Monday, December 14, 2009

Teaching for excellence: Excellence in teaching

Earlier this year at the eFest meets Teaching and Learning Conference (hosted at UCOL), I was privileged to take part in the conference wrap up led by Lisa Emerson (Ako Aotearoa) - "Teaching for excellence: Excellence in teaching".

Lisa began by discussing the quote: “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility" (Bell Hooks, 1994, p. 207), and then went on by looking at the notion of excellence in tertiary teaching, referring back to the main theme of the conference. She asked how we can bring student evaluation of teaching into our teaching institutions, and teaching practice. We have clear empirical methods to research outputs; the push for this empirical data then moves to the evaluation of tertiary teaching. How do we measure excellence in teaching. Lisa listed 1) retention, 2) success rates, 3) student evaluation, 4) compliance measures, 5) willingness to engage with new technologies, 6) willingness to show commitment to teaching by engaging in PD, and 6) by willingness to disseminate good practice (e.g. by publishing in academic journals). She then went on to discuss who wants to measure excellent, including the teacher (especially for career development), the institution, political bodies (to measure value for money), and others such as Ako Aotearoa (for example there may be a desire to raise the profile of teaching within the tertiary sector).

Emerson reflected on some experiences she had working with award winning teachers, who were incredibly humble about their teaching practice. She then went on to unpack the following: “It is crucial that we challenge any feeling of shame or embarrassment that teachers who do their job well….For when we hide our light we collude in the overall cultural devaluation of our teaching vocation” (Bell Hooks).

The session included an interactive exercise that involved participation from the audience. As we went in we were given a pen and a piece of A4 paper with the words Why?, How?, A moment, and A model/metaphor on them as headings at equal intervals down the page. At the appropriate moment, Lisa asked the audience to look at the first question, gave some background behind it (why do you teach and what do you hope your learners will be able to do), and then each person wrote down their response to the question. The top of the paper was then turned over, and the audience had to swap papers with someone close by. This process was completed for the rest of the sections, swapping papers with people around the room after each one was completed. It was a really effective exercise as not only were the audience engaged and active, but it personalised the topic and the issues for them. To complete the exercise, 50% of the audience (in groups of 3) considered question 1 and selected 1 response that they felt resonated with them; 50% of the audience (in groups of 3) did the same for question 4. The microphone was finally circulated, with a nominated speaker reading out each group’s selection.

Examples of answers (all anonymous) on the sheet that I came away with were 1) Why? “I want my student to have the ability to survive the future”; 2) How? “One thing I do well is detailed instructions”; 3) A moment (of success) “Working with a group of Maori nursing students and having them tell me about the concept of Waiora, mindmapping what they shared on the board and offering it back to them as a structure for their presentation. Tutor as learner/learner as tutor.”; 4) A model/metaphor (for learning and teaching) “Reciprocal learners about life”.

I felt it was a shared reflective activity that appeared to work well. Each person had a ‘voice’ and had the opportunity to contribute to the discussion (although some people chose to opt out). Judging from the responses, people invested time and effort to respond meaningfully. The activity is one I will certainly use in Professional Development sessions with academic faculty, as well as at conferences when I present in the future!

Lisa summed up the exercise by revisiting the questions Why?, How?, A moment, and A model/metaphor. The second and third questions were designed to help celebrate who we are – to help us revalue our profession. At the heart of teaching is the relationship between a student, a teacher and a subject and this is where the models and metaphors are so useful. She suggests that metaphors do not describe reality, but that they create it. The image of the learner as consumer places the learner as passive, as a receiver…also, as a customer, the learner knows what they want, and that they are always right. Also, the metaphor suggests that the institution is the ‘shop’, and the person who sells the product rarely evaluates how the customer uses their purchase.

Other models that Lisa has collected from her other meetings, included co-learner, facilitator, mediators, mentors, guides, colleagues with a serious duty to care, and a co-traveller who sees things that otherwise the learner may miss. She argued that the whole dynamic between teachers and learners would change if the metaphor of consumer were abandoned and replaced with an alternative. The challenge is how this can be opened up for discussion in institutions, and unpicked with students, so that the customer model is left behind.

