Saturday, April 2, 2016

Student e-Portfolios on Scale? No Problem.

We are in the process of implementing the Aspen student information system in our School District (branded as MyEducationBC in British Columbia) and after introducing the core SIS, the Gradebook, the Timetable Builder, and the SPED module, we have taken a bit of a hiatus before moving forward with Pages and Portals.

Full Portal implementation has been delayed by a system glitch. Data transferred over from the old student information system incorrectly, with every contact replicated for each of the last several years, instead of just once for the current year. The problem is being corrected through a combination of automated and manual solutions which will delete redundant contact record instances; password management will become possible by the end of this year or early next year, and parents will be able to use the Portal feature to check in on student progress and communicate directly with teachers.

The Pages feature has generated some excitement. Essentially, anyone with an account can create a "group" of members and create a private webpage with built-in widgets that gives each member access to documents, links to websites, a blog, and a forum. The creator of the group can give anyone in the group admin rights so the page could have an unlimited number of contributors within the organization, giving our district a place to collaborate online. Earlier this year, I created achievement data pages for each of the schools, and we are planning to use the Pages feature as a secure place for forms and operational information, with the blog widget being a handy place to give clarity as needed.

Pages use can includes students as well, as it is very easy to make class groups and pages to give students access to resources, as well as a place to share with each other, or even give feedback using the forum widget. School staff will like the Pages feature as it is user-friendly and there is enough functionality there to meet the electronic sharing needs of most teachers and principals. After full roll-out, we hope its use will become pervasive across our school district and our teacher teams will build their own collaborative spaces.

Still, the Pages interface isn't what I would call cutting-edge. It looks okay, but it doesn't stack up well against the third-party offerings by Scholantis or Avantage or many currently available Web 2.0 platforms. Many of the widgets are still inactive and some would be considered quaint at best in their functionality. The calendar widget appears to the user very much like the picture shown below, a static calendar that essentially shows the current the month. As a presenter said in a recent conference, "Pages has improved a lot in the last few years. Now it looks almost as good as Moodle." Another update is coming soon, which will take it to another level, we are told.

Before we go any farther, we have to stop and ask if this program is going to meet our needs, because what we really want is for MyEducationBC to act as an e-portfolio tool for students. There are already countless free Web 2.0 programs available which students can use to build e-portfolios, and thanks to Surrey Schools and their excellent permission form which we have adopted, we can use any that we choose and be FIPPA compliant. Students are using Seesaw and Weebly with positive results, for example, in many of our classrooms already. However, if we are really going to engage teachers, students, and parents with a meaningful e-portfolio experience across the entire school district, we need to be able to gather together within the same fully-supported and centrally-managed electronic platform. Our hope was that MyEducationBC could be this platform, not necessarily as the means to create an e-portfolio (though it does have some useful functionality), but as a place to collect the files or links that students create and provide access to them as needed. This type of manageable curation tool is what we were really hoping for, and we had been holding off on other solutions until we better understood its potential.

There have been two main limitations with using MyEducationBC as an e-portfolio platform. One is that the student "locker" feature, their on-line storage, is completely private with no file-sharing capacity. This was a disappointment to discover. The second is that while we can make pages for students, which could be used to collect evidence of learning for an e-portfolio and even give them opportunities reflect and share, this process is far more difficult to facilitate than we had hoped. Because there is no mass create feature for individual student pages like there is for class pages, and students cannot create their own, assigning groups and pages to students would need to be done one at a time by a staff member. This staff member would then have to manage every single student's group and page as the page admin, including changing every association as each student transitions from grade to grade and school to school until they graduate. It is clear this isn't going to work as hoped, and in a recent conversation, the platform's vendor Fujitsu informed us they would not be adding functionality here, as they have realized they could not compete with with some of the bigger players in this regard. My hope is that they change their mind, and deliver this important option as promised, and in a timely fashion. We will continue lobbying whenever we get opportunities to do so.

Meanwhile, this has left us in a dilemma. If we are to expect our students to show their learning through e-portfolios, we are going to need to support our teachers to support our students with a program that does meet our needs. If MyEducationBC cannot be our only official platform because it cannot be used to create, warehouse, or share student e-portfolios effectively on its own, then we need to choose an additional platform. This leads to us duplication, the dreaded doubling-down of workload and expectations in a universe of finite resources. Soon our District MyEducationBC Steering Committee is going to get a closer look at two of these bigger players in the online portfolio game, Google for Education and Microsoft 365. Both come free with monster storage capacity, their own set of procurement tools, and the ability to batch create and manage accounts on a broad scale, and they are both utterly magnificent. All we have to do is pick one, then show every teacher how to use it when we do our upcoming Pages sessions, then support every school with a second set of passwords for teachers, students, and perhaps even parents.

No problem.

[Since publishing this blog, I have had conversations with executives at Aspen, as well as Follett, the parent company, and several staff and committee members that advise the provincial roll-out process. The programming needed to make this change is the easy part. We need a mass create feature for student pages, automated transition of associations, and an easy way to manage viewing rights, or much more simply, maybe just a setting that makes the student e-locker visible. The hard part is making this a priority with our provincial vendor Fujitsu. As much as these other platforms I mentioned are amazing, we really would prefer them to remain optional.]

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