LTF Project 2015-2016

Lecturer Teaching Fellows Project for 2015-2016

BackgroundAt my previous institution, I was part of a pilot program using e-portfolios in the classrooms and then part of a program using them for our annual teacher evaluations, too. So I’ve had experience both assigning them and creating them myself. I’ve always thought they were cool for students—but it wasn’t until working with my own that I understood what e-portfolios offered. I also want to note that I think I’m fairly average in my abilities with technology. I am not a particularly tech-savvy person, nor am I a neo-luddite. Like many, I suspect, I’m interested in working with these new technologies, but there doesn’t seem time to explore new technology until it comes to a head. I say this because I think it’s important to know that I am pretty average in this way. In fact a brief story of my own first attempt at an e-portfolio is fairly telling—I didn’t really understand what one was. So that first year, though I had a template I could plug our materials into, I just uploaded a MS Word version my portfolio—it’s on a computer, right, so it’s digital? Not really. What I uploaded was essentially a linear print portfolio. By the second year, though, I understood some of the differences, and I used the template. That is when I started to see the differences for myself. By the third year, I created my own e-portfolio, not evening using the template. Even with my limited abilities, I enjoyed being able to arrange and curate my own work in ways I thought most reflective of my teaching. They became an integral part of my teaching, so for my LTF project, I wanted to work with ways of incorporating e-portfolios here at UC Berkeley.

What is an E-Portfolio?
Definitions: Before I get into the differences between an e-portfolio and a print portfolio, I  want to briefly address the similarities. There’s a long history of the pedagogy of portfolios—particularly for writing. The basic premise is that a portfolio can show much more than a single sample of student writing; it offers an array, thus showing adaptability and volume. Portfolios are thought to reflect the full process of writing better than just the product of one paper. While there are a range of types of portfolios, from showcase portfolios, which highlight a writer's best work, to process portfolios, which show drafts and tend to emphasize effort and what was learned, most portfolios share two key concepts: reflection, in which writers write about the work they’re present; and selection. Portfolios are not document dumps—writers make conscious decisions about what to present. From my experience, e-portfolios expand the possibilities of these two concepts, as well as provide other affordances.

Image : Front page of Brandon's Eportfolio. See full link below. 
—Benefits of E-Portfolios: While there are many potential benefits of the digital medium, I have found four major ones:
—Multimodal possibilities: Increasingly, students are expected to be able to produce and consume visual and alphabetic texts, such as video, blogs, visual essays, as well as data, figures, and graphs. Because of their digital medium, e-portfolios allow for a much greater range of modalities. Students can include links to other pages, images, video, and sound, thus providing students with more possibilities for expression and composition. 
—Ownership and accessibility. Because the e-portfolio is stored on the web, it is available simultaneously in multiple places and to multiple people. Not only is this accessibility helpful in the classroom, where it can be projected and discussed, but it can also be shared with others—fellow students, friends, family, even potential employers or internships. Thus, it can potentially increase transfer of work and skills between the classroom and other environments. Further, because the creator "owns" the e-portfolio, it is not necessarily attached to one class, which, again, can help students claim their work, seeing themselves as authors and not merely students who turn their work over to their instructors.
Audience: Depending upon how students configure the access and privacy to their e-portfolios, there is the potential for an immediate and wide audience for the e-portfolio--students can actually publish their work so that a so-called "real" audience can see it. Such potential is both frightening and empowering for students, allowing their writing to have impact and consequence by being out there. 
—Cognitive differences: As Randy Bass and Bret Enyon have argued, the composition and layout of the e-portfolio has greater potential for making  “the invisible” aspects of learning “visible” (Randy Bass and Bret Enyon, 2009). What they mean is that students can show progress and personality in ways that are difficult to show in a print portfolio. Students might include photos or videos of their brainstorming processes, for example, or audio commentary on a draft. They can also include links to resources or different drafts to show changes. The digital medium not only allows but encourages layering and commentary and thus reflection in new ways. There is also something cognitively different in the non-linear configuration. The "webbed" structure allows students to show links between multiple threads of their work, making connections they may or may not have been aware of. These non-linear structures are much more reflective of the recursive nature of writing, thinking, and process than the neatness of the print portfolio. When I first started creating my own e-portfolios, they reminded me of my, admittedly limited understanding, of cubist experiments with perspective. The e-portfolio allowed me to see various angles of my teaching and writing in a flattened space, much like the cubists used the flat one-dimensional space of the canvas to view multiple angles of an object or person, and thus reflecting on the painting and composing process itself. 
Image: 1910, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), oil on canvas, 100.3 × 73.6 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York
—Limitations: All of this is not to say that e-portfolios are without their problems, in particular I continue to run into three major limitations:
Platforms: There is a wide variety of platforms for creating e-portfolios, all with their own advantages and limitations. For a fuller list and discussion of advantages and disadvantages, see this EPortfolio Review. Some of  these platforms are fee-based and some are  free. In the past I've used both TaskStream and Digication. The benefits to those were, in differing degrees, the ease of using their templates, privacy settings, and sharing. The templates are both a benefit and a limitation. While students with little training in creating web pages found them helpful, students with some training found them very limiting. A greater limitation is the cost of using these platforms. Schools have to subscribe to them, thus they cost schools money. Further, students lose access to these platforms once they're no longer a student. There are free platforms, too, such as Google Sites (where this e-portfolio is composed) and WordPress, but they have greater privacy issues and hosting issues.
Privacy and Accessibility: Privacy is, of course, an important issue for students. Student confidentiality is a vital part of education, and so instructors and students do need to be aware of privacy settings in whatever platform they use. It's often easy enough for students to limit access, but this can create problems, too. For example, we spent nearly a whole class last spring just making sure I had access to student portfolios because there were glitches in different ways of sharing.
Technology: The technology for all its many benefits is also one of the major hurdles. As I mentioned above, different platforms require different slopes of a learning curve. Some have set templates, which allow creators to simply plug in content, but those same templates can be very limiting in terms of arrangement. In fact, I'm having many problems with this very site. It's the first time I've used Google Sites, and I'm having all kinds of difficulties with spacing and font--I can't figure out why the font below is slightly different--nor can I figure out how to make it consistent. I hear there will be a new generation of Google Sites, soon. One that is much more intuitive and user friendly. I gave students the choice of various free platforms, having them start with Google Sites--most of them chose WordPress in the end or Weebly. I can see why--I'm struggling to  make the site look how I would like it to look. That being said, the technology is being asked to do a lot--allow people without HTML training to create flexible webpages. which is fairly impressive. 