One analogy that a group of us discussed after Lisa’s session was that of a greenhouse (extending something that someone had written in the session about a teacher as gardener). We felt that the greenhouse idea included the notion of planting seeds, growth happening within each individual seedling, and the learning environment being safe (protecting from frosts), nurturing (the right balance of warmth and moisture, that is constantly monitored). It also allowed for differences (tomatoes not being the same as melons), and the notion that the seedling will eventually be transplanted to the outside world. Could be maybe stretching an analogy to breaking point and beyond, but it does focus on the fact that the teacher cannot do the growing for the learner, and that the learner has to be actively involved in the process.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

ePortfolios: Recognition of Prior Learning and Communities of Practice

At the recent ePortfolio Symposium hosted in Melbourne and organised by Allison Miller of the Flexible Learning Framework, there was a great range of practical tips, and thought provoking presentations.

The blurb from the site advises: "More than 140 teachers, trainers, managers and ICT professionals attended the inaugural VET E-portfolios Showcase 09 (VES09) in Melbourne on Friday 16 October, either at the actual event or by participating in free online sessions, to learn from some of the most highly regarded e-portfolio researchers and leaders. Click here to view the full program."

I went to several presentations, and the notes were taken at two that I attended.

Annelieske Noteboom & Christine Cooper, (Challenger TAFE) - The ePortfolio Landscape.

A presentation about Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), it was interesting that the presenters commented that more creative, flexible approaches to ePortfolios would be like having a cardboard box full of paperwork – as an RPL assessor you would never be able to sort through all the paperwork. She said that it was “all very nice to allow students to be creative, but it is not good to have students with an electronic ‘wheelbarrow’ full of stuff”, it needs to be organised". I certainly agree that every ePortfolio should have an element of organisation, and learners should be able to create different views from the collected and developed artefacts, planning, reflections etc. - one of which could be in line with RPL requirements, and easy for an RPL assessor to assess. The creativity is encouraged in the underlying learning and development, rather than, necessarily, in final ‘views’.

The presenters made another point around file consistency – but if the files are hosted online (and shared with only the assessor if privacy is an issue), then the files will stream, and this reduces problems with being able to view/listen to files.

Some initial reticence of participants to actually wear the camera glasses and talk their way through the processes they are undertaking. The camera glasses empower the learners though, as there is no-one there videoing them, but rather they take the video themselves, and if they are not happy with the result they can make another version…until they are happy with the result. Also have the ability to edit the video if they wish to…although I wonder if there are issues with verifiability if students are able to edit RPL videos? Does it matter? Would it not instead make it easier for learners to make sure, according to detailed rubrics that they are meeting requirements?

Gillian Hallan (Queensland University of Technology) - ePortfolio communities of practice: Local, national, global

This presentation (which can be listened to in full by clicking HERE) included highlights of the work that is required around sustainable practice and ePortfolios. Gillian also wanted to examine what was making existing CoPs work, and what stakeholders required to continue to make it successful.

The project started in December 2008 started with a literature review, and two AeP2 symposia and showcases. As part of this, ALTC was set up to as a group site, which includes an ePortfolio section. From March to July 2009 several research activities were undertaken along with a report around the research. Gillian made reference to Wenger’s definition of CoPs, before moving on to describing the CoP lifecycle, which goes through stages of inquire, design, prototype, launch grow and sustain, but many CoPs die just as they are emerging. The research Gillian was undertaking was around why some CoPs are successful, whereas others are not.

Some initial research findings suggested tat there was a 74% interest in a regional CoP, whereas there was a stronger (86%) interest in a national CoP, and reasonable interest in an international CoP (76%). Gillian mentioned that there are a number of communities formed around various aspects of ePortfolios, for example, there are some that are formed around supported learners through PDP (Personal Development Plans), and others that are formed around specific ePortfolio platforms.

The contexts for ePortfolio CoPs were: 1) pedagogy – 75%; 2) discipline based – 60%; 3) technology – 50%. Gillian went on to discuss the scope of collaboration for CoPs, in particular opportunities to collaborate, participate in special interest groups, disseminate information, and the develop further resources. Questions were posed around around whether an ePortfolio CoP should be organic or whether it should be managed. Almost 3/4 of respondents said that they felt there should be a funded CoP manager.

