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e-Portfolios – the DNA of the Personal Learning Environment?

May 15th, 2007 by Graham Attwell

This is a longish paper – about 7000 words – too long to post all off it in the blog. So I am posting here an exrpt with access to an RTF download of the full paper (perhaps I will post another excerpt tomorrow.

Have chosen to post the section on reflection – just because this issue seems to give everyone trying to work with e-Portfolios so many problems.

One curiosity about the paper is the references. I didn’t set out to do this but found in the course of reading for the paper that most of the interesting things I was reading were from blog posts. Is it juts the subject, is it me – or are things changing? Anyway the references include a couple of books, a good few conference papers, a video and a lot of blogs. And by the way – how do you reference someones comment on an Excite Comment Wall?

As always any feedback very welcome.

Facilitating Reflection

In projects and at conferences about e-portfolios, at some point the discussion seems always to turn to the issue of how to facilitate meaningful reflection.

Typical is the following blog entry by a teacher, John Pallister (2007a).Â

“We have begun work trying to encourage our students, 11- 18 year olds, to reflect on their learning and achievements. We are also encouraging them to record their thoughts and reflections as part of the review/reflection process. The review stage is informing the Action Planning stage, which again we are trying to get students to record.

It seems to me to be a Logical process, having done something, to review what you have done then to revise your original plan or create a new plan.

Early attempts have focussed on printed materials providing students with a number of prompts/questions which focus students on the review process. We have experimented with text based and audio/video formats for recording reviews/reflections. Early stages, not managed to find much help in terms of approaches that help/encourage/support students to reflect and record their reflections – still looking??

Although I am sure that having done something, all students will informally think or form some personal evaluation of their performance, I suspect that the review/reflection is at a very superficial level, perhaps enjoyed it, not going to do that again, did not do that very well, too difficult etc. If students walk away only having reflected at this level they will not have made the most of the learning opportunity.

The challenge is to somehow encourage students to spend more time on this reflection stage, exploring more what they have done/achieved. I suspect that this would help them to design more useful plans and, by thinking about their learning, become that elusive better learner.”

The problem may be that to move beyond the superficial requires intrinsic motivation. As such it is not possible to ‘teach’ someone how to reflect. However, it is possible provide learners with the skills required for reflection and to practice those skills and equally to provide a stimulus to encourage reflection (Buchberger, 2007)

Buchberger goes on to say: “I have my doubts about the usefulness of written reflection following certain prompts or guiding questions. We have been ‘forcing’ our teacher trainees to hand in written reflections on their performance in class each semester, which hasn’t proved very successful. It’s turned out to make much more sense if trainees, their mentors and the teaching practice supervisor (what a terrible word !) meet after class and in a very relaxed atmosphere analyse the lessons as “critical friends” (with a strong focus on friend !!). This is what we do regularly and trainees find it much more helpful than their written reflection papers. Perhaps – from time to time – a few notes summarizing such a talk might be a reminder and starting point for further student reflection. But again it should make sense for the student, not just to satisfy the teacher/trainer.

Stephen Warbuton (2007) attended a presentation given by a group at the University of the Pacific on ‘Dialogical Reflection in the Digital Age’. “Like many educators”, he says, “Jim Phillips and Erick Marmolejo, grappled with the nature of reflection – a term that often eludes definition. Their use of what they called ‘dialogic reflection’ was focussed around reflective activities based on a play between the academic vs. professional portfolios, the production of artefacts and samples accompanied by reflective statement with a summative assessment process slotted in right at the end. They identified general problems with the reflective process when situated within an educational context in that opinion-laden task lists do not get at the heart of the strength of reflection, feedback loops can be slow and not enough time is allocated to reflection which results in very little reflective speak (there is only play around reflective dialogue). As Kathleen Yancey points out in her book “Reflection in the writing classroom” – reflection is always a fiction where students write specifically to the needs of the tutor.

The key philosophy behind their methodology to reinvigorate the process of reflection lies in pushing tutors to unlearn traditional approaches to writing instruction paralleled with the use of reflection as a means to individualise instruction and personalise learning. “

Jenny Hughes has adopted a similar approach. In a video of a workshop she takes a group of adult learners through a process of providing constructive feedback to each other. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that adult teachers are not used to this process (Hughes, 2007). Her key point is that there are forms and structure and skills o providing feedback and in a similar way forms and structure to reflection. For learners these skills include:

•    Forming an opinion

•    Expressing and opinion

•    Articulating and opinion

•    Justifying an opinion

•    Defending an opinion

•    Supporting opinions of other

•    Challenging others’ opinions

•    Questioning others

•    Seeking clarification

•    Representing others opinions

•    Building on others’ opinions

•    Sorting fact from opinion

Each of these processes can be structured and supported within the e-portfolio development process. However, they also require skills on the part of the teacher or facilitator. These might include:

•    Facilitator skills

•    Active listening skills

•    Feedback skills

•    Intervention skills

•    Evaluation skills

Yet the practising of such skills or competencies or the embedding of such practice within everyday learning activities has implications for both pedagogic approaches to teaching and learning and to curriculum design and organisation. Facilitating reflection is not simple within a largely ‘input based’ curriculum where the main goal is to pass a series of prescribed examinations. The danger is that reflection is simply seen as irrelevant to the qualification driven motivation of many students within their school based learning (as opposed to outside school). Case studies undertaken through the MOSEP project suggest that development of reflection through e-Portfolios may work best in project-based learning and when reflection is linked to activities. It is interesting that in the Kit Car project case study (Attwell and Brandsma, 2006), the project was developed as an extra curriculum project and was not subject to the normal confines of curriculum and assessment rules.

It may also be that reflection is constrained by the dominant written form of evidencing within e-Portfolios. The widespread use of multi media is a feature of many of the social networking sites referred to earlier. Yet despite some attempts to encourage more use of multi media, most e-Portfolios remain text based, probably once more due to the demands of assessment policies. The issue of assessment will be explored further in the next section.

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