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Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Activity-reflection e-portfolios: An approach to the problem of effectively integrating ICTs in teaching and learning

Cameron Richards
Graduate School of Education
The University of Western Australia

E-learning platforms such as Web-CT and Blackboard are typically viewed in higher education contexts as a convenient, economical, and flexible way of integrating new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in teaching and learning. However they can also reinforce traditional transmission approaches to education as mere repositories for content and in terms of related 'add on' uses of online interaction as a substitute and not just a supplement for face to face interaction. On closer inspection it is clear that relevant educational design principles are required to effectively integrate ICTs and, in particular, to harness their 'new learning' implications. This paper will focus on the model of 'activity-reflection e-portfolios' developed initially for a teacher education context and extended to include a range of templates applicable to a very wide range of teaching and learning contexts. Such a model will thus serve as an example of: (a) an integrated approach to ICTs in teaching and learning which can be adapted to different purposes and various ICT programs as well as 'new learning' methodologies; and (b) a perspective useful in evaluating merely 'add on' uses of ICTs in education. However, its primary interest and significance perhaps lies in its encouragement of the learning process as both a teaching and assessment strategy, and therefore its connection to various 'new learning' approaches such as problem based learning, authentic assessment, and collaborative knowledge building.

The problem of effectively integrating ICTs in teaching and learning

The challenge of ICT integration in teaching and learning has long been associated with 'new' models of learning which extend from student centred theories and approaches (from 'constructivism' through to more specific notions such as problem based learning, authentic assessment, and collaborative knowledge building) on one hand, through to related pushes in higher education especially to embrace modes of distance education, flexible delivery, and open learning on the other hand. On the general assumption that 'learning' is ultimately something which can be delivered, transferred or simply posted on an internet platform, the concept of e-learning (and selectively related notions such as knowledge management, instructional design and systems theory) has somewhat uncritically perhaps and even counter-productively at times become the emblem of 'new learning' for many educators - especially educational managers. In other words, the new requirements and possibilities for more effective learning which have gained impetus from new ICT tools and media have tended so far to reinforce rather than overcome an opposition between theory, policy and rhetoric on one hand, and actual practice on the other (eg. Daniel 1996).

This paper outlines one model which attempts to outline in actual practice and not just as theory or wishful thinking a productive convergence between (a) educational designs which encourage yet assess the formative process of learning itself and (b) the powerful educational implications as well as technological possibilities of new Information and Communication Technology tools and media. In other words, the model discussed here is an integrated approach - conceived, developed, and refined over a long period of teaching based action research - to using ICT in teaching and learning in terms of an activity-reflection cycle as a key to better linking theory and practice as well as technology and pedagogy. The innovative and applied use of 'electronic portfolio' here as a learning and assessment design and strategy is distinct from typical models using this term which tend to refer primarily to the use hypermedia formats (ie. primarily either the Web or CD) for either mere learning repository or professional profiling purposes (Selding, 1997; Cambridge, 2001; Baron, 2004) - although such uses of the terms may also be linked to a performative approach to encouraging the learning process (eg. Campbell, Nettles, & Melenyzer, 2000).

The 'activity-reflection e-portfolio' model also represents an exemplary focus for discussing a convergent 'hub' for connecting, implementing, and developing the various constructivist or student centred implications of new learning technologies (Jonassen et al, 1999). The activity-reflection e-portfolio thus exemplifies a strategy for teaching and learning which is consistent with Laurillard's dialogical framework for the use of educational technology in university teaching, Schon's (1987) model of reflective practice in educational design, and Light & Cox's (2001) conception of the reflective professional in higher education. In place of traditional dichotomies of theory and practice, and also typical delineations of either skill or information acquisition in relation to applied knowledge, it advocates a view of applied knowledge grounded in both initial familiarisation or practice and also critical reflection. The activity-reflection e-portfolio might be approached as both a general strategy and also as a particular educational tool. As a general strategy we define this model as: a learning and assessment strategy which integrates the tools and processes of ICTs but also at the same time encourages, reflects, and gauges students' progressive learning, self evaluation and reflective practice.

