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    Looking at student work — faculty connecting through students

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:38 pm

    As a result, in part at least, of our recursive focus on the linkage between faculty practice and student work (ePortfolio), this seminar seems to have developed considerable traction.

    The beginning of the seminar, before we introduced the practice of asking them to bring in ePortfolios to share, felt sometimes loose and vague.  But as the year progressed, the seminar dynamics strengthened.   Faculty not only began to develop a clearer notion of the concepts at stake.  They also felt like they had more at stake — showing their students ePortfolios made the issues we were discussing very tangible and real.

    A problem of practice

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:06 pm

    Our Connecting Students/Connecting Classrooms seminar was designed to help faculty confront a challenging problem:  how to use ePortfolio more effectively as a tool for connection.

    The process was challenging in part because the core issues of connection and integration are fundamentally difficult.  There is a reason that integrative learning remains one of the great unaddressed needs of higher education — as faculty, we are trained to focus on the curriculum of our individual courses.  Shifting to a focus on the whole undergraduate experience could be said to require a paradigm shift.

    Other factors also contributed to the challenge.  The technology used added a degree of difficulty, in that our ePortfolio platform does not currently integrate web 2.0 functionality, which would have facilitated connection.  Our faculty’s 9 course-per-year teaching load adds stress and fatigue to the equation.  And anytime one asks faculty to change their teaching practices, one is asking them to put in extra time and add to the risk of failure.

    Faculty who applied to participate took part in a series of monthly meetings, focused on practice.  We started with what faculty were already doing with ePortfolio in their classrooms.  We raised the possibility of new approaches, connecting where possible to the practices that were already underway, but persistently prompting faculty to consider ways that they could do more with ePortfolio and help students get more out of the process.  Month by month, we moved from considering possibilties to asking faculty to design new classroom activities, to actually testing those activities with their students, and returning to discuss what transpired.

    The persistent focus was on pedagogy, the craft of teaching.  We asked faculty to focus on a shared issue of practice, and to undertake a process of considering the problem, learning from the literature, developing solutions, testing those solutions, and reporting on the results.  The approach or strategy we used was the recursive dialectic between seminar and classroom.

    This dialectical approach is common to many of our semiars, and while it takes time, it generally works well.  In this seminar, we added an additional element — having faculty bring in and present examples of their students’ portfolios.  We did not want to stop at faculty talking about what THEY did.  We wanted to put the spotlight on what their STUDENTS were doing.  How their students were using ePortfolios, throughout the course.  And we didn’t want only finished ePortfolios — we asked to see ePortfolios repeatedly through the semester, beginning, middle and end.  We asked faculty to share and discuss their students’ portfolios in pairs and small groups.  And we asked them to present them to the seminar as a whole.  Again and again,  we asked them to highlight in their sharing and presentation, the evidence of different forms of connection and integration.

    Collaborating to Connect

    May 2nd, 2009, 3:29 pm

    The core concept that I want to focus on is connection.   In our ePortfolio project, we use the mantra “Collect, Select, Reflect & Connect.”  As of last year, I had begun to feel that, in our ePortfolio practice, we were underplaying or missing out on the opportunity for connection.

    Our ePortfolio project was and is thriving.  We have thousands of students building ePortfolios, creating rich, beautiful ePortfolios.  But I felt we weren’t getting enough out of the process.  We weren’t doing enough to use ePortfolio as a tool for interaction, connecting students to faculty, students to students, building intellectual community.  And we weren’t doing enough to use ePortfolio as a tool for helping students connect their learning across classes and semesters.

    The successes of the process were multiple.  Course work was going into boxes, and students were reflecting on their specific pieces of work.  And they were thinking about how they were changing as individuals, constructing new identities in a process that combined the cognitive and the affective in powerful ways.  But despite the success, something was missing.   The process we tended to use were individuated, not collective.   Students rarely looked at each others’ work or each other’s stories.  The sharing of ePortfolios outside the classroom was sporadic and lacked organization, which undercut the sense of pupose generated by the process.  Moreover, there were all too few explicit linkages made across courses — the academic experience typically remained discrete and fragmented.   I wanted to see what we could do to change all of that, to encourage integration, to strengthen ePortfolio as a tool for social learning, to build connection.

    To my mind, this was an issue of pedagogy.  We weren’t getting connection because we, as faculty, weren’t asking for it.  We weren’t asking students to look at each others’ portfolios — in many cases, we as faculty weren’t looking that carefully at portfolios ourselves.  Neither were we developing and implementing the reflective prompts that asked students to consider the ways their courses interconnected and supported each other.  And to some extent, faculty weren’t doing this because we, the project leadership, had not paid sufficiently meaningful attention to this issue ourselves.

    It was a double case of,  “if you don’t ask for it, it won’t happen.”  Students weren’t using ePortfolio as a tool for connection because faculty hadn’t asked them to do it.  And faculty hadn’t asked them to, because we as faculty leaders hadn’t effectively prompted them to focus on the issue.

    With this in mind, I decided to launch two year-long faculty seminars for 2008-9, both of which would address connection and integration.  One was our seminar, Rethinking the Capstone Experience, which asked faculty to study capstone learning and reconceptualize their capstone courses to address issues of synthesis and integration, utilizing ePortfolio as one of the tools at their disposal.  Only faculty teaching capstone courses were eligible for this seminar.  The second seminar, Connecting Students, Connecting Classrooms, was open to anyone, and it focused explicitly and primarily on strengthening the use of ePortfolio as a tool for connection and integration.

    For this project, I want to focus primarily on the work of this second faculty seminar, the Connecting Students, Connecting Classrooms seminar.  It has been a challenging seminar in some ways — the work we’ve asked faculty to do has been difficult.  But over the course of the year, we built considerable momentum, and developed some promising approaches.  I want to consider the course design elements that went into the structuring of the seminar.  I’ll look at some of what happened in the seminar, when we put those elements into play.  And I’ll look at outcomes — what happened in the classrooms where faculty tested out their new approaches to ePortfolio with their students.