|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2010, 26(7), 932-950.
Towards understanding the potential of e-portfolios for independent learning: A qualitative study
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
The Hong Kong Institute of Education
This paper discusses the findings of a research study concerning the use of e-portfolios to develop independent learning, from the perspectives of teachers and students in a Hong Kong university. While most of the findings confirm the value of e-portfolio practice reported in other contexts, they throw into relief a complicated interplay and conflict of factors that may thwart the good intentions of e-portfolio design and implementation. Insights derived from this research will illuminate the issues about e-portfolio-mediated independent learning across a range of settings and learners.
As advocated by cognitive constructivism, students construct new knowledge based upon their prior experience and personal interpretation of the world rather than passive reception of information (Piaget, 1971). Hence, learning should build on students' existing knowledge about a given topic and improve this understanding (Kolb, 1984). However, the perception of traditional institutions being places that disengage learners persists: honest self-assessment is rarely encouraged, and 'learning and evaluation are not meaningful acts of improvement but detached and punitive symbols of failure' (Abrami et al., 2008, online). One possible way to engender a paradigm shift to a more learner-centred approach is through the introduction of electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) to support learning (Herrington et al., 2009; Little, 2009; Stoicovy & Sanchez, 2007).
Recent literature on e-portfolio practice validates e-portfolios as a platform which allows learners to collect, organise and present digital evidence in a variety of media types over time, for different purposes and audiences (Hartnell-Young et al., 2007; Joyes, Gray & Hartnell-Young, 2010). In general, three types of purposes can be identified (Milman & Kilbane, 2005). The first purpose is for students to develop, demonstrate and reflect on their own learning (Stefani, Manson & Pegler, 2007; JISC, 2008). The second is to provide teachers with a form of assessment other than standardised testing, by capturing more fully the multi-faceted, complex nature of student learning (Cummins & Davesne, 2009), while the third is for graduates to showcase their competence to potential employers in job applications (Willis & Wilkie, 2009).
On personalised learning, Abrami and Barrett's (2005) observation is pertinent:
[e-portfolios] encourage learners to explore topics from a personal perspective capitalizing on and potentially increasing intrinsic interest. Intrinsic interest and the involvement in authentic learning tasks may also lead to [an] increased... sense of personal commitment and ownership. (online)Little (1995) articulates his view on learner responsibility thus:
[An autonomous learner] accepts responsibility for his or her learning. This acceptance of responsibility has both socio-affective and cognitive implications...[involving] a positive attitude to learning and the development of a capacity to reflect on the content and process of learning with a view to bringing them... under conscious control. (p.175)A review of the literature on independent learning commonly produces two related terms - learner autonomy and self-regulated learning - that overlap and vary to a certain extent. Deci (1996) distinguishes autonomy from independence, and argues that autonomy 'means to act freely, with a sense of volition and choice', whereas 'independence means to do for yourself, to not rely on others for personal nourishment and support' (p.89). According to Zimmerman (2000), self regulation refers to 'self-generated thoughts, feelings, and actions that are planned and cyclically adapted to the attainment of personal goals' (p.14). For Andrade and Bunker (2009), autonomy encompasses metacognition, strategic competence, reflection, freedom of choice as well as decision making about what and how to learn, self direction and accepting responsibility. The concept of self-regulated learning, on the other hand, tends to highlight a need to guide learners towards 'being effective without reliance on teacher structure' (p.49), with learner choice being a secondary goal. Recent interest in linking independent learning to other learner-centred constructs like self motivation, agency and identity has increasingly obfuscated the boundaries of independent learning as a field (Benson, 2006).
The use of the term 'independent learning' in this paper is referenced mainly from the works of Andrade and Bunker (2009), Benson (2006), Deci (1996) and Zimmerman (2000). It is understood as the way students make use of an iterative process to regulate their own learning. The process typically involves the following three phases (Pintrich, 2000; Winne, 2001, Zimmerman, 2000):
To date, most research in promoting independent learning through e-portfolio practice has been undertaken in Anglo-American and European contexts (Abrami et al., 2008, Kicken et. al, 2009; Meeus, van Petegem & Meijer, 2008),with limited research on similar areas being conducted in Asia. Therefore, this paper aims to fill this gap by exploring the potential and identifying the challenges of using e-portfolios to support independent learning in Chinese higher education. The ensuing sections of this paper report and analyse the findings from an e-portfolio competition at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) with a predominantly Chinese student population. Insights derived from this initiative will illuminate issues emanating from the development of e-portfolios for independent learning in other contexts.
Five major themes emerged as significant for understanding e-portfolio-mediated independent learning: 1) choice and ownership; 2) feedback; 3) technological competence; 4) self-improvement and strategies; and 5) dual perception. In the ensuing sections, the five major themes and their relationship with the process of independent learning are discussed.
