Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Void Between Colleges of Education and the University Teaching and Learning

In this post, I consider the tremendous advances in educational research I am seeing outside of colleges of education and ponder the relevance of mainstream educational research in light of the transformation of learning made possible by new digital social networks.

This weekend, the annual conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning took place at Indiana University. ISSOTL is the home of folks who are committed to studying and advancing teaching and learning in university settings. I saw several presentations that are directly relevant to what we care about here at Re-Mediating Assessment. These included a workshop on social pedagogies organized by Randy Bass, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning at Georgetown, and several sessions on open education, including one by Randy and Toru Iiyoshi, who heads the Knowledge Media Lab at the Carnegie Foundation. Toru co-edited the groundbreaking volume Opening up Education, of which we here at RMA are huge fans. (I liked it so much I bought the book, but you can download all of the articles for free—ignore the line at the MIT press about sample chapters).

I presented at a session about e-Portfolios with John Gosney (Faculty Liaison for Learning Technologies at IUPUI) and Stacy Morrone (Associate Dean for Learning Technologies at IU). John talked about the e-Portfolio efforts within the Sakai open source collaboration and courseware platform; Stacy talked about e-Portfolio as it has been implemented in OnCourse, IU’s instantiation of the Sakai open source course collaboration platform. I presented about our efforts to advance participatory assessment in my classroom assessment course using newly available wikis and e-Portfolio tools in Oncourse (earlier deliberation on those efforts are here; more posted here soon). I was flattered that Maggie Ricci of IU’s Office of Instructional Consulting interviewed me about my post on positioning assessment for participation and promised to post the video this week (I will update here when I find out).

I am going to post about these presentations and how they intersect with participatory assessment as time permits over the next week or so. In the meantime, I want to stir up some overdue discussion over the void between the SOTL community and my colleagues in colleges of education at IU and elsewhere. In an unabashed effort to direct traffic to RMA and build interest in past and forthcoming posts, I am going to first write about this issue. I think it raises issues about the relevance of colleges of education and suggests a need for more interdisciplinary approaches to education research.

I should point out that I am new to the SOTL community. I have focused on technology-supported K-12 education for most of my career (most recently within the Quest Atlantis videogaming environment). I have only recently begun studying my own teaching in the context of developing new core courses for the doctoral program in Learning Sciences and in trying to develop online courses that take full advantage of new digital social networking practices (initial deliberations over my classroom assessment course are here). I feel sheepish about my late arrival because I am embarrassed about the tremendous innovations I found in the SOTL community that have mostly been ignored by educational researchers. My departmental colleagues Tom Duffy, who has long been active in SOTL here at IU, and Melissa Gresalfi have recently gotten seriously involved as well. The conference was awash with IU faculty, but I only saw a few colleagues from the School of Education. One notable exception was Melissa’s involvement on a panel on IU’s Interdisciplinary Teagle Colloquium on Inquiry in Action. I could not go because it conflicted with my own session, but this panel described just the sort of cross-campus collaboration I am aiming to promote here. I also ran into Luise McCarty from the Educational Policy program who heads the school’s Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate for the school.

My search of the program for other folks from colleges of education revealed another session that was scheduled against mine and that focused on the issue I am raising in this post. Karen Swanson of Mercer University and Mary Kayler of George Mason reported on the findings of their meta-analysis of the literature on the tensions between colleges of education and SOTL. The fact that there is enough literature on this topic to meta-analyze points out that this issue has been around for a while (and suggests that I should probably read up before doing anything more than blogging about this issue.) From the abstract, it looks like they focused on the issue of tenure, which I presume refers to a core issue in the broader SOTL community: that SOTL researchers outside of schools of education risk being treated as interlopers by educational researchers, while treated as dilettantes by their own disciplinary communities. This same issue was mentioned in other sessions I attended as well. But significantly from my perspective, it looks like Swanson and Kayler looked at this issue from the perspective of Education faculty, which is what I want to focus on here. I have tenure, but I certainly wonder how my increased foray into the SOTL community will be viewed when I try to get promoted to full professor.

