Technology Tools for Reflection

Here are a series of tools that can be used to support reflection, with a brief discussion of the process, the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
The following technologies can support reflection: web logs (‘blogs’) as reflective journals,  wikis as collaborative websites, digital storytelling/podcasting, Twitter and social networks.

Blogs (Reflective Journal)

The most obvious technology for reflection is the web log or "blog" as known by those who read and write them. As the Stanford Learning Technologies group has evolved the technology to support its research project on "folio thinking," researcher Helen Chen reports that they are beginning to use blog or "wiki" software to support students' reflections. David Tosh and Ben Werdmuller of the University of Edinburgh have published a paper online (PDF) entitled, "ePortfolios and weblogs: one vision for ePortfolio development."

A weblog is defined as any web page with content organized according to date. Originally, these were pages keeping track of a user’s discoveries on the newly emerging World Wide Web; later the definition expanded to encompass personal diaries, work-related progress reports and even summaries of current events on newspaper websites. (Tosh & Wedmuller, pp. 3-4)

In the context of an ePortfolio, course tutors, lecturers, clubs and societies could all have their own weblogs which users could view on their “friends” page. Students can share information they’ve found or ideas they have on a particular subject, as well as the more social messages which may form a compelling reason for them to use the technology to begin with. (p.4)

Since one of the main goals of a portfolio is reflection on learning, perhaps a blog is a good option, since it can be used as an online reflective journal and an environment that invites collaboration. In the elearningpost blog, graduate student Dan Saffer discussed, "Why I Blog my Postgrad Course." His remarks about what he got out of the process would make many teachers smile, since his insights are consistent with our goals for our student reflections in their portfolios:

Lately, a lot of the things I'm learning in different classes have all started to come together; they all seem to be talking about similar things or things are starting to fit into patterns. Some of this is intentional, some probably not. But I doubt I would have been able to see those patterns as clearly without the blog. There's something about putting your entire coursework together in one place that allows you to more easily make that kind of analysis.

Learning to Blog Using Paper - a 7th Grade Teacher's clever introduction to blogging (starting with a paper exercise) and using "sticky notes" as comments. Here are the instructions for students (provided in Scribd):

- Seventh Grade Blogging Rules

- The Art and Aspirations of a Commenter

These are great guidelines for reflection and feedback by adolescents. It also looks like a great PD activity for teachers who are not familiar with blogging.

Wikis (Collaborative Web Pages)

Wikis are online documents that can be edited by anyone with access to the page. The tool could be useful for collaborative writing. Some examples of Wiki tools are: Wikispaces, PBWiki (now PBWorks), PageFlakesWet Paint, and Google Sites.

A wiki can be used in many of the same ways as a blog for reflection, but is better suited for use by a group for collaborative projects.

Multimedia (Digital Stories & Podcasts)

The Digital Storytelling Association provides the following definition:

Digital Storytelling is the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling. Digital stories derive their power by weaving images, music, narrative and voice together, thereby giving deep dimension and vivid color to characters, situations, experiences, and insights.

In the context of reflection, learners create a 2-4 minute digital video clip that is told in first person narrative, in their own voice, illustrated by (mostly) still images, with the addition of a music sound track to add emotional tone. . For further information, see http://electronicportfolios.org/digistory/.

There are a variety of tools to support the creation of digital stories or podcasts; most of them require software on a desktop or laptop computer such as:
  • Macintosh: iMovie, GarageBand, Audacity
  • Windows: MovieMaker2, PhotoStory3, Audacity
There is an emerging Web 2.0 tool to support this process, VoiceThread. Digital stories can be created using only a web browser and the appropriate content.

Interactive Micro-blogging (Twitter, Jaiku or Edmodo)

According to Wikipedia (May 9, 2009):

"Micro-blogging is a form of multimedia blogging that allows users to send brief text updates or micromedia such as photos or audio clips and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging, instant messaging, email, digital audio or the web."