Provision of individual choice in the e-portfolio was supported by a teacher's comment:
- One good thing about the e-portfolio is there is no restriction on the choice of materials I can present, like my videos, documents and MP3...I can be creative in the way I do things.
- The thing about independent learning is we just do it willingly...we can choose to upload text, video or audio on to the e-portfolio, or have a description for each showcase. It's very flexible.
- I feel close to the e-portfolio; it's not like an assignment. I think you should position an e-portfolio not as a school task or assignment, but treat it like something you want to own, and have a sense of belonging. Then you'll be more motivated and feel responsible for keeping it.
Another teacher added that individual choice and thought are crucial to establish a sense of ownership:
- The major aspect in my view is it [the e-portfolio] gives students another way to learning language. Some people really like the electronic media. Personally, it's not the way I work. But many young people are quite comfortable with working online and I think that gave them an opportunity to do something at home or anywhere else and in a way that relates to their own language learning.
- With this e-portfolio, I don't think there is any sense of ownership as it seems like they are asked to do it. Actually, I was one of the first batch of staff involved in the design a paper-based portfolio, like a learner diary. We thought about what we should put in and went through the whole process of developing the whole thing...that, I feel, is my sense of ownership.
- It is very interesting because I know the teacher...I was satisfied with my files, and was very happy to communicate with him, using this platform.
- Teacher feedback makes you have a better feel of what you have learned or what you have submitted. Because if no one points out your mistakes, you will never know...[Teacher] feedback helps me to make small, regular progress over a period of time.
- I'm happy that the teacher helps to review my progress and there's someone to appreciate and share my work.
- For me, it almost like a two-way relationship...you see a video, you read some commentary, and I respond, but to encourage them to respond to me, I always end with a question, not just a yes or no question, but I will say something like...how did you find your holiday in New York? What are the things that you remember most? Something that encourages them to come back, but avoid the trap of reducing the e-portfolio to an email exchange.
- I'd love to see an example of somebody giving negative feedback...to point out a weakness and how to give students guidance.
- We need to define clearly the role of facilitator, what kind of feedback because we're not their subject teacher.
- It's challenging to create evidence in digital format as I do not have particularly good computer skills. I am comfortable with using word document or sound recordings, but when you talk about videos, you need to edit them, which is difficult and so I avoided uploading videos.
- With our assignment, I can put it on my desk to remind myself, but with the e-portfolio, you don't actually see it. With the Internet, you may forget where the site might be...but with the e-portfolio, I can retrieve things easily. I understand it's a matter of adjustment.
- I'm not particularly good at navigating my way through websites, but as soon as I'd done it a couple of times, I found it work very efficiently. I had to remember to check it regularly because I have many other duties during the semester.
- I can see students' videos and read what they have put in the e-portfolio. It generally worked well. I also saw one of the students face to face, and in our brief conversation, I got to know the kind of language level she had and the goals she set for her e-portfolio was realistic. So I was able to talk to somebody who was sensible.
What students said:
What teachers thought:
- I need to keep writing, because I think the main benefit is I can learn English as a process. I can identify the area of English I need to learn more. As for my writing, my grammar is not very good and I like to write fast, I will make so many small mistakes. When I check the e-portfolio and see that it contains mostly reading materials or videos, I realise I should write more.
- Using the e-portfolio system can help me to think more, and also let me know which part I actually worked on and which part I had to do more.
- Setting goals requires skills, step by step, not too low, too ambitious, but sensible and realistic. This is not easy for students.
- I monitored the work they submitted, and it seems to me that there was some correspondence between the goals and the work. The goals are realistic, not crazy ones like to be a fluent English speaker in one semester.
- Everybody has a different way of learning a language; so sure, [e-portfolio use is] just another way of doing what we hope to do - that is to encourage interests in language learning and encourage students to develop a sense of awareness of their own language learning process.
- It helps me to reflect and know what I have done over a period of time and what I need to do more to improve English. (student)
- I can practice English out of class using the e-portfolio and to keep a record of my English studies. (student)
- It's like a photo album; you look through and you like this piece of writing here and something else there. From a stack of what you've got - though now that is in e-form - you can carry around on a flash drive, and adapt, and change and develop and edit. It's good. (teacher)
- It's like a diary which regularly records students' experience...for self-development, self-reflection and self-enrichment. (teacher)
In the previous section, the five emergent themes not only reaffirm the benefits of e-portfolio practice, but also suggest that independent learning can be supported by such practice. The themes are closely linked to the three phases of independent learning: planning (Themes 1 and 3), monitoring (Themes 2 and 5), and reflecting (Themes 2 and 4).