ICTs and the most effective learning as an activity-reflection process

The concept of an activity-reflection e-portfolio was originally conceived in the specific context of teacher education as a way of getting teachers to develop an across the curriculum ICT competency or literacy and also to think about how to effectively integrate this in actual teaching and learning practice (eg. Richards, 2002). Out of its development emerged distinct notions of how the most effective learning might be conceived as an activity-reflection cycle or, alternatively, as educational design to link learner 'doing' and 'thinking'. This notion resembles in several ways David Kolb's influential model of the learning process but is distinct in so far as it is inevitably grounded in contexts of application and therefore organised in practice and not just in theory around the inherent transformations which connect learner performance and knowledge. The discussion below will therefore examine associated concepts of 'learning activity' and 'focused reflections' in terms of an overall dialogical (ie. both discursive and transformational) approach to educational design which lends itself to ICT integration but also represents an across the curriculum alternative to traditionally linear and hierarchical notions of knowledge construction and the learning process.

In contrast to a traditional linear conception of skill acquisition and a hierarchical one of information acquisition, the e-portfolio promotes learning as an activity-reflection cycle leading to more effective and applied connections between theory or procedures and practice (and various other related top down vs. bottom up imperatives of education). By focusing on the use of ICTs in education as a general literacy rather than as a discrete set of skills or processes, the learning and assessment activities which make up the e-portfolio function as a guided but open ended 'journey' to engage and overcome the initial and inherent 'thresholds of temporary frustration' which are inherent in the use of technological tools as well as the very transformations which make up the learning process. In short, ICTs extend oral and verbal literacies of human communication and information access in terms of new digital media which lend themselves to a focus on both lower order competencies and higher order generic skills such as problem solving, collaboration, and transferable applications.

The transformative stages of the activity-reflection cycle further imply a theory of activity based learning which lends itself to ICT integration as well as more effective learning links between content and process, thinking and doing, and also formal education and social context. Thus, as Figure 1 indicates, the e-portfolio frames learning in the context of a threefold process of initial familiarisation (naive/activity phase), procedural or theoretical explanation (critical/ reflective phase) and specific application (dialogical/ transformative phase). Thinking is grounded in doing, and content (ie. information or skills) is likewise linked to a primary emphasis on process. In this way a resulting orientation of 'applied knowledge' and 'reflective practice' is just as relevant to critical or conceptual modes of learning and theorising as practical or technical types of learning. Such an understanding represents a dialogue or interplay between individual performance and social knowledge.

Figure 1

Figure 1: ICT integration and learning as a threshold of transformation
Adapted from Richards (2004)

The key to effectively designing an e-portfolio as a convergent learning and assessment strategy lies in encouraging effective student interaction with theory, procedures or content in terms of linking this with either practical experience or transferable contexts of application. Where ICT is concerned, the learning focus should be on transferable functions and generic applications - instead of merely focusing on unique procedures or specialised tools in a vacuum. Learning activities should be appropriately designed to introduce, integrate and apply ICT skills and knowledge in relation to a curriculum or project purpose. It is also important to design appropriate 'focus questions' for learner reflection which encourage substantial engagement and thinking.

E-portfolios as a framework for learning activities and reflections

The focus of an activity is on some kind of doing or performance as a prelude to, in conjunction with, or as a culmination of reflective thought. This is in the context that all learning might be about enhancing reflective practice in some way. An activity may be a self contained task or an open ended series of tasks, and it may also be either physical or conceptual and symbolic in nature. It may also be an elaborately structured set of options or procedures, or may simply be a mode of play or the response to a focus question. A distinction might therefore be made introductory or initial familiarisation activities, organising activities, culminating activities and also reflection activities. Such a typology reflects the continuum as well as stages implicit in the activity-reflection cycle. It also epitomises how the key challenge of effective learning activity design is to link the indirect interests, purposes and elements of practice with both an overall learning purpose or goal and some combination of attitudinal skill, process or knowledge learning objectives (Richards, in press). Such a model proposes an interactive connection between individual interests and performance and social dialogue and knowledge - and the latter grounded in relation to the former, rather than defined in opposition to it.

