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3 tall, thin things ...

Yesterday, we had a quick demo of Mahara by Mark Nichols as part of a wider day of information exchange. Mahara has been built as an eportfolio tool and appears to have taken some influence from Elgg. It contains a blog tool which has the ability to be kept private, shared selectively or made public. Individual posts could also be gathered as part of a presentation or viewpoint on one’s portfolio.

Recent discussions in the office have been around micro-blogging or the phenomena that is Twitter. Today, reflections on the Mahara demo stimulated some discussion around the role of (‘normal’) blogging and the differences between that and journaling and discussion fora. One argument was that the format may be different, but the process was the same and that essentially the end result for learning could all be achieved through a discussion board. The counter argument was that the process was different in each case as it was defined by the format. Similar divides appear to have been running through the Moodle.org blogging forum for nigh on two years now! Matt Croslin published an interesting diagram on the intersections of these 3 tools and Joseph Fall made some salient points about ownership and the cycle of reflection.

My own feeling is that the differences are quite nuanced and factors such as context, ownership and emotion and their interplay are all important For instance, people can be quite happy to blog away without ever knowing if people are reading their posts. How many people stuck at contributing to an empty discussion board? From the act of blogging I gain insight and reflective opportunities; from empty discussion boards I get frustration and a feeling of loss, of negativity toward the arena and to the others who aren’t there to ask me questions or answer mine and to stimulate my thoughts to new insights.

Serendipitously (I just love serendipity!) when I got home, a twitter connection led me to Tony Karrer’s blog which I knew from a while back but had somehow lost track of. He was posing the question as to whether, in certain situations, blogging should be made mandatory. A good blog post and title – make it provocative and lots of people will comment, which they then proceeded to do. Through all the comments, no one stated a whole-hearted agreement and most were quite negative about the idea. Tony suggested the case of an employee attending a conference or beginning some new learning activity. He also noted that in formal education, students can be required to blog as part of the assessment process.

I don’t think that all his commenters were strictly correct in being so negative to the idea since I think that this is an instance of context having a place. Tony is quite capable of supporting his own argument but I noticed that the reason that many gave as being against mandated blogging was that it removed the informal and personal learning that they engender. I’ve already noted that personal learning effect above. However, I think that these arguments are really couched in the realm of ownership and the emotion that goes with that.

In a circular way it brings me back to Mahara and the eportfolio concept. This is because eportfolios have similar issues of ownership of learning; of the value of reflection for assessment; and of the context in which the content will be used. I remembered discussing some of these concepts 3 years ago in what was then elgg.net. So where is this post going if not round in circles (I spend too much time reflecting and not enough getting my typing skills up to speed!) Well I think that underneath the surface I am watching the tension between, on one side, institutional desires to authenticate learning through assessment processes and on the other side, the notions of the learner being at the centre of their learning and owning the process. The questions I am still asking are:

How do we nudge institutions into changing assessment practice to evaluate learning without removing that process from the learner?

How do we enable academics to become effective educators in this context?

How do we ensure that learners take advantage of this?

Answers welcome!

9 Responses to “Blogs, discussions and portfolios – learning, ownership and change”

  1. Ken Allan says:

    Kia Ora Nigel.

    An interesting post. There is a sequel to the discussion you referred to on Tony Karrer’s post.

    That too is an interesting discussion. I took part in it and as it turns out, the discussion progressed through a whole series of interesting turns in the conversation. A bit of a free-for-all I’d say, but very enjoyable to participate in.

    Nice to have reached your blog, finally :-)

    I shall pop it into my RSS.

    Ka kite

  2. easegill says:

    Kia Ora Ken and ciamar a tha thu?

    Thanks for dropping in and for the note of the continuing discussion on Tony’s post. As you said it wandered far and wide but it fortunately included your link to the wonderful Karen Matheson on YouTube. Have spent the last hour catching up on bits from there and re-watching the Highland Sessions which I first saw in when they went out in the UK and they blew me away then. The further one travels from ones homeland the fonder it seems. It’s nearly 20 years since I last lived there but I’m now further away than a 3 hour drive!

    Cheers, Nigel

  3. Ken Allan says:

    Ah Nigel.

    You’ve got it bad lad! I have to admit to you that when I first came to New Zealand I made a pledge to the land. Though I love Scotland, I also love New Zealand. Having chosen to stay here for over 30 years I have to concede to where my true loyalties lie.

    Now this does not detract from my heritage. Nothing can do that. But in New Zealand I have children – my family, or whanau. Even since some of these have left these shores to seek their fortune in far off lands, Ireland and England, I still feel the loyalty to what I now call Middle-earth.

