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ePossibilities: The power of a grassroots approach to student-curated ePortfolios in an urban high school

ePossibilities: The power of a grassroots approach to student-curated ePortfolios in an urban high school

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Published by Susan Klimczak
This chapter describes the OneVille ePortfolio Project at Somerville High School during the 2010-2011 school year. The research was a collaboration between the Ford Foundation, Harvard Graduate School of Education and the OneVille Project in Somerville, Massachusetts. The model for ePortfolios using open source and free software has now been adopted schoolwide (as of 2013).
This chapter describes the OneVille ePortfolio Project at Somerville High School during the 2010-2011 school year. The research was a collaboration between the Ford Foundation, Harvard Graduate School of Education and the OneVille Project in Somerville, Massachusetts. The model for ePortfolios using open source and free software has now been adopted schoolwide (as of 2013).

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Published by: Susan Klimczak on Jan 21, 2013
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ePossibilties: The power of a grassroots approach to student-curated ePortfolios in an urban high school
Susan Klimczak, Chris Glynn, Michelle Li, and Joe Beckmann with contributions from Susan Olsen and Al Willis.
 A year ago, one of Somerville’s most beloved and successful teachers sat sandwiched between twostudents, one a senior and one a junior, responding to their barrage of unselfconsciously profferedadvice about how to design a Google Site template for Somerville High School ePortfolios. Thethree labored intensely for three hours, showing they not only understood the concepts of responsibility, teamwork, inquiry, and creativity, but also that they could plan and listen to eachother across cultural barriers (of language, class and age). Those 21st century skills were theorganizing categories for their ePortfolio. The teachers and students lived the skills, knew the skills,and used them collaboratively to solve the problem of producing a template that everybody couldunderstand, use, adapt, and target to college, jobs, parents, and grandparents in almost every country. Working with a sense of collegiality rare between teachers and students, they developed ways to show others at their school how to get the most from the ePortfolio template.It was very funny to see the teacher working so hard to keep up with the advice of his students.Every ten minutes or so they’d all pull back, laugh, and return to the task refreshed. The outcome of their work was part of a novel demonstration of ePortfolios intended to open gatesto new kinds of learning and teaching for success. Somerville High School is an urban public highschool with a vibrant, creative school culture which has more than twice the state average of low income, African American, Latino, and Asian students, scoring 10-20 percent lower on standardizedexams than comparable districts. The school needed tools to show the extraordinary quality of theirstudents’ skills. This chapter describes what ePortfolios catalyzed for students and teachers, in classrooms and theentire school. Changes have “gone viral” in the best of ways, with students and teachers, bosses,parents and even some colleges realizing that students know best what they do best, and can behelped to show their best when engaged in this kind of critical reflection.
 A “perfect storm” of opportunity for change
Our ePortfolio project emerged from a “perfect storm” of opportunity for educational change atSomerville High School (SHS), just outside of the City of Boston. To understand the emergenceand success of ePortfolios, it helps to know a little history. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 was a signal piece of legislation that called for many changes, including statewide highstakes testing, now called MCAS (the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). It alsocalled for School Improvement Councils, which include panels of parents, teachers, administrators,students and community representatives. These panels would review and approve annual SchoolImprovement Plans. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calledfor the use of portfolios as an alternative pathway for students with severe disabilities todemonstrate mastery of curriculum standards. At the time Somerville High School decided toimplement portfolios school-wide.
Unfortunately, portfolios increasingly became a pure formality. The cumbersome quarterly collection of paper portfolio entries in every subject for every student was coordinated by theGuidance Department. Teachers pointed out that the Portfolios were stored in “lonely file cabinetsin a dark room, but no one knows where they are!” The word “portfolio” came to connote“stressful noise, anxiety, imposed, static ritual without purpose, no dialogue, lack of communication,for accreditation officials, not for teachers/students/parents, black void, and even, joke”.
 By 2009, unsurprisingly, the School Improvement Council recognized that the portfolio process wasin urgent need of change! While creating their 2010 School Improvement Plan, the Councilexpanded the definition of a portfolio entry and resolved to computerize this process to makeportfolios live beyond a student’s graduation. Technology offered the means to make portfoliosmore convenient, inclusive of various media, and transportable to colleges and employers. A local community education organizer who served on the School Improvement Council saw anopportunity to realize ePortfolios by collaborating with OneVille,
