. In the evaluations they focussed on their own responsibility in relation to the community, the blog, and me. Some of them wished I HAD been on the blog more–they craved my feedback and didn’t like to wait for it until conference. But every last one of them had remarked on how powerful the learning experience had been–and here I have to say that I can’t take credit for this outcome except in as far as I mentored this community by giving them the tools, the time and the space to create learning magic.,

And so I sit here nodding, saying, yes, this is the direction I want to keep moving in–if they blog the journey, weaving their stories together with the stories of their classmates, together with the stories of their world in other classrooms, or out of classrooms altogether, they will know how they have learned and what remains to be learned–the successes and the failures both. They won’t be scared to experience glorious failures. They won’t be shy. They’ll take ownershipi and pleasure in learning.

This is what I was trying to articulate during Barbara Sawhill’s show–I’m really not that interested in students producing artifacts that display their competency. I’ve thrown out the final revision project this year, instead asking the students to create new work, building upon the lessons of the old while stretching to do things they can’t quite yet handle. All I ask of them is to integrate the lessons they’ve mastered with the objectives not yet met–and then they reflect on the outcome. So, sure, this is a portfolio, yes, where they gather all their work–the drafts as well as the “finished pieces” in a variety of media, threaded by the narrative. But this is an organic looking and feeling document, an unfinished document that is not meant to impress; and as a result, in some hands, it is a work of art and continues to move the learning community.

When student bloggers go on to develop this learning landscape as they move out of this classroom, I feel as though we might just yet transcend the limits of the classroom walls. Lizi, for example, who took this same course a year ago, and who spent the past year studying in Russia, through her magnificently honest and probing and self-aware blogging (which was not done under the auspices of any course) has captured her ongoing learning journey in posts of beauty and substance. That Pete Smith had his Russian-language students in Texas read along with her meant that unbeknownst to her, her learning journey also informed theirs (I just wish they had responded to her posts!).

Here lies one of my frustrations: students who blog on their own, have MySpace or Facebook accounts, are not integrating all for these blogs together into what Jeremy Hiebert has diagrammed as a PLE: ple.0.jpg
(Jeremy Hiebert)

What good is this kind of exciting learning experience if, at the end of the course, the students abandon this approach and happily return to a more passive, or a more authority-directed mode of learning? Come September, I will introduce the notion of a Personal Learning Environment to my students and encourage them to integrate their various Web 2.0 pieces together, with various permissions set, so that they retain ownership over the contents, and can decide on just who has access to their intersecting worlds. This is the next chapter in this evolving work, I think, and will move us beyond the single strand of a course portfolio as a way to understand the learning journey.

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One Response

  1. Very cool picture of the spider web. It is amazing that they remake those each night if necessary and do not use a blueprint.

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