So first off, it has been a while since I have written. I should probably be be a bit better about writing, but in my new job as tech integration specialist, I have had some difficulty finding the time. However, I am in a place right now where time or no time, I have some things that need to be said. What better outlet than the fine CoETaIL community.
I called this post my ePortfolio Manifesto because I am planning on going on a bit of a rant, so please bear with me as I get this off my chest. I have been banging the drum of ePortfolios at my school for some time now. I have some strong opinions about their importance in education. I firmly believe that reflection on learning is key to higher level thinking and growth from year to year. But, unfortunately, this point has been drowned out by an argument over what tool we will use to present our work. (sigh…) How often is this the case in education. We lose complete sight of the end objectives and main purpose for doing something in order to pick sides in a battle over which tool is cooler!
Time for some full disclosure before we move forward. I do bear some responsibility for this current argument. I believe that for ePortfolios to have their greatest impact on learning, they need to encompass more than just one year of a student’s school career. I think students need to see that learning connects and builds on previous years learning. So with that thinking in mind, I pushed for us to move to a single platform so that the students could have one ePortfolio that they used for their time in the grades six, seven, and eight. Up to this point, students were creating a new ePortfolio every year. The format was different, the tool was different, the explanation of why it is important to create an ePortfolio was different. This only served to confuse students rather than bring clarity to their middle school years. My vision was for a unified approach, and with a unified approach came the need for a unified tool. You see where this is going…
I thought long and hard about whether or not to mention the two tools in question in this post, but ultimately decided that would defeat the purpose and run counter to my main point, which is that it doesn’t matter which tool you use! If that is your main concern in deciding to implement ePortfolios in your school, you need to go back to the drawing board. I have been accused of being biased towards one tool and that I would somehow taint the process of forming a cohesive approach to ePortfolios because of that bais. Do I have a preference? Yes. Does my tool preference affect, in any way, the philosophy behind WHY we need a unified portfolio system? NO! This irks me to no end. The decision about which tool to use shouldn’t last more than five minutes, and frankly, it should be the last item on the agenda.
So, what items should come first? I think there needs to be buy-in to why a portfolio system is important. I think I have made that case pretty clear up to this point, but it is worth repeating. Portfolios should act as a unifying device to provide students with an opportunity to showcase and reflect on learning. Students need to see that learning in one class is related to learning in another and the same is true from year to year.
So how do we go about ensuring that this actually happens? That brings me to the second point on the agenda: structure. Without deliberately thinking through how you structure and organize a portfolio system, you could actually end up reinforcing the negative idea that learning is separated by subjects. The first year I used portfolios with students, I used the model of having them separate their work by subject. My thinking was that they would have a nice pile of work from each class to see how they progressed through the year. But this model discourages seeing how learning connects across subjects. The second time around we restructured the format to focus on our ESLRs (Expected Schoolwide Learning Results). These broad statements about what we want students to be able to do after leaving our school provided a great opportunity for kids to see how learning connects. Now, instead of seeing the group project in science and the group project in social studies as completely different sets of learning, they now see them unified under “Collaborating Effectively.” Or better yet, the persuasive essay in language arts and the screencast explaining a math concept are now unified under “Thinking Critically,” or “Communicating Effectively.” By shifting our focus off of each subject and onto these transdisciplinary skills, we can really begin to have a better discussion with students about how to approach learning.
Once we have buy-in and structure in place, then, and only then, can we broach the topic of which tool would serve us best. We have to have our priorities straight before we enter that discussion. This is so often the case in tech integration. We gravitate towards the tool, without first establishing why it is important to use the tool, or even if it is important. In that process of establishing “why” we may discover that the tool actually isn’t helping us at all. It seems like we are always on a quest for the next cool tool, but as I like to say “It’s not which cool tool you use, it is how you use it that matter.” And there are other question words that we could drop in there for “how.” How about “…it is why you use it that matters,” or maybe even “…if you use it at all…”
In the case of ePortfolios, clearly it is important to use a tool, that is what the “e” stands for, but I liken it to an argument over which car to take for a trip across town, an SUV or a pickup truck. Both will get you there, so why spend so much time arguing over it. Pick one and move on please. The much better questions are: where are we going, and what route are we going to take to get there?