a community research projectfunded by the Ford Foundation and based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Aresearch group from OneVille was invited to give a presentation about the potential of ePortfoliosthat was well received, and the collaborative OneVille ePortfolio research project at Somerville HighSchool began. Groundwork for change was laid through six months of joint planning by theePortfolio project team, the School Improvement Council, and he school principal. This wasfollowed by a yearlong critical participatory design research ePortfolio project involving 12Somerville High School teachers and 25 students purposely chosen to represent a cross section of the student body.
Using ePortfolios to realize educational change
 The description of an ePortfolio that we developed together at Somerville High School blends anumber of popular definitions:
  An ePortfolio tells the story of who you are, what you know you are good at, and how youbelieve “what you know” will help you succeed. Samples of work in an ePortfolio shouldconvince others that your story is valid, interesting and worthwhile.
 This list comes from a Somerville High School teacher and student brainstorm in response to the word“portfolio.”
 The Somerville High School ePortfolio project was carried out under OneVille (http://oneville.org/), acommunity-wide multi-layer research project whose goal was to explore how commonplace technology mightenable community cooperation in young people's success. The OneVille research project was based out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, funded through a generous two-year grant from the FordFoundation, and led by Principal Investigator Dr. Mica Pollock.
Paulson, F.L. & Paulson, P. (1994) “Assessing Portfolios Using the Constructivist Paradigm” in Fogarty, R.(ed.) (1996) Student Portfolios. Palatine: IRI Skylight Training & Publishing 
; Barrett, H. (2010) “
SocialNetworks and Interactive Portfolios: Blurring the Boundaries” TEDxASB(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckcSegrwjkA)
 This ePortfolio research used critical participatory design ethnography, a research approachpromoted by anthropologists of education
that combines critical ethnography, participatory design,action research, and education tool design. The goal for ePortfolios was both to build an excellenteducation tool that represents the unique Somerville High School culture
to create conditionsthat increase the potential for ePortfolios to catalyze change in the ways students and teachers teachand learn. To do this, we engaged teachers and students from the school as co-researchers andeducational pioneers provided with stipends to explore grassroots-based ePortfolio design using freeand open source Web 2.0 tools. An afterschool setting was used to create a space that was both“inside” and “outside” the school and incorporated a process for seeding ePortfolio leadershipamong teachers and students so that ePortfolios could be implemented schoolwide. The ePortfolioteam deliberately limited their role to observer-participants who elicited and recognized good ideasand helped solve challenges. Three distinctive characteristics of our high school ePortfolio project were: a community organizing sensibility, a specific 21st century skill set, and a constructionist approach.
Bringing an organizing sensibility to a Web 2.0 project
One of the innovations we infused into the critical participatory design process was bringing agrassroots community-organizing sensibility to the development of ePortfolios using Web 2.0 tools. We trusted teachers and students to make decisions about ePortfolios for themselves and theirschool. To promote equity and accessibility we resolved to build ePortfolios using only free andopen source technology, software, and platforms. We believed that catalyzing genuine change would require us to take a patient “open source” approach, sustain a collaborative effort in whichparticipants conceived, built upon and improved ePortfolios and shared their changes andinnovations with the community. We knew that having teachers and students develop ePortfoliosfrom the ground up (rather than having them apply “canned” template products) would notnecessarily be viewed as efficient and convenient in the particular kinds of ways that administratorsoften shortsightedly find compelling. What made this approach possible was the visionary supportof the Somerville High School headmaster who also recognized that if teachers and students wereempowered in the decision-making, the outcome would not only be significant but also could berevolutionary. An organizing sensibility focuses on collegeality and relationships as important components of ePortfolio process and use. When we brought the initial group of teachers and students together toorganize an ePortfolio process and product themselves, it challenged their expectation that they  would be told what to do and how to do it. They adjusted and even became assertive, reflecting theirgradual ownership of the whole process from deciding on online ePortfolio platforms to when andhow to meet to build ePortfolios. When the pilot began in October 2011, the first interesting decision teachers and students made was to schedule three 2-hour drop-in sessions each week.Students and teachers would come in for part or all of the drop-in sessions as they needed help orhad time. This, they believed, would accommodate the widest continuum of student learning styles,
Barab, S., Thomas, M., Dodge, T., Squire, K., and M. Newell (2004). Critical Design Ethnography:Designing for Change,
 Anthropology and Education Quarterly,
35:2, 254-268.

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