Effective e-Portfolio use at Aston University

Connecting the Eportfolio Community : Copyright Alison Miller

In this blog post I report on two different uses of e-portfolios (PebblePad) here at Aston University.  Both have similar stories to tell, in respect of the methods the academic staff have used to scaffold and support student’s reflective evidence, and their methods of teaching critical reflective writing. Finally we ask the question of how they assess reflective portfolio evidence.   I should also direct your attention to five new enlightening JISC produced video case studies on e-Portfolio use across UK HE and FE: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/eportimplement .

Now it’s time for a serious look at the new and improved PebblePad 3– following the recent unveiling by the PebblePad team.

Dr Roy Smith: Combined Honours

At our recent Aston e-Portfolio interest group (ae-pig) meeting we had the pleasure of talking to Dr Roy Smith  (former Director of Combined Honours).  Dr Smith was invited to talk about his use of e-portfolios for the combined honours cohorts in recent years.  Dr Smith has been using PebblePad to allow students to build up evidence of skills and competences beginning in year 02.  Students are encouraged and guided (using a template webfolio) to continually reflect upon their experiences. They continually create a body of evidence that displays their development during their undergraduate studies and work placements.

In the initial stages of using PebblePad Dr Smith provided little scaffolding (with Pebblepad), but soon found this to be counter-productive to effective learning and their grasp on the importance of a reflective journal.  The lessons he learned echo others adoption of e-portfolios, namely;

  • Provide initial support for the students. This ensured they understood the longer term employability benefits of using an e-Portfolio as a “living” document.
  • Use simple scaffolding mechanisms to provide a framework for collated evidence, i.e. webfolio. Dr Smith utilised the skills and competences frameworks provide by our careers department for this purpose.
  • Promote and provide effective reflective (academic) writing skills. In his case Dr Smith used the work of Dr Jenny Moon , by running writing workshops.
  • Use secure gateways to manage large cohort reflective assessments.
  • Add weighted assessment grades to both the live journal and the final CV parts.
  • Final assessment of the journal ensured that students displayed evidence of higher order thinking skills, by collating and synthesising critical incidents. The critical reflections on their developing skills and competencies would therefore help guide them in their chosen careers.

Dr Smith concluded his talk by commenting upon another portfolio he implemented for an area of lecturing he covers. This is a paper based portfolio, and is extremely successful with the students recording lab experiments and field tests.  Fitness for purpose is the key here for “technology” or lack of in this instance. Don’t let the technology dictate the learning and teaching.

Whilst discussing the evasive subject of both teaching and assessing reflective writing, Dr Errol Thompson proffered an alternative method of defining assessment criteria; using the depth, width , and journey framework . This utilises the SOLO taxonomy   by Biggs and Collis (1982)

Dr Ann Hartley: The Aston Certificate

At our previous ae-pig meeting in November 2011 we invited along Dr Ann Hartley to discuss how she uses and assesses the reflective aspects of student portfolios for the Aston Certificate:  An Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

Recently, this programme has adopted the use of PebblePad to enable students to reflect upon their teaching practice, for both continual and final assessment – using a web based platform.  Dr Hartley has been involved with the Aston Certificate for quite a while now, and has embraced the potential of continual (developmental) and critical reflection afforded by a web based tool such as PebblePad.
During the discussion we covered the use of scaffolding the student e-Portfolio using a template designed to give students a framework to construct their evidence. This method of providing a framework (webfolio) has proven very effective, and is continually being refined to ensure adequate scope is provided for effective differentiated learning.
Together with this method of scaffolding learning for students using an unfamiliar learning platform, we discussed the aspect of both formative and summative assessment of the completed webfolios. Dr Hartley prefers to use regular face to face sessions with individual students to ensure the students are able keep up with the course requirements. Dr Hartley did admit that she did access shared web folios online to leave constructive comments, but felt that the face to face sessions were vital to build relationships and give developmental feedback.
When it came to the tricky question of exactly how does she assess a final webfolio, Dr Hartley listed these primary factors;
•    The Aston Certificate is assessing reflection on practice; therefore the reflective prose needs to be evidenced from both their learning (journey?), teaching practice, and also informed from the wider literature.
We then asked Dr Hartley about the specific rubrics she used to assess each webfolio. These are her three primary criteria;

  1. Have you got [the] evidence?
  2. How have you collated this?
  3. Have you demonstrated the ability to critically reflect?

I then posed the question to Dr Hartley about the actual act of reflection, both in action, and post incident.  Ostensibly I wanted to know whether she used a recognised reflective model to help structure student critical reflections.  I was alluding to the Driscoll reflective model (What, So What, Then What), which is built into to one of the PebblePad asset types.  Her approach is to offer students a range of models; e.g. Biggs (1996) reflective practice, and Gibbs (1998) reflective cycle, or Kolb’s (1984) experiential cycle “as they all reflect in different ways.”

This was a very enlightening conversation with an academic member of staff who has many years of assessing reflective scripts. Dr Hartley now exploits an e-Portfolio tool in a very simple and effective blended mode, making sure important (face-time) feedback on learning is not replaced by a computer.

In summary, both case studies, we see that a range of reflective teaching, models and (student) support mechanisms being used. Although the reflective evidence is assessed summatively, we also see both methods providing feedback to ensure that learning is developmental.  Using an e-Portfolio tool to provide an effective mechanism to provide continual assessment seems to be still a way off! The main stumbling block is the time required to provide online feedback at designated points in the academic year, coupled with a lack of both knowledge and understanding of using a gateway efficiently. Although, I do know that some here at Aston are using a gateway to do this (Dr Matthew Hall) – but this approach does require some considerable redesign of the curriculum and the associated assessment methods. Although evidence of the learning journey is required by using the e-portfolios continually, the learning journey is of less importance (grading wise) than the final output. Dr Hartley prefers to use face to face methods for learning feedback, and as we discussed with Dr Smith, he still promotes a paper portfolio – again evidence of fitness for purpose, not a one size fits all approach.

As the subjects of “employability” and the contentious HEAR report continue to influence the HE agenda, we should see personal e-portfolios being more widely adopted and embedded deeper into the undergraduate learning experience.

One Response to “Effective e-Portfolio use at Aston University”

  1. e-portfolio | Annotary  on January 18th, 2013

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