Current Project 

My initial plan for my LTF project was to use the bCourses’ eportfolio. Why? It’s private, already in use at UC Berkeley, therefore I hoped would ease use among students. Basically, like Everest, it was there. 

Fall Semester: So in the fall semester, I taught College Writing R1A Accelerated Reading and Writing and College  Writing R4B Reading, Composition, and Research. However, I ran into two problems, the bCourses platform and pre-existing portfolio requirements. Thus, I wound up not using e-portfolios in the fall semester.

bCourses Platform: In both courses, I introduced the e-portfolio early. My plan was to have students use it for a reflective space, a sort of e-journal or e-diary if you will. I  hoped that by the end of the semester, they would be comfortable enough to create a an e-portfolio of their work for the semester. The bCourses platform was extremely limited; the template, which looked like the bCourses page, was set, so there was little chance for arrangement or the kind of reflection and curation such digital arrangement allows, as you can see in this example. Please note that the sample is on the left and my commentary is on the right in red--you may have to widen your viewing window. Because of these limitations, we abandoned them--leaving them as repositories of various reflections throughout the semester that the students could access to create their print portfolios.

Pre-Existing Portfolio Requirements: Both courses, R1A and R4B, already require portfolios, but not e-portfolios, which created its own problems. For one, students would be asked to do double portfolios. Or if I asked them to create an e-portfolio, their work wouldn’t match the other classes’ portfolios. So I felt I was asking students to double their work load unfairly.

Spring Semester: Neither of my courses for the spring semester required a portfolio that was shared with other faculty, so I was to create my own assignments. College Writing 10A Introduction to Public Speaking,  doesn’t lend itself to a traditional portfolio  but I was hoping an e-portfolio, which could include videos of speeches and reflection, might work. However, because it was the first time I was teaching the public speaking course, it ended up being too much work. I also encountered a lot of trouble with video technology, from cameras that didn't work to problems with compressing files--I'm hoping, though, that the next time around I will know how to compress files and will be able to help students learn to do so too. I do think the multimodality of a public speaking course could benefit from an e-portfolio in fruitful ways. That left College Writing 161 Writing in the Biological Sciences--and there, most students really shone in creating their e-portfolios. 

The Assignment: Students in CW 161 Writing in the Biological Sciences write multiple projects for a wide variety of audiences all semester, revising those projects for a reflective portfolio. This semester students were asked to create an e-portfolio, to design a website in which they “curated” their work, arranging and commenting on it, using the modalities and spatial configurations e-portfolios afford. At its core the assignment asked for four major features: reflection, examples of their best revised work, examples of their writing in progress, and arrangement that is aesthetically pleasing, navigable, and reflective. Further, because the e-portfolio is an emerging genre, we spent time in class coming up with criteria. Students had their choice of free (and private) platforms; they were given this assignment five weeks before the class ended. For the full assignment click here.

Student Samples: While most of the students did give me written permission to share their e-portfolios, few of them actually changed the privacy settings so that they could be accessed publicly--yet another minor glitch in the technology. I figured a bunch of links might be overwhelming anyway. So I thought I'd share a few of screen shots that demonstrate different features and strengths of their e-portfolios. In this sample, the student really used the digital medium to show changes in her work. In this sample, a student provides both context and some reflection while including an image-based project. In this one, a student demonstrates responding to peer comments. And in this sample, the student really made the work in the e-portfolio her own by including work from other classes. Please note that the left-hand side of the page is the screenshot and the right-hand side (in burgundy) is my commentary. Finally, here is one example of a full e-portfolio.

For further reading on e-portfolios and teaching portfolios, please see this Selected Bibliography.

Outcomes and Future Plans 
Outcomes: The key outcome is that I hope e-portfolios can help students see how their writing skills transfer from the classroom to other situations. I also hope to provide sample assignment and models for other teachers and students. And I think incorporating e-portfolios in number ways would work well with larger trends in campus technology, such as Suite C. As Greg Niemeyer said at recent ETS workshop—the hope is to provide students with work they can take beyond the classroom. I also think e-portfoils have potential for teachers, too. Not only in their classrooms but as places to reflect upon and curate their teaching.
Future Plans: I plan to use e-portfolios in future courses, such as CW R4B in the fall, and maybe even work to see whether I can use them in R1A, if I can make the assignment consistent enough with the already existing portfolio assignment. In addition, I plan to keep adding pages and commentary to this e-portfolio in order to develop it as a teaching e-portfolio. I think it will not only help me to be a better teacher and be transparent with my students and fellow teachers but also help me when I'm up for review.