Anis Bawarshi and Steven Corbett
Expository Writing Program, Department of English
University of Washington, Seattle Campus
The Expository Writing Program
Every year the University of Washington's Expository Writing Program (EWP) engages over 4,000 undergraduate students a year in a process the EWP describes as "how to develop and practice the skills and habits that are foundational to academic writing, and also to recognize how to adapt these skills and habits for the varied demands of university-wide writing that they will encounter." Their courses fulfill the composition requirement and are mostly taught by teaching assistants (TAs). Nearly 800 students a quarter take English 131, Composition: Exposition, the course most commonly offered through the EWP. In the late nineties, the EWP started requiring all English 131 students to complete a portfolio to demonstrate that they have mastered the course outcomes. These portfolios, worth 70% of their grade, require the students to reflect upon their work and choose examples of their writings which best illustrate their achievements.
Originally, all of the portfolios were done on paper. This required the students to save all of their papers, revise some of them, and re-submit their best work in their portfolio. Unfortunately, not all of the students picked up their paper portfolios at the end of the quarter, the students' work rarely was seen by anyone other than the instructor, and the TA had to keep track of a huge stack of papers. Anis Bawarshi, the Director of the Expository Writing Program, wanted students to develop a facility with technology, incorporate multimedia into their writing, write for a wide audience, and create a piece of work that they can continue developing after the course. For these reasons, the EWP decided to try using electronic portfolios.
Imagine being a TA for a course with hundreds of pages of papers to review, teaching for the first time, and taking a full load of graduate-level courses. On top of all this, you are asked if you would like to participate in a pilot study using an unfamiliar technology. In 2005-2006, six TAs did exactly that. They used the Catalyst Portfolio tool to have students collect and reflect upon their writing.
To implement electronic portfolios, the EWP worked with Catalyst to create a set of prompts, known as a Portfolio Project, which ask students to reflect upon their work and choose and attach their best writing samples. The TAs were given the Web address for the Portfolio Project which they then passed on to their students. At the end of the quarter, the students published their portfolios and gave their TA the URL.
The six TAs who chose to teach with electronic portfolios discovered many advantages to introducing this technology. They found that students learned to write for a wider audience and were able to better connect to the course outcomes by showing a greater variety of examples such as graphics and links to relevant Web pages. The electronic portfolios also simplified some logistics, allowing the instructors to easily show examples of online portfolios and students to review each other's work.
According to Steven Corbett, EWP's Graduate Assistant Director, Portfolio provided a "warm welcome to technology for someone who hasn't been exposed to it." It wasn't hard to follow the prompts, and it made students and TAs realize that they could create a Web site without knowing how to code. This opened the "technology gate" for Corbett who plans to center his next course on electronic Portfolios. The electronic portfolios his students created were "exciting" with innovative uses of color, pictures, and linked artifacts. The EWP is exploring using electronic portfolios in other settings and is planning to use them in English 567, the course new TAs take to learn about the theory and practice of teaching writing.
The experience, however, was not entirely blissful. Some of the students waited until late in the quarter to learn how to use the tool, resulting in additional stress during finals week. Some tried to upload huge image files which went beyond their storage quota. Part of their assignment required them to include feedback which was sometimes hand written. To include hand-written comments, the students had to take the extra step of scanning in and uploading the feedback. However, overall the students and instructors are positive about the experience.
Thinking about using online Portfolios?
Compared to other units on campus, the EWP had some advantages and some disadvantages in their adoption of electronic portfolios. They had the advantage of already having an established requirement for students to create portfolios. Although taking the portfolios online caused them to rethink many aspects of the final project, they were not starting from square one. They also had a clear set of learning outcomes which makes it easier to write the prompts. However, not having a strong tradition of using technology in the EWP, they took the process slowly, making participation optional. They also had the challenge of using TAs who have strict limits on their time; most of them additionally had little or no experience using technology in the classroom.
Learning from the TAs' experiences, the EWP plans to add more detailed training materials with specific instructions on uploading files. Several of the TAs also suggested having the students complete an assignment using the Portfolio tool early in the quarter to allow them to feel comfortable with the technology from the beginning and get used to reflecting upon their work. Additionally, they suggested showing the students examples of effective Portfolios. This year, all TAs teaching English 131 will have the option of using electronic portfolios, and perhaps someday, all sections will be creating their portfolios online.