Saturday, January 15, 2011

Weblog portfolios in an intensive English program

Weblog portfolios in an intensive English program

The following was done in preparation for TESOL 2007, originally, then TESOL 2008 in New York City: eFairs Classics, Electronic Village, Friday, April 4, 2:00-3:00. It appeared at until 2010 and was restored here. -TL

[ Portfolio showcase ][ Teaching writing in online and paper worlds ][ Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration (TESOL '07) ][ Resources for weblogging educators ][ weblogs in esl/efl: bibliography ]

Weblog portfolios

Written for TESOL 2007: March 2007
Thomas Leverett, So. Illinois Univ.-Carbondale

The idea of "portfolio" implies that the sum of the parts is greater than its individual parts, that there is some benefit to seeing the whole work longitudinally or from start to finish. A portfolio, here, is a collection of written work, related or not, presented as well as it can be, by a student for the purposes of showing, well, the best that the student can do at a given time. Traditional portfolios were glossy notebooks full of typed papers, some with cover pages, that people would thumb through at our end-of-term exhibits; they would then often go home with the student, to be buried at the bottom of some drawer somewhere, having very little practical influence in terms of what the papers said, or in terms of their influence on the presumed audience of English speakers in the community.

The online portfolio, on the other hand, stays on the web until it is taken off; its essays and research papers continue to appear in search engine searches as written work on a given subject, and, most important, is always available to the student himself/herself, who is presumably able to remember and access the online slot in which it was placed. It has much in common with the notebook portfolio mentioned above, having as its contents developmental work on a subject that, in its class, had less importance than the developmental writing itself. But the online portfolio is much more permanent, more important, and more influential than the notebook, since the web is the primary source of information for people these days, and google searches are much more common than old-notebook searches.

Online, portfolios allow wide latitude in individual expression, and can contain a wide variety of kinds of work: research papers, essays, weblog entries, paragraphs, journal entries, summaries or creative work. There is a kind of dynamic tension at all moments with weblog portfolios: on the one hand, they should have visible, from the first screen, all the best of the student's work, properly formatted, edited, looking crisp and nice (defined more carefully below) and properly linked. On the other, the weblog is a dynamic thing, receiving the latest of the student's work, and pushing older stuff down and out of sight. If the student is expected to make it crisp and perfect at one moment, presumably at the end of the term, does that preclude it being used in its more informal functions later on? I don't think so. I think we live with these kinds of tensions and contradictions in other realms also. The idea of the weblog as a personal learning environment (Heibert, 2006) is interesting in that it shows the weblog as an evolving extension of the student's fingertips; it presumes that weblog as a PLE contradicts weblog as a static, linked, conservative collection of the student's best work. But I take a more general approach, and say that we can teach the skills of making a portfolio at any given moment; then, continue to use the weblog, later, in a more dynamic way. The skills are in fact more important, as the writing in the portfolio itself is presumably still developmental, and any given collection of work will therefore be trumped by later work.

In our program, several teachers may be asking students to display their work at any given time, so it is difficult for a single teacher to expect a unified portfolio from students, except, perhaps, at the highest level, where research papers cover earlier essays and make a final portfolio that reviews a body of work on a single subject. Nevertheless, students frequently take on that responsibility themselves and make their weblog an attractive repository of esl writing, with references linked, paragraphs set off with spaces, pictures and links on the side, and proper identification. We would ideally like to teach them all of the skills required in promoting and making their work attractive online, but often we are preoccupied just with making it grammatical, rooting out plagiarism, having thesis statements, the usual writing-class kinds of concerns.

After many years of doing this, however, we have begun to see patterns, enjoy a variety of portfolio presentation styles, and get used to showing students our favorite ones, so that they can emulate them and make their own. No sooner do we get organized ourselves, however, than Blogger itself changes (see New blogger, old mac) forcing new "conveniences" on all of us, forcing us to reconsider our teaching and advice, and rewrite all our handouts.*

Portfolios and the end of term

It is when students graduate and leave that you'd like to see everything as good as they can make it: linked references, spaces between paragraphs, everything grammatical, handsome and working links in the template, no pictures or text jumping their banks.

