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Starting a Program-Wide E-portfolio Practice in Teacher Education:
Resistance, Support and Renewal

Timothy Hopper & Kathy Sanford
Abstract []
This paper explains how the practice of developing an ePortfolio (eP) within a traditional teacher education program offers potential insights into how to create a self-renewing process. Adopting a recursive approach to examine the eP practice, three intersecting and repeating phases of actions have been identified that reflect the evolution of the five year project: (1) Technological; (2) Pedagogical; and (3) Formalizing. Finally, in line with reviews on eP development (Wetzel & Strudler, 2005) , three evolving themes have been noted in current reflections about the eP practice: (1) from resistance to awareness in the use of technology; (2) staff support above and beyond; and (3) shifting attitude to eP. The paper will conclude with how preservice teachers (PT) can take ownership for their learning as they take on the professional role of defining themselves as teachers. The paper starts with a short movie that highlights the evolution of the ePortfolio software from 2005 to 2009.

 

 

Introduction
In this paper we describe how electronic portfolios (eP) can value students’ reflective, active and deep learning while creating a process of program self-renewal. A shown in the introductory movie “Evolution of eP” we have come to understand the eP to be a dynamic website that interfaces with a database of student work and related experiences stored as artifacts. It has been noted that within a teacher education program ePs offer the potential for a more deliberate and cumulative improvement of teacher preparation programs (Anderson & DeMeulle, 1998). However, adoption of ePs has been filled with challenges associated with paradigm shifts in assessment (Helen Barrett & Knezek, 2003), technology challenges, and time to create an eP effectively within intense programs (Wetzel & Strudler, 2005). In our elementary teacher preparation program the electronic portfolio process has developed over a four-year period. EPortfolio development has allowed our teacher education program to support teacher candidates in collecting evidence of learning that addresses standards to be certified as a teacher. This current standards movement represents a shift from government control on teacher education through a period of institutional governance to the current state of professional self-regulation (Grimmett, 2008).

 

As described in Hopper and Sanford (2008), the traditional knowledge-as-object assumptions about teacher education in our program has developed around the design of a set of discipline and content methods courses that are taught at a university and then transferred by teacher candidates (TCs) into practice in a school based practicum. Adopting a recursive process, this paper will examine how an eP, developed from a small pilot study to a program-wide innovation, shows promise for shifting program development from traditional knowledge-as-object to be passed on to knowledge construction through participation in contexts of productive learning and reflection on learning experiences as a teacher. The paper will conclude with a summary of initial reflections on the project from the faculty and staff involved. This paper will offer data from a narrative perspective that addresses the following question: “How has an ePortfolio practice developed within an Elementary teacher preparation program?”

 

Portfolios have been identified as a tool for deep and durable learning, supportive of environments of reflection and collaboration; they are particularly effective for bringing about performance and learning-related change (Bork et al. (1997), with ePs encouraging deeper learning through the use of multi-media artifacts as richer forms of literacy to express understanding (Lambert, DePaepe, Lambert, & Anderson, 2007; Stansberry & Kymes, 2007). A critical outcome of professional teaching portfolios is that they create the situation where pre-service teachers can become more self-confident about their practice, developing the ability to critically reflect on their understanding of teaching and their practice (Darling, 2001). There is a real need to document the impact of ePs on teacher candidate development, as well as to use the eP as a vehicle for gaining insights on program renewal. Teacher educators have traditionally struggled with convincing students to work on their portfolios, competing against more traditional assessment demands and the habit of putting the portfolio together at the last minute (Dollase, 1996). We know that teaching ePs encourage self-paced learning, student choice over what is valued, student self-evaluation, response to teacher feedback, and publication of students’ work for a “real” audience (Young, 2002). Zeichner and Wray (2001), reviewing teaching portfolios in US teacher education programs, reported that portfolios encouraged teacher candidates to think more deeply about teaching and content, be more conscious of theories and assumptions that guided their practice and that ePs helped them to develop a greater desire to engage in collaborative dialogues about their teaching.

