Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Trojan Horse for ePortfolios?

I am currently teaching an online course on ePortfolios. In response to one of my articles, one of the participants raised the issue of developing a portfolio culture, and how to get a school district to adopt ePortfolios. I think he identified the real issues we face when implementing portfolios: how do we create a portfolio culture in a learning community? That question goes along with our approach to assessment: how do we adopt a system of assessment that emphasizes as much formative as summative assessment? In our accountability-driven system, there is a temptation to use more summative than formative methods. We can aggregate numeric data very easily; multiple choice tests are much easier to score. Portfolios are hard work. I think a mandated portfolio could be successful, as long as the implementation focuses on student learning (the story approach), rather than institutional accountability (the checklist approach).

I think the problem is that the predominant experience of educators is with these more summative (behavioral?) approaches, rather than the constructivist paradigm, which is where portfolios really began. Very few educators have experience using portfolios in their teacher preparation, and even now, I see a lot of incompatible uses of portfolios implemented in teacher education programs: the model of portfolios implemented with student teachers is not compatible with how their students would use them in schools. We aren't modeling appropriate practices.

How do we break this cycle? I recommend having administrators and teachers develop and maintain their own reflective portfolios, and create a collaborative environment where portfolios are used for collaboration and professional development, not only for high-stakes evaluation purposes.

This brings up a much larger issue... change. I published a web page called Professional Development for Implementing Electronic Portfolios where I include my recommendations, a discussion of the "Adoption of Innovations" (the Change Process) and a preliminary look at the competencies (both Portfolio and Technology Skills) to implement electronic portfolios. You will find some Resources for Professional Development as well as Recommended Professional Development and Readings... a graduate degree's worth of reading!

One thing I learned when I did my own dissertation research (on how adults teach themselves to use personal computers) I found that there is a simple formula about change: the benefits of a change must exceed the cost of that change, whether real or simply perceived. I think we will eventually reach a "tipping point" on the adoption of ePortfolios, but it will take a lot of small successes, with both grass roots advocates and top-down support to make it happen. But if there are enough of us who believe in the portfolio process, who are willing to model promising practices, and who are willing to tell our stories, then I think we will see some real change.

I once wrote in an article that stated, "Perhaps ePortfolios can become the Trojan Horse for integrating digital storytelling into the curriculum." What is the Trojan Horse for integrating ePortfolios into the curriculum? I think it is the evidence that we can collect that will show how portfolios can help improve student achievement, based on the model of formative assessment for learning. There is a research base from the Assessment Reform Group in the U.K. (Black & Wiliam) that supports this assertion (as I referenced in the article). I am also encouraging one of my colleagues on the East Coast to report her research, where the implementation of ePortfolios with ELL students in middle schools in New York City has led to increased test scores. According to her, the ePortfolios make it obvious to teachers where their students needed to improve, so that they can focus their remediation efforts. When her research is published, I will be the first to post it on my blog!

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