Developing a successful academic identity for ‘non-traditional’ students

Introduction

During the Autumn semester of 2007–08, London Metropolitan University established a pilot electronic portfolio (ePortfolio) project across nine modules, representing a variety of departments, courses and levels. The pilot ePortfolio environment was that of the Blackboard WebCT Portfolio and the module leaders involved all had extensive experience with WebCT. The pilots were intended to explore the potential of the WebCT Portfolio to act as a space for students to reflect upon their personal development, showcase achievement and respond to feedback from their tutor(s).

In one pilot case study, the Foundation Degree in Community Sports Coaching (Blundell and Cunningham, 2007a and b), the portfolio was placed at the centre of the first-semester curriculum and the students encouraged to use it as a repository for a variety of digital resources.

As the semester unfolded, the three students on the course accumulated a large number of resources in their portfolios, which they shared with their course leader and with the pilot project co-ordinator (the authors)—they also agreed to allow us to use their work for research purposes and possible publication. The three students are Trevor, Charlene and Mike; their names have been changed to protect their privacy. Brief biographical details can be found in Appendix 1.

The digital resources posted included evidence of prior achievement, meeting sports coaching or performance standards and coaching session evaluation, material of personal interest, a learning object and other notes. For this first cohort, the sport involved was cricket although this will be expanded to other sports in the future.

Our methodology in this paper is to present a small sample of work from a small sample of students and we do not claim in any way that it is a fully representative, or unbiased, piece of research. The close involvement of both authors with the students means that we cannot claim to be objective. Nonetheless, we were pleasantly surprised at the ease with which the students engaged with the ePortfolio and created a representation unique to them that did not correspond at all with any prescribed content suggested by the authors.

‘Non-traditional’ students

The students involved are ‘non-traditional’ students, due to one or more factors such as class/cultural background, first in family to come to university, non-standard entry qualifications and race. They exhibit a number of interesting characteristics:
1. Diversity of experience and achievement in non-academic arenas —The ePortfolio provides an opportunity for them to celebrate and showcase their achievements; e.g., one student uploaded a YouTube video of himself performing a basketball ‘slam dunk’, see Figure 1. The three students are all successful at many sports, not only cricket.

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Figure 1: ‘Slam dunk’ video uploaded by Trevor

2. Diversity of IT experience and self-confidence—Their rapid adaptation to the BlackBoard WebCT ePortfolio environment indicates that they may even be better ‘digital natives’ than the more traditional students on other standard degree courses. The ePortfolio encouraged them to show off these skills. They immediately began to include links to Web 2.0 services such as YouTube, creating a distributed ePortfolio, a personalised learning environment to reflect their identity (Downes, 2008).

3. Diversity of race—The choice of so much of their study was about positive images of key figures from minority cultures (e.g., Clive Lloyd, see Figure 2). The ePortfolio allowed an opportunity to develop this aspect of the crossover between their personal and academic identities, allowing them to celebrate their role models.

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Figure 2: Learning object about Clive Lloyd (Mike)

Most of the ePortfolio content was due to the assessment aspects of the course; e.g., the portfolio formed the basis for the compilation of a learning object for the HEO (Higher Education Orientation) core module. The intention was for the material to be shaped and oriented so that it contributes to the completion of their professional standards—personal performance and coaching. Figure 3 shows an example of a coaching session evaluation document—evidence of their new sports-related academic achievement.

The course leader (a co-author of this paper, who also taught or convened the four first-semester modules) included portfolio-related activity in all four modules. He also suggested to them that it could eventually be sifted into a summative PDP (personal development portfolio) for their key achievements on the degree—that could be taken into job interviews. Sessions were booked in the IT lab to introduce the ePortfolio and assist with uploading files. In these and other ways, a ‘community of practice’ emerged with the ePortfolio as a central component or tool.

The challenge for academics is how to structure and develop the ePortfolio to reflect both the breadth and the depth of portfolio-related activity (see Chalk, 2008 for a discussion of all nine ePortfolio pilots for different perspectives on this). Evidence from this pilot indicates that no predetermined structure at all may be best to allow students to build their ePortfolios to reflect their personal identities.

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Figure 3: Scanned coaching session evaluation (Trevor)

Positive self-identity

For whatever reason—the centrality of the portfolio, its place in module assessment, the small group size or the ‘Hawthorne effect’, i.e., the effect of the teacher in the classroom on how the students perceive the event—these ‘non-traditional’ students were creatively engaged with their portfolios in a way not seen on the other pilot modules (at least in the portfolios made available to view). It is the contention of the authors that the positive aspects of their diversity—sports rather than academic prowess, as digital natives, race, the struggle to emerge from a non-academic working class background— gives them a positive sense of self-identity, achievement and confidence that is often submerged within traditional university degree courses but is allowed to be celebrated, showcased and developed by the electronic portfolio approach. See Figure 4 for an example of this (the scholarship photo); Trevor also uploaded poems he had written. The sport (and recognition of other aspects of identity) enables personal connection to, and expression of, academic learning. ‘Otherness’ is not viewed as a barrier, but rather as a tool to help realise academic excellence.