    There is a part of me that’s British: my heritage. Not a “(w)ee sleekit courin’ beastie,” but “a traveller from an antique land”.

    Ka kite

  4. easegill says:

    Hi Ken

    I’ve no regrets so far about moving here, although I know that emotionally it’s not a simple as walking from one room to another and closing the door!

    My parents moved to Wellington when I was 2 and then returned to Scotland just before I turned 8. Leith could have been the moon for all I knew at the time. Certainly all the kids at school seemed like aliens – unintelligible and not exactly friendly. Meanwhile various relatives moved to NZ and are still here so I have an extended whanau here. I’ve been living in the Yorkshire Dales for nigh on 20 years which I also love. Moving back to the first land that I truly have memories of isn’t something that we have done lightly. It must have a pretty good pull if it has taken me away from other parts of the world that I also belong to!

    Only 4 months in and I know that I will have lots of adjustments to come to terms with. Your link to Karen was great but so was the language project one. Far too long to go into here but I think that there are great discussions to be had about the place of national identity in a shrinking world in travel and communication terms.

    Great to meet up and thanks for the wise take on this transfer.
    Cheers, Nigel

  5. Ken Allan says:

    Kia Ora Nigel.

    Leith! I lived in Easter Road for a while in the 70′s. Taught briefly at Leith Academy when I first started teaching. Then at James Gillespie’s High School for a few years before coming to Wellington to teach at Rongotai.

    But the Yorkshire Dales will hold memories for you no doubt.

    But more about your post – I have empathy when you talk about “people stuck at contributing to an empty discussion board”.

    Your question about “nudging institutions into changing assessment practice to evaluate learning without removing that process from the learner” intrigues me. I hope you will bear with me while I draft a few thoughts for you:

    Assessment can cause what I call collateral damage: the knocks perceived as failure. But it can also provide support for those who wish to learn. Self-assessment is extremely useful for providing this. The online environment has the potential to do this splendidly provided the learner is comfortable with that method.

    In New Zealand, the assessment in the senior secondary school is geared to qualifications. One of the original principles in unit standard assessment was centred around the teacher as the professional assessor. Moderation, which was quick to move into the assessment arena, limited that professionalism to a great extent.

    For a while, the holistic approach enjoyed some moment in discussion but was seen as too vague to be of any use and eventually was more or less thrown out. Pity.

    If we compare the professional teacher with the professional medical practitioner for one moment – the doctor has to make what may well be life and death decisions in assessment. I have no doubt that the job of the doctor is at least as complex and difficult as that of the teacher when it comes to their respective assessment roles.

    Society and its authorities tend to permit this sort of assessment decision from a doctor. When it comes to the teacher assessing what the student has learnt, Society appears to be less trusting.

    There is a need for a paradigm shift in thinking about who the teacher is in Society and the new roles of the teacher. This has to happen before any move can be made to confer trust in a qualified teacher to assess a student’s learning without the need for formal assessment/examination procedure.

    Ka kite

  6. easegill says:

    Hi Ken

    Thanks for the comments. Going through your points I think that I am probably in agreement with them all. I was interested in your statement that school education in NZ is assessment driven. Having just arrived from the UK, this seems surprising, in that we have been used to an environment full of school league tables, formal testing from age 7 and lots of stress associated with assessment. Teachers are judged to a (greater) extent on the results of their students. My perception so far was that this was limited in extent here although of course I have limited exposure so far.

    I believe that, in general, assessment should be for learning and not for creating score sheets. In the tertiary sector, formative assessment is woefully underused and the current paradigm encourages strategic learning rather than deep engagement with a subject.

    I like your comparison with medics although perhaps you might find that society would then demand much more rigorous assessment of trainee teachers!

    If education truly moves into the realm of the learner as seeker and constructor, as journeyman in their own learning, then you are quite correct about the change required by society to enable teachers, educationalists, to operate successfully. I fear that there may be some backlashes before that state of affairs comes about …

  7. Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Nigel, backlashes, yes, but I think it would be the price that may have to be paid for true professionalism in teaching.

    However, in your post you also mentioned that you love “serendipity. Here’s a link to a post by Ethan Zuckerman on serendipity and a few other interesting ideas. You might find his blog worth a look.

    Ka kite

  8. Seheno says:

    I’m the CPO of an e-learning project in Madagascar (the country, not the movie), so it’s really really interesting to discover the Edublogs blogs all over the world.

  9. easegill says:

    Hi Seheno

    Thanks for looking in! I often get too absorbed in reading what people are writing about to remember to post anything myself!
    What is the project that you are working on?

    Best wishes, Nigel

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