July 2009 Archives

The e-Portfolio story

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Last week at Learning Design Summer Camp 2009, I made an offhand comment about how we (I) don't do a very good job of telling our stories. I've been thinking a lot about this. My sense is that as a tenure track faculty member, publishing these kinds of narratives may not be in our best interest. However, in terms of building capacity to do interesting work and having a serious impact on the change process, it is essential.

So with that said, I am migrating some content from the Blogs as Portfolio wiki to this space (written in summer 2008). The story is one of the history of e-portfolios in teacher education at Penn State. The purpose is to demonstrate how the current work has been shaped by a wealth of prior experiences.


In the College of Education's Elementary & Kindergarten Education (EKED) Program, we have been using paper portfolios as a vehicle for students to demonstrate their developing understandings, abilities and dispositions associated with becoming a professional educator for many years. When I joined the faculty in 1997, I had already spent some time exploring electronic portfolios with teacher education students at The University of Michigan (Wisnudel-Spitulnik, Zembal-Saul, & Krajcik, 1998), and was interested in continuing the work here. My first attempt was in Spring 1998 using HyperStudio with SCIED 458 students. I developed a template and they selected artifacts from the course to demonstrated their learning (e.g., lesson plans, video of teaching, written reflections on teaching, etc.). These were burned to CD and given to students at the end of the semester to take with them.

With the help of Leigh Ann Haefner (now a professor at PSU Altoona), we attempted our first web-based portfolios in Summer 1998 with a small group of SCIED 458 students. This time, we gave students broad guidelines about the kinds of things they needed to demonstrate through their portfolios, and let them design and make decisions about the layout and organization. We used Claris HomePage and students published to their Penn State personal space. We integrated web=based teaching portfolios into all sections of SCIED 458 in the 1998-99 academic year. In this way, we were able to reach all 300+ EKED majors prior to their student teaching experience. During the early years of the project, we learned that we could trace the development of student learning using the e-portfolios, and that it was possible to differentiate among students on the basis of evidence provided in the portfolio (Avraamidou & Zembal-Saul, 2006, 2003, 2002, 2001; Zembal-Saul, Haefner, Avraamidou, Severs & Dana, 2002).

While working in the Elementary Professional Development School (PDS) Partnership [1] I was able to collaborate with a team of teacher educators, and we refined portfolio tasks to capture key aspects of learning and development. The portfolio tasks that we currently use make full use of what we have learned over our years of work together. These are the basic components of our e-portfolios as they exist today:

  • Collection of Evidence - In this section of the portfolio, students collect and organize their electronic artifacts, which includes course assignments, field observations, lesson plans, multimedia resources, and video of teaching.
  • Performance Framework - The performance framework is based on the conceptual framework for the teacher education programs at Penn State. The framework is organized around 4 main domains -- A. Planning and Preparing for Student Learning; B. Teaching; C. Analyzing Student Learning and Inquiring into Teaching; D. Fulfilling Professional Responsibilities -- with indicators in each domain articulating desired learning outcomes. Students revisit the framework several times throughout their program and use artifacts from their evidence collection to demonstrate learning. Justification for their selection is part of the task and engages students in reasoning about the alignment of evidence with particular indicators. This is coupled with a reflective writing task that asks students to discuss their growth in each of the domains (and over time). This is the central task of many teacher education programs that require e-portfolios.
  • Teaching Platform - Evidence-based Argument about Learning and Teaching - This is perhaps the most powerful of the portfolio tasks that we have developed. Students are asked to construct an evidence-based argument about teaching and learning. They generate a series of claims about supporting meaningful student learning, link and justify supporting evidence, and revisit and revise their arguments over time. As with the framework task, students are asked to reflect on prior iterations of their arguments and comment on their growth and development over time.

When Claris HomePage became a dead product around 1999, we migrated to Dreamweaver and quickly felt the consequences. For our students, the emphasis shifted from portfolio substance to the technology and making it work. We provided frequent and intensive support sessions where we focused on solving technical issues versus engaging in portfolio conversations about the quality of artifacts and the strengths of teaching and learning arguments. After 3 years with DW, it was time for a change.

We had evidence that our portfolio tasks were effective for supporting learning and set out to find a tool that would allow us to achieve our goals without the steep technology learning curve. We talked with out friends at Apple about what was on the horizon (this was prior to iWeb). You can imagine what that conversation sounded like. We explored the e-Portfolio tool in Angel and arranged demonstrations with LiveText and TaskStream. In the end, we settled on TaskSteam [2] for a variety of reasons. It's use has now spread from the PDS to the entire EKED program. In 2008-09, secondary education also will be experimenting with the tool.

