I can now publically reflect on the launch of this new research project, and a major transition in my life, from a member of the faculty of the University of Alaska Anchorage (on loan to ISTE for the last three and a half years), to an independent consultant (with one primary client, right now). A year and a half ago I left the security of a tenured faculty appointment, to complete the ISTE PT3 grant project. I knew I wasn't going to live in Alaska any more, so this move was appropriate. As soon as the PT3 money runs out, I will officially retire from the University (probably next month!). I am both excited and a little apprehensive. This is a huge project we have launched.
When TaskStream approached me about doing the research, I had to do some soul searching about what this meant for me and my work on electronic portfolios. Those who know me know that I have long been an advocate of using common desktop software tools to construct electronic portfolios. However, my study this fall, looking at the many strategies to construct online portfolios, documented in this blog, raised my awareness that the tools were not as important as the process. I would have conducted this research for anyone. However, the fact that TaskStream approached me first, and their vision was not to conduct market research, but to look at the effectiveness of the portfolio development process in secondary student learning, motivation and engagement, made me willing to take on a leadership role for this first-of-a-kind research. An important part of the program will also be an 18-month online professional development program for the teachers involved in the project. I also think my attitude toward customized systems in general will help me maintain my objectivity.
As I looked at the huge task of researching the impact of electronic portfolios on student learning, I realized that we needed to hold some variables constant or we would not be able to determine which factors led to the outcomes. As I look at prior research and Activity Theory, I recognize the constraints that the technology tools can impose. For novice computer users, the technology can be an imposing barrier. By using a single tool that doesn't require a lot of technical skill, we can focus on the real goal of the project: student learning, engagement and reflection, not HTML coding, hyperlinking and design. I am hoping that TaskStream will add more options for creativity in design to their tools; but our goal is to get students to collect (create their digital archive), select the key pieces, reflect on their growth over time, project their future goals, and respect their work through sharing with a wider audience.
I am hoping that this project provides a seed for more future serious research about portfolios for learning (not just for accountability) and that we can show how the development process can lead to enhanced student self-esteem. (Of course, how to research that outcome will be a challenge!) I am looking at my "post-retirement" years as an opportunity to give back to the education community, in the spirit of Erikson's "generativity" stage of life.