 

Contextual Background: Standards and eP practice
In 2003 a group of faculty members explored the possibility of implementing a teaching portfolio in a form of an electronic portfolio assessment process within the Elementary teacher preparation program, one that would be framed around a set of standards for professional certification into teaching. In 2004, the group successfully obtained a small internal grant focused on implementing an eP practice into the program for one cohort of students entering the regular elementary teacher education program (Temple, Hopper, & Sanford, 2004). Prior to that, support was obtained from the Teacher Education Council to proceed with implementing the eP. Conversations were held with instructors involved in the program. A set of Standards drawing from government accrediting bodies in Canada and Australia, with consideration of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education Accord on Teacher Education, was developed and included into the program handbook (BCCT, 2004; COATS, 2004; VIT, 2004). These standards were called the UVic Standards for Qualification as a Teacher. The UVic Standards allowed students to enter evidence from life experiences, assignments and field experiences in an electronic form cross-referenced by sources. This created a way of mapping the Standards being addressed in courses or field experience in the form of a matrix. For each piece of evidence, students complete a STARR framework (situation, task, action, response, reflection) that students use to explain why the particular piece of evidence or artifact was chosen, what they have learned from including and reflecting on the artifact, and how the artifact addresses the Standard being considered. The teaching seminar courses are responsible for supporting and connecting students’ learning in coursework and field experiences using the eP structure.

 

The Standards required that students demonstrate knowledge, skills, and aptitudes in three broad areas:|
1. Professional knowledge – referring to the type of knowledge a teacher is expected to know about subject-matter, child development, learner psychology, cultural understanding, curriculum documents and education systems, and professional understandings behind different approaches to teaching.
2. Professional practice – referring to personal experience of different practices associated with teaching such as planning, assessing learning, analysis of teaching experiences, creating productive and safe learning environments and the ability to create meaningful connections to within schools, community and home.
3. Professional commitment – referring to the professional attitude of teaching as a life-long career with ongoing connections to professional groups and organizations to develop teaching ability, sustained and worthwhile connections with peers and community members, and ongoing practice of teaching as an ethical practice.

 

It is important to note that three formal practicum experiences are embedded in the both Elementary Education regular program (5 year degree with last 3 years in Education) and post-baacalaureate degree program (16 month program); each practicum affords course instructors an opportunity to review the development of the TCs’ learning. The practicum experience is viewed as an opportunity for TCs to implement the learning that has been gained over the previous terms. Additionally, some of the courses leading up to the practicum offer field experiences through which the TCs can gain an understanding of their forming teacher identity and also students’, teachers’, and schools’ needs; enabling them to critically reflect on their role as teacher in order to make best use of their formal practicum experiences (Hopper and Sanford, 2004).

 

In addition to the Faculty of Education preparing TCs to address the “standards” through programmatic experiences (coursework, field experience, seminars), the eP structure acknowledges that TCs have a wide-ranging set of prior and ongoing experiences that enable them to become professional educators and spaces are created in the eP to enter learning artifacts from experience prior and outside of the teacher education program.

 

Theoretical framework: Teacher knowledge and situated learning in ePs
The development of teacher knowledge is critical in the enhancement of student learning in schools. Teacher knowledge is more than skills; it develops from the complex inter-action of teacher, learner, content and context. As Munby et al. (2001) note, teacher knowledge involves strategies, content, and understanding of how teachers' knowledge develops, and the extent to which teachers understand their own knowledge development. Research on teacher knowledge has tended to focus on the teacher as an object to be researched, to be understood and taught to others. As suggested by Fenstermacher (1994), the “critical objective of teacher knowledge research is not for researchers to know what teachers know but for teachers to know what they know…for teachers to be knowers of the known” (p. 50). Typically in teacher preparation programs TCs learn strategies, content and theories on learning, but they rarely study their own learning; they do not think about their own thinking outside of a course, rather they tend to complete course assignments and move on. Too often students complain that courses seem to be taught in isolation to other courses, that types of “reflective” assignments such as journaling are repeated in course after course. As Goodlad (1990) has noted about teacher education courses, it often seems that each instructor “rush[es] to cram it all in into the limited time available” as if their course was the only course and appearing “to abort the emergence of sustained inquiry and reflection” (p. 256).