If integrated into an assessment scheme especially, learning activities may also encourage much more effective participation in the learning process as well as provide a focus for grounding reflection in practice. ICT supported learning activities are ideal for producing artefacts which can be linked to an e-portfolio to provide both discrete and overall practical indicators of the learning process to complement, inform, and exemplify related critical reflections. The e-portfolio allows flexibility for various permutations of the interplay between formative and summative assessment as well as links between practical performance and critical or applied knowledge construction. Such artefacts may be assessed in terms of a pass-fail competency linked in turn to a graded reflection, or where appropriate graded in terms of a relevant criteria or rubric. For instance, the evaluation of web page or multimedia projects may be intrinsically subjective in many respects yet appropriately related to objective criteria in other respects. Also, just as it is not enough to know the basic skills of using a search engine to embody an effective information literacy knowledge, so too a bookmark file artefact of a search strategy provides a crucial complement to any reflection about a general or specific information search strategy. More content focused learning activities might typically involve reflection activity artefacts.

There are many models of ICT learning activities at primary and secondary school level which provide a useful indicator of a 'generic structure' (an anatomy of the related learning, inquiry, and knowledge building processes): (a) relevant and applicable also to higher education contexts and (b) sufficiently simplified (eg. as compared to the typical use of problem based learning examples, cases and scenarios in higher education). One such example which exemplifies inquiry based design is that of Webquests [http://webquest.sdsu.edu/webquest.html]. Contexts for searching out, evaluating and making use of authentic information from the Internet may include either an actual real life situation or a hypothetical scenario, and might further involve role playing, problem solving and collaborative teamwork in the pursuit of some required outcome or performance such as a report or presentation (see Figure 2). Webquest tasks may involve an initial or on going task, and also may have a single lesson or longer term project focus. In relation to some particular context, Webquests might also revolve around the posting of one or more reflection questions.

1An authentic or imaginary situation/context/problem
2What will learners need to do as the purpose of initial interaction (solve a problem, address some issue or challenge, etc)?
3How will this provide a pretext for specific learning outcomes in a chosen subject and re: main learning objective?
4Provide an overview of key stages or steps of activity
5What is the main ICT supported learning focus and what additional resources needed for this activity?

Figure 2: Design aide for developing an ICT supported learning activity
Adapted from Richards (2005)

Although such a structure has various applications for higher educational contexts, its main relevance lies in promoting a dialogical framework where problem based learning 'contexts' are also designed in terms of topics, questions and issues for critical reflection on one hand, and exemplary 'artefacts' of learning, inquiry, and knowledge building processes on the other. As indicated above, disciplines and knowledge areas such as medicine, science and law have productively embraced 'problem based learning' models - a fundamental approach for connecting both interactive and inquiry based learning design. More succinct, focused and applied ways of doing this would encourage innovative and applied aspects of the learning process across all disciplinary areas (especially across the divide between more process and content focused knowledge areas) with the added bonus of an integrated approach to ICTs in teaching and learning. This is especially the case in terms of the use of 'reflective' activities which are a central function and aspect of the activity-reflection e-portfolio model. E-portfolio critical reflections may be either directly or indirectly related to learning activities - as well as constituting a kind of activity in itself.

Using e-portfolios to collect, synthesise and/or encourage online reflections

The increasingly ubiquitous use of e-learning platforms includes extensive use of online web forums as an ostensible teaching and learning tool. However, typically not a great deal of 'designing' for specific purposes and outcomes goes into educational use of online forums and they tend to be an add on in various ways to the notion that online delivery is primarily a repository for content. The crucial importance of design should be apparent to anyone who has grappled with how to encourage participation in online forums and engage learners, whether to allow open ended discussion around a vague topic or more focused and structured reflection responses, and with related dilemmas of how or whether to include any learner contributions in the assessment process. Additionally there are related issues: whether to attempt synchronous exchanges (include videoconferencing)? What kind of asynchronous mode is most appropriate or are they all exactly the same (email lists vs web forum, and distinctions between various types of web forum)? How to separate individual from collective contributions (especially in terms of some of the collaborative programs and functions available)? Might new reflective modes of online presentation such as 'blogging' (Huffaker, 2004) be more relevantly harnessed for educational purposes?

