PDP: Where does it sit?

There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of ESCALATE, arguing that PDP (personal development planning) should be delivered separately from the academic curriculum. The reasons given are that:

  • Students don’t see the value in it.
  • Academic staff don’t feel they have the expertise or the time to deliver the  personal one to one work it requires.
  • Recent guidelines from fundholders and others stress the employability aspect

There is some truth in all of these points, although I think that once the concept is explained to them, students do see the value of it,(well, some do) although I accept that the siren call of the city’s nightlife is likely to prove more alluring than spending their free time with their e-portfolio. More to the point, academic assignments carry marks and personal development plans (usually) don’t, so it’s a perfectly rational decision for a student to prioritise the former.

The second point, about academic staff not having the time or expertise also seems to me a question of priorities and values. If they could see the value of PDP then I am fairly sure that more would adapt their practice to incorporate it.  Which raises the question of whether PDP actually has any inherent value? The key word for me has always been “personal”. Obviously it has value for some people, but maybe not for others. I can’t see any teacher wanting to spend time making any student do something they don’t want to do, but equally it would be wrong to deny it to those students who do want to do it. We can of course provide all sorts of e-portfolio tools (Mahara, Pebble Pad, e-folio, and dare I say it even WordPress and Google Docs can be pressed into service), but all of them still need support both in terms of providing a reliable  network infrastructure, and in providing help to students. All of which adds to workloads.

Thirdly, of course employability is important, and I’d expect guidelines from Government and employers to stress it, but I wonder if the emphasis on”planning” is a little too instrumental. (And as the image implies, it isn’t too focussed on a very specific corporate type of employment) I’m not convinced that anything more than short to medium term career planning is possible, (or desirable) for most undergraduates. I know students are increasingly diverse, but we still seem to have quite a lot of 18-21 year old school leavers, who probably don’t have sufficient experience of full-time work to on which to base a realistic career plan. But the practice of planning is as relevant to preparing for a dissertation as it is to searching for a job.  I also think the reflective element of PDP is actually more helpful to putting thoughts in order, than trying to imagine a future. More accurately I think it’s part of the process of developing the mind set that can imagine that future and for that reason I wouldn’t want to lose it.

I am not saying we shouldn’t offer employability support. But, I do feel that there is a danger of falling into a “deficit” trap, of the sort that I suspect hindered the “learning development” movement in its earlier years. If we value these things then we  have to make them part of the whole student experience rather than push them off into some sort of pseudo academic ghetto. Value, in an academic environment is measured in marks.  So, I think if we want students to build personal development plans, we have to find some way of assessing them, or at least the process of building them.  The challenge is to do that without detracting from the importance of the disciplinary content of a student’s degree.  Now, there, I freely admit to being stuck!

E-portfolio as the next Killer app?

A recent post from David Warlick got me thinking a bit about where we should be going with e-portfolios. He lists some of the ideal features of an e-portfolio and I’ve abstracted some of them here (for the full list visit his post):-

  • It will have elements of social networking, featuring personal profiles and a variety of communication devices, such as blogging, micro-blogging, discussion forums, and commenting.
  • It will easily and invitingly accept multimedia products.
  • All products will be critiqueable with commenting or threaded discussion, by educators, fellow students, and the verifiable community.
  • It will also have components of a course management system. There will be curriculum structures within the platform so that work can be aligned, at least implicitly, with instructional objectives.
  • There will be a facility to critique work based beyond mere foundational standards. Work will also be judged on inventiveness, collaboration, quality of communication, compellingness, value to an authentic audience.
  • “Standards” will play a minimal role in this product.
  • It will facilitate portability, so that students can carry their portfolios with them to the next grade and/or as a standalone product on CD or other networked platform.
  • It will not merely be classroom-friendly. It will be user-friendly, regardless of the location of the learning.
  • Students will have a strong voice and hand in what it looks like and how it operates.
  • Students will be able to enter products that are not necessarily curriculum related, such as personal video and machinima creations, art work, game scores, business ventures, and products of personal and passionate interest.
  • Students, teachers, and parents will participate in selecting the work that is assessed.
  • It will preferably be open source, but not necessarily so.
  • The social aspects will be reasonably open. Students (and teachers) will be able to collaborate across classroom and school (and even national) boundaries.
  • All learning products will include an element of reflection by its producer.

