Friday, 16 May 2014

e-portfolios - the possibilities are endless

e-portfolios - the possibilities are endless
Joanna Sutcliffe
University of Sheffield. English Language Teaching Centre

I had been feeling for some time that a lot of the work that my students do in class disappears into the ether after the lesson’s end: bits of scrumpled paper at the bottom of a rucksack; roleplays whispered to the wind; marked essays left lonely on tables in empty classrooms. I knew that something had to change, but what?

I tried for some time to ‘just get more organised’ - zealously mandating the use of ring binders and file dividers, only to forget to check up on their continued use and find them shoved at the back of the classroom cupboard, unused;  worksheets and handouts bountifully bestowed languishing crumpled and torn in pockets and hedgerows.

So when I was perusing the IATEFL programme, the sessions on Learner Portfolios really jumped out at me. Could this be the solution to all my problems? Here’s what I found out:

What exactly is a learner portfolio?
A learner portfolio is a contained record of work, objectives, feedback and anything else that can help to chart a learner’s development. Portfolios ought to be a systematic and selective collection assembled to demonstrate a student's’ motivation, academic growth and sense of achievement Norton and Widburg (1998:237) in Motteram (2013).
Teachers may choose to keep paper portfolios - photocopies of homework, needs analyses, test marks, etc. or opt for an e-Portfolio, where items are collected and stored online. I’m currently working with my students to create electronic portfolios, using Google Sites as the platform (I am no computer genius - it’s pretty intuitive and I’m learning as I go along). We have a class website where I put all the lessons notes, homework, ideas for independent learning, things to do in Sheffield, etc. and I have added for each student a page which they have editing rights for. Within their page, they have sub-pages for homework, audio recordings, personal diary and websites they have used. This is where I go to find and mark their homework and give feedback on recorded speaking tasks.
Learners are responsible for their own pages and can add anything they think is useful. The portfolio page is used as a focus for fortnightly tutorials, when learners talk me through what work they have done outside class, and we review the homework and feedback together.

Why get students to keep a portfolio?
  • Learners can see physical evidence of their progress, which is motivating (and can also validate what teachers do!)
  • Raises motivation and sense of achievement
  • Can be kept for the future - for revision, records, etc.
  • Can be used for diagnosis of skills / competencies
  • Can make teachers more aware of learners’ individual skills and preferences
  • Empowering and encouraging of learner autonomy

Do I want to use portfolios?
Portfolios have the potential to be one of those things that seems like a good idea at first, but ends up an albatross. Like that time I thought it would be a great idea to host weekly chat room hour with students….only bitterness and regret remain. So how to avoid the seemingly inevitable bitterness and regret? I think it’s possible:
  • get students on board. The more they do, the less you have to, and eventually it will become ‘virtuous circle’, i.e. learners feel more motivated, work harder, improve more,reflect more, feel more motivated, etc. Giving learners freedom and responsibility, whilst demonstrating the usefulness of having all their stuff in one place should help.
  • Be choosy. Not everything needs to go into the portfolio.
  • Set tasks for homework. All learners have access to the Internet and learning basic web design skills will be very useful for them (and you) in the future, so don’t be afraid to let learners figure things out for themselves and teach each other (and you). They probably know more about computers anyway.

What can be put in a portfolio?
Basically, anything you and your students deem worthy. Here are a few ideas:
  • Homework and feedback, dated, with key targets for improvement. Learners can look back over past homework tasks and avoid making the same errors.

  • Short term objectives. Having regular, updates objectives can help keep students motivated (as long as they are referred to and students are made to feel accountable for achieving them)
  • Audio recordings with feedback. This is a very popular addition as learners can hear the improvement in their speaking - they rarely get this opportunity.
  • Diary. Something less academic and more personal can help learners feel a greater sense of ownership over their page. It also encourages them to visit it regularly. The diary can also be marked and used a record of written work and progress.

  • Sites for self-study. Often, when you hear of a good website for studying, you might write it down (and promptly lose the bit of paper) or try it once and then forget the name of it.Keeping an archive of useful websites is a way to stop this happening and give learners an easy ‘go-to’ place when they fancy a spot of autonomous learning.

                        Which leads me on to…..

Ideas for building content
  • Smartphones. Most learners have an incredible range of potential tools on the phones in their pockets (or, more likely, being used surreptitiously under a desk). Get learners recording their voices, videoing roleplays, taking photos for vocabulary use, etc. Ask them what they can do with their phones and how they think they could use them in class.
  • Lingtlanguage. Set a task, then learners create word bubbles. Teachers can listen and give spoken or written feedback.

  • Storybird. Learners choose from thousands of pictures created by artists. They then put them together in a sequence and write an accompanying story. Incredibly motivating.
  • Podomatic. Loads and loads of great podcasts that learners can use to practice listening.
  • Youtube. The opportunities are endless.
  • EnglishCentral. Learners can listen to short videos, see subtitles, get information on pronunciation and meaning of each word, record themselves reading the text and get feedback on their performance. A number 1 favourite with students.
  • Animoto. Create personal movie-trailer like videos splicing text, photos and video clips. Could produce some amazing results.
  • To create online presentations. Learners can upload slides and then record their voices alongside, rehearse and re-record. Great for giving feedback on speaking and presentation skills.
  • Lyrics Training. Students learn the words to their favourite songs and practice listening skills with gap-fill exercises. Another firm favourite.
  • Best 50 free educational webtools 2013. Have a flick through and see if there’s anything you fancy.