Both synchronous and asynchronous modes of virtual mediation and interaction through computer mediated networks represent a kind of hybrid between informal conversation and formal writing. In part because of this, unless there are effective designs which can harness the power of online forums to encourage and promote reflection and collaboration, responses may tend to be of the more superficial and opinionated kind. Like all use of ICTs for learning, designs for educational forums represent virtual functions of teaching, learning and knowledge interaction which can either be treated as an add on substitute for or a more integrated supplement for the learning process. And the fact that the learning and assessment focus must shift from mere quantity (and reproduction) to quality (and active construction of knowledge) is exemplified by how - just as in conversation (and in Socratic modes of teaching) - one succinct and strategic question or statement in an online exchange can be more powerful than thousands of words.

Many of these dilemmas and issues can be productively transformed from problem into opportunity with the kind of approach exemplified by the activity-reflection portfolio. This approach encourages a more focused and structured use of various types of forums to engage learners in reflective, collaborative and inquiry based ways. Instead of having to hunt out individual learner contributions in large forums (like needles in a haystack), various contributions can be either collected or synthesised (even in 'cut and pasted' contexts of response to a specific thread). This would then also allow the kind of more holistic approach to evaluation or even assessment which is really needed to both encourage and fairly recognise the quality of responses. Used strategically, regular responses can also be the basis for a synthesising essay or assignment of some kind as well as linked to the learning process of educational projects and problem based learning inquiries. In such ways the activity-reflection e-portfolio can usefully complement other modes of leaning and assessment.

The particular concept of 'critical reflections' used here as the most recommended mode of using web forums for reflective responses is neither a mini-essay nor a short opinionated discussion. It is a semi-formal written response (usually 350-500 words) to relevant focus questions grounded in context and preferably linked to either concrete examples, typical case studies, an actual process of learning or a specific academic reference. In this way critical reflections should attempt to ground processes of knowledge inquiry (ie. conceptual probes), self evaluation, and various kinds of critical analysis in reflective practice - and encourage responses which reflect higher order learning and knowledge construction and not superficial opinions or mere information transmission. In short, ideas discussed should relate to practical experience and, where also appropriate, be supported by appropriate references and well-informed arguments. In this way, critical reflections represent an applied mode of thinking grounded in practical or ideational 'doing' which goes beyond the learning of mere information or skills. As individual performance, critical reflections may provide the basis for a social construction of knowledge in terms of subsequent dialogue and discussion. Figure 3 outlines the generic modes of critical reflection - the key learning focus for reconciling formative and summative assessment in the e-portfolio model.

1 Critical reflection on a practical activity or about the use of a practical skill or concept
An example of a practical activity might be the use of an internet search engine to find relevant links for a chosen and refined topic. Instead of merely re-describing the typical steps in this process, you might relate a 'reflection' discussion about key stages of this process to your actual experience of developing, applying and refining a search strategy - with particular emphasis on how some of the obstacles faced and overcome gave you new and practical insights about the process undertaken.
2 Critical reflection on a stage or process of learning development
An example of this kind of reflection might relate to either: (a) a developmental stage such as an initial design concept map or a later flow chart or storyboard; or (b) the collaborative exercise of developing a web page or educational resource. If (a) then you might discuss the possibilities versus limitations of the particular model developed - perhaps with reference to either an initial idea or the projection of a final product. If (b) then perhaps you might compare the advantages and disadvantages of collaborative efforts in terms of actual experiences related to a particular stage or a general process.
3 Critical reflection about a topic, concept or issue
This kind of reflection may not require connection to first hand practical experience but asks you to demonstrate an effective effort to think about, to explore and to develop a particular topic, concept or issue. It may be connected to a particular reading provided. If not, then you might yourself make some relevant connection to a particular references or general debate. It may also be useful to refer to relevant examples from common knowledge or someone else's experience or research (as well as your own).