I will start by exploring my own observations about educational researchers who study their own university teaching practices. I am not in teacher education, but I know of a lot of respected education faculty who seem to be conducting high quality, published research about their teacher education practices. However, there is clearly a good deal of pretty mediocre self-study taking place as well. I review for a number of educational research journals and conferences. When I am asked to review manuscripts or proposals for educational research carried out in classrooms in the college of education, I am quite suspect. Because I have expertise in motivation and in formative assessment, I get stacks of submissions of studies of college of education teaching that seem utterly pointless to me. For example, folks love to study whether self______ is correlated with some other education relevant variables. The answer is always yes, (unless their measures are unreliable), and then there is some post hoc explanation of the relationships with some tenuous suggestions for practice. Likewise, I review lots of submissions that examine whether students who get feedback on learning to solve some class of problems learn to solve those problems better than students whose feedback is withheld. Here the answer should be yes, since this is essentially a test of educational malpractice. But the studies often ignore the assessment maxim that feedback must be useful and used, and instead focus on complex random assignment so that their study can be more “scientific.” I understand the appeal, because they are so easy to conduct and there are enough examples of them actually getting published to provide some inspiration (while dragging down the over effect size of feedback in meta-analytic studies). While it is sometimes hard to tell, these “convenience” studies usually appear to be conducted in the author’s own course or academic program. So, yes, I admit that when that looks to be the case, I do not expect to be impressed. I wonder if other folks feel the same way or if perhaps I am being overly harsh.

Much of my interest in SOTL follows from my efforts to help my college take better advantage of new online instructional tools and to help take advantage of social networking tools in my K-12 research. While my colleagues in IU Bloomington and IUPUI are making progress, I am afraid that we are well behind the curve. While I managed to attend a few SOTL sessions, I saw tremendous evidence of success that I will write about in subsequent posts. Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf (also of Georgetown) showed evidence of deep engagement on live discussion forums that simply can’t be faked; here at IU, Phillip Quirk showed some very convincing self-report data about student engagement in our new interdisciplinary Human Biology Program, which looks like a great model of practice for team-teaching courses. These initial observations reminded me of the opinion of James Paul Gee, who leads the MacArthur Foundation’s 21st Century Assessment Project (which partly sponsors my work as well). He has stated on several occasions that “the best educational research is no longer being conducted in colleges of education.” That is a pretty bold statement, and my education colleagues and I initially took offense to it. Obviously, it depends on your perspective; but in terms of taking advantage of new digital social networking tools and the movement towards open education and open-source curriculum, it seems like it may already be true.

One concern I had with SOTL was the sense that the excesses of “evidence-based practice” that has infected educational research was occurring in SOTL. But I did not see many of the randomized experimental studies that set out to “prove” that new instructional technology “works.” I have some very strong opinions about this that I will elaborate on in future posts; for now I will just say that I worry that SOTL researchers might get are too caught up in doing controlled comparison studies of conventional and online courses that they completely miss the point that online courses offer an entirely new realm of possibilities for teaching and learning. The “objective” measures of learning normally used in such studies are often biased in favor of traditional lecture/text/practice models that train students to memorize numerous specific associations; as long as enough of those associations appear on a targeted multiple-choice exam, scores will go up. The problem is that such designs can’t capture the important aspects of individual learning and any aspects of the social learning that is possible in these new educational contexts. Educational researchers seem unwilling to seriously begin looking at the potential of these new environments that they have “proven” to work. So, networked computers and online courses end up being used for very expensive test preparation…and that is a shame.

Here at RMA, we are exploring how participatory assessment models can foster and document all of the tremendous new opportunities for teaching and learning made possible by new digital social networks, while also producing convincing evidence on these “scientific” measures. I will close this post with a comment that Heidi Elmendorf made in the social pedagogies workshop. I asked her why she and the other presenters were embracing the distinction between “process” and “product.” In my opinion, this distinction is based on outdated individual models of learning; it dismisses the relevance of substantive communal engagement in powerful forms of learning, while privileging individual tests as the only “scientific” evidence of learning. I don’t recall Heidi’s exact response, but she immediately pointed out that her disciplinary colleagues in Biology leave her no choice. I was struck by the vigorous nods of agreement from her colleagues and the audience. Her response really brought be me back down to earth and reminded me how much work we have to do in this regard. In my subsequent posts, I will try to illustrate how participatory assessment can address precisely the issue that Heidi raised.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Positioning Portfolios for Participation

Much of our work in our 21st Century Assessment project this year has focused on communicating participatory assessment to broader audiences whose practices we are trying to inform. This includes:

  • classroom teachers whose practices we are helping reshape to include more participation (like those we are working with in Monroe County right now);

