By Alisa Sivak, CTE Communications Associate
When I was an undergraduate student, there was no Internet. We lined up to register for courses in a hot gym. I went to class, researched and wrote papers, studied for exams, passed x courses with a minimum grade of y to receive z credits in return for a diploma. After it was over, I didn’t look back.
Perhaps that’s still the perspective new students have when they approach the University of Waterloo for the first time: What do I have to do to get my diploma? The answer, they’ll find out, is that they still have to navigate their way through a series of classes, coursework, exams, and maybe co-op placements and volunteer opportunities.
What has changed is the technology that’s available to help them make meaning of their experiences as a university student. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because it’s not really about the technology.
It’s about Waterloo’s shift to adopt a paradigm that focuses less on how teachers teach and more on the way learners learn.
Under a Teaching paradigm, instructors with expertise lecture from the front of a room, and students sit in rows and listen passively while taking notes.
Donna Ellis, Director of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence, describes the Learning paradigm in terms of creating an environment that provides opportunities for students to make discoveries, solve problems, and direct their own learning with support from experts and a community of learners.
So how can Waterloo support and even facilitate this kind of learning?
An ePortfolio is a digital collection of what is often referred to as "artefacts" that demonstrate learning: the artefacts could be course-related work like essays, but they can also be creative pieces like artwork, photographs, or videos. In a learning context, an ePortfolio is designed to showcase academic growth, but it can also capture other aspects of a student's life.
ePortfolio technology has the capacity to support students on their learning journey by helping them make sense of their experiences, encouraging and providing scaffolding for self-reflection, and helping them draw connections. ePortfolios support the learning process from a student perspective.
Learners at Waterloo have been working with ePortfolios for over 12 years, but in the fall of 2018, a team comprising the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Instructional Technologies and Media Services, and the Centre for Extended Learning began working with instructors to pilot test a new tool: the PebblePad Learning Journey Platform.
According to Jason Thompson, one of the CTE’s six Faculty Liaisons, PebblePad has a number of benefits as an ePortfolio tool:
- Each PebblePad portfolio is connected to a student, so the contents don’t disappear when a course ends
- Instructors can direct learning by developing modules that align with specific course outcomes, but students are also able to upload other content
- The technology remains available to students after graduation, so they can continue to build and reflect on their learning journey
A handful of Waterloo instructors began pilot testing PebblePad in January 2019, and more will follow. Their experiences showcase the technology’s versatility. Click on the examples below to hear more about the ePortfolio experience in the Faculty of Engineering, School of Optometry & Vision Science, and the School of Social Work at Renison University College.
A Growth Mindset: Providing Direction for Co-op Students
Chris Rennick has been using PebblePad to provide direction for the co-op students he supervises as Engineering Educational Developer for the Engineering Ideas Clinic.
The students help him prepare for Design Days, a program that allows Engineering students to pause their academic studies and work in teams to solve a design problem – like building a water-powered clock or designing a bridge. The co-op students develop software, negotiate with the machine shop, and manufacture and pilot test prototypes. They use PebblePad to record their training in preparation for this work, and they also log their work weekly, including problems encountered and plans for the following week.
Chris explained that PebblePad supports a growth mindset, “I want them to be thinking about their own development during their work term, not just focused on the task at hand.”
Professional Development: Training Reflective Optometrists
The School of Optometry & Vision Science pilot tested PebblePad as a means of encouraging students in the early years of the program to reflect on their clinical experience.
Optometry students begin seeing patients when they reach their third year of the program. Starting in fall of 2018, first and second year students now observe and reflect on those encounters, as a means of introducing them to the clinical context. PebblePad offers scaffolding for these reflections, which might for example focus on the importance of making eye contact with patients, a factor that can be more obvious to an outside observer.
One of the key features of PebblePad, according to Lisa Christian, Associate Director of Clinical Education, is that she can view and comment on student reflections. In fact, the reflections remain in the ePortfolio throughout the program and beyond, serving as a reminder of professional growth and prompting further reflection.
“What I envision is PebblePad becoming your notebook – forever. The students don’t see how much they’ve grown in the program. But now we can say, “Go back to first year, read what you said, and you’ll see that professional growth.”
Creative expression of professional growth: The MSW Experience
ePortfolios have been central to the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Renison College for years, but PebblePad’s features make it a particularly strong tool, according to Alice Schmidt Hanbidge, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work.
Students from across the country participate in this one-year graduate program, attending classes on campus for two “book-end” weeks at the start and end of the program. The rest of their time is spent at home, completing a practicum in their own community while completing a series of online courses.
The program relies on ePortfolios to support the development of a professional identity, requiring students to reflect on a series of competency standards for social workers. Using PebblePad the students reflect on each competency as it relates to their experiences throughout the year. Each of these reflections is illustrated with an artefact that demonstrates their learning. A final project tying it all together often centres on students’ creative expression of their growth and learning. Capstone projects submitted in 2019 included works of art, photo journals and original storybooks in addition to practice-based reflections on social work itself.
Schmidt Hanbidge describes the ePortfolio as “a bag or a toolkit of things that were helpful for them, different resources they’ve used, different supports they’ve accessed or developed, or how they’ve helped other people. It becomes this wonderful showcase of the person they are and what they’ve accomplished in this one-year program.”
Interested in learning more about PebblePad? Sign up for a workshop or contact Katherine Lithgow, Senior Educational Developer Integrative and Experiential Learning at the Centre for Teaching Excellence.