Talking Points January 2014

New Year Talk on the Potential of E-portfolio

Kay Irie and Rachelle R. Meilleur in dialogue

Kay: あけましておめでとうございます!Happy New Year! It’s exciting to start our monthly dialogue on Talking Points at the start of a new year with you, Rachelle. よろしくお願いします。

Rachelle: Happy New Year to you too, Kay! I’m excited to be a part of Talking Points with you. It should be a fun year of dialogues.

Kay: So, Rachelle, I’ve read your piece in Members’ Voices in the latest issue of Learning Learning (20: 2, p.8) titled ‘Exploring Learner Development through E-portfolio’, and you also presented on this topic at our 20th anniversary conference in November. Portfolios are something that many teachers including myself are interested in as a tool to enhance students’ ability to reflect on their own learning and to be more proactive about their learning. Could you tell me a bit more about what you do with your students? I used to use it in my writing class, but what kind of classes are you using your e-portfolio in? Have you used non-digital portfolios in class before? If so, how do you find e-portfolios different from the traditional folder/scrap book-type portfolio? What are advantages and disadvantages of e-portfolios?

Rachelle: Well, Kay, I use the e-portfolios for anything and everything. At the moment I teach a standard first-year English Communication course, and all my classes, regardless of their level, are doing e-portfolios. Most of what we do tends to be split into three categories: homework, which is often the “good” version of what the students have done in or out of class; reflections on activities that they’ve done, such as presentations, surveys, activities in the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC), activities done online, etc.; and their personal blog, which allows them to write about anything they wish (although sometimes I suggest topics for them). As mentioned in my article, these portfolios have really been to promote learner development and have the students become more self-aware about their own language learning strengths and weaknesses. I did try a more traditional portfolio with my students in previous years, but they were never really that successful, mostly due (I think) to our particular population of students. Somehow they seem more connected to the digital experience. The main differences I find between the two are that it’s harder for students to “lose” work (although still possible, the digital realm is not without problems either) and that the portfolios are always available, wherever the student/teacher is–it’s accessible 24/7. As for disadvantages, I find that there are really just two (for me anyway). One is that not all students enjoy doing work on the computer, so that aspect is a turn-off for them, and they don’t do as much work as I would like. The other is that I find it more time-consuming to go through each student’s website, rather than having a paper-based portfolio (which I prefer evaluating as well). I’m still trying to find a way to streamline this aspect of working with portfolios.

It sounds like you’ve used traditional portfolios. What has your experience been with them? Are you considering a move to e-portfolios? Are there any reasons why you wouldn’t want to use them?

Kay: E-portfolio sounds like a winner! Unfortunately I am not currently using portfolios in any of the classes I am teaching this year, but I used to have the traditional portfolio as part of a compulsory reading & writing courses for first-year students. As you pointed out, as an advantage of e-portfolios, students tend to lose some of their work even when you keep telling them to file them right away. Also when they forget to bring their binder or work to the class in which I allocate some time for them to work on the portfolio, they have nothing to work with. In the traditional portfolio, the arrangement and organization of the items are very important and difficult for some students, and I can see that the advantage of e-portfolio is in “managing” their own work. It is also easy to include various forms of work and activities that the students do, isn’t it? In fact, if students learn to make their own portfolio in their first-year classes, they can (and may!) continue to track their progress after first year as well. That would be great.

What I always liked about the traditional form of portfolio is its physical presence. Having the binder and flipping through the pages with other classmates and with the teacher (me) seems to create a shared sense of achievement in class. I used to have a portfolio-sharing party at the end of the semester where the students would look at each other’s portfolio and add stickies with their comments. Do your students visit each other’s portfolio websites and comment on each other’s work or on their blogs? Do you encourage your students to do that?

Rachelle: I like the physical presence of traditional portfolios as well. I think the tangible quality of being able to hold work produced in hand is quite important.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to get students to view each other’s work because of privacy issues at my university. I also promised students that no one would see the portfolios but me, to encourage them to write more freely. The e-portfolios are both a work-in-progress and a showcase for final projects. It’s the former that, I think, makes students nervous about sharing their work with others, and is something I will have to revisit with my new classes next year, as I believe the sharing of work is quite important, and hopefully both encouraging and motivating for students.

Kay: Yes, I believe it can be encouraging and motivating to reflect on what they have done together and confirm the progress, as it would definitely enhance their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997, 2001) through having the sense of achievement (performance accomplishments), vicarious experience (seeing others success), and positive feedback from others (verbal persuasion). But of course, the sense of security and trust are very important, especially for students who are sensitive not just about writing their thoughts but making linguistic errors in public, isn’t it? We always need to be aware of those aspects.

All the courses I used the portfolio in were one-semester. So by the time the students felt good about themselves and found out what they could and couldn’t do, the semester was usually over. Sometimes making a nice-looking portfolio became the aim rather than reflection and self-assessment. So one of the key questions or struggles for me with portfolio has been how to facilitate reflection through the use of portfolio and how to connect what they realized in their reflection to the next step. Rachelle, do you have any thoughts on this? Do you get to see whether your students continue using the portfolio after the first-year course is over or in other classes for their own learning?

Rachelle: Your final questions really form the basis of what I am trying to achieve with my students. I’ve noticed that reflections do improve over time–for some students anyway–especially self-awareness about their own language learning. How well that translates to making changes and being more self-directed in their language learning is something I am struggling to track. Students do not necessarily track what they do on a regular basis, so it’s difficult to know when, where, and how they are moving to the next step. I will be conducting interviews in the near future with a random sample of students to see if that will yield more fruitful results. In addition, I will be asking all of my students if they want to continue using their websites after the class is finished, as I will have to “untie” them from my teacher account. If they don’t want them, they will be permanently deleted. That will give me some real numbers to work with in terms of how successful the websites have been. I guess I’ll have to let everyone know how that turned out at a future date!

Kay: Yes, please! Looking forward to learning more about students’ engagement with portfolios. My “professional” New Year resolution is to focus on learning and thinking about how to promote a learning culture or community which our students feel comfortable to be a part of and which encourages them to be proactive outside the classroom. And e-portfolio is something that I would like to consider using as a tool to promote that.

Rachelle: Well, I hope you do. There are a lot of options out there–as I’ve mentioned before. I’m currently using Weebly to build websites with my students, but Google Sites, blog sites such as Blogger/Wordpress, and wikis are all possibilities for building e-portfolios. Of course, I would love to hear from others about their experiences with portfolios, e- or traditional, on our blog.

Some useful links:

To ‘E’ or not to ‘E’: Electronic Portfolios in the Adult ESL Classroom

Reflections of a passionate educator

e-Portfolio sites: education.weebly.com, sites.google.com, blogger.com, wordpress.com

References:

Bandura, A. (2001). “Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective.” Annual Review of Psychology, 52 (1): 1–26.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

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