Acrobat for Educators – Part 1.

E-portfolios are not a new idea and there is no shortage of tools out there which can be  used to create them. For me one of the major issues when looking at E-portfolios is that
it is sometimes unclear as to the purpose and audience for them. In some cases they are
used to collate and present work; for example to showcase design work. Many examples I have seem are actually little more than a repository for students i.e. a place students put work so that their teacher can assess them. While these can look great and might offer some convenience to the viewer I can’t help but think that potentially they can be more than that.   Acrobat has a number of features which I think work really well for students and teachers. Firstly it is easy to create; the importance of this should not be underestimated. All too often portfolios require complex set ups, and in some cases this takes ownership away from those who are actually going to use them. Next is the flexibility to work with file types; if my portfolio can only work certain files types or I need both the creator and the viewer to have the same software installed this takes away some of the ownership away.  Again this is an important principle, I have always been uneasy where students are told to use a particular tool to solve a problems

Portfolios system which use internet based repositories require files to be uploaded/downloaded on demand and with media rich projects with classrooms full
of students this also can restrict usage.  Acrobat portfolios can easily be created and
worked on locally but also provide a variety of ways of sharing.

Ownership is very important to way that portfolios can improve teaching and learning. An example of this is with something we call Tutor for Learning.  As a Head of House, I am responsible for monitoring academic progress of some 200 students in my school. I can read teachers comments and look at grades and that can help me to understand how a student is doing but this is does not always paint a full picture. So we arrange a meeting with the students and their parents; in this meeting the student leads a ‘learning  conversation’ talking through the highs and lows of the years work.  They can do so with examples of their work  drawn from all areas of the curriculum and it is here that the Acrobat portfolio is so useful. Each student owns their portfolio, controls what  goes into it. Of course these portfolios are potentially very different and for some subjects  e.g. food Technology or Physical Education the only way of keeping the evidence is to digitize it.  What’s more they can use the markup and commenting tools to reflect on their own work before the meeting. Often schools and teachers tell students and parents how they are getting on and here we have a tool with which  the students have the opportunity  engage in a more proactive understanding of  their own learning.

Another way that using Acrobat portfolios has helped us develop learning is that they can
provide a scaffold for students work without constraining them to a particular file type or format.  Students will work  projects of their own choosing and the outcomes might be very different for a student who is creating their own music video and one who is working on a spreadsheet for their Dad’s Business. The ability  to create flexible structures to scaffold projects is perfect. For example I can  create a folder called Planning. Inside this folder can add notes and guidance in  the form of PDF Documents, and forms for self evaluations. This still allows the students to decide the form and nature of the response they give while stilll giving them a structure to work within.

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ADOBE Education forum Hong Kong 2011

ADOBE Education forum Hong Kong 2011

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Choice theory

The IEA approach is very close to that proposed by Dr William Glasser in his Choice Theory which promotes student centred, individualised education:

“Glasser said that if coercive teaching methods were abandoned, students would work harder because they would be performing based on their own free will. Even if the traditional grading system is not meant to be a method for rewarding and punishing students, Glasser said, it should be abolished, to ensure that any student can gain a certain level of mastery in any given subject.” (Ron Fitz 2002)

The theory may be summarised thus:
If a student plans on attending university to become a computer programmer Glasser suggests that they should be learning as much as they can about computers instead of reading plays by Plato. This concept is called quality curriculum; which consists of topics students find useful and enjoyable. Using Glasser’s approach the teacher would hold discussions with students when introducing new topics and ask them to identify what they would like to explore in depth. This is very similar to the IEA teaching methodology.

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>knowledge as context for skills

>Traditional models of assessment have tended to focus on the testing of understanding and ability to apply knowledge. That knowledge changes over time but the method of assessment is fundamentally the same as it has been since the introduction of public examinations. When the teachers are asked what makes a good mathematician or what makes a good historian they don’t say it is someone who can do calculus or someone who knows about the Romans. These and other subjects have a set of skills which underpin the knowledge. Essentially the knowledge is the context for these skills to be applied. It seems strange then that we only assess the knowledge and focus little on assessing the skills which underpin this knowledge and therefore do not directly support the development of these skills.

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>Motivating students

>No one is likely to argue over the importance of motivation in student achievement.

