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Technology Trends: Online Learning Portfolios - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Online Learning Portfolios

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Online Learning Portfolios

Good teaching is a mysterious thing: there is no one way to accomplish it, and the best of it happens when there's nobody around to witness it except the teachers and students. In an ideal world, this would be enough, but in countries with strong public education systems, some kind of evidence of learning is often called for so that taxpayers and voters can know that their children are getting the most out of students' time in classrooms and educators' salaries. The popular buzzword for policymakers and concerned citizens in the past two decades has been "accountability," a word laden with bureaucratic muscle but (often) no practical meaning. Accountability covers minutes in the classroom, decisions in the principal's office, appointments in the school board, and selections in the voting booth.

While the assessment of teachers' performance is beyond the reach of this article, at almost any of these levels of accountability is the need to evaluate students' learning. Students are required to demonstrate progress; teachers are required to demonstrate their competence by way of students' progress; administrators are required to prove their discernment in hiring and training by way of teachers' competence; school boards are required to justify the efficacy of their policies by way of administrators' discernment. No matter where in the procession you hold the magnifying glass, the easiest (but not necessarily most meaningful) measure of any of it is students' performance, which always seems to lead to two assessment tools: standardized tests and learning portfolios.

It's common knowledge that there has been an enormous emphasis around the world on the use of technology in the classroom, but the mainstream media has paid most of its attention in this realm to the delivery of content. Stories about distance learning, all-iPad schools, collaboration between classrooms separated by thousands of miles, and (as always) the mischief students get into when they understand the technology better than the adults who put it into their hands are plentiful. Policymakers and television cameras love the look of a classroom of students all busily engaged with interactive learning on their tablets, but none of that footage works in assessing students' performance. As schools have embraced the new technology, they've had to consider new ways of gathering evidence of learning, and they can hardly blame them for moving quickly to online portfolios: electronic versions of long-used analog tools.

The learning portfolio is a well-meaning attempt to summarize a student's progress and evaluate a teacher's work, and in many ways, the electronic versions are a step up. It's difficult in a traditional three-ring binder portfolio to show a student-created video on the issues leading up to World War I, but an online portfolio can contain a whole video file which, with a few clicks, can open up on whatever device is displaying the portfolio. And while neither format is ideal for displaying art, it's a lot easier to shoot a digital photo of a student's creation for inclusion in an online portfolio than it used to be to process, print, and paste photos into a physical binder. Online portfolios can be shared across distance, viewed simultaneously by multiple evaluators, graded from home by teachers who don't need to lug them to and fro in plastic milk crates, and added to over the length of a student's academic career with few limitations on space and practicality.

Online portfolios can take advantage of other kinds of formerly impossible functionality as well. Where a portfolio was once a collection of already assessed work, it can now by the assessment tool as well: teachers can require that work be submitted by students electronically to their portfolios, where teachers can take advantage of built-in grading tools, such as check-markable rubrics and standardized national learning outcomes. Administrators can look at portfolios to see which of the outcomes are being addressed in the classroom at any given time.

On the other hand, these online portfolios are rife with the kind of problems that illustrate the gigantic disconnect between tech developers, educational administrators, and teachers. User interfaces are often difficult to navigate, unclear in explaining errors, and aesthetically unpleasant. Teachers, especially those who emphasize multi-modal, differentiated instruction, can be frustrated by an instrument that doesn't display their pedagogy in its best light. Administrators, once they have selected a portfolio service, are often committed for the long haul, so everyone can be stuck with a service that nobody loves, and in many cases "everyone" can include enormous school districts. "Make it work!" is often the unspoken but clearly received message by everyone involved.

One of the biggest, unaddressed problems with online portfolios is that they remain stuck in the concept of an electronic version of a three-ring binder: they are mostly glorified content management systems or school management systems, seldom making best use of the things that make online content its own genre. This works for the management aspect, especially since many teachers merely collect electronic versions of the physical work they once assembled, but viewing a student's portfolio is basically looking at a list of linked filenames. Click this title to view this assignment; click that title to view that assignment; click the back arrow to see the list again.

Tech-minded teachers have used many online tools in their classrooms for a very long time now: blogs, forums, photo sharing, social networks, and wikis have proven effective for those willing to explore, but there is yet to emerge the electronic portfolio system that takes full advantage of all the online world has to offer while remaining useful and anything but a pain in the neck to learn and use. It remains a wild frontier whose resources early settlers are only beginning to use.


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Technology Trends: Online Learning Portfolios - Executive Leadership Articles

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