  • other assessment researchers who seem to dismiss participatory accounts of learning as “anecdotal” (like my doctoral mentor Jim Pellegrino who chaired the NRC panel on student assessment);

  • instructional innovators who are trying to support participation while also providing broadly convincing accounts of learning (like my colleagues Sasha Barab and Melissa Gresalfi whose Quest Atlantis immersive environment has been a testbed for many of our idea about assessment);

  • faculty in teacher education who are struggling to help pre-service teachers build professional portfolios while knowing that their score on the Praxis will count for much more (and whose jobs are being threatened by efforts in Indiana to phase out teacher education programs and replace them with more discipline-based instruction);

  • teachers in my graduate-level classroom assessment course who are learning how to do a better job assessing students in their classrooms, as part of their MA degree in educational leadership.

It turns out that participatory approaches to assessment are quite complicated, because they must bridge the void between the socially-defined views of knowing and learning that define participation, and the individually-defined models of knowing and learning that have traditionally been taken for granted by the assessment and measurement communities. As our project sponsor Jim Gee has quite succinctly put: Your challenge is clarity.

As I have come to see most recently, clarity is about entry. Where do we start introducing this comprehensive new approach? Our approach itself is not that complicated really. We have it boiled down to a more participatory version of Wiggins' well known Understanding by Design. In fact we have taken to calling our approach Participation by Design (or if he sues us, Designing for Participation). But the theory behind our approach is maddeningly complex , because it has to span the entire range of activity timescales (from moment-to-moment classroom activity to long-term policy change) and characterizations of learning (from communal discourse to individual understanding to aggregated achievement).

Portfolios and Positioning
Now it is clear to me that the best entry point is the familiar notion of the portfolio. Portfolios consist of any artifacts that learners create. Thanks to Melissa Gresalfi, I have come to realize that the portfolio, and the artifacts that they contain, are ideal for explaining participatory assessment. This is because portfolios position (where position is used as a verb). Before I get to the clarity part, let me first elaborate on what this means.

It turns out that portfolios can be used to position learners and domain content in ways that bridges this void between communal activity and aggregated attainment. In a paper with Caro Williams about the math project that Melissa and I worked on together, Melissa wrote that

“positioning, as a mechanism, helps bridge the space between the opportunities that are available for participation in particular ways and what individual participants do”

Building on the ideas of her doctoral advisor Jim Greeno (e.g., Greeno and Hull, 2002) Melissa explained that positioning refers to how students are positioned relative to content (called disciplinary positioning) and how they are positioned relative to others (called interpersonal positioning). As I will add below, positioning also refer to how instructors are positioned relative to the students and the content (perhaps called professorial positioning). This post will explore how portfolios can support all three types of positioning in more effective and in less effective ways.

Melissa further explained that positioning occurs at two levels. At the more immediate level positioning concerns the moment-to-moment process in which students take up opportunities that they are presented with. Over the longer term, students become associated with particular ways of participating in classroom settings (these ideas are elaborated by scholars like Dorothy Holland and Stanton Wortham). This post will focus on identifying two complementary functions for portfolios helps them support both types of positioning.

Portfolios and Artifacts
Portfolios are collections of artifacts that students created. Artifacts support participation because they are where students apply what they are learning in class to something personally meaningful. In this way they make new meanings. In our various participatory assessment projects, artifacts have included

  • the “Quests” that students complete and revise in Quest Atlantis’ Taiga world where they explain, for example, their hypothesis for why the fish in the Taiga river are in decline;
  • the remixes of Moby Dick and Huck Finn that students in Becky Rupert’s class at Aurora Alternative High School create in their work with the participatory reading curricula that Jenna McWilliams is creating and refining.
  • the various writing assignments that the English teachers in Monroe and Greene County have their students complete in both their introductory and advanced writing classes;
  • the wikifolio entries that my students in my graduate classroom assessment course complete where they draft examples of different assessment items for a lesson in their own classrooms, and state which of the several item writing guidelines in the textbook they found most useful.

  • In each case, various activities scaffold the student learning as they create their artifacts and make new meanings in the process. As a caveat, this means that participatory assessment is not really much use in classrooms where students are not asked to create anything. More specifically, if your students are merely being asked to memorize associations and understand concepts in order to pass a test, stop reading now. Participatory assessment won’t help you. [I learned this the hard way trying to do participatory assessment with the Everyday Mathematics curriculum. Just do drill and practice. It works.]