It’s interesting that Mahara and Pebble Pad both tick some of these boxes, but neither tick all of them. Blackboard’s e-portfolio system (at least in versions 7 and 8 – I haven’t seen 9 yet) trails some way behind in virtually all these respects, except of course it does contain elements of a course management system, which neither Mahara or Pebble Pad do. (Well, they could do, but they’d need a lot of tweaking by teaching staff who in the past generally haven’t had the time.)

David asked for more suggestions for features. I’d add the ability to make artefacts out of the assets already existing in the portfolio. (A bit like Pebble Pad’s CV builder and webfolio tools, which I think are very useful features).  I also think that in the current climate, open source is essential. This is partly to do with economics and partly to do with philosophy. The economic reason is that any tool that is paid for by an insitution might be cut leaving students high and dry, and the philosophical reason is that I think for an e-portfolio tool to be useful it is best if it is as open as possible. (Of course there’s always a need for privacy, and it has to be able to cope with that too, but I’ve recently been impressed by Stephen Downes arguments about the virtues of open assessment)

E-portfolios, Mahara

Did a ten minute presentation on e-portfolios at our “Improving the Learning Experience event”, and promised to upload the slides to various e-portfolio tools so those who wanted to could follow up by looking at a shared view of my Portfolio. (University of Lincoln staff should just log into blogs.lincoln.ac.uk and send me a friend request) I hadn’t really noticed this before, but when you upload a file to Mahara, there’s no real option to write a reflective statement linked to it as there is in Pebble Pad. That’s something I’d suggest including for the next upgrade, as the ability to include something about why an artefact has been included in a portfolio does seem quite important. Unless I’ve missed something.

Lincoln Teaching and Learning Symposium

I attended (and presented at)  the University of Lincoln’s Sixth Teaching and Learning Symposium today. As always it was quite an intense day, but lots of good ideas got an airing. It’s a bit different from the traditional model of conference in that there are no keynote speakers, and most of the day is taken up with what we call “dialogues”. Basically everyone breaks up into groups and each group discusses a theme, suggested by the organisers. Then there’s a morming plenary, in which the discussions are condensed into action points for further discussion in the afternoon.  Before and after lunch there are elective presentations which people can choose to go to. (of which mine was one – you can see the slides here – http://www.slideshare.net/jbeckton/the-iportfolio)  I was slightly disappointed that there were only four people there, but on the plus side that’s four people who know more then they did before. And one or two others told me they had wanted to come, but it clashed with other electives they wished to attend. After the electives, delegates go back into their dialogue groups, and ultimately feed back to a plenary. The ideas are all fed onto an “ideas wall” (Really that’s  just a lot of flipchart sheets stuck together!) , which is used to compile a report for circulation to all delegates, and which also contains ideas for taking the dialogue forwards. Which is really the point of the exercise!

Anyway the dialogue theme I chose was on “student expectations”, and as I suspected there was some dissatisfaction among the group with the notion of students as “customers”.  The problem is of course that our capitalist economy tends to socialise everybody into thinking of themselves as customers in all sorts of contexts, and there are some aspects of university provision where that is not inappropriate. Students clearly do have cause for grievance if lecturers don’t turn up, the library isn’t open at reasonable hours. But if a student doesn’t make the effort to understand a discipline, can’t be bothered to learn how to use a library, then the idea that the “customer is always right” becomes rather less credible.

That raises further issues though. Is it reasonable for a student to expect that they be given a reading list?  The view was expressed at one point that we shouldn’t do that, or post digitised readings on Blackboard, because that limits students’ exploration. (Why explore and criticise if they’ve been told that this is the “good stuff”?)  But not to do so is to take a risk that students will complain, and in a customer oriented culture, the act of complaining itself  acquires a spurious validity, which, in the current economic climate can prove a threat to an academic’s position. At best, it certainly adds to their workloads!  This issue arose in the other elective (the one that I didn’t present) which was about enterprise in learning. Clearly, enterprise involves risk taking, but who is going to take risks when the stakes are high?

