Students' Spanish ePortfolio In Search of Holistic LearningBy Rebeca Maseda, Assistant ProfessorDepartment of Languages, University of Alaska Anchorage
Context of the Inquiry
In 2010 I devised a course that sought to address two noted shortcomings in foreign language instruction: a lack of true cultural studies focus and a curricular emphasis on written communication in academic genres over conversational proficiency. In 1996, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages developed the Standards of Foreign Language Learning, a framework for foreign language instruction with five major objectives: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. Though these “5 Cs” of foreign language learning include broad learning objectives focused on a more integrated approach to language learning and use, there is a decided gap between theory and implementation, with much classroom instruction focusing on grammar, canonical texts, and academic language proficiency. However, the 5Cs are not mutually exclusive, and a well-developed curriculum can address them critically and in tandem.
In 2012 I undertook a Teaching Inquiry that intended to appraise a language learning experience that incorporated cultural connections and comparisons, interpersonal communication, and a relaxing classroom environment to facilitate learning and language development (see http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/cafe/portfolios/makinglearningvisible/rebecamaseda.cfm). By using authentic texts as the medium for learning, the teaching inquiry provided a case example of an upper-division curriculum that focused on cognitive skills, elicited conversational dialogues, exposed and promoted the use of different registers, and tapped students’ existing schema around stimulating topics to foster engagement, reflection and enthusiasm. The applied study indicated that the course design around authentic texts, which included attention to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), to cultural connections and to relaxed alertness, was successful in helping students to develop more confidence in expressing themselves, as well as more freedom to use the language for their own purposes. There were increases in motivation, confidence, language use and fluency, but more than the development and application of linguistic skills, students also gained some of the other experiences historically missing in the Spanish foreign language curriculum – culture, interactive communication, and interpersonal communication skills.
Though the magazine assignment (final task) proved to be an excellent opportunity for students to express their ideas and to experiment with writing in different genres, one shortcoming of this activity was the lack of authentic audience. Daniels & Zemelman (2004) emphasize the importance of audience in writing, and problematize the idea of writing something exclusively for the teacher to read. Though the students mimicked authentic activities such as creating a horoscope, when the intended reader is the teacher, rather than the person who would normally read a horoscope, it becomes an inauthentic exercise. Hence, I decided to take it to the next level – that students develop Eportfolios that could generate some comments and feedback from other (real) people and Spanish-speakers from other parts of the country or world. These student publications not only would generate dialogue on the web, but may also serve students as they apply for graduate programs or job as an opportunity to present a profile. These activities, intended for an audience beyond the teacher, may promote more engagement and increase motivation. Such activities have been lauded as mechanisms for supporting authentic experiential and evidence-based learning (Herrera & Conejo 2009). If students are to be effective communicators in Spanish, this will mean that they move beyond oral and written classroom activities to interact with people using technology.
The use of Eportfolios has increased rapidly in academia. However, as Cadd (2012, 1) states, their usage in language classroom in the United States is still relatively rare. The literature on their advantages is fairly large, but more investigative research is needed.
The class SPANA310: Selected Topics: Readings and Conversations in Hispanic Cultures may be used as an elective to satisfy the upper-division component of a Spanish major or minor at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA).
The course requires prior formal study of college Spanish grammar at the upper-division level to ensure student success. Thus, the prerequisite is to have completed six semesters of Spanish (from SPAN A101 to SPAN A302).
Having completed the previous courses prepares students to undertake this practical, skills-based class, in which students can enhance their reading, listening, writing, speaking, and interactive skills. The practical aspect of the class favors other initiatives on language applicability.
The class is subject to changes in format and content every year. It is only taught in campus, and fifteen students attend. The small size provides an ideal setting for extensive student participation and close peer and professor supervision.
Focus of the Inquiry
The purpose of this teaching inquiry is to assess how making individual Eportfolios affects students’ perception of their learning experience (awareness of the skills they have gathered and relevance for their lives and careers).
An Eportfolio is one assessment tool that aim to gather evidence of student progress and development in learning outcomes at an individual course, program, or institution (Leskes and Wright 2005, cit. Penny Light et al. 2012, xi). Therefore, it is paramount to establish well-defined outcomes in order to achieve a successful Eportfolio initiative. Although the Eportfolio could and will be the basis for assessing, the focus of this inquiry will be directly related to interrogate how the process of documenting learning affects students’ perceptions about their own learning development and achievements.