In addition to a variety of powerful pedagogical tools for teachers (e.g., lesson and unit planning tools, standards tools, rubric wizard), TaskStream allows us to run reports on students performance for artifacts submitted and graded within the system. These reports are customizable and powerful in that you can dig down to the level of an individual students' work and associated evaluation. This type of data is useful in demonstrating program outcomes for accrediting agencies.

The first time I saw the Blogs and Penn State platform, I was intrigued by its potential to achieve many of the goals we have for e-Portfolio (and much more). In particular, I am drawn to the notion of having students participate in a professional discourse community that interacts around entries and artifacts, which both contributes to their thinking and learning about what it means to be a professional in their chosen field, as well as allows them to monitor their learning over time.

Sample e-Portfolios

Amy's e-Portfolio (developed using Dreamweaver)

Brittany's Performance Framework (developed using TaskStream)

Morgan's Teaching Platform (developed using TaskStream)


Avraamidou, L. & Zembal-Saul, C. (2006). Exploring the influence of web-based portfolio development on learning to teach elementary science. AACE Journal, 14(2), 178-205.

Avraamidou, L. & Zembal-Saul, C. (2003). Exploring the influence of web-based portfolio development on learning to teach elementary science. Journal of Technology & Teacher Education, 11(3), 415-442.

Avraamidou, L. & Zembal-Saul, C. (2002). Making the case for the use of web-based portfolios in support of learning to teach. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 1(2).

Zembal-Saul, C., Haefner, L.A., Avraamidou, L., Severs, M. & Dana, T. (2002). Web-based portfolios: A vehicle for examining preservice elementary teachers' developing understanding of teaching science. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 13(4), 283-302.

Avraamidou, L. & Zembal-Saul, C. (2001). Web-based philosophies: Making prospective teachers' personal theorizing visible. Science Education International, 12(4), 2-5.

Wisnudel-Spitulnik, M., Zembal-Saul, C., & Krajcik, J. S. (1998). Using hypermedia to represent emerging student understanding: Science learners and preservice teachers. In J. Mintzes, J. Wandersee, and J. Novak (Eds.) Teaching Science for Understanding. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

There is no secret ingredient

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So I've had a moment of realization (inspired by Kung Fu Panda) -- there is no secret ingredient, just a missing one. For all of my seeking, the key to collaborative reflection has always been right in front of me. As much as we don't want to believe it, we still operate in an academic setting that rewards our students for right answers and conformity over dialogic inquiry and socially negotiated meaning-making. When that really begins to change, the technology tools necessary to support new forms of scholarship are already here -- at least in part -- the rest are coming.

Case in point, the conflicting data from the pilot study on e-portfolios in teacher education. Students did not value giving or receiving comments as much as other aspects of the e-portfolio experience, but yet they generally commented well beyond what was required by the instructor. Why? My hypothesis is that students have been conditioned to focus on the quality of their own work and not on how their contributions to the discourse within the community actually serve to move the collective forward in their thinking and practice.

What can we do about this unfortunate situation? It's all just talk if we don't fundamentally value students' voices and contributions -- then we need to make sure our practices are in sync with our values, not the norms of higher ed. How long does deprogramming take? What's the critical mass necessary to change a world view? Which experiences are most powerful in the change process? No answers today -- merely questions.

Meaning making across the community

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After my lament about the mere evolution of e-portfolio spaces in light of emerging affordances of technology, I left things hanging with my question about how the notion of revolution becomes part of the picture. My focus on collaborative reflection within the blogs as portfolio project this summer probably provides some solid clues, but there is more to the story.

Early on in round two at ETS, Cole and Brad introduced me to the idea of "horizontal contribution" and tools, like DISQUS, that can capture it. Cole does a much better job of explaining it than I ever could, but the basic idea is now you can track your contributions across blogs. Whereas previously comments resided in the blog owner's space, now the commenter "owns" their intellectual work in ways that were not possible before. Consider for example that you wanted to use a comment or series of comments as evidence of your own development as a professional in your e-portfolio. Now it is possible. All of this is very exciting and opens the door to possibilities that were not imaginable a year ago when I was encouraging students to make a brief comment and then trackback to their own posts in order to capture contributions.

Still, there is something left wanting. This is where I believe we need to flip the entire system on its head and think differently - revolution. If meaning is negotiated in social settings, then we need to be able to trace ideas and concepts through conversations among bounded groups over time, thus breaking down the silos of individual reflection. In other words, we need to figure out how to place the interactive nature of meaning-making in the driver's seat. The question becomes, how?

Bear with me now because I am venturing out of my depth. What if we could identify an idea (via tags) and track its evolution within a community of learners (across blogs)? We would need to be able to constrain parameters, such as identifying the members of the community, setting a time window, and designating the tags of interest. Imagine a Twitter Wheel, which provides a visualization of who your tweets are connected to and the extent to which you interact with various contacts. A topographical map might be another way to visualize this. Consider the peaks to be analogous to members of the community, and the height of the peaks to be the frequency with which members contribute via posts or comments around a particular concept. Now connect peaks to represent interactions across spaces. An interactive representation could be powerful in that you could "zoom in" and link to a particular post or blog. Again, the idea here would be for instructors and students to follow the discourse associated with a concept through a community space.