Figure 3: ICT integration and generic modes of critical reflection

Implied in the distinction between these three basic types of critical reflection is a notion that some topics of learning and knowledge building are grounded more in applied 'contexts' and 'processes' of generic transferability and others more in the similarly transformative understanding or interpretation of 'content'. Thus the typology above lends its to distinct options which may more relevant in some areas of knowledge or for specific learning purposes.

Hypermedia projects as an exemplary use of the e-portfolio model

The e-portfolio model outlined here further represents a particular convergence between learning as an activity-reflection cycle and the literacy implications of the hypermedia interface. The exemplary instance of a learning and assessment e-portfolio is a website of hypertextual links (reflecting a required template) to activity artefacts and reflections related to the range of different types of learning outlined above. Alternatively, the e-portfolio might be saved to disk (eg. CD) and submitted this way. In any case, the process of constructing an e-portfolio can and should be a simple one. An e-portfolio promotes two key related effects. It represents a framework or context for organising, reflecting and generally enhancing or encouraging the process and outcomes of various modes and elements of either concrete or abstract learning. As a culmination of the learning process, the publication or presentation of learning outcomes or products on the Internet represents an authentic mode of assessment which extends beyond immediate formal learning purposes and the audience of the teacher-marker (eg. it might remain a useful personal resource or be shared with others). Indeed, the immediacy and potentially universal access to web publications or presentations are significant and powerfully motivating elements of ICTs as the basis for new literacies of interaction and knowledge.

Course X: Multimedia Development

Project (40%)
Developmental Process
Reflections (40%)
Other (20%)

  1. Concept map
  2. Flow chart
  3. Storyboard
  4. Project final product
  1. Stages and elements of multimedia project development
  2. The development of a workable design idea
  3. The process of interface design construction
  4. Evaluation Phase - Gauging and refining effectiveness of project
    1. Seminar presentation, discussion and report

    Figure 4: E-portfolio template for a course lending itself to a project based approach

    Figure 4 outlines the example of an e-portfolio project based learning template for hyperlinks customised for an actual course focusing on multimedia development. The final product provides the convergent focus for reflections about the various stages, elements, and artefacts of the learning process about multimedia tools on one hand, and multimedia design on the other. The organising focus of (and the idea for) the project itself was developed in the context of a series of process elements - concept mapping, flow charting, and storyboarding. Together these activity artefacts were just as important as the final product for assessment purposes since they reflected the process of learning as well as development. While the project and its planning elements were developed in pairs as a collaboration, the reflections and seminar items constituted an 'individual performance' which complemented but could be distinguished from the collaborative element. Likewise, the individual reflections were posted to online web forums as a basis for ongoing sharing and discussion of ideas in the course. This is in contrast to how Web discussion forums often promote vague and opinionated interactions around the online posting of mere content.

    Although beyond the scope of the present discussion, it is also perhaps useful to point out that activity-reflection e-portfolios (potentially) involves an associated interface design requirement to organise interaction beyond the function of a mere repository. This design requirement exemplifies the function of narrative and metaphor for organising knowledge interaction in a way which contrasts with the traditional linear and hierarchical approaches to the learning process and knowledge construction.

    Applications to different modes and disciplines of learning

    The activity-reflection portfolio can be structured and developed in terms of several different types of templates which reflect a spectrum between focusing on the development of ICT literacy as an end in itself (or the primary learning goal) on one hand, and as the basis (ie. ICT as a mode of literacy) for learning in any content or disciplinary area of knowledge on the other. This continuum is indicated in Figure 5 by the different contexts and generic templates for using e-portfolios as a learning and assessment tool.