There was so much more to report on, but as I’ve said before brevity is the soul of blogging, and it is a pretty tiring format, so I’ll sign off for now

WordPress as a Personal Learning Environment

A personal learning environment or PLE is a collection of tools that a learner can bring together in one place to suppor their learning. The point is that if you’re the learner, you choose which tools you prefer to use, rather than have them chosen for you by an institutional Virtual Learning Environment.

In so far as they are collections of tools PLEs have something in common with e-portfolios which I have blogged about before, although it’s probably more correct to see a portfolio as being part of a PLE.  Anyway, I’ve found the Social Homes plug-in for WordPress which is rather cool. I’ve added my to-do list, Google Calendar, my Delicious bookmarks and a public view of my Mahara portfolio to it, and am wondering how best to add a link to a personal content store of the documents I’m working on, and a Refworks bibliography.

Social Homes links to services, rather than documents, which means that you can make bits of your PLE public if the service offers public views (e.g. the Mahara Portfolio). Of course you can always protect private information behind the service password, so if you really feel you must write your doctoral thesis using Facebook apps, you probably could.  From a learning perspective though, what would be really cool would be if authorised users of your blog could be passed through to the bits of the services you wanted them to see.  (e.g. specified portfolio views in Mahara)

I’ll probably come back to this topic later, when I’ve had a look at incorporating some kind of lifestreaming software into the blog.

More on e-portfolios

I’m currently evaluating e-portfolio tools and today’s quick review was about uploading folders and adding them to my e-portfolio. I’ve only had an hour or so today, so I’ve looked at Mahara and Pebble Pad, and I’m not greatly impressed with the capacity of either of them to handle folders. Mahara doesn’t seem to allow uploading of anything other than single files. Pebble Pad does offer the option of zipping a folder. (I suppose you could upload a zip file to Mahara – I’ll have to try that later ) But when you do upload the zip file, Pebble Pad unpacks it and treats each file as a single asset. It would be nice to have the option of adding the folder and its contents as a single asset,

Of course, in Pebble Pad you can recreate the folder as a webfolio page and link to each assets, thus creating a de facto folder (Which could, with a bit of design work look quite nice). In Mahara you just have to create a new folder and upload everything into it. On the other hand you can display it as a folder in a view.

But really, what an e-portfolio needs is a way to put things in the right place quickly. Many resources these days do consist of multiple files, so I think this would be a useful functionality. (I suppose, in the interests of full coverage I ought to have a look at how Blackboard’s E-portfolio tool manages this.)

Pebble Pad User Group Meeting, Leeds

I have to confess I’ve been a bit out of the loop with Pebble Pad recently, what with repositories, Blackboard, and so on, so this meeting served as a useful reminder of just what Pebble Pad can offer. (Attendance was a bit disappointing though, as there were only four users present!) Still, that meant we were all able to get our questions in, and there was plenty of time for Colin & Shane from Pebble Learning to tell us all about the new developments and their future plans.

One of the most interesting developments is to do with the ability to export Pebble Pad assets to other systems. Currently Pebble Pad complies with the IMS E-portfolio specification which is very robust. They’re planning to make it compatible with the LEAP2 specification (I think that’s right!) which is much more lightweight. The outcome is that users will be able to export PP assets to other applications such as WordPress and Mahara, thus preserving the users digital identity as they move from one institution to another.

Another interesting sounding development is the Activity Log, which is designed to support CPD. (I think we already have this in our version, but users have to switch it on.) I’ll check and report back. Anyway the point is that you start your log, and note the amount of time you need to spend on CPD and every time you engage in a CPD activity you create an appropriate asset describing the activity, and how long you spent on it. Thus the log keeps track of everything you have done in terms of CPD and provides easy access to the details of what you have done. Currently it only allows you to record hours, but the next release will also be able to keep records of points (Apparently this is a requirement of some CPD schemes.)

