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Theoretical background

Since the early 1990s portfolio has taken the educational world by storm. Two tendencies in contemporary education underlie this phenomenon. The first of these is the rise of constructivism, a pedagogical school of thought which emphasizes learning by experience and self-discovery. Portfolio is a tool which is particularly well suited to these forms of learning (Meeus & Van Looy, 2002). A second factor is the rise of information and communication technology (ICT). Through ICT, assembling a collection or, to put it in computer terms, the ‘creation’ of a database acquires possibilities which until very recently were unimaginable (Meeus, 2006).

Cognitive Learning Theory of ePortfolios: Barbara Cambridge of the American Association for Higher Education, identified these principles for deep learning:Deep learning: involves reflection, is developmental, is integrative, is self-directive, and is lifelong "To reflect is to look back over what has been done so as to extract the next meanings which are the capital stock for intelligent dealing with further experiences. It is the heart of the intellectual organization and of the disciplined mind." (Barrett & Wilkerson, 2004).

Pearl and Leon Paulson (1994) outlined the differences between positivist portfolios and constructivist portfolios.

  • Positivist Portfolios: “The purpose of the portfolio is to assess learning outcomes and those outcomes are, generally, defined externally. Positivism assumes that meaning is constant across users, contexts, and purposes… The portfolio is a receptacle for examples of student work used to infer what and how much learning has occurred.”
  • Constructivist Portfolios: “The portfolio is a learning environment in which the learner constructs meaning. It assumes that meaning varies across individuals, over time, and with purpose. The portfolio presents process, a record of the processes associated with learning itself; a summation of individual portfolios would be too complex for normative description.”
  • Tension between two approaches: “The two paradigms produce portfolio activities that are entirely different...; “The positivist approach puts a premium on the selection of items that reflect outside standards and interests…; “The constructivist approach puts a premium on the selection of items that reflect learning from the student’s perspective.”

Teacher Education institutions need to meet both of these purposes of licensure/certification vs. continued growth and development. The positivist approach is appealing to those with interests in licensure/certification because there is a requirement that learning be held constant. And that is good. It provides a common core against which growth can be measured and flourish. We are establishing minimal competency that makes the practitioner “safe to teach” and then can be used to build a career ladder. There may be a hierarchy here. The Positivist approach is “the floor below which they cannot fall”. The constructivist approach is where we hope our teacher candidates will go above the floor, showcasing the many ways that they are going beyond minimum requirements, to make their classrooms exciting places to learn (Barrett & Wilkerson, 2004).

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Development of e-portfolios

There are a few aspects we should consider before developing an e-portfolio:

  • Depends on the context of use (for example, type of course and whether used for assessment, reflection, accreditation, research etc.);
  • Depends on users: their skills dealing with technology tools, their expectations and motivations, time they are supposed to spend creating their e-portfolio, etc.
  • Depends on the facilitator: supporting users, his/her skills, expectations and motivations and feed-back given to users etc.
  • Depends on the software

There is not a single template for e-portfolio content, which can vary depending on:

  • The objectives of the e-portfolio (assessment; accreditation, reflection, etc.)
  • The characteristics and needs of the e-portfolios creators
  • Consult the students
  • Be flexible and leave a space in the portfolio for feedback and comments

Kahtani (1999) suggests that an e-portfolio should include:

  • Students’ work: Students may include any work they have done for the course as long as they have a purpose for that work to be included.
  • Peer response forms: these can include questions that students answer when responding to their peers’ writing.
  • Teachers’ comments and feedback: With each student’s contribution there can be a ‘mail to’ link for the teacher’s feedback. The teacher can use that link or form to send students comments and feedback.
  • Reading journals: teachers can assign students to write weekly journals about materials they have read during that week.
  • Miscellaneous: This last section on students’ electronic portfolios may contain things that were not covered by the other sections.

Agra, Gewerc and Montero (2002) emphasize that an e-portfolio is primarily a resource for the student with a reflective thread and elements such as:

  • Personal diary, objectives, reflections, questions related to the course development
  • Attached documents, as exercises produced during the study of the subject, created by the students’ initiative or by teachers’ suggestions
  • Reproductions of some material regarded as significant for the course, for example links, e-mails or chats that help the student to reflect about the subject, etc.

Alonso y Blázquez (2006) explain how in their course they ask their students to develop these kinds of material:

  • A general index with links to the different material of the e-portfolio.
  • Reflections about the theoretical part of the course, where students are ask to write suggestions and personal comments about the topics developed in classroom.
  • Reflections about the practical sessions of the course, where it’s supposed to be included a description of the session, personal reflections about it and the attached documents regarded to the task developed.
  • A final project created for every student, where they include images, presentations, text files, videos, etc.

Capraro (2003) asks her students to construct a personal, dynamic, non-linear electronic portfolio that included text, audio, graphics, digitised photos, video, and html. All students include reflective narratives to match each artefact, explaining why the artefact was selected to represent the standard and how the artefact showed mastery of the standard.

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Developing skills in portfolio use

When students are asked to develop their own e-portfolio, they have to face the challenge of achieving some competences. These skills may vary depending on the type of e-portfolio the have to create, but these include skills related to the e-portfolio itself, and other ones related to the subject of the portfolio.

