A control shift: Students in charge of their learning progress

This week I had the most interesting conversations with a teacher who had a breakthrough experience. This is a High School Visual Arts teacher who started student digital portfolios with Google Sites.  Some students were already reflecting on their work and some were surprised by how good their work was as they saw it posted online. But the teacher was doing all the digitizing by taking all the pictures. It was a lot of work, and it started to become too much.  Her vision of a solution was having an iPad in classroom so students could take the pictures themselves and already send by email. But as the iPad purchase was blocked she became really frustrated and was almost giving up, which would have been a great shame for such great work.

Stop here for a minute and think about a vision  of how technology can support students to be in control of their learning progress. Digital portfolios are perfect environments for that purpose. In an ideal digital portfolio, students look critically at their work and select the artifacts that represent their achievements and also their struggles based on clearly defined learning goals set by the teacher. Students reflect on the chosen artifacts and the learning path that they represent and then make decisions in terms of next steps for continued growth (21st Century Standards-Based Educational Practices).  Students can demonstrate how much they are in charge of their own learning by being independent creators of their digital portfolios. In this way they will own it and be able to explain it.

The idea of students being in control of a simple step like digitizing work is part of a the larger picture of being in charge of their own learning. It helps them be responsible for taking the initiative. It helps them record and reflect on their learning anytime anywhere. The though that students could digitize their work as homework had not crossed the teacher’s mind and suddenly it became clear how much more students could do without taking so much time in class. The barrier for the teacher, being a visual arts specialist, was the incorrect perception that cellphone pictures would not be as good as the ones she was taking with her camera, or even with the iPad for some reason. So she wanted to be in control, not only of the quality of the digitized work but also of its organization in a single place. This barrier was broken in class as we tested cellphone pictures which ended up being better than the iPad and sometimes better even than her good camera. Past this barrier, an ongoing eportfolio work with the students can now start.

This teacher came to me saying she realized how much she wanted to be in control and that she had to let go of that control to allow student independence. We talked about having a rubric to help students understand expectations for the eportfolio, including proficient digitization of work. In this way the teacher passes the expectations to the students who start to understand basic recording photography that considers good lighting, angles, shadows, etc. The work will then belong to the student, not the teacher.

I have high expectations for the development of student independence in the digital portfolios as representations of them being in charge of their own learning. This is an important initial step, that even though being simple could jeopardize the whole process if it was kept under total teacher control.

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