Educational Blogs in Graduate Level Education Programs. What's the point again?
By Robin Henrickson, Assistant Professor of Education
The practice of continuous reflection for students has been a deliberate component for many of the courses I teach. Since day one, I have adamantly insisted that STUDENTS MUST REFLECT ON THEIR LEARNING! In my case, the students I teach are educators themselves, and the need for them to learn how to be reflective practitioners for their own professional improvement, but also as students in a master’s program has many benefits (York-Barr, Sommers, Ghere & Montie, 2006). While I still believe this without a doubt, there remains confusion as to the purpose of online reflective portfolios (Fendler, 2003) and their role in supporting student learning. The past year I have been contemplating the design, timing, length and overall purpose of the reflective blog with the question of how to truly make the reflective opportunities beneficial to the students’ and their learning of the content.
Reflective learning is a necessary component of continuous improvement both as a student and as an educator (York-Barr, Sommers, Ghere, & Montie, 2006). The use of an electronic portfolio or blogging tool to reflect and interact with peers can be a powerful platform for this reflection. Furthermore, educators in public schools now have an additional component of uploading evidence of their performance to an online portfolio system (e-VAL) that they are required to utilize as part of their teaching expectations.
For teachers pursuing a master’s degree, having a blog outside of the Blackboard platform allows for students to retrieve their information after the current course is over and to upload artifacts that connect to their thoughts. One other point of clarification to make as to the purpose of the reflective blog or e-portfolio as described in this narrative serves the purpose of both low-stakes and high-stakes reflection as described by Ross (2011). In some courses students create their bportfolio entries aligned to the content and alignment to the expectations set forth by the rubric as one assignment as they continue through the course. An entry is not intended necessarily to become part of the sole means for passing a given course or entry to new content. However, the bportfolio can also be a tool for demonstrating proficiency throughout a program and one way to demonstrate mastery of content.
The purpose of this personal narrative is to share my journey through my own understanding of how to most effectively capitalize on the use of reflective blogs in higher education in an authentic and valuable way. This is certainly not a comprehensive explanation and there are a couple of major topics that I leave out, namely the use of the formative assessment process as well as the impact of using the reflections as a way to make the course more of a personal experience.
When I began teaching online course I needed a way for students to reflect on and summarize their learning for the given module and I used the bportfolio as a way to do that. This is how it went: The students would summarize their learning, incorporating a couple of main ideas from presentations, discussions, assigned readings and other resources. They would apply this to their classroom context and maybe even discuss a next step in their learning. Typically, it went one of two ways. The first way (and the choice most students would make) is to meet the basic minimum requirements, typically two or so paragraphs of a hastily-written overview of the weekly course content. There was some critical analysis of the ideas, but basically the reflection would be of lower-level thinking skills. Of course, there were always the two to three over-achieving students whom would write up to five to seven paragraphs, include graphics and illustrations. They either truly owned the process or did a fabulous job of what I was hoping most students would do. As the instructor, I would be left feeling guilty about awarding the same grade to both types of students even though they both met the criteria (yes, obviously something wrong with my evaluation plan). Something else was missing in the use of the bportfolio as an authentic tool for reflection. I was very skeptical that many of the students benefited from this process or even valued it.
I decided to limit the reflections to three per quarter rather than six or so. I thought that the sheer number of reflections they were completing watered down the purpose and impact of the reflection. The students then were asked to reflect upon the first main theme of the course (typically three weeks’ worth of content) with the hope they would go deeper and take more ownership of the reflection by pulling in the main points that they were interested in and learned about that applied to their professional setting. I think this was a vast improvement for many reasons. The first being simply fewer posts means that the students are more fresh and willing to reflect. The second reason is that they could take more ownership of the topics within those three weeks that really resonated with them rather than feeling that they had to regurgitate once more the content they just finished learning about and discussing. I also required they more specifically integrate discussions and comments from peers that helped them change the way they thought about something. This was not only helpful for me in terms of formative assessment, but it also allowed them to see greater purpose in the discussion forums in that they needed to seek out extra support and resources of peers, not simply respond with a comment here or there. I think this method is an okay solution to some classes. To be honest, I use this design with one of my classes because it seems to align best with the other activities the students are working on. The use of the reflective blog needs to be considered along with the other activities students are being asked to do so there is a balance. For one particular class, I feel that this balance it okay.
Yet I still struggled with the feeling that the reflective blog is still not being utilized in the best way it can be. I took on a class this year where the students were utilizing their bportfolios as a reflective tool that they would integrate into their activities for a given module from day one (or two) of the module. This idea was new to me, but also an answer to my probing concern of how to get my students to own the reflection tool and to use it to formalize and deepen their learning. I won’t have my students end the module with a written reflection, but start with it. They would integrate it as a tool they use to help support their learning throughout the new content, not just as an add-on at the end. Here is an overview of how they use their portfolios:
I think this method truly answered my questions regarding how students can own their reflection and deepen their learning of the content. Mind you, this class allowed for students to explore their own probing questions related to their professional practice and this is not always possible in any given class. The reflective portfolio needs to supplement and improve the design of the class, not be a hindrance to the learning of the students.
As I mentioned briefly before, the use of the reflective portfolio also needs to align with the outcomes and design of the class and integrating a bportfolio throughout a module may not work. So how can I have the best of both worlds? The answer is that I’m not sure, but I will tell you what I am trying.
Now that I recognized my ideal target, I knew I needed to start to make a shift if the content and design of the course allowed for it. One slight change was that I had students draft an initial reflection at the beginning of the week. It wasn’t so open-ended that they could choose the topic like it was the previous quarter, however all students can start with a post on what they know of the given topic (again, great formative assessment for me). Throughout the week two other students read it and gave comments on the draft and by the end of the week, the students were expected to make the draft into a final, given the peer and instructor feedback (I added feedback on a different form, not seen here on this bportfolio).
Here are a few informal conclusions. Be sure to plan your use of bportfolio reflections to supplement and improve your course design. It should not be an add-on just for the sake of reflection. Students will not typically engage in the process of reflective thinking about the content if they feel that it is just one more thing to do. My moment of revelation was truly when I answered my question of how to make the bportfolio reflection worthwhile and valuable. The answer is that it needs to become a living, working document that changes daily or weekly according to the level of interaction one has with it. If students can begin with the end in mind- if they can at least start some initial drafting or outlining on a blog where the students are doing some level of self-assessing the module topics, I think it is a great start. However, there does need to be some level of interaction throughout the learning process, and usually that means peer comments, including suggestions and pushing of ideas to further the thinking of the author of the post.