Blogzilla Vs. the King of e-portfolios: how and why to best document student learning?

I’m just back from my first #Learning2 conference experience in Warsaw…

…I had a great weekend, met some likeminded educators and had my eyes opened to a number of new apps, strategies and approaches. The Learning2 experience is worthy of a separate post and I will return to give it the attention it deserves but for now, I want to zero in on the focus of my pre-conference workshop – e-portfolios: and how we define, identify and implement them. Used incorrectly, these terms are perceived as digital mega-monsters out to force all learning online but in reality, whilst terminology matters, the most successful documentation of student learning is likely to rely on a hybrid of both.

“We define documentation as the practice of observing, recording, interpreting, and sharing through a variety of media the processes and products of learning in order to deepen and extend learning … These physical traces allow others to revisit, interpret, reinterpret, and even re-create an experience.”

Visible Learners” by Krechevsky, Mardell, Rivard, & Wilson,

The documentation of student learning is a vital part of the learning cycle and yet one that seems to be so easily overlooked. As technology replaces and reimagines established methods of knowledge curation (exercise book/journal/binder/writing tool), teachers are left chasing ways to ensure that the work their students create is stored appropriately. We also need to consider the life cycle of a piece of work because if we don’t encourage students to collect examples of their best practise, to share with teachers, peers and parents, what message are we sending out about the importance and validity of what they create?

Kimberly House, EdTech specialist at the Bavarian International School ran a Learning2 pre-con session entitled DOCUMENTING  LEARNING WITH PORTFOLIOS and in light of the questions above, I was quick to sign up. Here are some the significant questions and possible answers that I took from Kim’s thought provoking session (a padlet overview of some key ideas can be found here):

  1. What’s the difference between a blog and portfolio? Do they have to be mutually exclusive?

portfolio

noun port·fo·lio \pȯrt-ˈfō-lē-ˌō\ – a selection of a student’s work (as papers and tests) compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress

blog

noun \ˈblȯg, ˈbläg\ – a website that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks, videos, and photographs provided by the writer; also :  the contents of such a site

I’ve had several experiences recently where discussion of the terms portfolio and blog has antagonised normally mild mannered teachers desperate to defend their students’ right not to blog or share beyond the confines of a tightly walled virtual garden. These terms appear controversial and are certainly interpreted differently according to context and speaker. Personally, I’ve been sceptical of students using blogs as portfolios because, as the Merriam Webster definitions above indicate, they are different beasts. Key terms of distinction leap out in the form of ‘work’ versus ‘reflections’ and the phrase ‘ for assessing performance or progress’. As an English teacher, semantics matters and the devil really is in the detail.

With this in mind, a top takeaway from Kim’s session was the role that categorisation and effective tagging can have in allowing students to differentiate between posts on a blog that are explicit examples of academic best work and those that may be more personal reflective pieces. Making students aware of this process could help to effectively embrace and reflect the complex nature of blogging rather than forcing an oversimplification that undermines its value.

     2. If we expect students to put maximum effort into producing products and                    assessments, shouldn’t we do more to respect and celebrate what they create?

I see connections here to another recent PD experience I’ve had with Dylan Wiliam talking about turning feedback into feedforward. At high school level and certainly in the English classroom, we are encouraging students to recognise that they are on a journey to become better communicators and writers over time.  Encouraging learners to archive written tasks and review them again at key check points could be a meaningful way to engage them more directly in the learning process and to recognise where progress was actually made. Tanmay Vora explores this notion in a post on when does learning really happen? which goes some way towards supporting Wiliam’s concept of helping students to close the gap in their learning by identifying themselves at a point in a fluid process.

     3. Can we do more to ensure that the ‘display’ of student work is an active                        process rather than a passive outcome?

Investing time in involving students in the effective documentation of their learning could positively influence how we report and interact with parents. Apps like ThingLink enable students to make photographs and documents come alive by linking in video and audio files. Tools like this could enable students to ‘step inside’ their work and unpack learning in a way that a standard google drive folder or work on the wall simply can’t. When combined with padlet walls, ThingLink also becomes a hugely powerful tool for students to share work, reflections and assessment tips with their peers. Both situations provide examples of students having to go further to explain their learning and could be used at the centre of dynamic student led conferences. What I don’t agree with is students’ online portals being used for explicit task specific reflection or anything to do with referencing specific academic grades. For me, this is where English teachers can play a role in clarifying the audience and purpose of a blog in order to discourage it from being used as a place to publicly share academic concerns. Working with our Tech expects and considering models like SAMR could help to evaluate the best steps to take.

