Monday, 1 June 2015

Learning Journals, Google Sites, & ePortfolios

Learning Journals in the Junior School


Our Master Google Site - All Learning Journals start off like this.

All Primary School students at UWCSEA Dover have 'ePortfolios', although we prefer the term Learning Journal (LJ). This post is not about that important distinction, for more on the pedagogical rationale for why we use Learning Journals see my other post about this. This post is more about the how and the why of our organisation of these, than it is about the many reasons for their existence.

Our students in the Infant School do not curate their own LJs (yet) so we use a system where teachers can curate content for students into online albums, for more on that process and setup see my post on Learning Journals in the Early Years

Platform Choice

We wrestled long and hard with this, ultimately as a GApps school it makes sense to stay inside the Google domain, and our choices come down to Blogger or Google Sites. If you're interested in the pros and cons, see the doc I set up to share perspectives on this with other tech coaches, but the main thing to consider is that the aim was to fairly consider all options, and then to choose the platform that works best for journaling and capturing learning. Blogger is great for simplicity, and ease of sharing, especially with parents, but when it comes to easily being able to insert content from Google Drive, and PDFs, Google Sites was easily our platform of choice. We still wrestle with the fact that parents often find themselves on the 'outside' of our Google Apps domain, unable to see some content, as students have to specifically manage the share settings for everything that they insert, yes this can be a pain (made a lot easier by using the Hapara Teacher Dashboard), but, as is often the case with these things, it is also an essential '21st Century skill' - managing who can see what you post online. So rather than seeing this as a problem, see it as an opportunity


Google Site Considerations

We've been using Google Sites as Learning Journals for few years now, and it's going well, but we've made a few changes in light of classroom practice that have been very important. If you want the benefit of our hindsight, read on:

Design the master site, and design it well, this 'sets the tone', and it is almost impossible to change once you've copied one for each of your students, so plan it very carefully. In particular don't allow your assumptions about paper portfolios to influence your options too heavily. These LJs are digital, and as such they should be designed to make the most of the affordances of digital technologies, which I sum up as SAMMS—Situated, Accessible, Mutable, Multimodal, and Socially networked.

Ours is built based on the following considerations:

  • Colour theme that matches our existing school palette, it should feel 'official'
  • By all means design it around a paper portfolio model (we did, hence our subject divisions) but be open to changing this when you realise that a digital portfolio has affordances that make many of the assumptions behind the organisation of a paper portfolio obsolete. Such as:
    • Use a 'rollover' model, we tried a new site each year, but it's impractical. Only new students get new sites, every one else takes their LJ with them from year to year.
    • Make every page a mini 'blog' by using the 'announcements template' this way the LJ is a series of connected blogs, more than a website per se. 
    • Make the 'front page' count, in terms of 'screen real estate' this is the most important part of the LJ (this is definitely not the case with a paper portfolio!). 
    • So, the front page for our LJs is the most important part of the LJ, it is the place where the students post anything about their lives and their learning that does not fit within the boundaries of the subject tabs. This grows every year, but is probably best summed up by a focus on the 4 of our 5 elements that are not academic: activities (as well hobbies/holiday activities), outdoor education, PSHE, and Service. Increasingly some students are using this as a space to 'blog' in the more traditional sense, ie use it as a kind of diary, 'My doggy ate my Barbie'.
    • Keep it simple, the mutability of the screen means the students can easily add what you/they need, and even restructure if necessary. Don't over complicate things, they can (and will) change it anyway if they want to.
    • Break free of the 'once a term' share restrictions of paper, these are screen based so sharing is much easier, share little and often—literally every completed post can be shared with the family with a simple email, make the most of it. Parents would much rather get a post a fortnight than a deluge of content once every few months.


Exemplar Learning Journals

It's important to keep a focus on what works, and what doesn't, each year we capture one per grade that is above average, (we want something for teachers and students to aim for) but one that represents what most students were able to create over the course of the year, here's one from a Grade 4 student.

Grade 4 Learning Journal

One More Thing...

Students can change the template design, although we ask them to leave the layout alone; we put a lot of thought into the structure, so allowing the students to rip it to bits really undermines all the thought that went into its design. No doubt as time goes by, and our students have a more profound understanding of the structure of the LJ, they may of course make structural changes, but—and this is critical—we discourage students from getting distracted by website customisation (with varying degrees of success). Many do customise their LFs, and no doubt get a great deal of pleasure from it, example here:



But it's important that students understand that time spent redesigning their LJ is 'extra curricular' and not something they can justify spending time on when they are supposed to be creating a LJ post that is focused on the curriculum. That said, the process for customising a Google Site is not a simple one, it never ceases to amaze me how effectively these students have empowered each other to make quite complex changes to their LJs, without a teacher ever being consulted. I guess this goes to show two things—our students certainly feel ownership of their Learning Journals, and even if we wanted to stop them, we are unlikely to succeed... 


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