Eportfolios – a wrong turn?

We’re getting asked for eportfolios by early DiDA adopters. For those unfamiliar with the term, an eportfolio is an online repository of a student’s work. Eportfolios are the new new thing in elearning.

There’s an eportfolio conference right here in Cambridge at the end of this month and I suppose I really ought to go, but the truth is that eportfolios in their conventional configuration leave me cold.

Take a look at OSP (Open Source Portfolio) for example. Being open source it is free, well-supported, has the standard feature set and is pretty right-on. It would be an obvious candidate for anybody’s shortlist. Of the genre, it’s clearly one of the better ones.

But what does it actually do? The bottom line is, it stores files for individuals and groups. It takes the good old exercise book or ring binder, and puts it online. This is the flip side of putting a textbook online, and we all know what happens there. The first thing anyone does with an online textbook is print it out. All that technology has done no more than create a glorified shelf-cum-post-office.

Five years ago, Chalkface set out to answer the question “if schoolkids’ work was online, what could we do with it that is really useful?” The answer, we quickly found, depended on how much we knew about it in advance. Let’s take some examples of typical schoolwork:

  • The student has filled out a questionnaire. We want to collate the results. To do this we need to correlate the answers to the questions.
  • The student has written some short-text answers. They can be machine marked if the computer knows enough about exactly what to expect where.
  • The student has assembled a larger report under standard headings. By keeping the data in discrete chunks representing each heading, we can quickly see where the student needs support. What’s more, those answers can be correlated across a whole class; invaluable for lesson planning.

So, to make student inputs really useful, we needed to store them in clearly categorised chunks. And to achieve that categorisation, we found, we needed to integrate the storage system very tightly with the course content. This was the guiding principle that led to the design of Paperless School.

So how come Paperless School didn’t conquer Secondary Education? What has happened in practice, is that schools are having imposed upon them hand-me-down systems from Higher Education. They were designed for typical HE coursework; small numbers of lengthy assignments with very few common elements – the exact opposite to the requirements of secondary schools. They are held in place by an orthodoxy about adherence to standards. Which might be a good thing, if they were the right standards in the first place..

We have found a niche for Paperless School in the Applied GCSEs (Business, ICT), so the work we put in is far from wasted. And I continue to believe that as schools discover the problems of the current generation of eportfolios, they will turn in time to Paperless School, or something very like it.

Alternative test templates on Yacapaca – which is better?

I asked Mark Leighton, author of Online Assessment in ICT for feedback on our new ‘avatar’ template. He said:

I like the colours and overall style, and I like the
clock feature – it is somehow less imposing than a line symbol.

Yes I think this is well adapted to KS3, although we must be careful not
to go as far as to make it appear too ‘child friendly’, since this is what
puts me off a number of other VLE type solutions / content – I think it
needs to retain a ‘business like’ element to the interface.

This new design certainly has a bigger ‘wow’ factor when you first go into

Overall, a definite improvement and a nice clean interface. I think you
have pitched it well for KS3.

Very encouraging! I’ve take Mark’s note of caution on board, and kept the ‘plain’ template available as well. See for yourself; here’s the same test (NC Level 6) on the avatar template and on the plain template. Which would you set for your KS3 students?


I plan to use the new avatar template for the Business quizzes
and stick with the old one for the Economics questions. Not sure why I
don’t use the new Avatar for the 6th form, I’m sure they wouldn’t think it
was too “kiddie”. I guess it’s down to the fact that I already have tests
in the old format and they worked very well. If it ain’t broke….

Steve Margetts

I found the Avatars last week – a real improvement. My Y7 classes didn’t even realise they were doing a test!

David Kissack
ICT Manager
Castle Hall School

To Blacklist or to Whitelist?

Ian Sands from St. Edmunds School in Portsmouth is both a customer for our Applied ICT GCSE online course and long-standing friend of Chalkface.

Recently he asked us for a complete list of all sites linked to from within the course. There are hundreds, and it’s a list we actively maintain so it changes over time. We compiled the list, but wanted to know why he needed it. It turns out that St. Edmunds has introduced a whitelisting system, i.e. only links in a permitted list may be followed by students using school computers.