 

In teacher education literature, as noted by Schön (1987), Fenstermacher (1994), Munby et al (2001), and others, we need an epistemology of teacher knowledge that acknowledges both practical and formal knowledge as we draw on both propositional understanding and practical reasoning within a context of knowing. EPortfolios create the cognitive space for TCs to study their own teacher development as they shape their own learning, as they learn to draw on formal knowledge for teaching within practical experiences that professionally refine their beliefs about teaching.

  Critiques of teacher education programs include concerns of fragmentation between courses, maintenance of a theory-practice divide, and use of research that does not connect to the “real world” of school (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Munby et al., 2001). Innovation in teacher education programs are too often “nullified by the structural fragmentation and competing agendas that typify traditional programs of teacher education” (Wideen, Mayer-Smith, & Moon, 1998). From the university community focused on transmitting identified bodies of knowledge to a particular body of students, education courses are often seen to lack rigor, be impractical, segmented and lacking a clear direction (Tom, 1997). These criticisms are often voiced from a rather narrow perception of learning drawing on dualist notions of cognition. As Davis et al. (1999) note in regards to learning and teaching, “…learning is not seen as a “taking in” or a “theorizing about” a reality that is external to and separate from the learner. Rather, learning is coming to be understood as a participation in the world, a co-evolution of knower and known that transforms both … learning is dependent on, but cannot be determined by teaching.” (p. 64).
  The eP development process can address these criticisms by creating a space for instructors to participate in the whole education of their pre-service teachers. As noted by Carter & Doyle (1996) and Grossman (2005) about effective teacher education pedagogy, TCs’ use of the eP process creates a pedagogical space for them to delve deeply into their participation in courses and field experiences, focusing on self as learner while at the same time attending to the learning needs of children they encounter. Grading practices at university focus the teacher candidate on how to be a good student and get a high mark rather than how the course experience has helped them develop as teachers. The eP values TCs’ personal experience; it encourages them to develop their own theories on learning as they develop teacher knowledge that integrates professional knowledge with contextual experiences.
  Theoretically, the eP project draws on social constructivist notions of learning, in particular situated learning, joint activity and semiotic mediation (Dewey, 1910; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wertsch, 1985). Meaning is constructed by the learner, working with others in systematically and progressively developed learning experiences. Drawing on the insights related to cognition and learning of Davis et al., (1999) and Clarke et al’s (2005) reflections in relation to teacher education, we have drawn on complexity science (Davis & Sumara, 2006), with its ecological emphasis on learning systems, as an analytical framework to explain what we observe happening with the eP practice. Complexity theory allows us to speculate on what might happen as this approach develops. As such, we have come to believe that learning is a process in which a student and a teacher become “capable of more sophisticated, more flexible, more creative action” (Davis et al., 1999, p. 73).
  Our study of the eP is framed by a recursive approach to program renewal (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999). Drawing on Kemmis and McTaggart’s (1988) traditional notions of action research and informed by Hopper and Sanford (2004) and Altrichter et al. (1993), a group of researchers within a community came together with a commitment to systematically examine, understand and address common issues regarding the development of a teacher education program. In this project the focus of the group was on how an eP process could support and enrich the practice of the elementary teacher preparation program. As a group we believed that teacher candidates’ ownership of their learning was critical to enhance the influence of the teacher education program and that situated learning, connected to formal knowledge taught within a teacher education program, needs to be fundamentally valued within our teacher education program. As a group we believed that technology could offer an infrastructure to value such learning. To value situated learning we need to assess not the acquiring of information, but rather the participation in meaningful learning experiences. Therefore, based on Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theory of situated learning, we needed to create an effective means to document and analyze students’ legitimate engagement in the complex interplay of persons, activity, and ideas as they shifted from student identity to teacher identity while participating in school communities and university courses. It was our contention that the eP process would encourage students to select learning experiences and capture learning in multi-media ways including image, video, audio and text and by doing this would create the potentials to make connections across courses that would enable more in-depth analysis of personal development and learning. In addition, though this came after the initiation of the project, the eP process allows students to connect program learning experiences to the provincial licensure body (BCCT, 2004) embedded within the University of Victoria teaching standards.
  Recursive cycles for developing an eP infrastructure