The most popular system is Twitter which, like other similar systems such as Google's Jaiku, allows a message length of only 140 characters. Edmodo is a private communications platform for teachers and students. According to the same Wikipedia entry: 

The content of a micro-blog differs from a traditional blog in that it is typically smaller in actual size and aggregate file size. A single entry could consist of a single sentence or fragment or an image or a brief, ten second video. But, still, its purpose is similar to that of a traditional blog. Users micro-blog about particular topics that can range from the simple, such as "what one is doing at a given moment," to the thematic, such as "sports cars," to business topics, such as particular products. Many micro-blogs provide short commentary on a person-to-person level, share news about a company's products and services, or provide logs of the events of one's life.

Based on that description, a learner could use these short messages to document the learning process, capturing experiences "in the moment" for later reference. A collection of these short entries could then be used to develop more in-depth reflections in a traditional blog entry. It is questionable whether deep learning can be captured in only 140 characters, but an aggregation of multiple contemporaneous entries, captured over time, might provide retrospective insights that would not be possible without that documentation. It would be interesting to explore these tools to support reflection.

However, Twitter's 140 character limitation might come in handy for in-the-moment snapshot reflections (i.e. "Micro-Reflections") when coupled with Twitter's capacity to integrate student's multiple technology milieus (e.g. mobile phone, email, chat, web, Second Life). If a teacher "follows" a student and encourages them to post their stream-of-consciousness ideas, feelings, impressions, and other first-blush reactions, these can be the touchstone for many teachable moments and a glimpse into a student's inner life. These personal machinations gathered from the top of the anvil may be a lucrative place for teachers to gain insight into what motivates a student. These Micro-Reflections, being both proximal and contingent to "where the learning is happening" may help build teacher-student relationships in a fast-paced, complex, and interconnected world. The only issue is being able to sift through the "what I ate for lunch", "what I'm listening to", and other flotsam and jetsam that don't seem readily of use for the teacher to be exposed to to GET to the Micro-Reflections that provide one with the materials necessary to facilitate Deep Learning. Even these bits of trivia about our students, however, add to the picture of who they are outside of the classroom in ways that we haven't had access to before. Tweets let us see more sides of people than we normally would get in the Modern World.

Micro-Reflections aren't canned summaries of a learner's experience. They are the "raw materials" of reflection - off the cuff and less filtered than a written narrative composed well after the fact. If we ask a person to recount an event after the fact, it is often quite different than asking them DURING the event to provide you their impressions (good psych studies on memory to back this up would go nicely here). These different "lenses of reflection" - some developed in anticipation and expectation of a learning experience, some skimmed from the learner while engaging in a learning experience, still others furnished as a composition after the fact - all may reveal different facets of a learner's disposition, beliefs, and issues relevant to their attention, motivation, persistence, and level of engagement in learning.

One method for instructional use of Twitter that may be of use to teachers assigning students to reflect using an ellipses recipe....
  1. One thing I noticed during this experience was...
  2. Something I thought interesting was...
  3. I was confused when...
By having the student use hash tags (e.g. #JonsClass) and denoting the number of the Ellipses Recipe (e.g. No.2) in their Tweets, a teacher can gather all of their student's impressions and be efficient in framing what their students are reflecting about.

Social Networking

Here is a definition of social network services from Wikipedia (May 9, 2009):
A social network service focuses on building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others....Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information.

The most popular social network services are MySpace and Facebook, but are often blocked in school networks. Some of the more current ePortfolio systems include social networking capabilities (i.e., Epsilen, Mahara, Elgg) in a protected space.  There are also social networking environments that are being used to support sharing information/communication (Google Groups) and creating customized networks (Ning).

Social networking tools could support reflection through collaboration, dialogue, and feedback. Social networking is a way to keep in touch with and get to know the members of a work organization and team, as well as to share photos and events with friends.

Social networks as a reflection tool:

One tool that Facebook offers is photo sharing. When you upload photos, it's possible to "tag" yourself and friends in the photos. Those photos are able to be seen by anyone in your friends list. It makes is possible for groups (classes) to share photos of a class trip, or project.

Another tool is Notes. This is Facebook's answer to a blog. But with notes, you can tag people, and it's easier to make comments. Again, if someone is tagged in a note, all their friends can read the note. There are some concerns about teachers sharing their personal lives with students.
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