Thursday, 10 July 2008


This is a work-related post, and a warning. Never volunteer ideas too loudly - you might get saddled with redesigning an entire syllabus, as I have done. And I've only got a few weeks to do it in!
Actually, it fits in fairly neatly with the curriculum and syllabus design section of my Dip studies, and it bodes to be a hell of a lot more interesting than doing plod work on the Summer School. It also chimes in with a few ideas I've had about running the part time programme and how we keep students from drifting away, as often happens when their work/life/study balance changes.
Basically, it centres on using student portfolios. It's not a new idea, and in fact there is, somewhere out on the Interweb, a British Council document about using a learning portfolio, which for the life of me I can't find. The idea and structure is simple. Each student creates a portfolio of work which is proof of work done over a course, and contains marked and internally validated work covering the main skills. It will also contain a 'biography' section, a 'personal vocabulary' section (for vocab students come across in everyday life rather than in the classroom), a reflective diary and individual learning plan for them to identify what their targets are. So far, so good.
The difference comes in two places: How it is delivered and how it is differentiated. I'm weighing up how much of the portfolio needs to actually be on paper and whether it can't be done using our online learning platform, Blackboard. Anyone who's used this bit of software will know how clunky it is - it's very old as a piece of software and relies on plug-in modules to keep it up-to-date - and how it tends to render users rather passive (and here I mean teachers and students). However, with some nifty wrangling I think I may be able to do something usable. Actually, it does have its own version of a portfolio as a plug in, but it's really not much more than a glammed up CV. There is also the issue of technophobe students, and even more technophobe teachers. Currently, I think that the portfolio can be in parts delivered online, but with backup documentary evidence to place in a file. For example, the reflective diary can be in the form of blogs, which would give them much greater flexibility - students can use alternative ways of recording what they're doing, including pictures and sound recordings. The various marked tasks might be done both electronically and on paper.
Which last point leads very nicely onto differentiation. By this, I mean not only differentiation across levels, but also across the courses. For example, we have an evening Effective Writing course: It would be rather ridiculous having the students complete a portfolio that has elements not related to their study needs. In addition, one feature of this course is that students bring in real life writing situations into the class, and so a portfolio should cover this - perhaps by some kind of case study, analysis and solutions - some kind of report, perhaps. For the classes that cover Exams - for example, FCE, CAE etc. - the portfolio requires tasks that directly relate to the type of tasks they will need to do in exam conditions, but without being tainted by Backwash.

The most important differentiation task will be across the levels. Here, I intend to use the Common European Framework to identify what students are expected to be able to do and how they express it. For example, in the 'biography' section, I envisage the lowest level students just completing a simple form asking for basic details, while a higher level student might be expected to write a CV and sample cover letter, or write a more complex biography.
Well, that's the idea, anyway. Wish me luck.

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