Saturday, May 31, 2014

Supporting Student ePortfolios, and Next Steps

This entry is cross-posted on the 20 Tech Blog.  Check out the posts from the rest of our tech integrator team while you're there!

An elementary school is always a busy place, but we're always trying new things too!  Right now, a number of teachers and I in three different schools have been piloting the use of ePortfolios to save and celebrate student work!  Right now this project is happening in a couple of forms, but the goals are still the same--to bring self-reflection and meta-cognitive thinking skills to the fore, and to increase student engagement and to give them more opportunities to be proud of the work they are doing.

What is an ePortfolio?

Of course, I should probably begin my discussion of ePortfolios with a definition.  An ePortfolio is an electronic portfolio.  It means that we are using technology to build a collection of our work.  Even if that work is not on the computer (maybe it is handwritten or drawn), we can create digital copies of our work with scanners or digital cameras so that we can include just about everything.

Portfolios can be a whole lot of things, both educational and professional.  Generally (and the way we've presented them so far), though, portfolios start as collections of our best work.  In this regard, portfolios are like folders or binders, but what puts them over the top as an educational tool is the use of reflection.  Meta-cognition, recognition of our own thinking, is a key trait for success in school and career, and portfolios are a tool that can help us develop those skills, even in our younger learners.  As we work on implementing ePortfolios in some of our elementary classrooms, we will be working on finding the right questions to ask so that students are able these important meta-cognition skills.

1st Grade ePortfolios in Google Drive

4th grade tech team students at Searsport Elementary School
assist first grade students taking pictures of their writing on
the iPads.
Right now, we have begun a number of pilots that we are hoping to build on for next year.  We currently have four 1st grade classrooms in three schools that are piloting an ePortfolio project using Google Drive.  While each classroom has its different approaches, generally, we are taking pictures of students' best work using iPads and uploading them using the Google Drive app.  Two of the schools have student technology teams, so they are also a part of the process.  The fifth grade students at the Nickerson School and some of the fourth graders at Searsport Elementary School go into the first grade classrooms to help the first graders take the pictures and rename them in Google Drive.

So far, we have observed positives as well as some causes for concern, though both I believe will be helpful to us for implementing next year.  First, we've noticed that most of the students appear to be more motivated to write, even if they already like writing to begin with.  In quite a few cases, though, we've noticed that the students are now motivated to revise and improve their work more than they did before, because we set the standard that we would only include their very best work in the ePortfolio.

4th grade tech team students at Searsport Elementary School
assist first grade students taking pictures of their writing on
the iPads.
In other cases, we have observed that students are rushing to write stories because they want to "publish" as much as they can.  In the future, we will need to make sure that we are communicating more clearly about what "best work" means.  We also may need to space out the frequency in which we are adding pieces to their portfolios (monthly versus weekly or bi-weekly, for instance), and have students pick out one piece out of a number.  I think a "less is more" approach will ensure more quality and also encourage students to think about why they would prefer to publish one piece over another.

In any case, I feel like we have had a successful pilot so far.  The first graders appear to enjoy having their writing photographed, and it also gives them a lot of pride to be able to share their work, especially with the older students on the tech team! 

4th grade and 5th grade Google Sites

While not as far along as the first grade projects, I have also begun piloting 4th and 5th grade ePortfolios.  This project really began at Searsport District Middle School, where Laurie Rule, the tech integrator at that school, has been working on implementing the use of ePortfolios in Google Sites.  Her student tech team "Viking Pilots" were instrumental in that as well, creating "model" ePortfolios for others to learn from, and helping their classmates with building their portfolios and adding artifacts to them.  A couple of months ago, my 5th grade tech team started meeting with the Viking Pilots at the middle school, and one of the things that we set about doing were ePortfolios.  The middle schoolers helped the elementary schoolers create their own ePortfolio using the middle/high school template.  Then, after brainstorming ideas for what an elementary ePortfolio looked like, I was able to create a template that was just for us.

4th and 5th grade students, being older than the 1st graders, are (or should be) able to manage their own portfolios without the kind of support that the 1st graders need.  At the same time, they also need a medium that will help them exercise the meta-cognitive skills that make portfolios a worthwhile educational pursuit.  So, I used Google Sites to create a template ePortfolio that students can build off.  What I like about Google Sites is that you can build template pages that have template subpages built right into them, so I am using that feature to create a couple of page templates for adding a new subject or new artifact to their portfolio that will have instructions baked right into the page.  To go along with that, I have been working on a resource page designed to help students set up their ePortfolios independently.

A screenshot of the SES Student ePortfolio Template being developed and piloted right now.

Fifth grade students piloting that template.
Right now, my fifth grade tech team and the members of the fourth grade tech team who are also in the Extended Learning Program are piloting ePortfolios.  I am trying to have them pilot with as little involvement or direction from me as possible, so that they have to use the resource page I have been building.  That way, I can gather feedback on how helpful that website is, and how closely (or not) they are reading the directions.  The two groups are also piloting two different possibilities for organizing an ePortfolio.  The fifth grade students are focusing on organizing their artifacts by subjects.  For now, I have the subjects divided up into the three types of writing under the Common Core (narrative, explanatory, opinion) as well as math, science and social studies.  I'm also encouraging students to create "optional" subject pages for other subjects like art and music, as well as individual pursuits in and out of school.  Meanwhile, the fourth graders are organizing theirs by methods of thinking.  In the Extended Learning Program, these students have all year with Mrs. Gass, the ELP teacher, in examining how and when they think at different levels.  Toward that end, we created a template based on Susan Winebrenner's model (page 45 in the PDF) that also expands on Bloom's Taxonomy (revised).  Ultimately, the ePortfolio gives us the flexibility to adapt and build templates for each grade level and how each teacher would like to use it.  In the end, we hope to be able to present a couple of different examples of options for organizing an ePortfolio to continue generating conversations around creating and using them in the classroom!

If you have worked with elementary portfolios, I'd like to hear from you.  What were some unexpected challenges that you came across?  Do you have ideas for great questions to ask students in aiding them with their meta-cognition?  Please post your feedback in the comment section below!

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