Thursday 23 October 2014

Expanding education's e-horizons

Teachers are increasingly experimenting with digital collections of student work, pushing aside traditional paper-based portfolios for those stored on CDs or websites. On the next pages, KATE TRINGHAM talks with two teachers who used Ministry of Education-funded e-fellowships to investigate good use of e-portfolios. In both instances the e-fellows, one a secondary teacher the other a primary teacher, found that e-portfolios not only capture evidence of student learning and activity that cannot be adequately replicated on paper – they also help to engage students and their families in their learning.

Capturing dramatic achievement

Opotiki College drama teacher Faithe Hanrahan vividly recalls the stunned reaction of a parent when shown a video clip from her son's electronic portfolio during parent interviews in the final term of 2004.

The 30-second clip showed her son performing on stage in front of the rest of the school.

"After watching the clip, the mother turned to me and said 'if you hadn't told me that that was my child on stage in that little video clip I would not have believed it!'," says Faithe.

And with good reason. This particular student was the quietest of all Faithe's drama students. He was so shy, in fact, that when he turned up to Faithe's class at the beginning of the year, she had seriously considered taking him aside and suggesting that perhaps drama wasn't the best subject choice for him. But he proved her wrong, and in 30 seconds the video clip was able to demonstrate this student's learning journey and skill in drama in a way that could never have been accurately reflected on paper.

It's just one illustration of what a powerful tool an e-portfolio can be in presenting a wide range of evidence of a student's unique learning journey – a process made even more powerful by the fact that the student can play a large part in selecting that evidence.

As one of the 2006 Ministry of Education e-fellows, Faithe spent last year exploring the use of e-portfolios in a secondary school environment.

Her research aimed to examine and challenge the way secondary schools collected, managed and shared their learners' portfolio artefacts with a view to extending current practices to include the use of life-wide electronic portfolios.

"With the advance of the information age it is almost imperative that in order to interact within a digital world, our students will need to be able to present themselves digitally," she says.

"Our traditional methods of managing and presenting students' records of learning via scrapbooks and flip files needs to be reviewed if we are to meet this need. The use of digital portfolios and life-wide e-portfolios has the potential to assist us to do so."

Faithe's interest in the potential of eportfolios was sparked back in 2004 when she became involved in a Digital Opportunities project at Opotiki College.

The school had just purchased a set of 10 wireless laptops, and the project was to investigate how they could be used in class to improve learning.

Faithe trialled the use of them with her senior drama students in an inter-dependent learning situation, with groups of three students at each computer conducting exploratory research with the theatre form 'clowning'.

Because the project was done in groups, Faithe needed to set up a way of managing all the student digital folios on the school intranet Capturing dramatic acheivement – and because she is a drama teacher, a lot of the evidence she collected was in the form of video and audio clips.

For Faithe, the whole notion of e-portfolios developed as an outcome of doing that research.

"I had to find a system of collating evidence of the student learning for assessment purposes as well as evidence of the process that we were involved in for the Digiops project."

Acknowledging her own limited expertise in the digital world, Faithe called on the help of technology-savvy students, working alongside them to develop the best ways of presenting evidence.

What impressed Faithe most was the significant increase in student motivation because of their involvement in the process, and this prompted her to apply for the efellowship.

As part of her research, Faithe used Opotiki College as a case study because the school has been involved in the secondary teachers' laptop scheme now for four years.

Faithe examined each department and spoke with teachers to see how they went about storing students' work, if at all, on the school's intranet system.

What she discovered was that while there were digital folders set up in many departments, they were predominantly in the senior area and for management and assessment purposes for NCEA.

In terms of collecting student evidence, teachers had also developed digital folders on the system of their whole courses and units of work.

"In other words, they were using them as an electronic extension of their departmental scheme and teaching workbooks. Whereas my emphasis was on looking at how students were involved in using those folders, if at all."

Faithe discovered that a quarter of teachers in the school were using digital folders and involving students in the management of their digital files within specific folders. But there was no specific target audience for those collections of work.

"Electronic portfolios are always about defining the purpose and then putting them together with a target audience in mind. With my class in 2004, I knew that at the end of the year I wanted to share what we were doing with the parents, so my target audience was the parent interviews.

Faithe asked focus groups in the departments at Opotiki College what needed to happen for other teachers at the school to come on board with e-portfolios, and the response was that teachers needed more professional development. "The focus groups told me that they didn't actually know how to best utilise e-portfolios, or how they could add to what teachers were already doing."

But more importantly, they were concerned about the fact that they were so busy they didn't even have time to engage in discussions about how things such as e-portfolios might affect the way they taught, the way they interacted with their learners or how they might impact on their students' learning.

When Faithe looked through the department folders, she saw wonderful evidence of students doing amazing things – things that parents never got to see.

"It's all valuable evidence that could be used in e-portfolios to demonstrate what a student has learned. And if you take it one step further and involve the students right from the selection point by telling them to set goals and then produce evidence to show how they have achieved those goals, then it becomes a very powerful and empowering tool."

Research has shown that motivation increases when students are involved in setting their own goals and then having a say in how they have achieved those goals. By having to reflect and think about the whole process of that learning, they become more engaged and start to take more responsibility for their own learning.

"That is what is really good about eportfolios, because the bottom line is, it's about the students – not just the teachers."

Further down the track, Faithe adds, the target audience for an e-portfolio could be a prospective employer, and this year she is hoping to implement the notion to Gateway students. Worth noting from Faithe's research was that the ICT skill level of the teachers doing electronic portfolios with their students was high.

"There was a definite correlation there – the higher the skill level, the more confident they were to step out and work with the students."

But Faithe is quick to point out that her own ICT skill level wasn't initially high, but she got around this by working alongside the students and learning from them.

"It was a big mindshift. I think teachers are used to being the ones in control, and what I learned was that you don't always have to be the one in control. You sometimes have to concede that the students do actually know a bit more than you, and that you can learn from them."

 

The e-fellows programme

The E-Learning Teacher Fellowships Programme releases teachers from their teaching duties for a year in order to undertake research to explore new and exciting ways of meeting students' learning needs by combining teaching practice and cutting-edge technology.

Established in 2003, the programme reflects the Ministry of Education's commitment to quality teaching, improving the professional capability of teachers and increasing the use of effective e-learning strategies in schools.

Partnerships with an ICT company or enterprise, and links with tertiary institutions provide an added dimension to projects by providing e-fellows with access to additional information and resources.

Key contact: Faithe Hanrahan,
email f.hanrahan@xtra.co.nz