Day 9: Learning to Use Digital Portfolios the Hard Way


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Before I started teaching this summer class, there were a lot of things I was excited about, but using digital portfolios for the first time was what I was most excited about. I had done some research, but I knew that I would end up inventing a lot of it as I went along, especially since I was involving the students so closely in the process. No one will be surprised to find out that this decision had some positive outcomes and some negative outcomes. So, for what it is worth, here is a bit of what I have learned so far:

1) Practice what you Preach


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I tell the students to work on their portfolio every day and to write a blog entry every day. I am trying to model that for them by writing a blog for our class and by maintaining this blog for myself. I have done a great job maintaining the one for the class, but that is pretty easy to do because it is largely informational. I recap what we did that day, give them a selection of problems and questions for their portfolios and try to encourage them to not give up.

I have not done as well will this blog. The difference is primarily that the classroom blog has immediate and definite benefit for the class and the students read it every day. Hardly anyone reads this blog, and only I benefit from it, so it is easy to neglect when I get tired. What I have learned is exactly what I want my students to learn: this type of exercise loses its reflective value if you don’t tend to it regularly. In the case of summer school it should happen daily.

 

2) If you build it, they will come


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My intention was to give students feedback within their portfolios everyday. However, since we see each other for almost 3 hours everyday, it was more natural to give them feedback in person. The effect of that behavior was to shift the locus of work squarely into the classroom. Unfortunately in summer school, they need to do as much work outside the classroom as inside. It was almost two weeks before I gave them any feedback within their portfolios, but they are using the portfolios more now. I wish I had started the within-portfolio feedback right away and, of course, kept it up daily. When I communicate with them inside the portfolio, it is more likely to become another locus of work.

 

3) Curation is crucial


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Perhaps because of the speed of the class, the act of curation has fallen by the wayside. When I give the students guidelines on how many of each type of problem to include in their portfolio for each unit, their overwhelming tendency is NOT to do more than the minimum, and choose their best work from that. Rather, their tendency is to choose enough problems to meet the minimum that they believe they can do well. Is anyone really surprised by that? I guess it is a sort of curation – choosing which problems you want to even try. However, it is unsatisfying to me. So now I have gone in the other direction, asking them to include ANYTHING that they do that is related to this class. It has worked a little. One student included links to YouTube videos he watched one evening along with a bit of commentary and another student drew a political cartoon. Overall though, I think they are in a sort of survival mode that is common in summer school classes. Somehow I think this will work better in a regular semester or yearlong class when there is actually time to reflect. Speaking of which….

 

4) Give them time


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Maybe this is related to the time issue, but I noticed on the two occasions that I gave them class time to work on their portfolios that I got excellent responses from them. They were thoughtful and industrious and reflective – really learning. So although it was tough to relinquish traditional “class time” for that, I do think it really paid off in terms of genuine learning. Clearly I can’t do this all the time – not only would it eliminate some necessary content introductions, but it would also lose its meaning, I believe, if we did it all the time. However, on these two occasions they were practically begging me for a chance to work on their portfolios, so it worked rather well.

Well, this little reflection exercise has been helpful for me! Maybe I will tell them about it tomorrow?

[This post is part of a series about a summer course I am teaching. If you are interested, go back and start at Day 1.]