Ian is not too thrilled about the prospect. His view:

…whitelisting means continual work for the rest of eternity opening up new websites and adjusting the address of existing ones. Blacklisting means a big initial workload (assuming incorrectly that your ISP has no filter in place) followed by a gradually reducing workload as pupils get the message that they will get caught (lots were for a few days) and punished and the main sites get blocked up very quickly.

For the record, it is more work for publishers, too, and ultimately will push up prices if it becomes commonplace.

I think there is a deeper issue that should be looked at. There is no doubt that blacklists leak; some objectional content will get through. But with every teenage boy having one browser in his bedroom, another on his phone and a genetic predisposition to explore all that is forbidden, the idea that you can prevent the exposure of young minds to corrupting content is a dangerous fallacy.

I do support blacklists, but only as an aid to adolescent concentration. If you want to protect young people from the dangers of the world, you can only do it through education. That is equally true for crossing the road, deep vein thrombosis or going blind from surfing too many porn sites.

Bottom line: you can’t prevent traffic, long-haul flights or teenage curiosity.

Comment 1

What I would say is that the concept is actually much more complicated that
just having a ‘white’ or ‘black’ list. All your arguments make sense, but
in the everyday lesson it simply isn’t practical to just have a black list.
We actually have both. It sounds like an awful concept and one that
restricts students far too much, but it works really well in practice.

I used to hate the idea of a whitelist, but was persuaded by a design
technology teacher at our school – and he was completely right!

It is relatively infrequently that you ask students to ‘do an internet
search’ in a lesson. It is much better practice to select a number of
websites according to the requirements of the lesson, and then push students
to explore those. With this, you ensure that students have the freedom to
explore within boundaries that you define. You can thus tailor the websites
accordingly. For example if in a history lesson I could find five websites
with differing interpretations of an issue, and will then enable students to
see as many viewpoints as possible, rather that just the first two or three
websites that appear in a Google search. With a whitelist you also
discourage the poor practice of a teacher going into a computer room and
saying “research the internet”. A whitelist encourages good planning and
preparation – all key to effective teaching.

What we do is have different levels of access for different students
according to the subjects they study, the yeargroup they are in and even the
time of day. To begin with all students have basic access – which means
that they can only access the websites that teachers have asked for – i.e. a
whitelist. This is the situation you were mentioning in your blog. If this
is the only access students have, it is a ridiculous and preposterous
situation, and one where all the points you make in your blog completely

We have to use a whitelist filter like this as otherwise students will go
directly onto games or music sites when asked to use the internet. Nothing
dodgy about these sites, but they are simply taking the opportunity to waste
their time. With this system you actually encourage better practice for use
of the internet. Teachers don’t waste time telling students off for trying
to play games and students are forced to focus upon the specific lesson

We grant students different levels of access. For example media students or
design technology students who have specific research requests. We just
allow all students who take these courses wider access. However, as this is
an additional privilege, it is seen as such, so if they go onto games or
other sites against their teachers’ wishes, they right is then withdrawn.

The most important aspect of having a whitelist system is to have network
technicians available to make changes within 30 seconds. All staff have
access to the College instant messaging system, so can get immediate access
to technical support. They can switch the white list off instantly or can
add additional websites to the list. This is the most essential aspect of
having a whitelist – having the ability to update or change its status
instantly. If a subject knows that for a specific unit all of Year 8 need
different access, it can be setup in advance (best practice) or even at the
last minute. If we know this group need open access for a month, we set
that up accordingly.

Thus, it isn’t as black and white as just having a list of sites that we
allow or deny. This system takes the best of a whitelist – meaning that the
teacher can have more confidence to keep students on task, meaning that
other distractions are limited – but also adds the benefits of having wider
access when required. For after school clubs the access switches again to
the blacklist – and all have access as required.

