Portfolios often implemented poorly

I’m slowly reading through How people learn and thinking about how it applies to my own practice and what I see within higher education. This post arises from this paragraph

Portofolio assessments are another method of formative assessment. They provide a format for keeping records of students’ work as they progress throughout the year and, most importantly, for allowing students to discuss their achievements and difficulties with their teachers, parents and fellow students (e.g. Wiske, 1997; Wolf, 1988). They take time to implement and they are often implemented poorly – portfolios often become simply another place to store student work but no discussion of the work takes place – but used properly, they provide students and others with valuable information about their learning progress over time.

Technology to the rescue

So, non-technology based portfolio assessments are “often implemented poorly”. Well, the obvious solution to this poor implementation is to add an “e-” on the front. Technology, in the form of e-portfolio systems, will solve these poor implementation problems.

Yea, right.

On-going poor implementation through absence of contextual change

I’m a long-term e-portfolio skeptic. Not because I don’t like the idea. After all, there’s a lot of similarity between how BIM can be used an e-portfolio and increasing formative assessment to students has been a key focus of mine.

It’s also not because I think the e-portfolio systems are horrible. Though I have heard some rumblings from folk using them that there are problems.

It’s also not because Mike Bogle’s concerns about the institutional provision of what could/should be a student owned tool resonates with me.

I’m an e-portfolio skeptic because they are becoming just another fad for higher education being pushed as a great saviour without any real engagement with the culture and environment within higher education that will ensure that most applications of e-portfolios in higher education “are often implemented poorly”.

The case of BIM

The presentation I originally envisioned giving at MoodleMoot’AU 2010 was going to use the story of BIM to talk about the inherent limits on innovative pedagogy that exist within higher education. (The Moot seemed the wrong place for that talk so it became more a show and tell for BIM). But here’s just one example.

The original purpose for developing BIM was to increase the level of discussion and formative assessment between staff and students. I was sick of seeing student assignments with basic mistakes that could of and should of been picked up earlier. So, when I used BAM (the BIM pre-cursor) with my students I interacted heavily with them and it worked well.

Trouble was that I was only responsible for about 5% of the students in the course. The remaining 95% of students were the responsibility of staff at other campuses. Most of these staff were part-time, casual staff employed on contracts that were very specific about what they had to do. These contract did not include time for interacting with students via their blog posts, so the staff didn’t. Attempts to put in place changes to address this problem were not successful, in fact they couldn’t even be understood. They were to far out of accepted organisational practice.

And this isn’t limited to me. The academic that has used BIM/BAM the most, has faced exactly the same problems. Her express purpose for using BIM has been to make student thinking and learning more visible to enable more discussion and feedback, but she has also been hamstrung by the organisational practices that are set up for the traditional lecture/tutorial practice.

A research project

I’d love to do some research into institutional e-portfolio systems with the aim of determining the quantity and quality of feedback students have received on the items in their e-portfolio and compare that with traditional assessment methods. I wonder how much of a difference there would be?

My prediction is that there would be maybe 5-10% of courses using e-portfolios that have lots of feedback and discussion. With the remainder becoming simply “another place to store student work”.

I wonder if there’s been this sort of research done already?

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