Wooah there….yes, portfolios are exciting, but…

  • Remember to have a pedagogically strong task - archiving material is the means, not the end. Think about what you want your learners to do with their portfolios.
  • Learners still need to know the criteria for the task and know whether they have done a good job or not. Set out clear aims for the tasks.
  • There’s no need to micro-manage. Give learners choice and then give them the space to be creative. Encourage trial and error. Encourage collaboration in pairs and groups. Give students responsibility whilst actively supporting them.

So that’s it for my musings on portfolios. I’d be very interested to hear other people’s views and ideas, so please leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Huge chunks of this blog post I have (very gratefully) borrowed from sessions by Anna Wright from the British Council and  Rolf Tynan from Study Group, many thanks to them for all the ideas and inspiration.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

New Ideas on Feedback from IATEFL 2014

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was fortunate enough to attend IATEFL 2014 recently. I tried to go to sessions related to academic writing as this is my main teaching focus at the moment. This included sessions on feedback on writing, in particular, the ‘forum on feedback’ with 3 presentations on feedback for written work.

First up was Clare Fielder, who talked about Learner-Directed Feedback, which she advocates as a useful tool for developing EAP writing and academic skills. She identified the traditional method of feedback being red pen on a paper copy of work. For Learner-Directed Feedback, students choose the method of delivery of feedback, for example using an audio recording, via email, handwritten comments and so on:

In addition, students ask specific questions about their work:

Materials produced by Clare Fielder, for IATEFL 2014; adapted from Fauster & Campbell, presented at IATEFL 2012.
This puts the learners in control of the feedback and takes the pressure off the teacher to decide what feedback to give, which benefits both sides. This is an interesting approach and it has made me realise that I am quite a traditionalist when it comes to marking. Faced with a pile of essays, my preferred practice is to sit somewhere quiet and comfortable (The Hallamshire House is my favourite spot) and methodically work through the essays with red, green and blue pens. Applying a learner-directed approach complicates matters to some extent as I would need to ask each student about their preferred mode of feedback and what they wanted me to focus on. However, the likelihood that some feedback will be red pen, some recorded audio and some emailed means that the whole marking process will be more varied for the teacher as well as empowering for the student, which suggests it is a good approach to try.

Fielder conducted a classroom based research project to investigate this method of feedback and got very positive results. Her students liked this way of getting ‘feedback on demand’ and were interested to try alternative modes to the extent that the traditional red pen method did not generate much interest. The class she investigated this with were advanced learners in Germany, but I would be interested to see the opinions from other groups. Thinking about my own students, I expect that learner-directed feedback would be viewed equally as positively, but I suspect the red pen method would keep its popularity, because when I have individual writing tutorials and ask the students what they want me to focus on, they often ask for the correction of grammar mistakes.

The second spot in the forum was taken by Jane Mandalios who talked about peer oral feedback on student writing. This in itself is nothing new but the approach Mandalios takes is very lengthy and involved. 4 students worked in 2 pairs, using 2 copies of essays. Students A and B read the essays of students C and D and vice versa. They discussed the 2 essays together and then gave feedback in their groups of 4. That way, every student received feedback from 2 other students. This process actually took about an hour, so it needs to be properly planned and delivered.

Mandolis showed us a video of this in practice which revealed students being communicative, animated and highly engaged in the activity. She reported that the benefits were that students enjoyed the pair work and team work, that they liked reading other students’ work, and that they valued non-judgemental feedback. One disadvantage, however, was that they didn’t like giving negative feedback.
In the past when I have used peer feedback, I have noticed that stronger students can give effective feedback but that weaker ones sometimes struggle. An advantage of this 4 student approach is that it is never the responsibility of one student for another student’s feedback; rather it is co-constructed, which should improve the quality of the feedback and reduce the burden on individual students.

Following nicely on from this, Blerta Mustafa talked about ‘Peer Feedback: from friend to foe’. She started by outlining the problems of peer feedback, for examples that students tend to focus on the micro level without seeing texts as a whole and that there was a lack of trust in peer feedback: students were sceptical, they disliked it at first or thought it was pointless. In my own experience I have seen that students are often reluctant to be critical as they don’t want to cause offence, which can result in lots of vague positive comments that are no use to anyone.

Mustafa argued that students need to be trained in how to give peer feedback. In her own research she found that initially, students had negative perceptions of it and could not deliver useful feedback. However, in time, her students came to like the process more, they were able to give more effective feedback to their peers, and they became more accepting of criticism from others. It seems then that peer feedback should be viewed not only as an activity to do in class, but also a skill to learn and that this needs considered planning over a course.