    1 Introductory or advanced ICT skill and knowledge acquisition
    • Activity focus is typically structured as a competency checklist of skills or knowledge.
    • Reflection focus is on learning stages as a transformation proceeding from basic skill acquisition and effective attitudinal orientation towards goals of confidence, innovation and application.
    • Overall e-portfolio learning and assessment objectives goals relate to the general attainment or development of ICT skills and knowledge as an applied 'literacy' and habitual practice.
    2 ICT in education subjects (e-learning; instructional design, educational technology subjects, ICT foundation courses, etc)
    • Activity focus in this kinds of courses is more directly on the use of ICTs in terms of various generic skills (problem solving, collaborative learning, etc), as a 'literacy across the curriculum', and generally in relation to constructivist or student centred notions of educational design.
    • Similarly, the reflection focus here is on more applied contexts and practical issues of learning with ICTs generally - in short, may include a combination of content and process learning topics and related objectives.
    • The e-portfolios for such courses are mostly concerned with the progression or transformation from 'old learning' (teacher centred) to 'new learning' (student centred) in introductory or foundational ways.
    3 Project based or problem based learning approaches
    • A project or problem focus represents an 'organising activity' rationale here - a context for developing different stages and elements of an overall learning process in terms of various related learning activities using ICTs.
    • The process of development is usually more important than the product (ie. the direct outcome is merely a focus for a convergence of indirectly related outcomes). Hence, the reflection topics and questions here provide a formative and synthesising focus for the progressive attainment of an organising learning purpose or goal.
    • Overall purposes may range from an applied problem solving orientation to specific areas of practical or conceptual knowledge on one hand, to the use of project based learning as a powerful motivational framework for a more general engagement with knowledge - especially in terms of an ICT 'design' focus.
    4 Specific subjects or content
    • Learning activities here are typically 'thematic' in focus and provide an introductory connection to a specific curricular or disciplinary content.
    • Reflective practice here should be based on the kind of substantial and effective engagement with topics of knowledge (also specific procedures or theories) which are encouraged by good 'focus questions' in terms of general issues, particular information, and perhaps also relevant 'readings' (ie. resources or references).
    • While ICTs need not be used directly for promoting an activity-reflection cycle here, an e-portfolio model nevertheless provides a learning and assessment context for both integrating ICTs as a general literacy lending itself to constructivist or student centred learning.

    Figure 5: Different learning contexts for customisable e-portfolio templates

    The activity-reflection e-portfolio might thus be applied to a range of different types of learning. It represents an approach which encourages students to be more active, reflective and innovative learners in potential or actual contexts of application, in contrast to learning as the mere acquisition of information or skills in isolation on one hand, or as privileged abstraction and theorising in a contextual vacuum on the other. The e-portfolio has further been outlined above as a convergent hub also for a series of related notions linked to a view of the constructivist or learner centred implications of ICT in education (project based learning, authentic assessment, collaborative learning, etc.). To the extent that it provides a design strategy for framing the learning process and effectively integrating ICTs in education, it is a model which exemplifies the implications, possibilities and requirements of 'new learning'.


    E-learning platforms or programs are increasingly being used in higher education for teaching and learning purposes. However, the typical use of such programs as repositories for content in the manner of traditional transmission approaches to teaching and learning reminds us that alternative approaches to educational design are needed to more effectively harness (and 'design' for) the learner centred implications of the various tools and media of new learning technologies. The activity-reflection e-portfolio represents one effort at are more integrated and effective approach to both educational design and ICT use for teaching and learning purposes which lends itself to different disciplinary or knowledge areas (at different levels) and different specific methods of learning and assessment. As an applied strategy refined over time for better (a) linking technology and pedagogy, (b) encouraging learning as reflective practice and (c) (not just linking but) converging various associated learner centred models and theories of teaching and learning, the activity-reflection e-portfolio model thus can be said to represent an antidote to the often dominant 'add on' approaches to ICTs in education exemplified by the misuse of e-learning tools and platforms.


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    Author: Cameron Richards is a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at UWA. His previous academic positions include the Queensland University of Technology, Singapore National Institute of Education, and the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He has researched and published widely about the practical as well as cultural and conceptual challenges and implications of effectively integrating ICTs in education.

    Dr Cameron Richards
    Graduate School of Education
    The University of Western Australia
    35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009
    Tel: +61 8 6488 3353 Fax: +61 8 6488 1052 Email: Cameron.richards@uwa.edu.au

    Please cite as: Richards, C. (2005). Activity-reflection e-portfolios: An approach to the problem of effectively integrating ICTs in teaching and learning. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/richards.html

    Copyright 2005 Cameron Richards. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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