2017-18 Award

Sarah Zurhellen / Rhetoric and Composition Program, English Department

How did you leverage the Aportfolio to support, enhance, or engage students in their learning?
As a lecturer in the Rhetoric and Composition Program, I was required to use APortfolio as part of our internalsarahz.gif program strategy for shifting to digital portfolios. As a teacher/researcher who studies new media and whose pedagogy is deeply committed to digital literacy, I subscribe to the idea that new technologies are only powerful to the degree that they act as a tool to enhance or transform learning. Therefore, I approached my implementation of APortfolio from two directions, each framed by a question: 1) How can I incorporate this tool into my classroom in a way that eases my students’ transition to digital portfolios and provides them strategies for representing themselves as students and learners in a digital space?; and, 2) How can I use this tool to enhance my students’ understanding of composing as a naturally multi-modal process that requires a skillful combination of analog and digital practices in order to be done successfully in the twenty-first century?

In order to answer these questions, I leveraged APortfolio in the following ways:
● I built a course website using APortfolio, which students accessed for all course information and assignments, in order to give them examples of what the platform could do and to show them how they could participate in the composing process (i.e., they were able to comment on the website pages, ask questions about assignments, answer one another’s questions, etc.; because multiple sections shared the same course website, they were also communicating across sections).
● I instituted working portfolios. Each of my students created a working portfolio, which is where they turned in all their work all semester long. Because of the multiple forms of composing allowed by APortfolio, this work included images of handwritten texts, audio recordings, videos, Google Docs, and PDFs. Moreover, students conducted peer reviews of each other’s work in APortfolio, using the comment feature to offer and respond to feedback (exactly as they did with the course materials on our course website).
● I revised my final portfolio assignment from a more alphabetical text-based showcase model to a multi-modal curatorial model that asked students to respond to a specific rhetorical situation by curating a variety of texts from their lives (our class or other classes or experiences) and reflecting on how those texts evidenced their Writing Across the Curriculum toolbox (see brief assignment explanation below). Thus far, these changes have resulted in the following outcomes:

  1. My students became more involved in composing the assignments they were completing for my class. By asking questions and offering suggestions, they expanded the boundaries of some assignments, creating in mediums and genres that I had not originally imagined when writing the assignment. In addition, they participated in developing the rubrics for each of their major projects, and because they were working in APortfolio (rather than standard word processing software), they more readily considered design and formatting as key structural components of their texts (and requested that these be included in the grading rubric). 
  2. My students struggled with the glitchy beta version of APortfolio 2.0. They spent a lot of time learning to navigate imperfect software and figuring out how to troubleshoot when the answers to their problems were not easily available. While this might, understandably, frustrate some faculty, I believe these kinds of experiences and problem-solving practices are critical features of digital literacy. Viewing digital tools as a form of magic is naive and impractical in a world increasingly driven by technology that is so ubiquitous that we often only notice it when it breaks. I want my students to be critically aware of the tools they use and how and why they use them. In terms of composing, this is rhetorical awareness at its best. In terms of digital literacy, this is crucial to their futures as consumers and producers of digital texts.
  3. My students put in real work to produce final portfolios that, rather than simply being a collection of texts they’d completed over the course of the semester, framed them as independent and critical thinkers with self-awareness about their positions as learners and clear strategies for using the skills and knowledge they gained in our course to help them achieve their future goals.

How did you use Aportfolio to assess student learning?

Over my past three years of using APortfolio, I have implemented and revised a variety of assessment strategies for APortfolio. Naturally, my most successful use of APortfolio for assessment occurred after several semesters of trial and error, when I took a curatorial approach to the final portfolio in my RC2001 classes. The bare bones of that assignment are as follows (quoted directly from the course website and written in collaboration with the students):

  • The purpose of your Final Portfolio for RC2001 is to curate the texts you've created in this class this semester, as well as materials from other classes and experiences and from other semesters, in order to provide evidence of and reflect on your knowledge and skills in relation to Writing Across the Curriculum.

What does that mean?
To curate: to select, organize, and present (online content, merchandise, information, etc.), typically using professional or expert knowledge. To reflect: to think deeply or carefully (about something); reflection in our context is a form of meta- cognition (thinking about thinking) in order to deepen and embed knowledge; reflected on or embedded knowledge is in contrast to surface knowledge, which is easily forgotten or dismissed.

One metaphor that I find helpful when building a portfolio is that of the toolbox. If you are an electrician, your toolbox looks very different than if you are a plumber, which differs from that of a framer, which further differs from that of a roofer, and the list could go on and on. Similarly, the toolboxes of these professional experts look very different than the average household toolbox owned by the amateur. As you grow in your own sense of professionalism, one of the best ways to evaluate that growth is through a eportfolio-as-toolbox: a digital collection of the knowledge and skills you possess that are relevant to your field(s) of interest. While some of these skills are concrete (e.g., "I am skilled at Excel"), many of them are more abstract or intangible (e.g., "I approach problems creatively"). Here, I encourage you to consider your knowledge and skills along a broad spectrum from concrete to abstract and to think about how you can best explain and evidence these features with work that you've produced.

While the purpose of this eportfolio is to feature your knowledge and skills that relate to the Goals and Outcomes of this course, I invite you to think more broadly about your role as a student, thinker, and human in the world. You should design your portfolio to visually represent who you are as a student and learner, to present what you've learned thus far, and to reflect on what this knowledge means and what else you need to know and do moving forward. That may mean maintaining the basic organization that I've created for you, but it may also mean altering it (in minute or radical ways) to say what you want to say.

While I wrote the beginning of that assignment and the paragraph explaining the metaphor of the toolbox (a metaphor we employed all semester as a class), the additions of the definitions for “to curate” and “to reflect” came from students, as did the concept of the three primary features of the portfolio (represent, present, and reflect) listed in the final paragraph. Together, we also designed a rubric based on these three primary features. Most students maintained a similar organizational structure (working through the goals of the course), but the texts they chose to write about and how they chose to write about them varied significantly (discussed further in the next section). Moreover, some students chose to throw out the GenEd goals entirely and write and organize around their own goals. At the end of the semester, students presented their portfolios to the class and explained what they were trying to do, what they think succeeded, and what they would do differently  if approaching a similar assignment in the future. This final act of reflection, which is public and spoken, proved to be particularly valuable, as students were really able to see the variety of learning experiences that had occurred in the class and were provided with visual and oral evidence that they are unique and complex thinkers who interact with and compose their world from multiple experiences.