Some of the key factors for success that Gillian’s research identified were: “…our experience is that it needs a lot of mediation”; “Need a leader – need a community manager, without the work I do there is not a community “…a facilitator is critical – particularly around raising awareness”. The audience were surprised by the fact that a ‘manager’ was critical and cited social networking CoPs as an example of CoPs that are often not facilitated. Gillian then mentioned that respondents from the VET sector were much more in that social networking space, whereas many of the HE respondents were not in that same space – it did not form part of their day-to-day life. The large majority of the respondents in this research were from HE as this is the sector the research project was funded to support.

Success factors also included the fact that there needs to be a range of activities, and some face-to-face meetings can be refreshing. On the other hand, too much activity can be overwhelming and exhausting, and this is perhaps were a good facilitator comes in. Some of the main challenges identified included using the technology facilitator workload and community engagement. “Keeping engagement has been the largest challenge – feedback at events s generally positive but how” to measure the amount of activity?”. In a nutshell, there needs to be a balance. To achieve sustainability there are a range of internal and external drivers, including encouraging a broader interest in ePortfolios (e.g. employers), professional accreditation, cross-sectoral engagement, building, and extending national and international relationships.

Gillian concluded by saying that the final report will be a lot more detailed and will include a number of case studies that will present a richer picture of ePortfolio communities. In the meantime, it is important to continue to stimulate interactions and attract new participants, as well as a need to maximise the opportunities to build CoPs at the local, national and international levels.

ePortfolio platforms: Pros and cons

I was recently at an ePortfolio symposium in Australia, organised by Allison Miller. The first evening a number of ePortfolio platforms were showcased, and these are the notes, reflections and thoughts I recorded during the session.

Concord -

  • Use a lot of the 2nd/3rd year students as mentors to the freshers
  • Use ePF throughout their time at the college
  • One of the features of Concord, can package up different content

Assessment - some thoughts and questions

Not sure about the idea of locking down an artefact. How does that fit in with the notion of organic development? Is this a problem with the focus on assessment as an end product? Would learners still keep ePortfolios if they were not part of the assessment process? Perhaps one way to harness some of the key benefits of ePortfolios without tying them into summative assessment would be to have a ‘completion’ and/or participation grade. One of the things we found at Dubai Men’s College and at Unitec NZ is that it is not until learners have completed the first round or two of ePortfolio tasks, and have their heads around reflection and feedback, that they become aware of the learning benefits they are experiencing by completing their ePortfolios.

I would argue that once an artefact is locked down
  1. the learner loses their sense of ownership;
  2. they are dis-empowered; and
  3. possible ongoing learning experiences may be lost. Some students, in our experience, do continue to polish their designs and extend their ideas.

Desire2Learn ePortfolio -
  • Focus on personalised learning
  • Very little common understanding of what an ePortfolio is and can be – is that necessarily a bad thing? However, important for programmes who are going to use ePortfolios to agree on what they are looking for, why, and how it fits in with the general learning outcomes of the programme
  • ‘Virtual collections’ – e.g. student studying vet science – take a photo; want to use it in 5 or 6 different contexts
  • Web-based technology (can be installed on own servers, or hosted by the provider)
  • Key areas: artefacts, collections, reflections, presentation
  • Pages built on HTML – edited through a WYSIWYG environment
  • Storage space – use the Web based storage facilities, and then link to it in the ePortfolio. Also enables external Web sites to be used as objects to be reflected on.
  • Competencies tool = learning outcomes (can take snap shots of achievement)…I wonder what this means. Completion? Assessment / assignment grades? Quality of reflection? Progress in an ongoing project?

Mahara -
  • Multiple, tailorable views, using the same artefacts, for specific audiences
  • To set up templates for assessment use a control group (closed group, open group, control group). Can put start/stop date as part of the design when the view can be accessed
  • With Mahara you can release an artefact back to the student to continue working on

Assessment - some thoughts and questions

Is there the danger that artefacts for ePortfolios are only being created for assessment – glorified essays with illustrations? Do some of the tools focus on tying-down students? I wonder if there isn’t the opportunity instead, to personalise assignments (for authenticity as well as effective learning) in a way that also mimics authentic contexts, or immerses learners in situations that encourage the application of analytical, problem solving skills to authentic problems or issues.

Pebble Pad -
  • Assert that ePortfolios can be restrictive, and therefore, that ePortfolios are only one part of Pebble Pad
  • Pebble Pad is therefore described as personal learning space