ePortfolios hijacked…and the teacher as test pilot…

A couple of terrific articles recently that have serious implications (and lots to teach us) as educators.

The first, from Campus Technology, argues that higher education has co-opted the ePortfolio from its intended role as a reflective and creative student project to become a tool for accreditation reporting. Since our focus with Waypoint has always been on the assessment engine, and not the attempt to build yet another portfolio solution, we are in total agreement.

The second article, from The New Yorker magazine, makes a devastating case against the medical establishment (you’d think we would have run out of reasons to bash medicine) and its hubris. Atul Gawande makes a compelling comparison between contemporary medical doctors and the test pilots of The Right Stuff fame. As a teacher, the comparison hit home. Could simple checklists help our students complete the tasks we assign more creatively and more competently?

Here are the citations:

  1. Trent Batson, “The ePortfolio Hijacked, Campus Technology, 12/12/2007
  2. Atul Gawande, “Annals of Medicine: The Checklist,” The New Yorker, 12/10/2007

Dr. Helen Barrett, who has been writing about ePortfolios for years in a variety of media, summarized the issue with the use of ePortfolios eloquently in her blog:

Somehow, we need to get back on track with the metaphor of “ePortfolio as Story” and not only “ePortfolio as Test” or we will lose a powerful tool for reflection and lifelong learning. The challenge we have is accommodating the strong pressures for institutions to produce tangible evidence of achievement for external audiences (accreditation and government agencies), so that faculty and students can also focus on the internal audiences (small, private, personal) to realize growth over time. I am concerned about the “opportunity cost” (the value of the benefits forgone) in the current focus on accountability portfolios. How can we find a balance?

In our experience, institutions often prioritize obtaining an “ePortfolio” solution as a way to accomplish a multitude of goals. One is accreditation reporting, although ePortfolio implementations in all but teacher education programs rarely produce the data necessary for accreditation. Another goal is staying with current pedagogical trends and integrating technology into the curriculum. Another major goal is curriculum redesign – using evidence of student learning to adjust pedagogy. A final, and admirable goal, is to help students develop more advanced critical thinking and reflective skills. This last goal was the prime mover for portfolios in the first place. However, a program does not need a massive database server and sophisticated software to manage a selection of documents and reflective writing! Google Docs, blogs, and simple web-pages can suffice. And often with technology, the least complicated option is by far the best. The result is less training (of students and faculty), less upkeep, and a greater focus on the essence of a portfolio initiative: student creativity and reflection on learning.

Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business provides a great example of integrating portfolios into the curriculum with the original (non-hijacked) intentions of portfolios in education. LeBow uses a dedicated portfolio software product, integrated with the schools Learning Management System (Blackboard Vista in this case), that does not do any assessment. Students have considerable flexibility when building their portfolio along with required artifacts. LeBow, with Drexel’s strong focus on cooperative education, even includes students’ reflections on their work experiences. You can read more about LeBow’s My LIFEfolio here (5mb PDF file).

LeBow must also generate rich data on student learning for AACSB accreditation. In fact, AACSB has some of the most stringent requirements for data-gathering outside of teacher preparation. To gather the minimum of 3 years of data necessary, LeBow samples documents from the curriculum, strips away unique student identifiers, and then uses a combination of business professors, English professors, and outside assessors to evaluate the documents against a detailed rubric. This analysis and data gathering is facilitated by Waypoint. This winter, LeBow will use Waypoint inside of courses to assess presentation skills. So assessment for improved curriculum, data-gathering for accreditation, and ePortfolios for learning are complimenting one another rather than working at cross-purposes.

No matter how badly educators misuse assessment, accreditation, and portfolio tools, no one’s life will be lost. But Atul Gawande, in a New Yorker article from a few week’s ago, documents a devastating fact of modern medicine: simple checklists can save lives in I.C.U.s and other places, but the simple procedural change is ignored. He writes,

This is the reality of intensive care: at any point, we are as apt to harm as we are to heal. Line infections are so common that they are considered a routine complication. I.C.U.s put five million lines into patients each year, and national statistics show that, after ten days, four per cent of those lines become infected. Line infections occur in eighty thousand people a year in the United States, and are fatal between five and twenty-eight per cent of the time, depending on how sick one is at the start. Those who survive line infections spend on average a week longer in intensive care.

The article is a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it. Although it seems counterintuitive given the complexity of medicine, a John Hopkins Hospital doctor named Peter Pronovost has proven the power of checklists to dramatically decrease infections and complications. The particular point that caught my imagination came with a comparison between modern doctors and the famed U.S. test pilots of the 1950s:

Test pilots strapped themselves into machines of barely controlled power and complexity, and a quarter of them were killed on the job. The pilots had to have focus, daring, wits, and an ability to improvise—the right stuff. But as knowledge of how to control the risks of flying accumulated—as checklists and flight simulators became more prevalent and sophisticated—the danger diminished, values of safety and conscientiousness prevailed, and the rock-star status of the test pilots was gone.

I couldn’t help think of the good teachers I have known, both professionally and as a student. I’m sure many were methodical in their own ways, and maybe even used checklists (or similar). But something they all have in common is charisma – or rock-star status. Granted, the rock-star status was in the world of teaching history or economics, but they were compelling because of their personalities, their stories, their ability to relate to students, and to demand excellence. They would have done quite well without Blackboard, Waypoint, even computers. But they are the minority.

The other connection that I immediately made had to do with students’ achieving basic competency against specific requirements. For instance, including a compelling title to an essay, or making sure they include a counterargument. I have taken to requiring a cover letter to all work submitted in my classes, and I ask students to reflect on their previous work, peer review feedback, and my previous feedback along with explaining their approach to a particular assignment (one reason I like these cover letters is that they are often a few hundred words long, and provide an easy way to get more writing into the assignment!). In my mind, this cover letter works a bit like a checklist: students need to write about a variety of issues that are important to the assignment. The trouble is, this is to “teachery” for many students. They simply don’t make the connection. Plus, they’re completing this letter a few minutes before they submit the final draft. So it doesn’t help many of them to run through requirements in a letter when they have little time to correct issues they identify.

Checklists are direct. If I simply embedded a checklist in the curriculum (using Waypoint in conjunction with a Learning Management System, of course) a few days in advance of an assignment’s due date, then required students complete the checklist as part of their homework, students would internalize the assignment requirements in advance of the deadline. This would help students with issues of procrastination, reinforce the goals of the assignment, and level the playing field. Most beautifully, just as a checklist designed for a specific procedure in an I.C.U. has applicability to thousands of locations, checklists for major assignments and the high school and college levels could be applied in hundreds of courses.

Doctors and test pilots still need tremendous skill and training, but some of the most avoidable complications to medicine and flying can be avoided by clearly stating a procedure and requiring follow-through. Students who procrastinate, can’t think critically, don’t write proper transitions, and ignore feedback on previous assignments might be best served by a more rigorous but simple approach to documenting expectations via checklists embedded in the curriculum.

I’ll mock up something that gets at this issue and report back on my success (or not) with students sometime in January. In the meantime, we welcome your input concerning the application of ePortfolios in learning and how clearly we document our expectations of students in a way they can digest and use.

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