August 14, 2013, by Teaching at Nottingham

Using online portfolios to facilitate feedback, provide evidence of progress and encourage the development of academic skills’

button-maharaDavid Button:
Context: “CELE is an international centre based on three campuses, the UK, Malaysia and China. In the UK CELE run 4 terms of Pre-session English for Academic Purposes courses taking students at 4 levels of English competence. Students are a mixture of undergraduates and postgraduates. All 400+ students will be using an e-portfolio for sharing their coursework with their tutors and personal development planning (PDP) from September 2013. They are supported by academic and language tutors.”

Practice: “The use of online portfolios came about as a response to the development of a new set of courses at CELE. As a result of changes to the syllabus and a resulting move away towards a greater emphasis on formative assessment, there was a need for students to map and evidence their progress and to provide a tool to facilitate frequent feedback on drafts of work which will form a part of assessment. In essence, Mahara serves as a repository for the student’s work, and facilitates this ongoing collaborative process between students and all their tutors. This process is key to supporting a shared understanding of appropriate language use, current issues and achievements and targets based on evidence.

“Most learners have 2 tutors and a ‘language advisor’ (LA), and these three need to be aware of the feedback given to the students on each draft they submit. Within Mahara, each piece of work is marked by one academic tutor, who then adds targeted comments to the portfolio on the strengths and weaknesses of the submission. These are then viewed by their language advisor and a separate face-to-face tutorial is held, with a discussion based around the comments in order to focus specifically on weaknesses identified by the tutor. Further comments can then be added to Mahara as a result of the conversation between the LA and the student. This creates a record of feedback and progress which all of the relevant tutors can see, and which the student can find, revisit and add to at any time.

“In addition to the benefits outlined above, it was felt that the introduction of portfolios could help in encouraging learners to begin to take more responsibility for their own learning, but in a way which could be supported in the initial stages. This is especially important within CELE’s context, in that many of the learners come from educational backgrounds where autonomy is practised to a much lesser degree than in the UK. In order to encourage use of the portfolios, specific help materials have been developed which aim to make Mahara simple to use for non-native speakers. These include brief step-by-step guides to the basics of setting up and organising an online portfolio, and more detailed guides including screenshots. Guides have also been developed for staff to help encourage them to get to grips with new developments and procedures. As CELE employs a relatively large number of sessional staff on a termly basis, there is an intention to extend this support in the near future with greater use of video capture to help demonstrate common techniques and clarify best practice.

“After two terms piloting online portfolios, there is now an increasing interest in extending their use to include greater scope for collaborative learning by encouraging learners to take greater ownership of their own spaces, organised around class groups. Some tutors are also experimenting with using Mahara for delivering content which students can subsequently modify and comment on. There is also interest in making greater use of the journal feature to encourage students to become more reflective about their learning. Although these uses are still at a developmental stage, as tutors are becoming more comfortable with using Mahara there is a definite sense of them beginning to embrace and explore the opportunities afforded by online portfolios.”

Mr David Button
Tutor in English For Academic Purposes
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