Planning involves setting specific goals and performance outcomes for monitoring and evaluation (Zimmerman, 2000). Self-determined goals, aligned with one's own needs and interests, were reported to be more sustainable during goal pursuit and also more effective in goal accomplishment than the goals influenced by external encouragements or social pressure (Sheldon & Elliot, 1998). In this connection, the characteristics of student choice and ownership (Theme 1) in e-portfolio use would enable students to exercise considerable control over their goal setting process. Another consideration for facilitating personal planning for growth is students' competence. As suggested by Pintrich and Schunk (2002), task outcomes should be designed within the range of students' ability for students to develop confidence and competence for successful task fulfillment. It is thus important to build and extend students' technological competence (Theme 3) required for effective e-portfolio practice.
Monitoring refers to the activities of observing the discrepancy between one's goal and current progress towards that goal, and of generating feedback that can guide further action (Pintrich, 2000). With the dual perceptions of e-portfolios in mind (Theme 5), students may appear to monitor their progress from a broader perspective in which the learning product and process are kept in focus. They may identify the need to improve the quality of outcomes, as well as to revise the strategies used in generating the outcomes. The self-monitoring process may yield insights for students, but feedback from external sources - from peers and teachers for example (Theme 2) - that confirms, adds to, or conflicts with students' understanding of their own progress (Butler & Winne, 1995), is also found to be helpful in improving students' achievement.
Reflecting is perceived as students' judgments of, attributions for and reactions to their performance after monitoring (Pintrich, 2000). Awareness of the need for self-improvement and the subsequent use of strategies for such improvement (Theme 4) are favorable outcomes of the reflecting activities; the value of both was confirmed by our findings on e-portfolio practice. To help students deploy effective strategies leading to successful improvement, feedback from peers and teachers (Theme 2) is believed to be an important source of input (Paris & Paris, 2001).
While noting the potential of e-portfolios for promoting independent learning, three fundamental challenges at the levels of student, teacher and institution were observed during the research study. They include the 'clone' phenomenon of student performance, teacher identity, and institutional policy, which may influence successful implementation of e-portfolio-mediated independent learning. The details will be discussed in the next section.
Language or education programs that require students to compile e-portfolios are trapped in a quandary when it comes to identifying purpose and audience. In one respect, suggesting that e-portfolios might accomplish multiple purposes contains an obvious risk of diluting the central focus of the e-portfolio task. In another, if we suggest e-portfolios are for a single purpose only - to meet a degree requirement or confer an award, we are likely to produce risk-averse students, especially among those who have neither the intent nor the ability to work independently. Scott (2005) cautions that any activity undertaken within institutional boundaries and is subjected to institutional criteria may compel students to 'create plausible narratives of curricular success' (p.27). In this way, the growth that can be gained from 'a more critical, more ambivalent, perhaps even an oppositional stance' (Scott, 2005) may be stunted.
For much of the twentieth century, educators invariably concentrated on problems germane to teaching, leaving the learning dimension much neglected. This 'invisible learner' phenomenon held sway until the 1950s when some of the principles of psychology and the concept of 'learner centredness' and learner differences began to become widespread (Benson, 2005; Chamot, 2005). The swing of focus from that of teaching to learning means that teachers need to reconceptualise the changing teacher-student relationship. Unfortunately, the wider aspects of the shifting teacher role in the twenty-first century have been under-investigated. Little (2009) identifies three challenges facing the development of independent learning, two of which are associated with the teacher: teacher doubt, teacher know-how, and the curriculum. Arkoudis and Love (2008) suggest a teacher identity as a site of struggle through their illustration of a teacher whose effort to recognise learner differential conflicts with her positioning of the students as less able, thereby inadvertently further alienating the students from the classroom community.
This feeling of unease is captured in some teachers' remarks in this research, as exemplified by this 'comet' metaphor to describe his or her e-portfolio experience:
A few teachers also drew attention to the need for negative feedback and a clear definition of teacher responsibility in independent learning, arguing that this could influence student expectations and workload. Such remarks can be interpreted as a sense of uncertainty about the changing educational landscape, in particular when the move from a directed, positivist paradigm (explanation, knowledge transmission, product as good or bad) to a constructivist one (inquiry, knowledge creation, process as unfolding) is often construed not as a continuum but as a dichotomy. With increasing application of technology, educators (Barnett, 1993; Little, 2009) warn against conceptualising independent learning as a polarity between a controlling teacher and a student learning alone, assisted by technology that 'seeks to achieve the independence of the learner not by developing his self-direction, learning skills and responsibility but by imitating as closely as possible traditional teacher roles which tend to control learners' (Barnett, 1993, p.296). The predicament is, where unpredictability and tentativeness which tend to mark the intricate nature of learning is widely debated and acknowledged, the challenges that teachers encounter and the ways they forge their identity have not attracted commensurate attention or recognition.