Andrew Field
Head of ICT, Neale-Wade Community College


Comment 2

We have had a networked Internet connection for 10 years. Throughout that
time we have endeavoured to block an ever increasing list of websites that
are contrary to teaching and learning. We found that students turned their
focus to other sites such as games and mobile related ones. Our filtering
providers only blocked the unpleasant sites, and could not hope to block all
the others as part of a blacklist.

We now have new filtering software which allows use to create a whitelist.
This can be configured to block all sites except those we allow. We can
also set the level of blocking according to which year a students is in, the
subject they are using a computer for and the room they are in.

Our students do not like the whitelist much, but it does mean that they are
not distracted by non-learning activities. It has had the effect of
concentrating their browsing for education purposes rather than elsewhere.

Patrick Stower
Wolgarston High School

Comment 3

Interesting how teaching and learning haven’t changed that much with the move to e-learning. Educational resources have always been a whitelist. ”You use this text book and, if you need more information, we might allow you to go to the school library during the lesson.” Now it’s “you use these web sites and if you need more we might allow you to look at these sites too”. What’s the difference and what’s all the fuss about other than that educational methods haven’t moved on any. Those kid who are engaged have always gone elsewhere anyway be it to other reference books (in the ‘good ole days’) or other web sites in today’s e-learning environment.


Group projects – anonymity vs registration

Over at Wikitextbook, Steve is introducing compulsory registration. The idea is to encourage students to fully participate in the wiki as a group project, by assessing their individual contributions. An interesting aspect is that wiki users tend to spontaneously adopt different roles – creator, editor, provocateur and so forth – and by checking the history of each page, Steve can see exactly who has done what and who has adopted which role.

Steve and I got the idea from Konrad Glogowski, who has done a similar thing using blogs. He quickly found that the real value was the way the students used their blogs to construct public conversations. There are big differences; Konrad is teaching English in Canada; Steve teaches Business Studies in England. Wikis and blogs both count as social software, but they have many differences. So it is a very worthwhile experiment.

I will be watching with keen interest, and, this being a wiki, you can observe directly too. Don’t rush though; we’re having trouble installing the Permissions module into Wikimedia.

So just as we’re putting Wikitextbook into lockdown, along comes Russ Beatie to put a spanner in the works with a well-argued case for actively promoting anonymity in social software. Promoting, mark you, not just permitting.

Russ’s argument is that most bad behaviour online is connected to issues of power. Flame wars, for example, are invariably personal as one person attempts to dominate another. His arguments are impeccable, but in clarifying my understanding they actually reinforce my belief that Steve is doing the right thing with Wikitextbook.

Teaching in a formal education system is about identity and power. Steve’s ability to educate stems mainly from the position of power (authority if you prefer) vested in him by the system. Without the carrot of assessment, students who are not innately driven by a fascination with the subject being taught simply have no incentive to participate.

What we have to be clear about is how different this is from voluntary education, which adults participate in largely for love of the subject and a desire to learn. There, there could be a very strong argument for complete anonymity in an otherwise identical project to Wikitextbook.

Neale-Wade Community College visit

My thanks to Andrew Field and his Year 7 ICT class at Neale-Wade for some fascinating classroom observation yesterday. Some issues that came out of the visit, in no particular order:

  1. Why are school ICT networks so hard for children to use? At every school I visit, I see some children unable to use some or all of the features they should be using for half the lesson or even more. I suspect many teachers think this problem is unique to their own school, but it’s not. It is damn near universal. I’ve only observed schools with PC networks recently; I wonder if Mac or Linux school networks fare any better?
  2. How can we assess children who work in pairs on an online system? Special joint logins? Could quickly get out of hand. For Yacapaca-type products I honestly do not think there is a good solution, but I have some ideas for an online project service that would actively support multiple authors. Look at the History on any popular Wikipedia topic, and you will see all authoring and editing clearly attributed. I’m sure that could be adapted for the classroom.
  3. Nice to see Neale Wade running Moodle as their VLE, and saving a fortune in proprietary VLE fees at the same time. Andrew is already getting it integrated with his quiz generating software.
  4. Also most cheering to see Yacapaca directly linked from their Moodle installation to facilitate student login.