Exploring e-portfolios through action research

Students writing e-portfolios

Students hard at work on their ePortfolios.

During 2015 Bianka Malecka and James Heath undertook classroom-based research as part of the English Australia Action Research in ELICOS program. We investigated the use of e-portfolios to enhance students’ writing skills. We used Wikispaces Classroom to house the e-portfolios. Below is a brief summary of our project. There is also a guide to setting up Wikispaces for ePortfolios here.

Our context and goals

In our teaching, we have often noted that students who consistently redraft their work based on feedback seem to make marked improvement in their writing. But many lack the motivation to do this. This project aimed to motivate students to plan, comment on, and rewrite weekly writing tasks by creating an e-portfolio.

The research was conducted as part of a high-stakes, direct-entry English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program at the UNSW Institute of Languages, with 36 students at a CEFR B2/C1 level. Initially, we planned to complete the project in two five-week cycles, but following a survey where 91% of students expressed a desire to continue building their e-portfolios, we extended the project for ten more weeks.

Our project

Using the Wikispaces platform, students wrote weekly tasks including paragraphs, essays of different genres, summaries, and data commentaries to create an e-portfolio. The tasks combined a genre and process approach to writing and each followed these steps: 1. Pre-writing tasks; 2. First draft; 3. Peer feedback; 4. Redraft; 5. Teacher feedback; 6. Final draft.

A key feature of Wikispaces is that peers and teachers can highlight words or sentences and write comments, which appear beside the text. Changes are saved in a ‘revision history’, allowing students to compare original versions with later revisions. We revised the setup of the platform after the first cycle, so that each student had a homepage on the wiki with links to each of their tasks. Many students chose to personalise these e-portfolio homepages with photos or inspirational quotes.

Our findings

“In Wikispaces I can review my essay and find the mistakes that I have made and maybe next time I will not make the same mistakes.” – student comment

We were pleased that students engaged critically with peer feedback, often questioning whether the peer review or the original writing was more appropriate. This visible dialogue allowed teachers to adjudicate when required. In addition, we discovered that students’ ability to access their own and their peers’ work at any time during the course motivated them to rewrite texts, as well as to revisit them in preparation for exams and assessments. We also noted a positive shift in students’ attitudes to editing, with many recognising the value of self-editing and taking ownership of online texts. When surveyed, 94% of students felt that the project had helped improve their writing.

From the teachers’ perspective, we found it easier to give clear and precise feedback, as well as provide personalised links to additional resources. Having students’ work collected in one place allowed us to see common errors and monitor students’ progress more effectively.

Aside from these benefits, students also noted the value of e-portfolios for their future study, with many crediting weekly wiki writing to improving their computer skills. As one student who was initially a reluctant computer user explained: “Wikispaces improved my typing and my father when he heard me write in computer he said, ‘oh lord, this is not my daughter.’”

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