 

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Our session also explored a world in which e-portfolios replace the need for student reports but I think this requires really careful curation and could only happen in conjunction with a open online grade book.

Ultimately, I think that terminology matters and that we should talk more about effective documentation that we should about blogs and or as portfolios. Selecting platforms and methods suitable for the stage the students are at is also really important and a great reason to encourage more cross divisional collaboration because the platform may change but the language should stay constant.

Thanks to Kim & Co. at Learning2 for an awesome session and the chance to really drill down into a an issue that could and should be relevant to us all. Online tools offer great potential to document the narrative of student learning but it does depend on which story you want to tell…

 

 

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Why blog? Taking small steps towards classroom connectivism

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Danny Hennesey “Chaotic Connections”, 2009, abstract painting. https://www.artdoxa.com/MushroomBrain/large?page=15

21st century education is all about connections. As a teacher working within the 4 dimensions of the IB curriculum, I often find myself listening for that synaptic crackle created when students mentally flex and leap between content and concepts; subject and non-subject specific skills. Many lessons are crackle free because to connect is to transcend detail; to connect is to think critically and to indicate a state of real-world readiness. To connect is really hard. As IB teachers, we control and influence how connections are formed but how and how can we do a better job? I’ve been working on dialling up the role of blogging as it offers scope for students to make more authentic connections between learning experiences, whilst also encouraging the creation of an online network. Personally, writing a blog and having an on/off relationship with the twittersphere has by default increased my own sense and awareness of digital connectivity and put me in touch with a rich range of interesting ideas and examples of good practice.

Edtech thinkers and proponents of connectivism like George Siemens are labelling structured learning as ‘irrelevant’ (Siemens, 2010) and are instead flying the flag for a more ‘granular and nebulous networked learning experience’ (Siemens, 2010). Knowledge loses its value faster than ever before. In order to combat the developing chaos that accompanies the shrinking half-life of what is relevant, connectivism supports the use of connected networks designed to help evaluate and confirm the validity of what we need to know. As a learning theory, connectivism favours the ability to self-select what is learnt and through the development of individual learning networks, we learn to connect and evaluate concepts that transcend individual disciplines. Within our classrooms, staff and student blogs could be the simplest way to take a small step towards building personal networks and making stronger connections. Busting the myth that ‘asking google’ makes a learner connected and explicitly discussing the creation of an online network as an ATL skill are both important steps in this direction.

The project and inquiry based nature of MYP teaching has meant that students are regularly developing their own online learning networks. I can certainly do more to turn up student awareness of the networks they are creating but I think that responsibility for evaluating online sources and building a digital learning strategy should be school wide. However, I recognise that blog posts written in the English classroom have become ‘nodes’ through which cross-curricular links and connections can be made. They symbolise the creation of an original opinion and in turn reflect the varied nature of the learning landscape. Perhaps I could design more tasks that ask the students to evaluate and use each other’s blog content as source material – potentially a good way to raise the issues of different opinions and validity of information. A similar approach, although not one specifically centred on blogging is explored in this video on the ‘Networked student’.

Blogging has allowed me to up-skill and to feel that some of my classroom and professional practice is a bit more ‘contemporary’. It has also allowed me to encourage my students to enjoy the process of writing about something which they are interested in without always being held accountable to do so in a formal, academic style. As it continues to grow in my classroom, blogging has also been one area in which, I am surprised to feel ‘ahead’ of most students. It has allowed me the space to reflect and to clarify my thinking on key issues. The process of being online and of making occasional forays into Twitter has meant that I have, by default, become more connected. These platforms have enabled me to participate in some longer, slower online conversations, which have in turn stimulated shorter, faster real life discussions with colleagues I work with every day.

If, as Siemens suggests, we now ‘think in networks’ (Siemens, 2010), then it seems vital to ensure that teachers increase their stake in the 21st century knowledge market. After all, if we are asking our students to blog and connect, then shouldn’t we too have digital skin in the game.

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Works Cited

“Global Social Media Statistics Summary 2016.” Smart Insights. 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

“Stats.” WordPress.com. 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

UOC. “George Siemens – Connectivism: Socializing Open Learning.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 June 2010. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.