Evolution of e-portfolio spaces

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As a TLT/ETS Faculty Fellow I have had the opportunity to participate in some exciting ventures that otherwise would not have been possible. In that past year, we were able to craft a few features within the PSU blogging platform - teacher education framework template and pack it up - that allowed us to explore the potential of blogs as professional portfolio spaces. Very exciting! In a recent post, I provided an overview of some of the things we learned during the pilot study with elementary education majors participating in the Elementary Professional Development School Partnership.


My current musings, however, are centered on the premise that this has merely been an evolution of e-portfolio development driven by emerging technologies and their affordances. I recently came across slides of my early presentations about e-portfolios from a dozen plus years ago. All the key ingredients were there - multimedia, non-linear, multiple versions over time, reflection - including an emphasis on pursuing an evidence-based approach. Put another way, I continue to view portfolios as dynamic spaces for students to make a case for their development as professionals using evidence from multiple sources collected throughout their experience at Penn State, including coursework, field experiences, internships, etc. So while we marched through various platforms for e-portfolio construction (i.e., Hypercard, Claris HomePage, Dreamweaver, Taskstream, and now blogs), the spirit of e-portfolio work has remained fairly consistent. 

*Amy's e-portfolio from 2004-05 constructed in Dreamweaver (above). Amy's e-portfolio re-constructed in the blogging platform (below).

Click here to view a sample portfolio from the pilot study.


The big lessons from these experiences are: (1) connecting reflections to artifacts/evidence enhanced their meaningfulness in terms of learning; (2) engaging in reflection on development in an ongoing way, rather than as summative assessments, was more powerful in terms of learning; and (3) when e-portfolios became private by default, it made the already challenging process of "portfolio conversations" next to impossible.

The single space around e-portfolios that continues to perplex me is connected to the notion of reflection. At the end of the day, portfolio spaces belong to the individual, and reflective practice fails to take up social aspects of learning. Why is this a problem for me? As a teacher educator who studies reflection and learning, I buy into the role of evidence-based analysis of thinking and practice as being integral to the process of learning to teach. However, I also hold commitments about knowledge and learning that emphasize its social, situated and distributed nature. Currently, blogs as portfolios support the personal reflection space, but remain largely silos given their roots as "personal publishing platforms."

So where does revolution enter the picture? Stay tuned for the next post.

Swimming up the Twitter stream

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narstsri09-group.jpgI spent last week at University of Missouri co-facilitating (with Sandra Abell and Patricia Friedrichsen) and mentoring at the inaugural NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) Summer Research Institute. Twenty-three science education doctoral students from across the country (and around the world) , whose research focuses on some aspect of teacher learning and development, gathered for an intense week of work. It was exhausting, but extremely valuable in a variety of predictable and also unexpected ways. I could not be more impressed with our new colleagues, who are bright, passionate and creative. The future of science education is in excellent hands!

A quickly emerging theme at SRI was that of community. I am certain that this would have happened regardless of the technology we used given the need to get to know each other as scholars and as people in a very short period of time. However, I will admit to adding some social tools to the mix. When I suggested to mentors that we make use of Twitter, there was an audible groan in the room, followed by numerous negative comments. Nevertheless, the #narstsri09 tag was coined and introduced to participants at the first whole group session -- for aggregating comments and media using Twitter and Flickr. Use of the tools was billed as "completely optional" and Lis Boyer and I seeded the space with a few posts and photos, respectively.

What happened next was completely unexpected in terms of the amount of time it took to engage in powerful applications of the space. We were split into 3 teams that met in different rooms. By Monday afternoon, students (and some mentors) were sharing resources, ideas, and encouraging comments via Twitter. The pinnacle event of the first day was when one student gave feedback to someone on another team that resulted in the refinement of research questions in a mixed methods study. The rest of the week only got better. By Wednesday, Lis and I modified a workshop (by request) to introduce participants to online tools for supporting their research. Consider that no one in the room had ever subscribed to a RSS feed of a key word search, only one used Zotero for grabbing citation information from the web, and none used social bookmarking.

In no way am I suggesting that we use these tools without applying a critical lens. I do advocate trying them on in professional settings in ways that help us understand their affordances in context. In the end will participants continue to use Twitter beyond the institute? I'm not sure that matters. They will have seen and experienced a professionally viable application of the tool to document ideas, collaborations, and exchanges that help capture the nature of community at SRI, which otherwise would have been difficult to articulate to others.

Postscript: I learned from the very best. Huge thanks to Cole Camplese and Scott McDonald for their leadership in this space.