Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Wikis and Electronic Portfolios

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The snow is falling gently in Northwestern Massachusetts as voters head to the polls to choose the successor to Ted Kennedy--the liberal lion.  The semester is almost upon me, so what better way to spend the day than working on my online classes, and, in particular, on my plan for Electronic Portfolios.

I have to thank Buddy (Alan) Peshkin for this idea. As a doctoral student in his course on qualitative research interviewing, he had us create a notebook of all of our work that was set-up like a textbook with a Table of Contents and Introduction.  I still have that final notebook--it is a very precious document.  I was so intrigued with the idea that every time I take a class, I am writing my own textbook.  I found much value in having to think back over the whole as I did when I wrote the introduction to my textbook of the class. 

Over the years, I have tried to implement Peshkin's innovative idea in a variety of ways.   In the core course for doctoral students, a kind of educational foundations course, that I taught for several years, in some of the classes I had them create a similar hard-copy notebook. Students regarded those notebooks with great pride. 

As I moved into on-line teaching, I discovered a way to create a similar electronic portfolio in Intralearn (the first Learning Management System with which I worked).  While I would like to say my goal was good pedagogy, a large part of the impetus was simply trying to find better ways to manage the online texts.  My class assignments usually possess multiple components and unfold over time with peer review, and revision.  I like to be able to see where students started and the process by which they got to the end product.  This means that each assignment is really equivalent to a folder of work.  Another feature that has evolved in my classes is that most assignments build on each other and at certain times in the semester, you need to return to earlier assignments and work with that material to create a later assignment.  Thus, having access to the full corpus of the work you develop over the semester is important.  Intralearn was not designed to do this, so I had to figure out a work around, which I did by creating individual teams (I know that sounds contradictory, but that was the work around).  It worked, but barely. 

It must have looked good to someone because the description of what I was doing with electronic portfolios won a mention from the Sloan Foundation as a notable practice.  As luck would have it, however, shortly thereafter our online program switched to Web CT, which then morphed into Blackboard.  Try as I might, I couldn't find a way to create anything like an electronic portfolio in this new system, so I gave up for a few semesters.

But then wiki's came on the scene, and they are a lovely, flexible tool that can make electronic portfolios with ease.  Moreover, there are no problems allowing students access to each others' work because they are built around principles of access and collaboration, unlike Learning Management Systems which seem to be built on the model of some old prison system.  I am in heaven! 

This semester each of my three classes will have a wiki connected to our Blackboard workspace.  The wiki will be the site for the development of the electronic portfolios.  I'm still trying to figure out the in's and out's of this particular wiki system (see my earlier blog on wikis),  the right kind of shell/template for each class, and how to provide support for individual use. 

Having each individual's electronic portfolio visible to the whole class does several things, in my opinion.  First, it is a great teaching tool.  If you have a question about what is required, or what it might look like, you can look into a range of electronic portfolios and see what is going up and how others approach the same issues.  Secondly, you've got access to everything you've done in the course, which is valuable because I've found that many students do not know how to organize their work to get the full benefit of review and reflection.   Third, I think it sparks creativity as the electronic portfolios develop and become more individualized.  Fourth, your progress is visible to all--including you.  The old fashioned assignment submission system leaves everyone in the dark about who is completing what, but this system makes it visible.  If you are missing a whole section of assignments that everyone else has posted, it's not just the instructor who is aware, but the whole class.    In my classes, students need access to each others' assignments because we review drafts, etc., so the wiki makes access easy, but it also makes it clear who is falling behind.  I would call this technique:  Useful Shame.  It's a kind of silent accountability. 

So, on to the wikis.  Long live electronic portfolios in some form or another! 

For more information on Alan Peshkin, you may want to look at Vol 6, Issue 2 of Qualitative Research Journal for a special memorial section of discussion of his work. 
Special Memorial Section on Alan Peshkin

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