The eP group, initially consisting of three Faculty members and one sessional instructor, expanded as the project developed, adding two technology computer services support staff (one from the curriculum library and one from computer labs), the field experience co-ordinator, and the information technology course instructor. Also, as the project started, one of the Faculty members of the group became the teacher education program co-ordinator, a position that allowed her to more directly support the implementation of the eP into the teacher education program. This group met on a regular basis to support the eP practice that was developing.
  Data Collection
Data in the form of personal reflections, observations and anecdotal evidence generated at meetings from members of this group, surveys completed by pre-service teachers, and interviews were gathered. Notes from 19 meetings were taken over the three years, key events recorded, plans followed up with observations and reflections from group members, and further data was collected as the need arose. Data collection is summarized below in Figure 1.
  INSERT “Figure 1 Chart showing data collection as project developed” about here
  As can be seen in Figure 1, data collection evolved as the action research project adapted to the needs of the program. The PHP MySQL software was developed as research funding allowed programming expertise to be hired to shift the eP from the static html structure to the dynamic database structure. Responsibility for guiding the preservice teachers through the use of the ePs was located in the Seminar courses scheduled in three separate and incremental seminars throughout the teacher education programs. The action research team met on a regular basis every two or three weeks throughout the term. PTs from the elementary regular program were focused upon because the three year period of their program coincided with the length of the research project. However, presently at any one time there are over 1000 TCs using the eP software when all elementary, middle and secondary programs are considered. Six TCs exiting the elementary program who used the html platform were interviewed and 12 TCs were interviewed as they entered the program and will be interviewed again when they exit the program at the end of 2009. Surveys were given to 90 TCs in the elementary 3-year program who consented to be part of the research project. Other anecdotal information was gained from staff, instructors, participants at orientations to the platform, and at PTs’ exit interviews. Though not reported here, in depth interviews of seminar instructors have been conducted and are currently being analyzed.
  Data Analysis
Analysis was conducted by one researcher who re-read the data, noting recurring topics and issues, connecting those to actions and then mapping the progress of the project. A summary report was circulated to the group members who then added, edited and critiqued the ideas expressed. Below is an overview of three phases that characterized the development of the action research cycles of plan, act, observe, reflect, then re-plan and so on. It should be noted that these phases overlap and are ongoing, each phase taking precedence at any one time as situations and needs arose. In the final section of this paper we note what at the time were the prominent themes that characterize the development of an eP practice into our teacher preparation program.
  Technological phase of action
As teacher candidates entered the program in 2004 a survey completed by the students indicated their very low confidence in computer skills (97% rated themselves with minimal abilities), especially in relation to creating and developing a website. In addition, TCs also perceived that they lacked access to web-editing software they could use. The first plan of action was to address the lack of computer skills for the majority for the students. The TCs did not get an Information Technology course until their fourth year in the regular Elementary program or their second term in the post-degree program. To enable the TCs to develop an eP, an eP template was created and a series of computer workshops was set up for each seminar class and additional drop-in session created where TCs could go to get individualized assistance. Microsoft Frontpage software was selected for the web-editing role because of the perceived ease of use and availability in the computer labs on campus. However, later in 2005 a free software package known as NVU (see http://kompozer.net/ for current version) became available and this was adopted as a web-page editor because it was free and available for both PC and Mac computers. A graduate student was hired from the internal research grant for drop-in sessions, working with the TCs for over 30 hours during the Spring 2005 term.
  During the spring term of 2005 each cohort of TCs in the initial seminar course received a 90 min workshop with three additional workshops scheduled outside of class. From these actions the following observations became apparent. Seminar instructors were reluctant to give up time in the seminar for the eP, feeling their courses, some of which were integrated in schools, could not afford to give up time for teacher candidates to be in the computer lab. However, the seminar leaders did take on the responsibility of checking that the TCs had entered at least three artifacts and a home page by the end of the first term. Due to limited opportunities to view the students’ ePs on the computer, they were asked to submit paper copies of each of their artifacts for the seminar leaders and practicum coordinator to view. The completion of the three artifacts was achieved to some degree, but not by all TCs, and the checking was not consistent across all sections of the seminar. The TCs’ progress was again checked when the students returned in fall 2005, and those who had not successfully completed the minimum standard were given additional assistance to get caught up.


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