Friday, March 14, 2008

Goal for a Learning Portfolio: Solve a problem

This is one of the "portfolio patterns" (borrowing from the "Pattern Language" of Christopher Alexander) we have distilled from our case study of users creating learning portfolios

The goal for, and perhaps a defining characteristic of, a learning portfolio is to be a workspace in which to solve a problem. That is the feature that makes it like a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and unlike the common showcase portfolio.

In an article in the Chronicle appearing March 7, 2008, James Barker gives an example of this type of workspace as a physical place, the architecture studio:

“In my view, the architecture design studio is the best learning experience ever invented to produce the kind of deep, engaged learning and creative graduates that are so needed today. Small groups of students work with a master teacher on a semester-long or yearlong team project to design solutions to a specific problem or to meet a particular need…

“For example, our students in planning and design have helped communities throughout our state preserve historic buildings, revitalize dying town centers, and plan new parks, bikeways, and green space. For every project, they interview the key people involved; gather statistics on demographics and traffic patterns; collect previous plans, deeds, and plats; photograph the site from every conceivable angle; and put all of those data on a computer.

“Eventually they brainstorm ideas, discuss them, refine them, and present them to their teachers and clients in a process that we, in architecture, call a "design charette." Then, and only then, are the best ideas sifted through the filter of what is possible…

“In the process of doing such public-service projects, our students learn about research, communication, interpersonal relationships, culture, politics, municipal government, creativity (its power and its limits), and teamwork."
The studio space in which this work is done becomes a walk-in portfolio, with sketches, photos, models displayed on every surface and open for comment by all passers-by.

Here are some examples of learning portfolio questions

A Learning Portfolio tracks growth over time

In order to be an aid to the learner solving a problem, the portfolio needs to track the artifacts of the work, and needs to facilitate and encourage the learner to look at their growth over time. As we will see, this same property of tracking growth will play a role in assessing the learning outcomes.

Carol Dweck writes in The Secret to Raising Smart Kids: "Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.

Teaching people to have a 'growth mind-set,' which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life."

So what implications, if any, would these concepts have on the design of learning opportunities. For starters, what if the interface to view growth focused more on learning over time instead of grades on high stakes tests? We have been looking at tools like Gapminder (Trendalyzer) and Microsoft's Photosynth for inspirations of tools could allow learners to see patterns hidden within the data of their learning record. We are imagining a learning tool that would provide the student a way to view dynamic representations of their approach/efforts/ learning over time instead of a series of grades in a drop box.

Learning inside/ Outside the University
Self-directed vs Teacher Directed Learning
In Imagine there's no courses, Jeff Cobb points at George Seimens' World without courses (voice over slides) and each explore the question of how organizations and institutions measure and derive value from unstructured, informal learning activities. Examining learning portfolios has us looking an these issues and the ways informal learners (e.g. Hotz) create learning communities and tackle and solve complex problems and how they derive rewards from the learning gained.

Stephen Downes' writing on the 'ideal open online course' concludes that it would 'not look like a course at all, just the assessment.' He postulates, "were students given the opportunity to attempt the assessment, without the requirement that they sit through lectures or otherwise proprietary forms of learning, then they would create their own learning resources."

And Clay Burrell echos some of Downes' ideas when he writes about learning writing in a a blog (aka learning portfolio) situated in community and in context, "students would write self-directed blogs. No homework assignments allowed in terms of subject matter, though standards of style and conventions would be set... assessment would be based on readership, comments, subscriptions, visitor stats, Technorati authority ranking... self-assessment (italics added) and other non-authoritarian, teacher-gives-grades assessment styles." Here Burrell is rephrasing Downes "in a non-reductive system [of assessment] accomplishment in a discipline is recognized."

It is this latter behavior that we are seeing in some of the learning portfolios we are studying, coaches within the institution helping students learning outside of it but the measure of accomplishment is recognition by and among communities.

And this thinking leads us to rethink the relationship of the institution and its students to its alumni. For example, graduate student Dana Desoto met with Theron Desrosier and Jayme Jacobson recently about an alumni web site for the WSU School of Communications. This led to a good brainstorm about the goals of the project, the value for the university and for the alumni, and the assumptions we have about the relationship of the Alumni to the university.

The idea they developed was a collaborative learning portfolio that connects alumni and students with common interests and promotes the flow of intellectual capital between the Communications School and the professional community.

Value to Alumni:
  1. Alumni use comm. students as a economical source of innovation.
    1. Alumni propose projects for teams of students (build a web 2.0 marketing strategy for my company)
    2. Alumni who are looking for new employees get a more authentic picture of skills and abilities.

  2. Alumni are valued as more than a deep pocket.
Value to Students:
  1. Comm. students use alumni as a source of authentic activities, advice, connection to the profession, and feedback.
    1. Comm students build eportfolios around real projects as evidence for learning and/or hiring.
Value for Communications School:
  1. Comm School uses this symbiosis as a source of feedback on the alignment and relevance of curriculum, learning outcomes, and activity design.
  2. The professional community is a partner in the continual improvement of the program.
Who is the Learner/Who is the Audience?
Blurring the boundaries of the university by facilitating students working on authentic problems situated in communities outside the university, and assessing their work, not with reductive tests, but with the level of recognition and accomplishment the student achieves does something else. It blurs the line between the learner and the audience.

We are seeing this blurring in the portfolios we have studied. We are beginning to talk about learning communities where members play differing roles in supporting the learning growth of the whole. George Hotz honors this learning community when he credits his collaborators even as the national press is focused on him.

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