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Figure 4: Scholarship evening photo on Trevor’s home page

There may also be something important about belonging (or being able to ‘dwell’) within the University that the VLE and ePortfolio might offer. The ePortfolio pages offer students spaces within which the students can express their membership of the University and so they facilitate the emergence and legitimacy of their identity as students in rather interesting ways—it’s one thing to offer access, another for the University to accommodate difference. The following quotation from Heidegger (1971, pp. 48, 146, 160) is suggestive of the role that the ePortfolio might play in students’ acculturation to the University:

‘We do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell, that is because we are dwellers…To build is in itself already to dwell…Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.’

By analogy with a familiar, albeit clichéd, student-hood institution, the ePortfolio offers a virtual space which is akin to having your own room within a shared house; it affords a space within which not only to make a home, but also to stake a claim on membership—to dwell. Without wishing to overextend the analogy, having engaged with ‘student life’ becomes for many as authentic a credential for having been to ‘Uni’ as the degree certificate itself—it is part and parcel of constructing oneself as authentically a student and, in turn, a graduate. It appears as if the ePortfolio has potential for some, if not many students (especially from non-traditional backgrounds) to broach the challenges of being a student in Higher Education.

As Trevor suggests, ‘In University you don’t just complete your course, but find yourself. The portfolio gives you free time to do this enhancing yourself.’

More specifically, it seems clear, from Trevor’s ePortfolio in particular, that this group of students has chosen to build their portfolios in ways that reflect their enthusiasm and sense of achievement and identity. It could be that the open and structure-less nature of the electronic portfolio (as opposed to the paper PDP ‘official’ university document) positively encourages students to build, rather than ‘dwell in’, their portfolio. Trevor’s array of achievements, from the videos, to the photo, to the file of poems, reflects the different ways modern students view technology, and how to use it to present themselves. The university needs to incorporate this student feedback and innovation into its policy and future ePortfolio framework.

However, dwelling has to be accompanied by building, and the authors are keen to avoid the idealisation of the ePortfolio merely as a site for a rather romantic self-realisation. There is also a need for more formal, dialogic engagement with institutions, whether this is the obvious and more tangible one of University and its ways, or a more abstract sense of ‘graduateness’ and the social and cultural capitals inscribed within them.

Interestingly, Trevor goes on to identify recognisably more formal outcomes from his relatively un-institutionalised engagement with the portfolio, in that he sees the way in which the assemblage of material can translate into a CV: the portfolio is ‘good for future reference; it could even be your CV, it’s just like a CV, planning ahead.’

Transferability and formal academic requirements

The elements of their ePortfolios that were more related to the formal academic requirements of the course (evaluation feedback, meeting standards, learning object course work, etc.; see Figures 3 and 5) may also indicate a successful transfer of skills—evidencing, uploading, showcasing. However, it should be noted that there was little evidence of critical, reflective writing in depth and the showcasing of evidence was almost entirely the uploading of files without web page editing, or appropriate image editing (see the learning object in Figure 2 and the wagon wheel in Figure 5). In one case, Word was used instead of PowerPoint for the presentation, so at least one student was not entirely a ‘digital native’ but she did prove she could improvise. This improvisation seems to indicate a growth point at which learning can happen because, implicitly, the student has appraised and tackled the challenges that the context presents.

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Figure 5: Personal performance wagon wheel

One of our colleagues read an early draft of this paper and commented on a possible link between evidencing feedback, showcasing achievement and successful progression as follows:

‘It does seem as if these sports students may have a much clearer idea of success (e.g., being selected for a team or scoring a point) and can, therefore, collect and publish evidence much more readily. There is a psychology theory called KOR or knowledge of results, which suggests that if a student gets positive feedback quickly, they will be inspired to continue. Slam-dunking is pretty quick feedback on your efforts. Given that most students complain about the time it takes to get feedback, there may be something here’ (Page, 2008).

It may also be noted that e-learning also provides fast feedback, in the sense that one can immediately see the effects of uploading a picture or video when viewing it online in the electronic portfolio.

Conclusion

By initially focussing on positive prior achievements, their sense of pride in a confident and successful self-identity, the students seem to have been much more confident about engaging with and sharing their ePortfolios than our more ‘traditional’ students on the honours degree courses, who may come ready-acculturated to the practices of study, personal presentation and scholarship generally. This approach, of encouraging an initial showcasing of prior achievement as one of the first PDP tasks, in order to foster a positive self-identity and enable early development of skills, should also apply to other diverse categories of students, e.g., overseas, older, work-based students. Another, tentative, conclusion is that this study demonstrates the inappropriateness of any ‘deficit’ model of ‘non-traditional students’—indeed they bring a wealth of prior achievement, authentic experience and desire to succeed.

These students explicitly come to regard the portfolio as a familiar space in which students and staff can all engage with each other in formative ways.

