Learning Portfolio’s as a Journey, not a Destination…

Life’s a journey, not a destination
And I just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings

Aerosmith, Amazing, Get a Grip, 1993

I’ve used that quote as a tongue in cheek reference, to make a statement that learning is a process, and I like the song

In years past, I had been given the opportunity as a student to use Mahara and became completely confused and frustrated that it was not simple, when so many other things were. I then explored the world of portfolios and settled on Pathbrite as it was easy to use, drag and drop, and created containers instead of the look of a website, meaning that collections of content are displayed as independently themed topics with their own shareable URL. However, the recently updated Mahara that I am now using (as a member of staff) at UCL is an improvement and has prompted me to think more about how portfolios can be used for teaching and learning.

Some observations I’ve had is that there seems to be very little in the way of portfolio based assessment or use within higher education, unless it is for professional practice. I think this is a shame there are so many benefits for what I think of as ‘development of learning’ and building up improvements through feedback. There is clearly a gap between students who receive feedback but then don’t apply it and those students who do. In the assessment and feedback section in the NSS there is clearly a disconnect between the giving of feedback and students perception of what it is. I wonder, if that is because it is only something they ‘think’ they get at the end of their assessments and therefore no use as that work is now over. They just don’t see the value. The key is, IMHO, making the ‘value’ in any process or tool clear. This is where I think using something like a Portfolio comes in handy. Helen Chen talks about the ‘Learning Portfolio’ and how they can “connect the in-class and out-of-class learning experiences”.

The great thing about portfolios is that they don’t just have to include text. They can include audio files, sketches, plans, videos, tweets, graphics, diagrams, anything to help build a complete picture of whatever it is that is required. Writing an essay can be useful, but drawing a picture (through multi-media) is even better. Thinking about the exhibition example, if the instructor could hear what they had been discussing, through an audio file of their discussion or even a recording (Teams/Zoom) then he might be able to comment on that discussion as a group and nudge them in the right direction. The hard bit is presenting the journey in a coherent way. The other hard bit is marking them so having a clear rubric seems to been the best way forward.

I was chatting with a colleague, from our History of Art department yesterday about this very thing. They mentioned how they often ask students to set up and design an exhibition. They are given support to do this, with lots of sessions about different aspects to planning, from everything around the displays, including colours on the walls, the fonts in the guides, the space and information. The students create their exhibition designs, even making 3D cardboard mock ups which sounds great. But one of the frustrating things they have found is that students get things wrong, things that they had been told to look out for, the example they gave was that they choose a font on the basis that it was ‘pretty’ rather than any other design aspect. This is frustrating because they had been told about how to select these elements but that had got lost in all the many other details that they had to think about. They work in groups and the idea is that they all work together and produce an exhibition. What the instructor doesn’t get to see is how they got there. If they could, then he could jump in a remind them about things they may have overlooked. To that end, I have suggested that we set up Group portfolios so that they can all contribute to the exhibition. We can set it up so that they have series of tasks which they need to evidence and submit into their Group portfolio space. At set times across the module, feedback can be provided on their progress and the students can then use that ‘wisdom’ (aka feedback) to improve and include things that they have not necessarily thought about or have missed (like the font discussion!)

Setting it up will take some time but ultimately, it should help students to see the value in working together. They should be able to see how they can represent their contributions to the work they have been asked to do and they should also see how building up a portfolio in this way helps to convey their journey and hopefully, encourage this kind of thoughtful practice throughout their working lives. Working together using a portfolio to build up to a final piece makes contributions visible. A common complaint to working on a presentation together can be that there is always someone not pulling their weight, and so one person ends up taking over and putting it all together. I’m not suggesting that this couldn’t happen but what I do think is that it is harder to hide when all the parts are named and out on the virtual table.

They build their planning and design into their portfolio and then how do they produce the final piece? We could create a cardboard model (take a photo or film it and add into the portfolio) but they could also build a virtual gallery. Sketchfab is a 3D tool that means we can build spaces (like a gallery) and the objects to go inside it. I have seen examples of using Sketchfab with Mozilla Hubs which look amazing and something that I am going to explore.

The students will gain a lot from using a range of tools with expert guidance through taking this very hands on approach to working in a team and producing a complete exhibition. They will not only learn about planning and designing an exhibition, but they should be able to learn a lot about themselves too. Collaborating on campus, and then collaborating online, can be totalling different experiences and a nice touch to complete this portfolio learning experience could be some recognition of that. They will have come along way and capturing their sense of achievement could be a nice way for them to start their own personal portfolio or even a blog. Who knows?

Resources and links relating to portfolios

A portfolio collection with some useful links
Bath University collection of examples and links
UCL Mahara resource centre
Digital Education blog post

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