Constructing digital portfolios depend on teachers developing appropriate capabilities (Kankaanranta, 2001), including modeling reflective practices.

Barrett (2006) emphasize that the skills connected to e-portfolios development are those that allow interaction between teachers and students around learning activities and products, so students can create, store artifacts and reflections, and organize their work, and teachers can review the work and provide feedback in narrative form.

When Meeus (2004) studied the significance of portfolios in teachers education, he highlighted that they serve as an evaluation tool for assessment of the student’s learning competence. Hence, the course tutor can see from the learning portfolio if the student is able to:

  1. recognize educational competencies that he/she lacks or has not sufficiently mastered
  2. draw up an effective personal learning plan to bring these competencies up to standard
  3. carry that out effectively
  4. reflect independently and in sufficient depth on his/her educational practice
  5. visualize his/her learning process in a creative way.

Brown (2004) emphasizes that for students, constructing an e-portfolios means gaining skills as a reflective practitioner, they must be willing to adopt the processapproach for learning. This means entering the program, accepting critical commentary, working through revisions, and planning for the future. For the assessor, it requires a commitment for adequate time with students for mentoring and modeling for reflective practices. In addition, there must be time devoted to careful planning for program goals, objectives, and classroom activities that reflect these objectives.

Finally, practitioners from the University of Waterloo (Light, 2004) mantein that their students are highly motivated and they work industriously to accomplish these through the demonstration of technical skills in exams. However, there is no effective means for either students or faculty to track progress of students in “soft” skills. Electronic Portfolios allow students to demonstrate, reflect, and get feedback on a wide range of competencies from different learning contexts. Light maintain that competency portfolios provide:

  • profiles of competencies for learners to develop within a given domain
  • opportunities for learners to document their skills in different learning contexts (archive of authentic/diverse evidence)
  • opportunities for reflection in different learning contexts to integrate learning experiences
  • opportunities to present different views of learning
  • opportunities for a more holistic approach to learning

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Supporting reflection

Supporting reflection is a key purpose of many e-portfolios and some examples include:

If a student wishes to use portfolio to show his/her competence, he or she may draw up a personal learning plan (PLP) containing a series of activities with which the proposed competence can be practised. In principle every activity stimulates reflection. The fundamental idea is that students must learn to reflect on their functioning so that after they have completed the course they are in a position to continue to work on their own development in a conscious manner (Van Looy et al 2000). These reflections reveal how the student perceives the difference between the actual and the desired situation. He or she can then adjust his or her activities accordingly. The requirement for reflection has to be approached with great care. There is, after all, something potentially counterproductive about asking the student to reflect on the weak points in his or her functioning for the purposes of later evaluating him or her on this aspect. There is a risk of insincere reflections. One should only ask for student reflections if the portfolio system can guarantee their authenticity. Where this is not the case one will have to be content with a description or contextualization of the activities by the student without any very penetrating analysis of the quality of their execution. (Meeus, 2006).

Brown has analysed a course where e-portfolios were implemented. For him, an important concept built within the course was self-regulated learning using the reflective writings for each artifact. Self-regulation as a method for achieving learning goals leads to increased motivation, selfmonitoring, attention control, application of learning strategies, and other metacognitive thinking processes (Ormrod, 1999). Using a theoretical base for self-regulated learning (Zimmerman & Bandura, 1994), questions for the survey were designed to gather information in how students used the development of their portfolios and reflective writings for the following thinking processes - focus their thinking and goal-setting, self-assessment f quality of work based on standards, and time management strategies. He provides a summary of comments related to each main area of self-regulated learning:

“Writing the reflection is usually a pretty long process for me that takes a few rough drafts before the final draft is complete. It is almost like I am constantly reflecting on my reflection, if that makes any sense. Hopefully I will become better and more focused on writing my reflections with more experience of doing so. ...The portfolio definitely forces one to focus upon what one has accomplished. The reflective writings, in particular, has helped me to focus on what I did, why it was important, how it could be improved, and how my future will be impacted by what I did”Following Barrett and Wilkerson (2004), the literature on traditional paper-based portfolios involves these portfolio development processes: Collecting, Selecting, Reflecting, Projecting, Celebrating. The infusion of technology into the process adds the following dimensions to this process: Archiving, Linking/Thinking, Storytelling, Planning, Publishing. To effectively use portfolios for assessment, a learning organization needs to establish a culture of evidence. Evidence in an electronic portfolio is not only the artifacts that a learner places there; to be considered evidence of learning, the artifacts need to be accompanied by the learner's rationale, or their argument as to why these artifacts constitute evidence of achieving specific goals, outcomes or standards. Furthermore, just because a learner makes the claim that their artifacts are evidence of achievement, in "high stakes" environments, the evidence needs to be validated by a trained evaluator, using a well-developed rubric with identifiable and specific criteria.. This process can be represented by a simple formula: Evidence = Artifacts + Reflection (Rationale) + Validation (Feedback).

Barbara Cambridge of the American Association for Higher Education, identified these principles for deep learning: involves reflection, is developmental, is integrative, is self-directive, and is lifelong. She illustrated the importance of reflection in learning by quoting one of the founders of modern learning theory: "To reflect is to look back over what has been done so as to extract the next meanings which are the capital stock for intelligent dealing with further experiences. It is the heart of the intellectual organization and of the disciplined mind." – John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938.

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