There’s also a really interesting development in terms of mobile learning. You can now download a very lightweight version of Pebble Pad to your PDA or mobile, and complete a number of asset types  offline. (They’re added to your Pebble Pad when you either sync with a PC or connect to the net.) This may have considerable potential for keeping records of field work for example. It effetively makes your PDA a little notebook, which still provides access to the structured forms – and if you’re using a PP blog you can easily add blog entries.

Finally, they gave us a brief hint about what to expect from Pebble Pad v 3.0 which isn’t due out for another 18 months or so. It sounds as though it will be much less reliant on the flash player, and be much more interoperable with other systems such as WordPress and yes, Blackboard. There was also some discussion of behind the scenes administrative stuff which I won’t bore you with, but I can reveal that I am a lot happier about user management than I was. It’s just that finding the time to work on all this stuff is so difficult.But PP really is an asset we should be making more of

Buddy Press as a PDP tool

I thought this looked to have some promise, especially given it’s social networking aspects, but I think there is a great deal of work to be done before it can compete with Pebble Pad, or even Mahara. It’s great at what it does, but as an innovative e-portfolio it fails the ease of use test. By that I mean it’s not easy to use as an e-portfolio, not that it isn’t inherently easy to use. The user can’t add fields, can’t add extra data to say a job field. (You can’t say what you did in any given post. There may be ways to do this, but the point is it’s not easy to see them.) You can create a good summary, but at present that’s all you can do. I think Pebble Pad is still the best, if far from perfect, e-portfolio tool out there.


Mahara is an open source e-portfolio tool, which I am about to start evaluating. I haven’t really had a lot of time to look at it yet, but here’s their demonstration video.


I’d be interested to hear any feedback. If you want to play with Mahara, it’s been installed on the Learning Lab server The address is http://learninglab.lincoln.ac.uk/mahara/ (but you’ll need an account so drop a line to either myself or Joss Winn in CERD, and we’ll set you up.)

E-portfolios: Models and Implementations: Idealistic whys versus Pragmatic Hows

As promised, here’s the next report from the Blackboard Users Group conference. E-portfolios and “Personal Development Planning” have something of a chequered history in Higher Education. While there are many enthusiasts for the idea, it’s probably fair to say that students haven’t in general embraced the idea with any noticeable implementation.

Tim Neumann from the Institute of Education at the University of London gave us a brief account of the history of e-portfolios. He started by reporting that there had been a sudden increase in the number of academics asking about e-portfolios, although there appeared to be different drivers in different parts of the Institute.. In fact e-portfolios can have multiple functions, – they can provide personal development records, be a vehicle for assessment, a reflective space, a personal document repository, a basis for career development, or a simple documentation of personal achievement. In many respects the process of creating a portfolio is as important as the end product, but the multiple purposes that they can be put to, seems to cause as much confusion as clarity. As Tim rather drily noted, some staff in the Institute may not have had a fully developed understanding of the nature and purpose of an e-portfolio, for example the doctoral course team wanted it to provide an online record of doctoral meetings (which actually struck me as quite a good idea), the team teaching the MA in ICT in Education wanted the e-portfolio to contain a bibliographic management system, and the Master of Teaching course wanted to skew the e-portfolio to open source tools. All these are worthy things, but they’re not exactly the prime purpose of building an e-portfolio.

Nevertheless they did pilot a number of e-portfolio software tools, largely with a view to making comparisons between them. Among those they looked at were something called Avenet E-folio, Chalk and Wire, Digication, Interfolio Elgg, and Pebble Pad, (I have to be honest here and say I’ve only heard of the last two. Tim was quite candid about the fact that they were looking for tools that were available at little, or preferably no, cost. They also found that students were reluctant to use Pebble Pad, but unfortunately he didn’t give us any indication of why this was the case.

That said, they are currently trialling a tool called Learning Objects LX expo, a Blackboard plug in, (which we have ourselves, although have yet to investigate fully ) This is described as a personal website builder, rather than an e-portfolio tool, although, I suppose a personal web site is a sort of portfolio. In fact, it’s more of a social networking tool, not unlike Facebook. Anyway, Tim felt that this had been the most successful of the tools they had evaluated so far, in that it had met most of their objectives and provided all the functionality that they required. We should perhaps follow their example and have a further look at LX expo.