The Social Network ePortfolio - A two year pilot with Elgg ends

It looks like my school is moving on to Google Apps and Google Sites for our ePortfolio platform. But before I dive into the new and promising system, I would like to reflect on our experiences using Elgg(the classic code) as an ePortfolio.

Elgg and the ePortfolio project at Hawaii Tokai International College did not catch on very quickly. Just trying to get students to fill out their profiles and upload their avatars was a challenge especially since our department is ESL! To our surprise all young people do not know how to use computers. This is a myth and anyone planning to implement technology in the classroom should plan for training sessions. After a little bit a pushing most of our students eventually filled out their profiles, think facebook page, but never really made a work of art out of them.

Our next requirement was to have students upload writing artifacts for each level of the program. This was successful. Elgg provides a relatively simple way to do this. Elgg also provided three levels of access, private, logged in users, and public. Most just left the default logged in users for their files and blogs. Elgg has access controls to further customize access, but they were too difficult to use for our students and faculty and they never caught on. Elgg's search was particularly useful for finding students and then viewing their artifacts. Some instructors commented that they used this feature to find students old papers when writing letters of recommendation.

The most successful of all of Elggs features was using communities for blogging. We set up a Classroom without Walls blog so students could reflect on their class excursions. Here real learning was demonstrated. Elgg has a nice optional feature of showing the latest blog posts on the front page. So suddenly everyone was a web author. I think the exposure to each other made students put more genuine effort into what they were writing. The communities expanded to Service Learning, there was one for our faculty, and a handful for different courses. So here, the social aspect of Elgg was strong and our program started to look more united blogging for a common purpose. Faculty were leaving comments on students blogs and a formative element of learning was taking place.

Unfortunately, when it came to making a presentation of artifacts, blogs, and multimedia, Elggs presentation tool was not really up to par. It could pull from all the artifacs uploaded and blog entries, but then just made a list of them. You could include a textbox next to the linked artifact for reflection. This tool was too complicated and students felt labored by the technology. It probably would have been simpler to just use a personal website builder to get this job done. The tool may have gotten in the way of real reflection. I understand the new version of Elgg has Pages, which is a feature that may address some the classic code's shortcomings.

All in all, a social network as an ePortfolio was a fun and worthy experiment. It was really neat to see students blogging together and teachers commenting. It gave our department a sense of unity and everyone had a voice. But at the same time, it was more difficult to implement structure and requirements, and students also could not easily make their own creative design. Students did not entirely adopt to the social networking and most still preferred facebook to their schools not as flashy imitation. It leaves me to think maybe we would have gotten more out of students if they had their own private space to collect and reflect. Any institution thinking of going social network eportfolio should consider the social character of their school before going forward.

The most significant lessons learned were platform independent. Students need to know why they are making an eportfolio and they need to know what is expected of them. It is the faculty's job to help them understand and state the purpose of an ePortfolio and I think requirements in the form of artifacts connected to standards, competencies or outcomes is a good idea along with a rubric for assessment, a hard thing to design for a social network. Leaving students to completely decide what to include and reflect on could also leave them without direction. So a clear purpose and plan is important and should be balanced with creativity and experimentation. The faculty had a positive experience with Elgg and overcame a technology hurdle. Now that we have some experience with blogging and uploading and a chance to design a curriculum with an eportfolio, we will certainly have more insight into the process.