Problematically Positioned Portfolios
Probably the most important aspect of participatory assessment has to do with the way portfolios are positioned in the classroom. We position them so they serve as a bridge between the communal activities of participatory classroom and the individual accountability associated with compulsory schooling. If portfolios are to serve as a bridge, they must be firmly anchored. On one side they must be anchored to the enactment of classroom activities that support students’ creation of worthwhile portfolios. On the other side they must be anchored to the broader accountability associated with any formal schooling.

To keep portfolio practices from falling apart (as they often do) it is crucial that they rest on these two anchors. If accountability is placed on the portfolio, the portfolio practice will collapse. In other words, don’t use the quality of the actual portfolio artifacts for accountability. Attaching consequences to the actual artifacts means that learners will expect precise specifications regarding those artifacts, and then demand exhausting feedback on whether the artifacts meet particular criteria. And if an instructor’s success is based on the quality of the artifacts, that instructor will comply. Such classrooms are defined by an incessant clamor from learners asking “Is this what you want???”

When portfolios are positioned this way (and they often are), they may or may not represent what students actually learned and are capable of. When positioned this way, the portfolio is more representative of of (a) the specificity of the guidelines, (b) their ability to follow those guidelines, and (3) the amount of feedback they get from the instructor. Accountability-oriented portfolios position disciplinary knowledge as something to be competitively displayed rather than something to be learned and shared, and portfolios position students as competitors rather the supporters. Perhaps most tragically, attaching consequences to artifacts positions instructors (awkwardly) as both piano tuners and gatekeepers. As many instructors (and ex-instructors) know, doing so generates massive amounts of work. This is why it seems that many portfolio-based teacher education programs rely so heavily on doctoral students and adjuncts who may or may not be qualified to teach courses. The more knowledgeable faculty members simply don’t have the time to help students with revision after revision of their artifacts as students struggle to create the perfect portfolio. This is the result of positioning portfolios for production.

Productive Positioning Within Portfolios
Portfolio are more useful when they are positioned to support reflection. Instead of grading the actual artifacts that students create, any accountability should be associated with student reflection on those artifacts. Rather than giving students guidelines for producing their artifact, students need guidelines for reflecting on how that artifact illustrates their use of the “big ideas” of the course. We call these relevant big ideas, or RBIs. The rubrics we provide students for their artifacts essentially ask them to explain how their artifact illustrates (a) the concept behind the RBI, (b) the consequences of the RBI for practice, and (c) what critiques others might have of this characterization of the RBI. For example:

  • Students in my classroom assessment course never actually “submit” their wikifolios of example assessments. Rather, three times a semester they submit a reflection that asks them to explain how they applied the RBIs of the corresponding chapter.
  • Students in Taiga world in Quest Atlantis submit their quests for review by the Park Ranger (actually their teacher but they don’t know that). But the quest instructions (the artifact guidelines) also include a separate reflection section that asks students to reflect on their artifact. The reflection prompts are designed to indirectly cue them what their quest was supposed to address.
  • Students in Becky Rupert’s English class are provided a rubric for their remixes that ask them to explain how that artifact illustrates how an understanding of genre allows a remix to be more meaningful to particular audiences.
Assessing the resulting reflections positions portfolios, students, and teachers in ways that strongly support participation. For example, if the particular student’s artifact actually does not lend itself to applying the RBIs, my classroom assessment students can simply indicate that in their assignment. This is important for at least three reasons:

  1. it allows full individualization for students and avoids a single ersatz assignment that is only half-meaningful to some students and mostly meaningless to the rest;
  2. understanding if and how ideas from a course do not apply is a crucially important part of that expertise.
  3. The reflection itself provides more valid evidence of learning, precisely because it can include very specific guidelines. We give students very specific guidelines asking them to reflect on the RBIs conceptually, consequentially, and critically.

For example, the mathematics teachers in the classroom assessment course are going to discover that it is very difficult to create portfolio assessments for their existing mathematical practices. Rather than forcing them to do so anyways (and giving them a good grade for an absurd example), they can instead reflect on what it is about mathematics that makes it so difficult, and gain some insights into how they might more readily incorporate project-based instruction into their classes. The actual guidelines for creating good portfolios are in the book when they need them; reflecting on those guidelines more generally will set them up to use them more effectively and meaningfully in the future.