I found this list in several places on the internet outlining what teachers can do to improve motivation.

I would struggle to tick off many of these for some of the courses that we have used to teach ICT. Motivation was certainly a factor when laying out the course and we can see opportunities for all of these criteria to be met with the IEA.

  1. Ensure course materials relate to students’ lives and highlight ways learning can be applied in real-life situations (Lumsden, 1994; Skinner & Belmont, 1991). Schoolwork should be meaningful to students outside the school building, as well as within. Students are more engaged in activities when they can build on prior knowledge and draw clear connections between what they are learning and the world they live in. They also need to feel that “school work is significant, valuable, and worthy of their efforts” (Policy Studies Associates, 1995).
  2. Allow students to have some degree of control over learning (Brooks et al., 1998). This can be done in any number of ways, from giving students choices between different assignments, to minimizing adult supervision over group projects, to letting students monitor and evaluate their own progress (Anderman & Midgley, 1998; Dev, 1997; Policy Studies Associates, 1995). Anderman & Midgely (1998) note that this doesn’t mean teachers must relinquish control of the classroom: “Even small opportunities for choice, such as whether to work with a partner or independently” (p. 3) give students a greater sense of autonomy.
  3. Assign challenging but achievable tasks for all students, including at-risk, remedial, and learning disabled students. Tasks that seem impossible easily discourage learners, as do those tasks that are rote and repetitive (Dev, 1997; Policy Studies Associates, 1995). Remedial programs that limit students to repetitive basic skills activities actually “prompt students’ lack of engagement in their schoolwork and frequently result in limited achievement” (Policy Studies Associates, 1995). Students need to feel successful and that they’ve earned success.
  4. Arouse students’ curiosity about the topic being studied. Strong, Silver, and Robinson (1995) suggest using the “mystery” approach, in which students are presented with fragmentary or contradictory information about a subject and are then asked to examine available evidence to develop their own hypotheses. This kind of activity also builds on students’ needs for competence and autonomy, giving students an opportunity to direct inquiry and “discover for themselves.”
  5. Design projects that allow students to share new knowledge with others. Strong, Silver & Robinson (1995) observe that when students do assignments that only the teacher will read, they are entering into a nonreciprocal relationship. More often than not, the teacher already knows and has no real need for the information the student is providing him or her. Projects are more engaging when students share what they are learning in reciprocal relationships, as in collaborative projects where each student’s knowledge is needed by others in the group to complete an assignment.
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>A 14 year boy called Nick was the catalyst for the existence of the IEAward. Ironically he was not particularly good at ICT, or at least what was on offer to him at school. He struggled with making a spreadsheet add up a budget and had even more problems explaining why a mail merge was useful. Then one day he came up to us and asked us to help him with a problem he was having with his computer. He then proceeded to explain all the things he had already tried. Needless to say he lost his ICT teachers quite quickly. Nick was not unique, in fact he was a pretty typical student. How many adults and teachers know that their students know more than they do? Once in a while as a teacher of mathematics you realize that a student might be better than you; as an ICT teacher this can and should happen every lesson.

Almost every school believes that ICT should be in the curriculum but it is not easy to find the right course for the student. You can go for the skills based courses which tend to identify key ICT skills that students “need to know”. For a few years this suited our purpose but it didn’t take long to see the flaws: are these the right skills (does it even matter?) . Equally worrying is the lack of progress – some kids could do it, some just could not.

Examination based courses also have their place, they give structure and students are familiar with the way they work. At the end of the course you have your piece of paper that says Grade A ICT to go along with all the other subjects. Everyone knows the standards and what they mean. The thing is we don’t know what they mean and perhaps we don’t care, its simply a way of comparing one student with another. The value of questions like “name 3 input devices and give an example of how they might be used” is open to debate but what is more significant is that, with well organized teaching, we should be able to get everyone to answer this question. What do we learn about the student, where is the opportunity for creativity in a subject which has the power to blow us out of the water with new ideas?

There are courses out there that seek to encourage students with coursework, but as anyone who has taught these course knows the “Mark Scheme” dictates the rules that the students follow. Schools themselves know what does work and what does not. Tasks become regimented in the name of good marks and students are rarely challenged.

For us, what was needed was a new course, one that opened the doors to creativity, problem solving, communication, reflection and commitment.

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