Many students, however, are filled with a sense of accomplishment simply by uploading their paper, and it takes them some time to get used to the medium, to focus on the details, to see that what worked well in ink-and-paper may not work as well online. They genuinely don't see it.

For example, I believe that the reason space-between-paragraphs has become standard for weblogs is very subtle and cultural. It is not that many of us come from the block-style business-letter world. But English has a native double-signal system; when there are indentations, the first signal is the period and the space following it; the second signal is the indentation on the following line. In weblogs, the indentation is generally lost. So, if the first signal is the period and space, the second must be another space; that space-between-paragraphs convention has settled in naturally, and is now standard for large numbers of weblogs.

Portfolios and APA

Ah, but what does APA say about this? I have a confession to make: I'm not sure. I admit that I've begun teaching to standard web conventions, as opposed to an abstract, moving target like APA's online standards. My disillusionment with APA started with hanging indents (for references) years ago; APA said to make them hanging, but a variety of writing textbooks didn't. I made a genuine search to find the gospel truth, and couldn't find it. Years later I was told that hanging indents were for published work. Well then, aren't textbooks published? Or were those examples, meant for students who are writing papers for in-class? There was some confusion here, not readily cleared up by textbook publishers.

This particular controversy is only made worse by, first, the fact that all weblogs are, by definition, published work. And, second, hanging indents are, to my knowledge, still difficult to make in any web environment.

APA made this problem worse by making standards for online references difficult to find; it seemed, for a while, that anyone who tried to provide reasonable APA regulations, on the web, to students who needed them, was chased off the web, for copyright infringement, as if APA owned the laws. This, actually, was a rumor, never confirmed; I never found out why regulations were so hard to find, and in fact have found a few good sources in the last few years, which I invite my students to use. One problem for APA is that the web changes faster than a regulation or convention can be written into a manual and published; manuals that we can buy today are hopelessly outdated, and if the information isn't readily accessible on the web, people like me might stop looking.

And this is big trouble for APA, because I, as one small teacher responsible for many papers going up on the web, am the front line in upholding those standards, and if finding and using APA conventions is far more expensive than a more common, more accessible set, I might decide that esl essays are not really in the same class as scholarly psychology tomes anyway (which they're not). My point is that in teaching students to stick slavishly to a set of conventions, you may prepare them for one fanatic APA fiend that they may encounter in their future, but you haven't prepared them for the simple fact that much of reality doesn't fit well into APA convention standards; and, every writer is inevitably called upon to rely on his/her own "judgment" - usually late at night, in typing the last reference. I think that here one might begin talking about "APA fluency"- the ability to decode the application of APA conventions to ambiguous situations- or, "English name fluency" - the ability to intuit the way vanderGruyter would like his/her name alphabetized. One could lose a lot of sleep this way; I myself have opted for the sleep.

Things to remember about making portfolios:

The following come from the eFairs handout.

Weblog portfolios have several advantages over traditional, glossy-folder portfolios. Papers can be linked to their sources; the portfolios themselves can be linked to the institution and class they are associated with; a portfolio can be individualized with pictures, personal links, or appealing design.

Good, clean, crisp presentation influences the way papers are read. Since much of what is on the web is informal and ungrammatical, papers that are formatted correctly and linked properly will stand out and influence people as serious work. Students can learn how to link references, put spaces between paragraphs and references, and use block style effectively much as they'd learn how to use APA in a research paper, or learn a resume style for getting an internship at a local business.

A good portfolio calls up all its most important content and lists it somewhere on the first screen, whether it is on the template, on the archival list or somewhere else. Manipulating the blog host functions and/or template links is an important skill that students will need in the future.

Weblogs are forever - or at least until someone chooses to change or delete them. Unlike notebook portfolios, which only exist in one time and place, probably at the bottom of a drawer, online portfolios can and will be accessed and read at any time by anyone, but are most often likely to be useful to students themselves, who will usually remember where they are and how to find them. As a representative of their best work in English at a certain time and place, the portfolio will be a valuable resource for them in the future, if only as a reference for how to make work look good online.

Preparing a weblog portfolio develops skills that a student will find useful in the future: among them, learning to post, edit, and/or alter the templates of weblogs; gaining familiarity with basic link format, and the appropriate use of links; learning attention to detail in an online environment; gaining a general sense of fluency with technological environments that will be crucial for their future. Even if that portfolio sits in an abandoned corner of the web, forgotten or not linked to anywhere in particular, it still represents a victory in terms of the skills that were required to put it there and make it look good.