Another huge advantage of this way of positioning portfolios is that it greatly eliminate a lot of the grading busywork and allows more broadly useful feedback. In the Quest Atlantis example, our research teacher Jake Summers of Binford Elementary discovered that whenever the reflections were well written and complete, the actual quest submission would also be well done. In the inevitable press for time, he just started looking at the artifacts. Similarly in my classroom assessment course, I will only look need to go back and look at the actual wikifolio entries when a reflection is incomplete or confusing. Given that the 30 students each have 8 entries, it is impossible to carefully review all 240 entries and provide meaningful feedback. Rather throughout the semester, each of the students have been getting feedback from their group members and from me (as they specifically request and as time permits). Because the artifacts are not graded, students understand the feedback they get as more formative than summative, and not as instructions for revision. While some of the groups in class are still getting the hang of it, many of the entries are getting eight or nine comments along with comments on comments. Because the entries are wikis it is simple for the originator go in and revise as appropriate. These students are starting to send me messages that, for me, suggest that the portfolio has indeed been positioned for participation: “Is this what you meant?” (emphasis added). This focus on meaning gets at the essence of participatory culture.

In a subsequent post, I will elaborate on how carefully positioning portfolios relative to (a) the enactment of classroom activities and (b) external accountability can further foster participation.

Participation versus Compulsion

In Sleeping Alone and Starting Out Early, Jenna McWilliams offers up a concise summary of the value of blogging for schools. Her post got me reflecting on the complex intersection of participation (in public persistent discourse as you have described) and compulsion (as in the inevitable way that compulsory attendance compels students to attend but not necessarily participate). I am thinking today context of the graduate-level education course we are teaching. We are trying to coax some busy teachers who are getting graduate degrees in educational leadership to participate in meaningful semi-public discourse around improving their classroom assessment practices. We have students building and sharing wikifolios where they apply what they are learning about assessment to their own classroom practice, and using forums to discuss the big ideas in the text. The resistance to the participatory aspects from some students is remarkably strong. We have agonized over the various design features that will compel all students to participate more than they would otherwise. While we are finding success, we are in part doing so by linking their participation to a grade. It seems effective but bizarre, for example, to motivate students to engage consequentially and critically in a discussion forum by pointing out that doing so will prepare them to engage conceptually on an exam at the end of the semester.

When I say we are finding success, it is because I see a strong level of engagement emerging across the class, and that the most reluctant participants are indeed engaging in ways that for me meet the level of accountability associated with this required course. If somebody is going to have a graduate degree in educational leadership, then they need to be able to engage in meaningful discussions around that aspect of practice. And in case I drop the ball, there are faculty members in charge of the graduate programs looking over my shoulder (and to some extent watching my back); if we drop the ball there is an accreditation agency out there looking over our collective shoulders (but probably not watching our backs).

So in this regard I do believe we are finding success. But I worry that we are not supporting the handful of students who are disposed (as in have the disposition, a carefully chosen term) to becoming 21st century educational leaders. For example, am I sacrificing the chance to help a couple of these students who might end up keeping a blog that critiques and unpacks local and state accountability practices that are buffeting teachers and administrators in their district in exchange for passing exam scores and adequate teaching evaluations? [Anybody who teaches required courses knows that the way to get great evaluations is go really easy on students and emphasize what they already know and make them think they have learned a lot.]

So this is what it boils down to: Compulsory attendance versus scaffolded participation. For me, this is the major issue facing education today. I do think that blogging is a bridge too far for many novices. But I do think that well structured discussion forums can give beginners the opportunity to try on the identities and try out the discourses of participatory culture. I also want to second Jenna’s shoutout for the collection of participatory media activities that Sam Rose and Howard Rheingold have provided at sociamediaclassroom. It is the best collection out there, and a great starting place for anybody looking to refine a more specific set for particular educational contexts. We are putting some together for our teachers in our project with teachers in Monroe and Eastern Green Counties, and they should be available on a site at ning.com soon.

And finally, what I would not give to be able to put everything else aside to blog. I have four of five posts that wake me up every morning. But then I remember I still have an overdue annual report for the National Science Foundation that I have been working on for a week. I will be lucky if my project officer reads it. But I have to crank it out to keep the grant money coming in so my graduate students can eat and have a place to sleep.