In the following chart I outline the consequential steps that I expect will occur when utilizing Eportfolios, starting from the knowledge of the clear learning outcomes, and that I am trying to verify.
The use of the proposed Eportfolio project –with its different parts: student learning outcomes, artifacts (coursework) and reflection pieces— requires students to reflect on all the language skills previously learnt (in and out of the university context), as well as technological advancement by which to enhance existing endeavors in tracking and documenting individual student achievement. Making Eportfolios that are accessible to others open another level of commitment to students: 1) students have to demonstrate (to whomever the reader might be) objectively what they know in all language competency areas, and 2) through Eportfolios students also invite authentic comment from others and dialogue, which is advisable when we want to implement a long-life experience. This kind of transparent engagement in a learning community is associated, in Randy Garrison words, “with reflective discourse and deep learning outcomes” (2011, 1). In sum, it is my speculation that working progressively towards the creation of a comprehensive Eportfolio (that could be use when applying to graduate school, a fellowship, an internship, or a job) opens a new dimension to student learning, one more personal, which may increase the motivation of the learners, and thus their performance.
My decision of implementing Eportfolios in my class Span A310, and to evaluate its impact, responds thus to several aspirations:
- Test mechanisms for supporting authentic experiential and evidence-based learning (beyond the teacher).
- Examine the (degree of) meaningfulness of what I do as an educator (align my outcomes to the professional necessities).
- Provide transparency (for students to comprehend the objectives of their education, and for others to know about the students achievements).
- Offer students the possibility of making judgments about their own strengths and weaknesses in the midst of their learning, and therefore to strategize when moving forward.
In sum, I want to highlight the students’ active role in their education. I see students as active instead of passive recipients of (maybe perceived as “useless”) knowledge. As outlined in my diagram (in Context of the Inquiry), Eportfolios provide all the progressive steps necessary in this regard. Supporters of the Eportfolio movement argue that, when learners document what they know and reflect on their command they are developing their critical thinking skills. Therefore, documenting and presenting that knowledge to specific audiences would imply learning deeper and lifelong (Cambridge 2010, Penny Light et. al. 2012). The questions I am asking in this Teaching Inquiry are:
How meaningful students think their classes are? Do they find any practicality in them? Do they think that what they study can have a deeper impact in their personal or professional lives? Knowing that what they do in a given course can have an impact beyond may increase their motivation for learning (and documenting it). Eportfolios could allow students to demonstrate this new insight by capturing their integrative learning.
Are students aware of their learning progress and achievements? Would knowing what is expected from them inspire them to work harder? Having a clear understanding of what the course is trying to achieve may align better students’ expectations with course objectives. By establishing clear expected goals, students may adapt their efforts in order to achieve those outcomes, thus making them responsible of their own learning. Eportfolios could provide students with this insight on the more holistic process of learning that emphasizes intentionality.
When students finish their minors/majors in Spanish, what does it mean exactly? What can they do with it? Traditional diplomas or CV’s do not fully reflect their real knowledge. What if students could demonstrate what exactly they are capable of? Eportfolios provide a much richer set of data than traditional tools.
Although the purpose of this teaching inquiry is to assess if and how making individual Eportfolios affects students’ perception of their learning experience by demanding they reflect upon it, the implementation process is helping me to examine my teaching practices as a means to provide coherence between classes, UAA Spanish program’s mission, and the philologist career:
- establish clear and well-defined learning outcomes,
- design learning activities to guide students towards achieving those outcomes, and
- create rubrics to evaluate Eportfolios.
In order to plan my class I turned to the implementation framework outlined by Penny Light, Chen & Ittelson (2012), and applied it to my own case. See Eportfolio Implementation Framework in the tab “Course Design”.
Course Design and Implementation
I implemented a summative E-portfolio at the class SPANA310: Selected Topics: Readings and Conversations in Hispanic Cultures. I adapted the Eportfolio Implementation Framework outlined by Penny Light, et. al. (2012) (see attached documents).