Research papers may have to go up in more than one post. References should be linked consistently and accurately with a space between them as if they were paragraphs. Abstracts should be separated from the paper and should point to the paper. Collections of abstracts, all linked and pointing to their papers, are themselves impressive.

A portfolio only shows part of a person; many other sides can also be represented on the web, and hopefully linked to the portfolio. Links to other places, their social network, their university at home, or their friends, should be encouraged (I believe) as recognition that different sites have different purposes, and are not intended to carry everything they want to say or do online.

Comments have their own life - especially on the more interesting posts. Your comments should link to your own weblog; so should theirs.

Teachers should show and share aspects of their own life; students will be encouraged to do so also. Publishing is actually a nervy thing, especially in another language. Don't expect them to do it, if you yourself are unwilling to publish anything, even in your own.

"Standard format" is overrated. "Cause-effect" essays, etc., exist mostly in writing classrooms; in the real world, there are general discourse conventions, but there aren't many free-floating standard-format essays. No two teachers can agree on hanging indents in textbooks, let alone APA on the web, so relax and remember that what is more interesting will survive longer, be read more, and attract more comments; format will always be a minor issue. The web is the frontier of writing- somewhat lawless, but much more interesting in terms of its possibilities.

Those who publish, set the standards. Our reaction to a page or a paper is based on where we've been, what we've seen previously. Web writers, by publishing, have at least put their cards on the table. For example, standard indentation on weblogs is complicated at the moment, but may not always be that way; when it becomes more standardized, essays done in the old style will simply look older. There is no shame to looking around, seeing what looks best for your purposes, and publishing as is. Once it's online, we can talk about how well it conforms or doesn't conform to a changing APA, or general online presentation principles.

If it's not online, it doesn't exist. In a time when almost everyone is publishing almost everything, what good is paper that goes unpublished? Ultimately there is pressure on those who don't: you didn't publish because you couldn't? because you were hiding something? because it was really bad? because you didn't finish writing it? because it was plagiarized, and you were afraid of getting caught, later? You may prefer to keep it to yourself, to hide it, to put it in a drawer somewhere and forget it, but that's the coward's way out. If you wrote it, you should have meant it; why couldn't you publish it? Look around: other essays and portfolios online are the best possible evidence that it can be done, and, it will look good.

*It's the price we pay for sticking doggedly with macs, which now have become old macs, thus forcing us to endure incompatibility wars as well as routine file translation problems, in return for relative freedom from viruses and easy file-transfer cheating issues. Though I still consider it a relative benefit to keep our program on macs, I warn the reader now that some of what I say in this and related documents might be somewhat colored by this circumstantial arrangement.

Since, as a program, we create 20-30 weblogs per term, and enhance and enlarge existing ones regularly, it is also no minor undertaking to simply switch to another provider, when we feel that the New Blogger is overwhelming or too difficult to learn. I am no longer a huge fan of Blogger; we originally chose it for its simplicity, user-friendliness, and likelihood of survival, and it's really only let us down in the first two, and then only recently. I have faith that either the glitches of the new system will be worked out, or our computers will be brought up to speed so that we can enjoy some of the "benefits." Nevertheless: another warning for the reader- my opinions and comments, dated as they may be when you read them, are based on the perspective of trying to roll over an entire program onto a New Blogger that in many ways has made things much too complicated. A person starting new may want to reconsider the alternatives.


Barrett, H. C. (2007). How to create an electronic portfolio with WordPress. Accessed 3-07.

Barrett, H. C. (n.d.) Portfolio competency. Accessed 3-07.

Heibert, J. (2006). Personal Learning Environment Model. HeadsPaceJ. model.html. Accessed 3-07.

Leverett, T. (2006a, Aug.). This is your class on weblogs. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006b, Aug.). Three ways to integrate weblogging into your writing clases. Teaching English with Technology 6, 3. IATEFL Poland Computer SIG Publication.

Leverett, T. (2006c). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2005). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Leverett & Montgomerie, Teaching teachers to use and teach with weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

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