Third, the students readily link their ePortfolio to other examples of their identity, demonstrating, as Downes (2008) argues, that ‘the ePortfolio resembles less and less […] a single place or location where students put all their work, and becomes more and more what is being referred to as a personal learning environment [which] adopts and embraces Web 2.0 methodologies’.

However, Trevor is clear about the organisational and formative possibilities of the portfolio, seeing an impressively global potential in it: ‘I’m an internet freak, doing this you’re doing something useful. You’re organising your life, like an electronic organiser. From doing the portfolio my life is a bit more organised!’

The challenge for us as staff is to build on the desire for self-affirmation demonstrated by students who typically bring considerable experience of the ‘real world’ and to use the ePortoflio as a way of fostering a self-reflective, ‘academic’ transformation (supplementation) of their identity. This paper demonstrates—albeit for a small case study—that the former is in place, our wider pilot study additionally confirmed that more work is needed to produce a deeper, analytical and critical self.

Biography

David Blundell teaches in the Department of Education. After some years in Primary teacher education he worked with the Islington-based Access to Sport Project and Hackney Community College as a community cricket development worker; this included work on literacy and numeracy with Primary-aged children through the Learning Through Cricket programme. He is Course Leader for Education Studies (non-QTS) and the Foundation Degree in Community Sport Coaching and is working with partners to develop Community Sport Coaches as professionally recognised pedagogues and agents of grassroots’ public health.

Peter Chalk teaches computing and co-ordinates the undergraduate PDP (Personal Development Portfolio) framework. This includes maintaining the PDP website, organising pilot electronic portfolio research and leading the university’s membership of Cohort IV of the International Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (http://ncepr.org/). Peter has publications on e-learning dating back to 1985.

Contact details

David Blundell

Department of Education, London Metropolitan University, Holloway Road, London N7 8DB
Phone: 020 7133 2654

References

Blundell, D. and Cunningham, P. (2007a), ‘Community Sport Coaches as Social Pedagogues and Agents of Citizenship Education’, CiCe Nordic Conference: Citizenship Education in Society—A challenge for the Nordic countries at Malmö University, School of Teacher Education, Malmö, Sweden, 5–6 October.

Blundell, D. and Cunningham, P. (2007b), ‘Bowling/ together/: community cricket coaches and public health’, London Teaching Public Health Network Stakeholders’ Meeting, ULU, Malet Street, London, 3 December.

Chalk, P. (2008), ‘Introducing an electronic portfolio: results of a one semester pilot’, London Metropolitan University PDP Group Report (to be published in Investigations). Retrieved on 29 July 2008 from http://studweb.north.londonmet.ac.uk/~chalkp/res/pdp-pilot-paper-pchalk.doc.

Downes, S. (2008), ‘My Digital Identity’, Keynote Address to the 2nd Pan-American and Francophone ePortfolio Conference: ePortfolio and Digital Identity, Concordia University on 5–7 May 2008. Retrieved on 19 October 2008 from http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2008/10/my-digital-identity.html.

Heidegger, M. (1971), Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper and Row.

Appendix: Student biographies

‘Trevor’

Trevor is a twenty-year old student who was born, grew up and educated in Hackney. He has recently moved into independent accommodation that is nearer to the University in Islington. He was educated at Kingsland Comprehensive School (which was in Special Measures through most of his time there) and B6 (formerly Brooke House) Sixth Form College. Trevor followed a BTEC programme in Sport Science whilst at his sixth form college. He enjoys a great deal of positive support and encouragement from his close family and they are all very proud of his accession to University. He was awarded a scholarship to support his studies and is very proud of this as well as feeling the need to live up to the responsibility to do well that he feels this places upon him. Trevor plays basketball and cricket and is an active community coach in school and allied settings. He is a regular volunteer at a youth club in Hackney and wants to carry on with community-based coaching work when he graduates. Besides sport, Trevor writes poetry.

‘Charlene’

Charlene joined the course in September 2007 as an overseas’ sport scholarship student. Her main sport is hockey and she has represented Guyana at full international level. Charlene has also represented her country at squash. She was born and educated in Georgetown, Guyana and attended the Marian Academy there. Prior to studying at University, she studied Business and is keen to combine her Community Coaching qualification with business to develop sport in Guyana.

‘Mike’

Mike is a strong all-round sportsman in his early thirties, who played in goal for Tottenham Hotspur at schoolboy level until a severe injury curtailed his development. He also plays cricket and has played for Hackney Community College Cricket Academy (with whom the course has a partnership link). Tennis and swimming are other sports with which Mike is actively engaged. His injury at Tottenham dealt a severe blow to Mike’s confidence, since a career in professional sport seemed to beckon. By his own admission, it has taken several years to come to terms with the shock of not being a footballer, but entering Higher Education has opened new doors for him. The Foundation Degree has afforded Mike an opportunity once again to engage professionally with sport by fulfilling his ambition, in the first instance, to coach and then to become a secondary PE teacher. Mike was educated in Hackney at Cardinal Pole RC Secondary School and prior to University his highest qualifications were GCSEs.

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