- It's like watching comets - you never know when a new entry will arrive, and if the student will return.
Although e-portfolios have great potential as instruments for facilitating systematic planning of learning, as evidenced in this research, their implementation remains in its infancy in many places. The new learning environments require teachers and learners to change their routines: from lecturing to listening, from coaching to participating. This process of change demands adequate support in both technical and pedagogical terms, without which resistance to or frustration with change can be easily projected onto the e-portfolio as one of the most visible symbols of such innovations (van Tartwijk, Driessen, van der Vleuten & Stokking, 2007).
University policies add to the complexity of the issue. For instance, the prevailing philosophy underpinning policies at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is to implement initiatives to 'maximise the benefits of their [students'] learning and enhance their competitiveness' (PolyU, 2008, p.6). The consequent pressure to produce 'preferred graduates' means that success in competition takes precedence; individuality becomes an optional extra. While e-portfolios purport to offer a personalised tool for students to interrogate their learning experiences, and to explore the emotional aspect of learning, this occurs within a traditional, lecture-based higher educational framework which often accords low priority to students' individuality or emotional responses to teaching and learning. In this context, paradoxically, e-portfolios originally intended as an empowering device run the risk of heightening students' sense of disempowerment, as they struggle to reconcile their own vulnerability with the power hierarchies within institutions and wider society (Burke & Dunn, 2006).
Some students may find appeal in the notion of e-portfolios being useful for graduation or post-university employment. However, the audience implied by such e-portfolios as a bureaucratic exercise or job artifact renders it unlikely that students will engage in any profound, frank examination of their own learning. In allowing students to compile e-portfolios in which they develop a propensity to gloss over weaknesses and problems of their learning, we may be signaling to them that flaws and failures ought to be hidden. Another issue is, for the majority of teachers, a top down approach - where e-portfolio use is seen as externally mandated - may spawn a sense of coercion to participate, where the 'e' in e-portfolios may connote extra time and effort, extraneous duty, and erosion of teacher control or even authority.
Five themes emerged from the findings suggest that e-portfolio practice facilitates a three-phase cycle of independent learning through:
There are other compelling questions: What are the long-term effects of e-portfolio practice on independent learning, suggesting the need for more longitudinal studies? Does e-portfolio practice vary with disciplinary background and access to computer facilities, implying issues of digital disparity? To what extent would e-portfolios as an assessment tool impact on examination-oriented Chinese learners, pointing to ethnicity-related factors? The above discussion serves to illustrate not only the considerable divergence in educational priorities, but also that e-portfolio practice involves a complicated interplay or conflict of various factors that may thwart the good intentions of its introduction.
A crucial issue in all stages of our education consists in improving the quality of learner outcomes. Although e-portfolio-mediated pedagogy has been advanced as effective for aligning learning contexts with learner preferences and informal learning accomplishments, and ultimately providing students a forum for reflecting on their accomplishments, relevant research reports a mix of merit and conflict. Seeking a way forward is to conceptualise e-portfolio practice as an integral part of pedagogical or curricular reform, embedding it in the right way and giving it the right kind of support (Little, 2009). This can be understood as four principles of e-portfolio design:
e-portfolios are useful in getting students involved in another aspect of independent learning using the media that we have now in the technology. I thought that was probably a very valuable experience and I thought that was quite interesting to try to judge not just language abilities but what kind of person he or she was, a person who is writing and sharing interesting things with me.In conclusion, e-portfolios can serve conceptually as an independent learning tool, but there are also implementation challenges facing students, teachers and institutions. These challenges should not be construed as a straitjacket. Just as many e-initiatives are often marked by tensions and frustrations when striving for a long-term impact, so the evolving nature of e-portfolios signifies a journey that has just begun, rather than completed.
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The Selection Panel will evaluate
Platinum Award = $1,000 Gift voucher
Gold Award = $700 Gift voucher
Silver Award = $500 Gift voucher
Bronze Award = $200 Gift voucher (10 prizes)
Certificate of Merit and Souvenir for participants having fulfilled the requirements of the competition
Two English teachers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University will form the selection panel.
To sum up...
Using the e-portfolio is like...
To sum up...
Using the e-portfolio is like...
|Authors: Dr Juliana Chau, The English Language Centre, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Hong Kong SAR, China.|
Corresponding author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Gary Cheng Kwok Shing, Department of Mathematics and Information Technology, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, 10 Lo Ping Road, Tai Po, NT, Hong Kong SAR, China. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Chau, J. & Cheng, G. (2010). Towards understanding the potential of e-portfolios for independent learning: A qualitative study. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(7), 932-950. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/chau.html