In this class the student worked each week with real-life media (radio, T.V, newspapers, magazines articles, etc.) that presented different aspects of culture and traditions of the Spanish-speaking world. Students learned the specific linguistic and semantic characteristics—and particular lexicon—of press, personal ads (from the Internet), horoscopes (magazine), cooking recipes (magazine), events calendar (brochures), three ads (T.V, radio and press), comic strip (Sunday newspaper), Interview (radio and press), Poem (song-writer song and poem), travel section (Sunday newspaper), movie review (film and magazine), literary review (short story and magazine), news article (online article, newspaper and a personal interview).
The students’ Final Project was their E-portfolio, which contained: (1) the Student Learning Outcomes achieved, (2) the documents/artifacts that demonstrates achievement of the SLO’s, (3) reflection pieces that link or connect the SLO’s with the artifacts.
Given the class outcomes and means of evaluation, I designed learning activities that prepared students to attain those outcomes and, hence, to demonstrate their achievement in their E-portfolios. Students used Google docs, and I provided technical training, both face to face and with recorded instructions (youtube video), and written guidelines. Students were closely mentored regarding portfolio creation —design and content— and received feedback.
I established the minimal requirement in terms of content (see page 3 of the attached document “Definition & Design”). Students had to have:
- A personal Introduction (brief autobiography/ background, description of university career, areas of study, professional aspirations, and their personal relationship to Spanish.
- Artifacts (class assignments and activities that demonstrate achievement of productive, receptive and Socio-cultural knowledge. I asked students to sketch what might go into an (their) E-portfolio (note: this exercise reveals a great deal about what aspects of learning they think it would be important to capture in it. Afterwards I provided students with a list of artifacts that could be included in their ePortfolio: Class essays, Compositions/ creative writing, Oral presentation/ dramatization (recording), Interview (recording).
- Reflection. I offered two sets of questions to guide their reflections, one more general, the other more detailed.
The purpose of the inquiry was to assess if making E-Portfolios affected student perception of the learning experiences regarding (1) progress awareness (of language skills), and (2) the relevance of E-Portfolios (practicality, meaningfulness).
In their E-Portfolios students had to reflect on of their previous knowledge, learning style, level achieved, and long-term objectives. They also had to provide proof of their claims, in terms of level achieved. All students’ E-portfolios demonstrated students awareness, as well as improvement in their skills.
In the introductory questionnaire, students had to look at the European Language Portfolio Framework (Self-Assessment Grid attached here) and explain, according to their criteria, what was their initial level. Their E-portfolios, completed at the end of the semester, included another self-evaluation of the level achieved. Except two of them, they were not aware of what level they said they had earlier in the semester and, thus, they had to evaluate themselves afresh using the Self-assessment grid. Of a total of 16 students’ reports on level achieved, based in their perception, 6 indicated improving in all areas (listening, speaking, reading and writing), 3 in 3 areas, 4 in 2 areas, 0 in 1 areas, and 3 reported a level no different that the one they identified earlier in the semester, implying no improvement at all.[1
In order to evaluate the impact and/or the success of the inquiry I considered students’ voices and advocacy through an end-of-semester student questionnaire (see actual questionnaire attached in Design and Implementation). The first part was about “class content and delivery”. The second part addressed the “Class design and relevance of E-portfolios”, and it surveyed issues such as engagement, intention to continue using ePortfolios, perception of value and usefulness of the ePortfolio, students’ satisfaction and continuing interest.
To the questions (chart, from left to right):
1. Meaningfulness personally & professionally. 3 students (18’75%) left it blank, 7 (43’75 %) reported it being meaningful professionally, and 6 (37’5 %) personally.
2. Practicality. Blank: 3 students (18’75%), no: 0 (0 %), yes: 13 (81’25 %).
3. Awareness of learning progress and achievements. Blank: 2 students (12’25%), no: 2 (12’25 %), yes: 12 (81’25 %).
4. E-portfolios as showcase of skills. Blank: 0 (0 %), no: 6 (37’5 %), yes: 10 (62’5 %).
5. General value of E-portfolios. Blank: 1 (6’25 %), no: 3 students (18’75%), yes: 12 (75 %).
6. Plan to use them in future. Blank: 2 (12’25 %), no: 3 students (18’75%), yes: 11 (68’75 %).
I realized that questions # 1 & 2 were not properly formulated, as it did not specify that the information be related to E-portfolios (1. How meaningful do you think this class was, for you personally or for your career? Do you think that it will have a deeper impact in your personal or professional live? And 2. Did you find any practicality in it?). In question # 2, 9 out of 13 students did not mention the actual E-portfolio, however, 4 out of 13 did mention E-portfolios specifically.
The question # 3 addresses the awareness of learning progress and achievements. I believe this was a side effect of what the E-portfolios demands from students: reflection and action plan. Thus, although not a result exclusively of E-portfolios, the fact of having to make them prompted students to become conscious of their learning process and progress.
The last three questions did address E-portfolios directly. Overall, more than half thought that they are an appropriate vehicle to demonstrate the skills students had. One commented in the Teaching evaluation IDEA that “the use of an on?line portfolio was quite creative and well explained.” However, some students pointed out the unreliability of them as academically honest, and the dangers of public E-portfolios: “To me anyone can just have someone who speaks Spanish write everything for them,” “To be honest, I am not sure what to think of E-portfolios. I find the Internet scary and would prefer not to upload personal details on it.” Although, I understand their point –E-portfolios can show assignments that could be untruthful—I have to say that resumés could do that too, and that having a video recording of someone’s performance in the target language would be very hard to “fake”.
About the general value of E-portfolios, ¾ found them useful, but for different reasons: “Yes, they can be used in the future for businesses and even for a resumé,” “Yes, because it keeps all my achievements together,” “Yes, if employers look at them, I think it’s worth making one.” This last comment indicates that the person responding affirmatively is basing his/her answer in the condition that prospective employers accept and use them too, though. However, some students did question the veracity of their content: “How will the employer (or whoever) know that the work is truly theirs? I’m not sure if I find a huge value in it.”
When asked about planning to use them in future only 68’75 % responded affirmatively, some with enthusiasm (“Yes (I will) use it as a resumé, it is even better, more practical,” “yes, it might be very helpful for my future job searching”), some with conditions involved (“If I succeed in finding a job where my Spanish will matter, yes, I will use the e-portfolio”), and some with skepticism (“Although I am generally speaking not particularly fond of it, I can see the use of it and will probably use it in the future”).
It is important to note that one was a native speaker of Spanish.
Reflection & Recommendations:
In order to accomplish a reliable answer to that question it would be necessary a longitudinal study that followed students for a long period of time, possibly until the first five years of their professional lives. I have learnt that the enthusiasm some people in the profession have for eportfolios is more based on their/our speculations, and that a sound longitudinal research is still missing and is much needed. So far Eportfolios have proved a great tool, in my specific case, for assessment purposes. Also the "reflection" part of E-portfolios have proved to be effective in improving students' critical thinking. Nonetheless, my teaching inquiry does not support the thesis that Eportfolios will have an impact in student's lives in the future.
The results of the preliminary inquiry about the use E-portfolios in a language and culture class are encouraging. However, its implementation requires a lot of upfront research and preparation time, as well as continued close guidance and monitoring.
Careful implementation of E-portfolios is essential, as it includes assesment of Student Larning Outcomes for the class (and program of studies in general), design of curricular activities, design of rubrics for evaluation, and supporting documents regarding the what’s, how’s and why’s of E-portfolios. Additionally, there is a substantial amount of time dedicated to trainning in the technology (E-portfolio platform).
The main recommendation is to invite all members of one’s own department to participate in this innitiative to foster a homogeneous “folio thinking” culture, and to create structural and intellectual support. It is desirable to hold meaningful and productive meetings with colleagues in order to re-conceptualize and monitor program visions (i.e. what we want our students to achieve, how we are going to provide students with the means to do it, and how we are going to evaluate it).
Additionaly, it would be advisable to look for institutional support (in providing complete conceptual and technological support to faculty and students), as well as to involve other departments.
 “I was absolutely happy with the class. It was challenging, fun, and most of all, I got to practice my Spanish a lot,” “I really enjoyed this class. It was very different from all the other, more traditional classes, that i have taken,” “Overall great class. I believe that you should teach a class like this every semester to have the students speak and develop their abilities in speaking the language,” etc.
 For those interested in conducting teaching inquiries related to E-portfolios, Marc Cadd (see References) has also suggested questions for reflective writing in his Appendix B.
Rebeca Maseda, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of Spanish/Spanish Coordinator
University of Alaska Anchorage
Department of Languages
Administration Building, 3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, AK 99508-4614